Ethics Quote Of The Month: Philosophy Professor Peter Boghossian

"Hmmm. OK, now THIS seriously undercuts some of my strongly held beliefs..."

“Hmmm. OK, now THIS seriously undercuts some of my strongly held beliefs…”

“We’ve taught, “Formulate your beliefs on the basis of evidence.” But the problem with that is people already believe they’ve formulated their beliefs on evidence — that’s why they believe what they believe. Instead, what we should focus on is teaching people to seek out and identify defeaters.

What is a defeater? A defeater is: If A, then B, unless C. C is the defeater. We should teach people to identify conditions under which their beliefs could be false.”

Peter Boghossian, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University, who studies critical thinking and moral reasoning, in a wide-ranging interview with  Malhar Mali

He continues,

This is profound for a number of reasons. If I’m correct, then it would be the holy grail of critical thinking. The problem with traditional notions of critical thinking is that most people believe what they want to believe anyway. They only look in their epistemic landscape for pieces of evidence which enforce the beliefs they hold — thus entrenching them in their view of reality. Eli Pariser has a vaguely related notion and talks about a technological mechanism that traps us in a “filter bubble.”

There are attitudinal dispositions that help one become a good critical thinker and there are skill-sets. If you don’t possess the attitudinal disposition then what’s the point of the skill set? A skill set could actually make it worse because, as Michael Shermer says, you become better at rationalizing bad ideas.

By teaching people to identify defeaters, which is a skill set, we may be able to help them shift their attitudes toward responsible belief formation. We may be able to help them habituate themselves to constantly readjusting and realigning their beliefs with reality. In the philosophy literature there’s a related notion called doxastic responsibility, which basically means responsible belief formation….

A pedestrian example [ of “If A, then B, unless C”] could be when someone thinks they see a goldfinch in their backyard. The traditional route here is to say, “Formulate your beliefs on evidence. What evidence do you have to believe that’s a goldfinch?” and they say: “Well I see the bird is yellow. I know there’s a high incidence of goldfinches in this area, so by induction I can see that it’s probably a goldfinch.” But unbeknownst to them it’s not a goldfinch but a canary.

So instead of saying, “formulate your beliefs on the basis of evidence,” we should say: “how could that belief be wrong? Give me three possibilities how the belief that it could be a goldfinch might be in error.” This type of questioning — applied to any belief — helps engender a critical thinking and an attitude of doxastic responsibility.

A big part of this is an openness to being wrong. I think this fosters openness all around, which is how you end up getting exposed to ideas beyond your “safe” little circle.

This is an excellent tool for enhanced ethical analysis. In particular, it is a great bias killer, forcing us to step away from a strongly held position and focus on its potential and real weaknesses that we may already be ignoring. It also sounds easier than it is, but all philosophy is like that, especially ethics. The trick is to have the courage and integrity not to rationalize away defeaters when they present themselves.

The rest of the interview is also provocative, and is worth reading in its entirety, here.


Pointer: Advice Goddess Blog

7 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Month: Philosophy Professor Peter Boghossian

  1. Boghossian’s thinking (and I’m sure he’s aware of this) mirrors the insight of Sir Karl Popper and his doctrine of falsifiability.

    Briefly, in the 20s, the philosophical rage was the Verifiability Criterion of Meaningfulness – basically, that if you couldn’t verify a statement, it was not just not worth the paper it was printed on, it was literally meaningless.

    Popper flipped this thesis on its head and suggested that a criterion for rigor in theoretical constructs was falsifiability – that is, a theory was strong insofar as it was falsifiable, and yet resisted being falsified.

    Though its main application is in philosophy of science, it promotes a kind of rigor of thinking in general by encouraging us to think in terms of counter-examples not just in disproving someone else’s thinking, but in formulating our own thoughts to encourage collaborative critiques.

    More at

  2. Jack and Charles, I applaud this approach. Perhaps this article featuring Jordan B Peterson on the Psychology of partisanship might be a companion piece?

    I find I share it frequently these days. I am engaged in bridge building between two of the most doctrine united, science respecting, logic proclaiming, mutually hate fuelled and closed minded populations, namely American Atheist youtube community, Feminists and Men’s Rights supporters. I have some hope that a combination of Popper and Psychology may be useful in my endeavours. Thank you both for bringing it to my attention

    Professor Peterson has had some struggles himself recently. I’m surprised not to find them featured in Ethics Alarms. Transgender personal pronouns and compulsion via human rights legislation is the topic. It seems to be right up your street Jack.

  3. Engineers will recognse Failure Mode Analysis

    Maybe instead of critical thinking we should teach students the basics of practical design, build and fault-finding in some useful engineering field.

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