Rediscovering the Elephant in the Room: The Virtue of Epistemic Confidence

This post was written by Michael Tofte, a rising senior at Evangel University where he studies government and philosophy. This summer he participated in Dr. John Inazu's 2018 AEI Summer Honors Program course on "Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference."

When I consider today’s intellectual climate, I cannot help but think of the fable of blind men and an elephant. Each man forms judgments based on the feel of a particular portion of the elephant, resulting in varying theories about whether the object is a snake, massive tree, or a spear. Only with the benefit of a full awareness of these perspectives could they know the truth.

We all come to our conclusions through our personal biases and perspectives. I would contend that this is healthy as long as they inform and direct us, without distorting the truths we encounter. In fact, the truth is often revealed in the dialogue of seemingly conflicting perspectives.

However, today’s society seems to have lost the art of synthesizing these perspectives. We are unable to see the elephant in front of us due to an inability to collectively pursue truth. We have lost the art of discourse.

Unlike the elephant analogy, our beliefs are not nearly as simple or humorous when they involve politics or theology. If Bertrand Russell’s correspondence theory of truth is accurate, there must be a true answer based on the state of reality. The truth might be nuanced or impossible to be fully comprehended, but we must accept that conflicting beliefs cannot both be true. God cannot both exist and not exist. My taxes cannot be set at 20 percent and 60 percent simultaneously. Abortion cannot be equally moral, amoral, and immoral. Despite the debates regarding postmodernism, most people think in line with the correspondence theory of truth. People come to beliefs based on the evidence they have and exclude other beliefs that they deem to be false.

But even with a healthy internal epistemology, we fail to convey these beliefs appropriately in the public arena. The two mistaken communicative stances we take when faced with intellectual conflict are simply distorted applications of knowledge (“justified true belief”).

I call the first stance sociological relativism, not to be confused with beliefs being true relative to cultures or individuals. Rather, the communicator firmly believes that they have an objectively true belief that should be universally accepted, but their communication fails to present it as having a truth-value. As such, the belief cannot be critiqued, refuted, or analyzed against other beliefs. Some warning signs include stating a belief as coming from a particular perspective (“as a white man”) and inserting excessive doubt into the conversation as a hedge (“who can know for sure”).

The danger is that we no longer have a “competition of ideas” in the words of Arthur Brooks, but rather, a paradox of trying to keep both objective truth and an acceptance of mutually exclusive beliefs.

The second response is dogmatic certainty. Epistemology views justification as the support for holding a belief. I am justified in writing about the weather outside of my coffee shop but not in my belief that it is raining in Arizona. It is likely that we all have beliefs that are absolutely justified and true: 2+2=4. Other beliefs have varying levels of justification and few reach that level of certainty, as in the cases of public policy, the nature of the universe, or the existence of God.

When we present these beliefs as unquestionable, we again hinder a collective development of truth. Over-inflated justification presents our beliefs as not simply justified but certain, seeing respectful questions as brutal attacks against character. We damage discourse by wielding our beliefs as weapons in our war against people, forgetting the words of St. Paul to the Ephesians. We fail to recognize that we are all fallible humans and may be unable to come to full knowledge independent of others. I have some strong understandings about the nature of the Christian faith, but the way I communicate them should welcome a healthy approach to the pursuit of truth.

So, is there a solution? Yes, we must cultivate the virtue of epistemic confidence.

Confidence is the virtue of asserting our own belief as the closest thing we know to be true while welcoming disagreement. We actively engage in this duel of ideas with well-developed beliefs, but confidence also requires humility. This is not to be confused with being wishy-washy or submissive. Instead, we are humble enough to recognize that we might be wrong, that others have something to contribute, and that we all have the right to engage in open, constructive dialogue. This humility grants strength to our confidence. Once we recognize our own humanness, we can then assert that what we believe is the closest we have come to an accurate understanding of truth and excitedly share it.

This confidence rests in the tension between clinging to our honest ignorance and skepticism as long as possible and still holding our beliefs loosely. We do not ditch the beliefs we have formed over our lives with changes in the wind, nor do we refuse to reconsider when presented with significant support to the contrary. We stick to our beliefs until our minds have reached the tipping point of being either sufficiently changed or reinforced, and we should expect the same from others in our discourse with them.

Rather than hiding our beliefs or using them as weapons, we open our theories to critique, to discussion, and to study; and we reciprocate in our interaction with others’ beliefs. This is done in a constructive discussion, understanding both our human limitations and the principle of objective truth.

The confident man or woman realizes that there is no winner or loser in a debate and that there are also no participation trophies awarded. Instead, we all “win” when the truth is found.

We need the great minds of this generation to find answers to life’s big questions, but we need to engage in that pursuit with mindfulness and grace. The battle for our society is won or lost in the way we communicate.

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