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SOAR Spotlight: Zachary Molchany '16

SOAR 2015 Spotlight: Zachary Molchany '16

The Epistemology of Disagreement and Subsequent Philosophical Problems

Major/Minor: Philosophy and Economics
Hometown: Coplay, PA
Faculty Advisor: Dr. Arash Naraghi

Briefly describe your project.

I am dealing with peer disagreement. By peer disagreement, I refer to disagreement among experts in a field who are equals. They have all the same evidence and the necessary abilities, but they reach two different conclusions. How should the experts respond? Should they suspend judgment and admit they do not know, or should they continue to believe in their respective conclusions? I found that that peers do count as evidence against belief, but, sometimes, this evidence is not strong enough to warrant abandoning one’s beliefs. I started out with peer disagreement generally, then went into disagreement within a religious context, and ended with a discussion the problems disagreement poses for a liberal democracy.

Why did you decide to turn your idea into a SOAR project?

I wanted to work with Dr. Naraghi over the summer on SOAR. I was unsure of what exactly I wanted to do. Dr. Naraghi suggested peer disagreement, as it is a more current topic within the philosophical community. I have an interest in epistemology (the philosophical study of knowledge), so I decided to pursue this topic.

How did your faculty advisor guide you through your research?

With philosophy, having someone to talk to is vital; you need to bounce ideas off of someone in order to see mistakes you might have missed. Dr. Naraghi not only provided further reading material, but also helped me do philosophical research generally. I have never before worked on a philosophical topic on a more professional level, so having someone who had experience in philosophical research definitely helped. He also guided me into making better papers and showed me common mistakes I should watch out for when writing a philosophy paper. The quality of my work greatly improved from my first draft with the help of Dr. Naraghi.

What was your biggest obstacle?

My biggest obstacle was a tendency to jump to hasty conclusions and make claims that are too strong. I am sometimes called “opinionated,” so I tend to find a position and stick to it. Likewise, when I initially find a particular conclusion or idea faulty, I dismiss it without the proper thought it deserves. These are traits that are unacceptable in philosophy. I continually work to make sure this does not become an issue in my research.

What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?

Communication. I can normally explain complex philosophical ideas in a face-to-face conversation pretty well, given enough time. However, giving a presentation in front of a group or explaining a complex philosophical notion in a paper is very different. I do not have much experience giving speeches and writing papers outside of the classroom setting. Outside the classroom setting, there are entirely different rules. The research topic, besides helping me further my knowledge of philosophy, helped me become better at communicating complex ideas.

What was the result of your project? Was it congruent with your hypothesis?

I concluded that peer disagreement is a serious concern and that, sometimes, peer disagreement does eliminate our justification in our conclusions. Other times, however, I do not believe it to be that serious, so we can. It depends the context of the disagreement and the parties involved. Because of the nature of philosophy, I did not really require or have a hypothesis going into the research, so I cannot comment about hypotheses.

Will you expand on your research after this summer is over? If so, where would you like to see it go?

I plan to increase the strength of the current paper. There are always more essays written on the subject to look into. In terms of extending the breadth of the paper, I want to look at other elements of social epistemology. For example, how should we deal with our disagreement among our epistemic superiors? By this, I mean: how should non-experts determine what to believe when the people who are supposed to be better than them, the experts, disagree? For example, we are not all experts in economics. However, experts disagree about proper economic theory and policy all of the time. How should people who do not know much about economics decide who to follow when the people who are supposed to guide them, economists, cannot agree among themselves?