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Thursday, June 02, 2005

Trust, authority and interpretation

DRAFT DO NOT QUOTE: Article for the Spring 2005 Italian Academy newsletter, Columbia University, New York

During my four months here at the Italian Academy I have pursued a philosophical project on the role of authority in interpretation.
Most of my deeply entrenched beliefs depend on other people’s knowledge. I believe that smoking causes cancer, that there is no life on the Moon and that plants can be male and female. I believe that I was born in Milan and that my blood group is A. I have partial access not only to the conditions of verification of these beliefs, but, at least for some of them, to their very meaning. They mean something to me only through the deference to the authority of other people (experts, my parents, the popular wisdom, etc…). Our trust in the epistemic authority of others is a fundamental ingredient of our cognitive life.

This blatant truth has interesting epistemological consequences. To accept a belief on the basis of authority seems the opposite of what an autonomous mind should do in order to acquire knowledge. How indeed relying on others could be compatible with the autonomy of reasoning required to justify what we come to believe? If I ask someone: “Why do you believe that smoking causes cancer?” and she replies: “Well, because I’ve read it on a pack of cigarettes”, I won’t consider her belief as justified in any relevant sense. Still, it is undeniable that for most of our beliefs, we rely on public knowledge, expertise or wisdom. Thus, the question is: What is the nature of our epistemic trust in others?

In my research, I try to clarify what kind of “mental act” is to trust in other people’s intellectual authority. My claim is that normative epistemological concerns (is trust a justified “method” of acquiring knowledge?) do not elucidate the social and cognitive processes that underlie our allocation of trust in epistemic authority and its role on how we interpret and understand what we are told. I believe this is a central and mostly underestimated question about trust in intellectual life, that can throw some light on a variety of philosophical and empirical issues such as how do we construct public meanings, how do we learn in pedagogical contexts and what is the role of reputation and authority in interpretation.

There are many different styles of discourse that imply different degrees of reciprocal trust. Of course, the set of norms and assumptions that we tacitly accept when engaging in intellectual conversation are not the same we endorse in a party conversation where the common aim we share with our interlocutors is entertaining and social contact. Still, a basic reciprocal commitment has to take place in any genuine case of communication. A primary common aim of communication is reciprocal comprehension. I cannot influence, persuade or convince any interlocutor without succeeding in making her understand what I mean by my words. Thus, a minimal trust required to acquire knowledge from communication is that we trust others in conversation to provide us enough relevant information in order to understand them. Communication is a much richer process than a simple transfer of information, as it is often caricatured in the epistemological literature. The amount of default trust needed to succeed in communication is limited in our confident sharing a number of hypotheses with our interlocutors that are relevant enough for interpreting them correctly. Here is an example. Claire is dining at my house, I offer her some wine and he refuses by saying “It’s against my religion”. I take her reply as a reason for not drinking wine although I don’t know what religion Claire belongs to and I don’t have any religious restrictions on my alimentation. I do not share her belief that drinking wine can be blasphemous, still I make sense of what she says as relevant enough to prevent me to serve wine to her in the future. I don’t share her beliefs, I even don’t understand her completely, given that I don’t know what religion she is talking about and I cannot check in this particular situation whether it is true that she has religious convictions, still I trust her willingness to provide me with enough relevant information to make sense of what she’s saying. In a normal case of communication, such as this one, I trust my interlocutor to guide my interpretation towards the most relevant interpretation of what she meant.

How about cases in which a full-fledged interpretation is not available, because of our lack of knowledge or limited linguistic competence? Let me consider some more radical cases of interpretation, in which we do not understand what has been said. If a friend physicist tells me that “String theory is a theory of quantum gravity” I do not have any means to make sense of what she says, because I have a too vague idea of what string theory and quantum gravity are. Still, I can accept this statement as true on the basis of my trust in her scientific authority and work out at least a partial interpretation on the basis of this trust, as for example the minimal logical implication of her statement, that is, that quantum gravity and string theory explain the same phenomena. My deference to her knowledge guides me in acquiring further information about string theory.
This deferential attitude is typical of learning contexts, that is, contexts in which we enter a new” epistemic space” through the words of others. Take another, may be more familiar, case. My friend Barry opens a bottle of the 2002 Arbois Grand Elevage Savagnin Viellies Vignes, he tastes it and tells me: “It’s concentrated, fleshy, harmonious, with a note of candied limes and hints of lemons”. As a novice in the “epistemic space” of wine, I am not able to discriminate in my mouth all the subtleties of taste he is able to speak of, still I trust his expertise and keep in mind this partly mysterious description to orient my taste experience and work out an interpretation that makes sense of my perception.

Our trust in epistemic authority deeply influences our interpretations of what we are told. And it is through our interpretations that we acquire knowledge from others. There is no passive, blind trust. We are never infected by other people’s beliefs without any filtering process. Interpretation is an active process in which we take a part of responsibility. Understanding the interplay between trust and interpretation is a crucial aspect of an account of the social dimension of our knowledge.