THE CRISIS OF KNOWLEGDE:
ETHICS, POLITICS AND EPISTEMOLOGY
September 11-12, 2023
Faculty of Philosophy
Vita-Salute San Raffaele University
Our actions in a given domain do not arise solely from what we know: the motivation to act depends on many elements, that vary depending on the context. However, it is certainly true that what we know or believe has the power to influence our behavior. Being in a condition of ignorance therefore can influence the way we act. Ignoring something can also determine whether we are morally responsible for performing certain actions; being ignorant of facts or norms, however, does not always provide an excuse. Sometimes individuals ignore things they could not have possibly known; other times we use to say that they should have known what they, in fact, ignore. Drawing a line between culpable or excusable ignorance can, at times, be incredibly challenging.
Also, the more complex the political and economic processes governing and regulating societies, the more individuals affected from these processes may perceive their ignorance of their nature and profound mechanisms. This fact might suggest us the presence of a “structural or systemic ignorance”, related a certain social organization.
This Workshop aims to explore the concept of ignorance in its facets, investigating its causes and consequences, in order to ultimately reflect on the moral and social responsibility of subjects for what they ignore.
Willful Ignorance, Politics, and Morality
It has been suggested that willful ignorance is of increasing political importance and that both anti-vaccination activists and climate change deniers are willfully ignorant. I will describe legal and other conceptions of willful ignorance and argue that we should be cautious about attributions of willful ignorance in such cases. Such attributions are not only at odds with mainstream conceptions of willful ignorance but also block other more fruitful explanations of eccentric beliefs. I will make the case for a Verstehenist approach. I will also discuss the extent to which moral ignorance is willful and defend the idea of cultural impediments to knowledge in such cases.
Culpable epistemic ignorance
A much thrown-around debate in moral theory has us to consider whether ignorance excuses from responsibility. Some argue that it does, unless the person is culpable for the ignorance itself. Since many wrongdoing occur in ignorance, the question of what makes ignorance culpable is central for a theory of moral responsibility. According to so called “volitional theories” of moral responsibility, ignorance excuses unless we find a clear-eyed, intentional negligence in discharging a duty of care. Since more often than not this turns out to generate a regress, as many failures to discharge a duty of care happen themselves in ignorance, the prospect of attributing to someone the responsibility for her ignorance is hard. More recently, however, defenders of the so called “capacitarian theories” of moral responsibility, argue that having the capacities, other things being equal, to discharge a duty of care may be enough for attributing responsibility even when the failure of discharging such duty happens in ignorance itself. This is said to be able to successfully block the regress and ground attribution of responsibility (cf. Fernando Rudi-Hiller 2017). But what about the epistemic responsibility we arguably have about getting facts of social and political interest right, about consuming and/or assessing information, and about the kind of theories regarding social reality broadly construed we subscribe to? Can ignorance excuse the many epistemic mistakes we all may, or do, make? I this paper I wish to explore whether we can apply a capacitarian line of reasoning to cases of failures to discharge a duty of epistemic accuracy, and related ones, in contexts when such duties apply, as — I submit — in broadly social contexts and in citizenship relations. Central to this exploration is to be able to assess whether people do have the relevant capacities for discharging such duties of epistemic accuracy. However, in cases in which we have reasons to deny that some subjects have those capacities, it is also important to explore whether they should have acquired them, or else if they should proceed to acquire them, at least for the future. In case the answer to these normative questions is positive, e.g, they should (have), it seems reasonable to assess also whether acquiring them is really (once again) in their own capacities, and what this realistically takes. Far from pointing to a positive or negative verdict which might attempt to settle the question, my aim is primarily to chart the conceptual map of the possible argumentative moves we can make when assessing the epistemic responsibility of citizens in interpreting social and political reality, as well as consuming and/or assessing information, vis-à-vis the central role played by capacities.
Falling for Disinformation. Why Bother About Epistemic Culpability?
The philosophical conversation surrounding the current spread of disinformation––for example, about the US politics, the Covid pandemic or global warming––is shaped by two different questions. One first question is descriptive in nature and inquires into the empirical factors driving the growing consumption of disinformation. A second question is a normative question, and asks whether those who fall for disinformation––the "consumers" of it––can be epistemically criticized or blamed for doing so. As regards the first question, understanding the mechanisms that allow the disinformation to spread undisturbed and go viral is necessary to devise effective means to stop its diffusion. Identify the causes, and then look for the remedies that are most suited to the task of inhibiting its effects. However, understanding why we should be interested in the second question is a somewhat murkier task. Why should we care about the epistemic blameworthiness of those who consume disinformation when we have to identify the key factors––be they located at level of their individual psychology or within their social milieu––that drive their behavior and devise the best measures to counteract them? Moreover, doesn't raising the issue of epistemic culpability reveal a judgmental attitude which is unnecessary, at best, and inimical, at worst, with respect to building a stable consensus around contested issues (e.g., the necessity to accelerate the green transition or accomplish a vaccination campaign)? The latter two questions can be, and often are, asked in a rethorical spirit. The first question, in particular, is asked to imply that we should primarily bother about the measures to counteract the spread of disinformation, and refrain from asking the question of epistemic culpability. The second question is underwritten by the key thought that one of the most worrisome effects of the spread of disinformation is the division and fragmentation of society about vital questions and that inquiring into the epistemic culpability of the consumers of disinformation threatens to exacerbate this unwelcome situation. The paper aims to reorient the discussion around these questions. In particular, it purports to show that they threaten to obscure two key reasons why the question of epistemic blameworthiness is important, worth being asked and urgently responded to. Firstly, the epistemic culpability of the consumers of disinformation is not orthogonal to the goal of devising the most effective means to stop its diffusion. This paper unpacks the notion of epistemic culpability and shows that it follows from the claim that someone is culpable for believing as they do that they commit mistakes that they can (be educated to) avoid in an effective way. So, getting clear about whether the disinformation consumers are blameworthy, far from being orthogonal to it, is a way of getting clear about the most suitable means to counteract the disinformation pandemic. Secondly, assessing whether disinformation consumers can be criticized for the way they manage their beliefs is also relevant to whether shifting the burden of the disinformation crisis to them, above and beyond advisable in terms of the expected outcomes, would be a fair move.
Why Punishing Climate Denialism. Preventing Testimonial Ignorance
This paper defends the claim that climate denialism should be legally punished (call this claim, climate denialism as an offense, for short CDO). The main argument I provide in favour of CDO is that climate denialism prevents and weakens politically relevant testimonial knowledge of the anthropogenic causes of climate change. In its turn, these effects of climate denialism have harmful effects on the political legitimacy and feasibility of mitigation and adaptation policies. Ceteris paribus, the aim of preventing these effects justifies legal punishment of climate denialism. CDO has been put forward on grounds of global justice by (Lavik 2016) and issues concerning toleration have been explored by (McKinnon 2016). The argument stated here rests on the requirements of political legitimacy as applied to climate policies. The details of the argument can be spelt out as follows.
Most of our knowledge is testimonial knowledge, i.e., knowledge we derive from
trustworthy and truthful experts. This is the case for knowledge concerning climate
change and its anthropogenic origins, as well.
Testimonial knowledge is valuable in many ways, and it has several different
functions. For instance, it enhances cooperation, trust, and so on.
Testimonial knowledge of the anthropogenic causes of climate change has relevant
political functions. First, it gives political legitimacy to climate policies, as it makes visible to citizens their rationale and point. Second, it makes climate policies feasible, by giving them motivational grip upon citizens. Third, it makes climate policies more efficient, by providing information about the best means to prevent and cope with dangerous effects of climate change. If so, anything preventing the spreading of testimonial knowledge and increasing testimonial ignorance (i.e., failure in getting testimonial knowledge and acting upon it) is politically mischievous.
Ceteris paribus, legal punishment is a means to prevent and disincentivize politically mischievous outcomes.
In virtue of the above, there are prima facie reasons to legally enforce punishment for climate denialism.
The paper starts with a definition of climate denialism, where it is distinguished from fake news, conspiracy theories, climate skepticism. After a statement of the argument above, the paper answers the following potential objections to the claim defended. 1. Climate denialism is irrelevant, because i. it has no real grip on majority’s behavior; ii. it promotes critical control on science and politics; 2. climate denialism is a legitimate expression of free thought, and its punishment is illegitimate and unjust; 3. punishing climate denialism is counterproductive, because it may increase the number of denialists, or excessive, as there are better means to curb denialism.
The paper ends with some remarks on the prospects of extending the same line of argument to Holocaust and vaccine denialism.
Francesca Pongiglione, Shanna Slank
Epistemic error, moral error, and blame. The case of vaccine hesitancy
In this paper, we have both a local and a global aim. The local aim is to provide an adequate normative analysis of the phenomenon of Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy. Though vaccine hesitancy is as old as vaccines themselves, it wasn’t until the Covid-19 pandemic that the phenomenon occupied so central a role in so many people’s daily lives. The sudden confrontation with widespread resistance to the new Covid-19 vaccine in the midst of battling a new and dangerous virus led to an urgent revival of the felt need to grapple with the phenomenon. And while some mainstream media attempted to convey the complexity of the phenomenon, a large swath of people nevertheless settled for a one-noted judgment of the vaccine hesitant: they were to be blamed and condemned for putting themselves and others at unnecessary increased risk and for failing to believe something deemed obviously reasonable to believe. Our analysis is an antidote to this overly flattened appraisal of vaccine hesitancy. The data gathered by public health researchers and social scientists tell us that the phenomenon is psychologically and socially complex. We maintain that it is likewise normatively complex and that our analysis is distinctive in its ability to capture this complexity. At the same time, the analysis also furthers our global aim, which is to offer a proof of concept for a nonstandard approach to normative evaluation. We proceed by way of separating the question about the normative errors involved in vaccine hesitancy from the question about what attitudes we ought have towards the vaccine hesitant in light of these errors. In doing so, we subvert some common assumptions about the relationship between, wrongdoing and vice on the one hand, and reactive attitudes such as blame, on the other. But the method yields fruits that would otherwise be lost–namely, a suitably rich picture of the normative landscape and suitably careful advice about how to think of and treat others in light of the landscape. If we are right about this exercise’s success, then there is reason to adopt our approach more generally when undertaking normative appraisal.
Paolo Bodini, Jacopo Marchetti
Radical Anti-Vaxxers in the Covid-19 Pandemic: Scientific ignorance or counter-democracy?
The Covid-19 pandemic has strongly exacerbated the discussion about vaccine hesitancy, making more evident how the individual choice not to get vaccinated causes concrete risks for the collectivity–especially for the most vulnerable groups (e.g., elderly, sick persons, etc.). Together with restrictions, in the second phase of the outbreak, massive and quasi-mandatory vaccination campaigns were put into play to immunize people. In particular, the appeal to vaccination has triggered a broad debate and strong reactions from the most skeptical citizens. Along with the wider diffusion of vaccine hesitancy, in Italy, a radical posture by people who refused the Covid-19 vaccines have been registered. Although vaccine hesitancy embodies a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, a peculiar kind of anti-vaxxers stood out for its relationship with democratic agora, that is, for their refusal to openly engage experts’ and, more important, fellow citizens’ arguments. We focus on such a phenomenon by referring to these citizens with the term “radical anti-vaxxers”. Our proposal attempts to enrich the comprehension of anti-vaxxers' political impact in a democratic context by defining the assumption behind the vaccine hesitancy of some citizens during the pandemic. We focus on such a phenomenon by referring to these citizens with the term “radical anti-vaxxers”. These factions stood out for their relationship with the democratic agora, that is, for their refusal to openly engage experts’ and, more important, fellow citizens’ arguments. The proposal is divided into two parts. In the first part we focus on the procedures adopted by these citizens to form and enlarge an impermeable community of believers, concentrating our analysis on the organizational and epistemic characters of radical anti-vaxxers. Radical antivaxxers organize their interactions by making use of secreta fora, locked groups, unreviewed sources, and demonization of mainstream views about Covid-19. Such strategies indirectly describe radical antivaxxers’ relation with the rest of the citizenship, the public discussion, the scientific criteria to evaluate evidence, and the democratic decision-making. Their approach to science, and knowledge in general, is pursued by “chimeric epistemology” and, thus, can be viewed as a specific sub-gender of denialism. Specifically, three identifying pillars can be derived: opacity in generating beliefs, closure to review, rejection of the majority principle.In the second part, we reflect on the conceptual significance of antivaxxers for democratic theory. We conclude that radical antivaxxers represent a singular escape from the institutional and deliberative mechanisms composing democracy. These groups of citizens shun the public debate – which they consider corrupt – to engage in the creation of a parallel, smaller, and more homogenous demos, capable of resisting the government’s measures against Covid-19. Political anti-vaxxers are a singular manifestation of counter-democracy because they evade democratic practices in order to constitute a self-referential political body – a counter-demos – determined to resist the vaccination campaigns launched by governments and resolute in not complying with the restrictions imposed on the unvaccinated.
The Benefits of Epistemic Heterogeneity: Facing the social and scientific shortcomings of quantification and transparency with an epistemic approach
The communication between science and society is strongly mediated by two factors: quantification and transparency. The numerical representation of results, deriving from standardized research procedures, is intended to maximize the objectivity and unbiasedness of the scientific process, and thus favor public’s trust in science. This mechanism has political shortcomings, since people whose relevant life experiences are not representable in numbers feel underrepresented and marginalized within the society (Newfield, 2022). Similarly, transparency, which is related to the attempt of fostering both scientists’ dutifulness and people’s trust in science, has problematic consequences. People can end up reiterating their distrust in science after discovering internal procedures (Tsoukas, 1997; John, 2018), and scientists can be negatively influenced by what Nguyen (2021) calls “epistemic intrusiveness”, which is the idea that instead of determining only the way by which scientific results are communicated, transparency may indirectly alter the very process of scientific production, by unconsciously driving scientists to consider only those lines of research whose results would be adequate in an audited society, thus limiting science’s potential. In addition to these, I believe that there is another important issue to consider. The alleged improvement in communicability due to the implementation of quantification and transparency comes at the expenses of sophistication, since no open report or numerical representation reflects the actual complexity of a scientific research process. More critically, this, on the long run, leads to a misleading representation of the parts involved in the dichotomy science-society. Laypeople start to be seen as empty receivers of information, and not as individuals who are epistemically oriented by socio-economic, cultural, and other contingent factors. Alongside, scientists are seen as mere executers of predetermined patterns and as data communicators, and not as experts in highly specialized fields. I claim that this levelling of the relation between science and society, to a mere exchange of this kind, causes a qualitative loss of perceived epistemic heterogeneity between these two groups. Following an elaboration of these considerations, I defend two points. First, the described dynamics partially explain the success of the use of plebiscitary numbers by populist groups (Chatterjee, 2022), and the spread of scientific misinformation, being this latter an effect, inter alia, of a form of incommunicability between the people and the scientific institutions. Second, I argue in favor of the social importance of epistemic heterogeneity and ground part of my defense on some results accomplished by the game-theoretic literature. As Alaoui et al. (2022) show, in coordination games between two heterogeneous players, where both are aware of their heterogeneity, which is determined by different levels of “cognitive sophistication”, coordination increases. Therefore, given that the depersonalization of the parts involved in the dichotomy science-society has negative epistemic consequences, causing a loss of awareness of the complexity of the mutual epistemic positions, I argue that by restoring this awareness, via a reconsideration of the current systems of quantification and transparency, positive effects will follow in terms of coordination between citizens and scientific institutions.
Boaz Miller, Isaac Record
Crisis of Knowledge on the Internet or a Lacuna in Epistemology?
The Internet has called into question the possibility of attaining knowledge. Fake websites look like genuine websites. Fake news looks like real news. Some bots seem like real people, and real people act like bots. Communities discuss far-fetched, wacky, fringe theories. Alternative online epistemic authorities reveal that matters have never been as settled as orthodox authorities wanted us to think. The Internet arguably makes it too likely for us to form false beliefs on seemingly good grounds, or true beliefs on shaky grounds.
Nevertheless, we argue that the Internet has made neither the attainment of knowledge impossible in principle, nor the very notion of knowledge obsolete. Rather, it has exposed a lacuna in our current theories of knowledge and justified belief. This gap concerns technology and the ways it affects our abilities to pursue lines of inquiry. Epistemologists have lacked the conceptual tools to address a new technological reality that differs in important ways from our historical norm. One formulation of the challenge of the Internet to knowledge boils down to claiming that the justification condition for an individual’s belief can no longer be met, since any belief is defeasible online. We argue, however, that mere existence of numerous, conflicting information sources does not necessarily mean that for a belief to be justified, a believing subject should now be able to repel every challenge that exists somewhere online just because she can reach it using a search engine. There may be a point at which a subject may legitimately terminate her inquiry and refuse to address any more challenges. To identify this stopping point, we provide an account that explains how technology affects the standards of justified belief, and under what conditions those standards are legitimately met; namely under what conditions a subject may legitimately cease any further online inquiry. According to our account, what we can know depends on what we can do in practice, which depends on the available material and conceptual resources. New technology makes certain previously impracticable actions practicable. Thus, while it is true that Internet technology expands the range of evidence a subject could potentially consider, the technology available to the subject also affects her practicable possibility to conduct inquiry, and thus sets a principled limit to the evidence the subject should gather to reach responsible, hence justified belief. The epistemic challenges posed by the Internet, then, do not reveal the impossibility of knowledge. Rather, the Internet has made salient features of knowledge that have always been true: that knowledge and knowledge practices are situated in communities and technological environments. With careful attention to how communities produce epistemic norms and standards and embed them in sociotechnical environments, and with the addition of a new analysis in terms of practicability, which is itself informed by technological possibilities, we can fill in the gaps in our understanding of knowledge. What we find is that while information is easier to find than ever before, it has become harder to know when to stop looking.
Evaluating intelligence and knowledge in Neural Language Models
Giuseppe De Ruvo, Giulio Pennacchioni
On the false beliefs about science and digital platforms
The aim of this abstract is double. The first is to show what is wrong with false beliefs about science and digital platform. The second is to emphasize the importance to reform science education programs and to highlight the need for digital literacy practices to raise awareness about the manipulative effects of algorithms. Firstly, we will explore the impact of positive and negative intellectual traits on the dissemination of false beliefs about science and the historical factors which have contributed to scientific ignorance. Subjects’ intellectual abilities play a crucial role in information acquisition and belief formation (Croce 2020). Epistemic virtues promote correct knowledge, while epistemic vices have the opposite effect. Dogmatism and arrogance are examples of such vices, driven by individual motivations and subject to moral responsibility. These vices lead to false beliefs, contributing to the spread of conspiracy theories and fake news. However, there are also historical causes behind the diffusion of false beliefs, which are beyond individual responsibility. Corporations often manufacture disinformation, “to undermine the general public’s ability to make informed decisions” (Torcello 2022: 29). Moreover, our society’s science education system primarily targets individuals with high specialization, leaving the vulnerable behind (Medina 2013, Baurmann and Cohnitz 2021, Tanesini 2021). Lower-educated individuals, typically occupying lower socioeconomic positions (Eurostat 2021, McIntyre 2021), are more prone to certain epistemic postures, such as denying anthropic climate change (Freeman and Bentall 2017, Pongiglione and Martini 2022). Secondly, we will address how the increasing mediatization of human experience (Floridi 2017) makes digital platforms increasingly central to the process of belief formation (Hepp-Krotz 2017). Nevertheless, the formation of echo chambers and filter bubbles (Parisier 2011) facilitates the propagation of fake news, partly because digital companies base their narratives on the myth of “algorithmic objectivity” (Balbi 2022), by which subjects believe that posts addressed to them are "objectively" selected (Pasquale 2015). This leads users to regard everything that appears in their feed as plausible for two reasons: 1) because of confirmation bias (Sunstein 2017), by which people see only content with which they already agree, and 2) because of the neutral image that platforms give of themselves. Finally, we will show how to address these problems of false beliefs about science and digital platform. In the first case, scientific education must reach the most vulnerable population segments (Allchin 2022). This requires reforming school science programs (Kaptan and Timurlenk 2012, Kminek 2020) and improving scientific communication (Mitchel et al., 2016, Hunter 2016). At the same time, to counter fake news on digital platforms, it is crucial for digital literacy practices to address not only the use of digital devices but also the limits underlying algorithmic predictions. This is to make subjects aware of the potential manipulative effects of the web, which depend not only on the malicious intentions of fake news producers but on the very structure of the algorithm (Darmody-Zwick 2019, Zellini 2020, Numerico 2022).
Whose knowledge? Whose ignorance?
In this paper, I analyse the nature of the ignorance on the part of the progressive privileged subjects. I examine the epistemic position of the socially privileged progressive persons in their interactions with marginalised subjects to reveal how those progressive subjects are ignorant despite their privileged social position. First, I will identify the different types of ignorance that might be in operation in the social interactions with asymmetric power relation. The categories of social ignorance I discuss here are willful hermeneutical ignorance (Pohlhaus, 2012), active ignorance (Medina, 2012), and white ignorance (Mills, 2007) that I show are not adequate to explain the epistemic position of the ignorant progressive agents. Next, I will propose the effective ignorance as an alternative concept to account for the ignorance of the progressive agents. This category will explain the epistemic challenges of those subjects who are not willfully ignorant, and are not epistemically arrogant, but their unwitting social interest in sustaining a collective ignorance, effectively causes epistemic harm to marginalised agents. Furthermore, I will show that subjects who do not have a marginalised standpoint are in a state of double ignorance of their own privileges and of the daily struggles of the marginalised people. Thus, they perpetuate epistemic oppression as a consequence of their ignorance. Finally, in order to recommend a solution, I argue that reaching a half-way point epistemic state, through a process of epistemic struggle, could help the progressive subjects to overcome their ignorance.
Tankies, Vatniks, and Denialists: What Remains of Critical Intellectuals in the 21st Century
Recent calamities, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian war against Ukraine, and the impending anthropogenic climate disaster, have posed significant challenges for Western critical intellectuals. Prominent thinkers have struggled to navigate this complex landscape of problems and issues in a coherent manner. Some have publicly resisted vaccination, others have supported violent expansionism, and several have embraced previously discredited ideas such as animism and panpsychism. At the same time, others have abandoned the critical position by advocating for state control, technocratic science, and a security-oriented global order. This combination of factors, along with the evolving terrain of social grievances, which include divisive topics like transgender rights, has confounded even the most diligent critical intellectuals. Therefore, it is justifiable to assert that the role of critical intellectuals, which entails speaking truth to power based on superior knowledge and analytical capacity, seems to be faltering. However, it is important to recognize that these failings are structural rather than personal. The abundance of information, the complexity of the issues at hand, and the diverse range of topics that must be considered in real-time through social media and the 24-hour news cycle suggest that the expectations for public intellectuals inherited from the Enlightenment era may be unrealistic in the 21st century. Instead of serving as encyclopedias of knowledge, critical intellectuals must increasingly acknowledge and grapple with their own ignorance. This recognition contradicts the certainty traditionally associated with their role. Furthermore, it remains unclear how critical intellectuals should operate under the assumption of ignorance in practice. They cannot be expected to possess exhaustive knowledge on every topic that warrants their opinions, yet refraining from offering opinions contradicts the very purpose of their role. Thus, critical intellectuals are faced with the challenge of confronting overwhelming ignorance—both their own and that of their audiences—alongside the emerging ignorance stemming from artificially produced intelligence. In my paper, I propose to consider the status of critical intellectuals from the perspective of historical epistemology, which investigates the interconnections between specific objects and higher-order epistemic categories within changing material-historical configurations. More specifically, I will explore the role of critical intellectuals in relation to the overarching category of ignorance under the material-historical conditions of the 21st century, which is characterized by the proliferation of reproducible knowledge and intelligence.