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Published · 12-minute read

Criticism of Kolya Wolf’s ‘Against ego-centric epistemology’

Kolya Wolf published his article ‘Against ego-centric epistemology’ with Taking Children Seriously on June 24th, 2002. You can read it here. It isn’t very good; I want to explain why.

The article starts with this:

[Kolya had asked:]

1) Generally speaking, when you encounter people who persist in upholding different values from your own, do you always conclude that they are being irrational, or do you sometimes find that it is possible for a person to disagree with your values and still be rational?

The brackets at the start aren’t mine, they’re in the article as is. It continues:

A poster replied:

I ask them to explain what I’m missing. If they say stupid things I conclude they are irrational. If the discussion ends because someone has to go, I may not conclude anything. And if we end up agreeing, then the person rules. Agreeing to disagree and both be rational is not an option. Any substantive dispute can be analyzed. We can isolate exactly where our views diverge. And then we can decide what makes sense. I[f] the disagreement is factual we can look things up and discuss which facts it makes the most sense to think true. So, yeah, if we can’t agree, and the person insists I’m wrong, I basically end up concluding they are irrational.

This time, the bracket is mine.

The part “[i]f they say stupid things I conclude they are irrational” could benefit from some more details (in fairness, he does go into it more below). I think it depends on why someone says something stupid. Do they believe what I find stupid to be smart or even true, in which case they aren’t being irrational but merely mistaken, or do they know it to be stupid or even false but say it anyway to steer the discussion in a more favorable direction, in which case they are being irrational? Also, have I taken steps to figure out whether I’m mistaken or being irrational?

Something else that stands out to me in the poster’s reply is that they’re addressing factual disagreements even though Wolf asked about differences in values, which sound like they’re about morals. You cannot ‘look up’ values like you can facts. But I generally agree with the overall point that, if an interlocutor cannot find a flaw in some idea (be that idea moral, factual, whatever) but still believes that idea to be wrong, they are being irrational. (Though I think there are exceptions, see below.)

Back to Wolf:

2) If you think the latter, by admitting that two rational people can have mutually conflicting values, are you not endorsing moral relativism?

The poster’s reply:

Well, I was envisioning a debate about things we know enough about to discuss. But I just realised if the question was “Is football or frisbee objectively a better sport?” then it’s quite likely for rational people to disagree, because we really don’t know how to figure out the answer. Although we could agree that we don’t know how to figure it out, I’m still gonna personally like frisbee. Though if someone actually had valid reasons it was worse I’d listen.

And Wolf’s last question:

3) Could you please teach me the criterion that will enable me to tell apart the cases when disagreeing with your values would be objectively immoral, and when it would merely indicate a rationally legitimate difference of opinion?

Poster’s reply to Wolf:

Well, try to explain where the disagreement comes from. If you disagree because the other person is a relativist or hardcore theist or mystic, I think that’s a good enough answer. What I like to say is this “Point out one flaw in my view or accept it as truth.” People who cannot point out a flaw but don’t agree either are being irrational. When rational people talk their views converge and either they end up agreeing or bored.

Again, I generally agree that someone who disagrees despite being unable to find flaws with an idea is irrational, but there are three exceptions I can think of:

  1. He simply might not be able to verbalize his disagreement. To borrow terminology from David Deutsch, not all of our ideas are explicit, ie expressed in words – we also have inexplicit ideas (not expressed in words) and even unconscious ideas (ideas we are not aware of). He explains more here. Those ideas can all interact and be in conflict with each other. When the conflict is between two explicit ideas, it’s easier to make the conflict explicit, too – but if one or more of the conflicting ideas are inexplicit or even unconscious, that is much more difficult. You might only feel a “nameless dread”, as Deutsch calls it.

    In such cases, I would consider it irrational to overwrite this nameless dread just because you cannot name it. Explicit ideas should not get to overrule inexplicit ones arbitrarily. One should spend time and effort trying to make the conflict explicit so one can point out the flaw as one perceives it and then continue the discussion. But one can fail at both. As long as an honest effort was made, the parties are still rational.

    In this sense, rationality is more about what kind of methodology one follows, rather than achieving specific results.

  2. Integrating a new idea into one’s mind can take time. Some ideas are complex, their implications vast, and we need time to think through them – that can take longer than any one discussion. In such cases, it is rational to voice reservations and to state that more time is needed to thoroughly evaluate the new idea. It would be irrational to agree with an idea before one has fully made it one’s own.

    Not fully integrating a new idea would leave gaping holes in one’s understanding. It would be irrational to not want to close those.

    Specifically, an existing idea in one’s mind can have many dependent ideas. We have too many ideas to keep track of, let alone of the innumerable dependencies between them. But without adequate replacement, dependent ideas become orphans. It is rational not to want that to happen.

    In the context of my neo-Darwinian theory of the mind, ideas take time to spread through a mind. The mind isn’t convinced of an idea until enough copies of that idea have spread through that mind. And even after that has occurred, copies of the refuted idea may still be around, fighting for survival in that same mind. Ideas are autonomous in that way – one can’t always ‘decide’ to drop an idea at a moment’s notice. It may not let you.

    It also depends on whether a person has what I call a static or a dynamic mind. I explain more here.

  3. Not everyone shares the Popperian epistemology for evaluating ideas. In fact, most people have never heard of Popper. They instead follow the standard justificationist epistemology Popper fought against.

    When applying this justificationist epistemology, one might, say, judge ideas by ‘weighing’ arguments in favor and against. In that case, the poster’s arguments simply may not have enough ‘weight’ for a justificationist interlocutor to consider an idea true, even if he cannot find a flaw with those arguments.

    In addition, a justificationist may disagree that it’s on them to find a fault with your argument – instead, they may think it’s on you to find more reasons in favor of it.

    It would be a mistake to apply the justificationist epistemology, yet also irrational to abandon it without adequate replacement or just because the poster says so. Both would be arbitrary. Instead, the discussion should move on to epistemology and explain why justificationism is bad and Popper’s epistemology better; then maybe later they can continue with the original topic. One way the discussion could move on to epistemology is if the interlocutor points out that they don’t think that either “[p]oint[ing] out one flaw in my view or accept[ing] it as truth” is the right approach.

    Even if the poster can then convince his interlocutor that justificationism should be replaced with Popper’s epistemology, switching epistemologies is hard and requires practice and dedication against a constant cultural background of justificationism. It can’t be done overnight or merely through a conscious decision. (People generally underestimate this. In terms of the practice required, it’s like learning an instrument, except harder because we don’t have a culture that constantly discourages people from learning an instrument.) In the meantime, the conflict between the original two ideas can persist without either party being irrational.

That said, none of these exceptions have to be permanent, and whether an interlocutor is rational can still be judged, among other things, by how much of an effort he puts into resolving the disagreement.

To give an example of a time I thought someone was being irrational: many years ago, I saw a show on TV where a group of people claimed that 9/11 was a hoax. Among other things, they claimed that steel doesn’t bend at the temperatures at which jet fuel burns. But then the makers of the show did an experiment where they burned jet fuel underneath some steel and it did bend. Their response was to disregard the experiment and ask for other evidence.

Wolf now addresses the poster:

Taken at face value, your answers (which I think are representative of many, if not most libertarians) seem to me to entail an extreme form of rationalism. You might say, “Hey, what’s wrong with that? The more rationalism, the better—you can’t get too much of a good thing”. But if you said that, I think you would be mistaken.

For the sake of brevity, let me express my disagreement with your position (as I understand it) by contrasting it with Popper’s position (as I understand it). Popper criticised two opposing views of how we come by our knowledge of objective reality: the view that knowledge can be induced from observations, and the view that it can be deduced by reason.

One of the bigger problems with Wolf’s response overall is that he references Popper without providing any quotes or sources.

As far as I’m aware, the two opposing views Popper criticized were:

  1. The view that knowledge can only be genuine when it is certain, eg when approved by some authority.
  2. The view that, since one can never be certain/such an authority cannot exist, genuine knowledge cannot exist.

Popper’s solution to this false dichotomy was: conjectural knowledge.

“[T]he view that [knowledge] can be deduced by reason” doesn’t sound all that un-Popperian, except if one understands the word ‘deduce’ to mean something exclusively uncreative, eg applying only existing standards of reason and never inventing any new ones. Therefore, when Wolf writes…

Popper’s proposal was that there is no direct route to finding knowledge. Knowledge can only be found by searching among an infinite number of possible—but, generally, as yet unknown—theories.

… I would phrase it also as a problem of creating theories rather than only searching among them. (Search algorithms are not creative! They merely look through some pre-existing set of data.)

From Popper’s perspective relying on reason alone to discern the truth is like trying to clap with one hand. All reason can do, is guide our choices between rival theories. It can help us discern (roughly speaking) which of two theories is more likely to be false.

That doesn’t sound right. I doubt Popper would have referred to probability here. He would have instead referred to scanning our background knowledge in search of counter examples so one can take sides between conflicting ideas. I explain more and provide quotes here.

Reason can neither generate true theories, […]

Sure it can, and Popper thought so, too. He quotes Xenophanes as saying (bracket mine):

And even if by chance [man] were to utter
The perfect truth, he would himself not know it;
For all is but a woven web of guesses.

Xenophanes as quoted in Popper, Karl. 2002. Conjectures and Refutations (C&R). London, New York: Routledge. P. 34

In other words, it is possible for man to speak the truth – what’s impossible is knowing that it is the truth, as Wolf recognizes below.

As I’ve written before, fans of Popper sometimes take his epistemology too far in thinking that we can never utter the truth. That isn’t the case. I think that, on the contrary, we utter the truth frequently – we just don’t know when.

Back to Wolf:

[…] nor can [reason] recognise true theories, nor can it quantify how true a theory is. The fact that we have no reason to doubt a theory, is not a reason for believing it to be true.

No. That is perhaps the core of Popper’s epistemology: a conjecture is considered true until it is refuted. He writes (bold emphasis mine; I don’t have the page number on hand):

[T]here is no more rational procedure than the method of trial and error–of conjecture and refutation: of boldly proposing theories; of trying our best to show that these are erroneous; and of accepting them tentatively if our critical efforts are unsuccessful.


Note also that Popper considers this the most rational procedure – and it sounds like the one poster advocates when he says, in effect: ‘please try to refute my view; if you can’t, we have to assume it is true’.

Back to Wolf:

If you weren’t aware of this aspect of Popper’s epistemology, you might be appalled by what seems like a relativists’ charter. But that would be a profound misunderstanding of Popper. He was as fierce an opponent of relativism as you are likely to find in all of philosophy.

How then did he reconcile his belief that reason cannot discover truth, […]

Again, Popper absolutely thought that reason can discover truth; what’s impossible is, again, knowing that one has discovered truth. Neither reason nor anything else can help one establish that.

[…] with his vehement repudiation of relativism? The answer to that question was Popper’s Big Idea: Certainty is the enemy of objective knowledge. In other words, philosophy can either deliver the subjective experience of certainty, or it can deliver progressively truer theories. But not both.

Popper’s reason for this is that as there exists no criterion of truth (only a criterion of apparent falsity), any philosophy that claims otherwise is bound to lead away from an objective improvement in our knowledge.

A comma after “Popper’s reason for this is that” would help. More importantly, there exists no criterion of falsity either. Popper’s epistemology says that one should be critical of one’s ideas instead of looking for confirmation. If there were a criterion of falsity, that would just be an inverted truth criterion. Maybe Wolf is addressing this by calling it “apparent”, but if so, that deserves more elaboration.

And that is precisely what seems implicit in the answers you gave to my questions. You say:

Agreeing to disagree and both be rational is not an option. Any substantive dispute can be analysed. We can isolate exactly where our views diverge. And then we can decide what makes sense. So, yeah, if we can’t agree, and the person insists I’m wrong, I basically end up concluding they are irrational. What I like to say is this “Point out one flaw in my view or accept it as truth.” People who cannot point out a flaw but don’t agree either are being irrational. When rational people talk their views converge and either they end up agreeing or bored.

The nested quote is a misquote. First, the poster had originally written “analyzed” with a ‘z’, not with an ‘s’. Could be an issue with autocorrect. Second, the part that starts with “What I like to say is” is from a different passage. It shouldn’t just be joined with the preceding part in the same quote.

Wolf then criticizes the (mis)quote:

The way I read this is that you are saying that, in general, when there is a controversy about some idea, reason can tell us which theory is true.

That doesn’t sound to me like what poster had written. I think poster wrote about following rational discussion methodology and tentatively evaluating ideas as true rather than establishing ideas as true.

According to Popper, that belief is inimical to the growth of knowledge, because it tries to substitutes […]

Should be ‘substitute’.

[…] what is ultimately a subjective criterion—one’s inner conviction of truth, for the only effective method of converging on the truth, namely looking for refutations.

“truth, for” should be “truth—for”. Also, poster had already asked for refutations when he said “Point out one flaw in my view […]”. Lastly, Wolf first claimed that Popper thought “that reason cannot discover truth” – now he’s saying that one can converge on it after all, all while claiming to be in agreement with Popper.

Then, Wolf writes:

Moreover, in Popperian terms, your statement that “Agreeing to disagree and both be rational is not an option”, is quite untenable. At any time there will be an infinite number of things we cannot agree on, because nobody has yet conjectured true enough theories to bridge the apparent inconsistencies in our knowledge. Disagreement can be due to irrationality, but it can be, and very often is, due to ignorance on all sides. Only if we were omniscient would your above statement be true. But that presumption is literally as far removed from Popper’s presumption of fallibilism, as it is possible to be.

But poster had addressed this, too. He wrote about situations in which interlocutors don’t know enough about the objects of the discussion, in which case “it’s quite likely for rational people to disagree, because [they] really don’t know how to figure out the answer.”

Finally, your policy that “if we can’t agree, and the person insists I’m wrong, I basically end up concluding they are irrational” seems to me, itself, to constitute a relativists’ charter. If we all followed this same policy, we would all be entitled to conclude that those who disagree with us are being irrational.

No. Poster describes a situation where he asks for a refutation (“[p]oint out one flaw in my view”) and his interlocutor can deliver none but still acts as if he did. What Wolf is criticizing is not a situation of mere disagreement – poster’s description of the situation is more detailed than that.

And that implies that in any controversy, everybody is equally entitled to conclude that their particular theory is objectively true.

Poster is not saying ‘whenever anyone disagrees with me, they are provably wrong’, yet that seems to be the stance Wolf is criticizing. Wolf is right that that claim could be arbitrarily made by both sides of a disagreement – but the situation the poster has set up is different. That situation is such that, while both poster and the interlocutor maintain their respective positions, poster has addressed all criticisms, whereas the interlocutor has failed to do so, so only the interlocutor’s response would be arbitrary (and therefore irrational), modulo the potential exceptions I laid out above.

I put it to you that the only epistemology which allows mutually contradictory theories to claim to be justified, is relativism.

The only way out of this predicament would be if the policy of treating intractable disagreement as a philosophical justification of one’s own views, was only valid when applied by you.

Now, I admit that I cannot prove that this is false. Therefore you are logically free to maintain that you, alone, are the arbiter of objective truth. But if you do, I may be tempted to reciprocate by denying that you exist at all. And to borrow one of your arguments: “Point out one flaw in my view or accept it as truth.”

Only now do we get to the ‘ego-centric’ part from the title. These last few paragraphs aren’t the gotcha Wolf thinks they are. What he’s criticizing here doesn’t follow from what poster wrote. I don’t think poster ever set out to claim that he alone is the arbiter of truth, nor is that a corollary of his views that he did not realize. He proposed a rough criterion for when to consider an interlocutor irrational, and he sounds open to being wrong about that criterion.

Wolf is right to criticize ego-centric epistemology. It’s just that poster doesn’t seem to subscribe to such an epistemology. In fact, poster’s statements sound compatible with Popperian epistemology: he’s following a procedure which Popper calls the most rational. But then Wolf criticizes it for being un-Popperian. Bizarre.

Someone named Maddie Scott commented on Wolf’s article:

“Point out one flaw in my view or accept it as truth” suggests a disposition that leans towards rigidity, coercion, and a desire for validation.

She has lost me already. The person asking for refutations has a “desire for validation”? Wouldn’t such a desire instead manifest as ‘please confirm my view but don’t criticize it’?

Maybe Maddie thinks the request for refutations is ironic?

By presenting a binary choice between flawlessness and acceptance as truth, […]

That isn’t the choice poster presents. He presents a choice between flawedness and acceptance as truth.

[…] it may indicate a reluctance on the part of that person to engage in open rational discussions.

Again, he’s the one asking for refutations; he sounds willing to address them. The interlocutor that poster describes would lack such a willingness. So who’s reluctant “to engage in open rational discussions”?

Such a mentality must hinder the ability to build non-coercive relationships. In non-coercive relationships, individuals are open to exchanging ideas, listening to different perspectives, and engaging in constructive dialogue. This process involves active listening, empathy, and a willingness to consider alternative viewpoints.

Poster expresses this willingness by asking for refutations.

By contrast, the person writing “Point out one flaw in my view or accept it as truth” seems to be expecting others to either validate their view or point out a flaw, without actively engaging in a reciprocal exchange of ideas.

Again, poster sounds willing to have such an exchange. The other person he imagines doesn’t.

Moreover, the statement implies a demand for unquestioning acceptance, […]

No, not unquestioning. Again, he’s asking for refutations. He’s inviting criticism! He wants acceptance only if such criticism fails. If he wanted unquestioning acceptance, he’d want you to accept his views regardless of whether you could advance any criticism. And he certainly wouldn’t ask for criticism.

[…] which can create a power dynamic that undermines the autonomy and agency of others in the relationship. With its implicit expectation of unquestioning acceptance, that statement would limit the potential for collaborative growth and hinder the development of meaningful non-coercive relationships.

A demand for unquestioning acceptance would indeed “limit the potential for collaborative growth and hinder the development of meaningful non-coercive relationships”. But again, poster is not requesting unquestioning acceptance.

Overall, Maddie’s comment sounds kinda GPT generated maybe? I could be wrong. Either way, it misses the mark completely.


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