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Knowing Our Limits

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Changing our minds isn't easy. Even when we recognize our views are disputed by intelligent and informed people, we rarely doubt our rightness. Why is this so? How can we become more open-minded, putting ourselves in a better position to tolerate conflict, advance collective inquiry, and learn from differing perspectives in a complex world?

Nathan Ballantyne defends the indispensable role of epistemology in tackling these issues. For early modern philosophers, the point of reflecting on inquiry was to understand how our beliefs are often distorted by prejudice and self-interest, and to improve the foundations of human knowledge. Ballantyne seeks to recover and modernize this classical tradition by vigorously defending an interdisciplinary approach to epistemology, blending philosophical theorizing with insights from the social and cognitive sciences.

Many of us need tools to help us think more circumspectly about our controversial views. Ballantyne develops a method for distinguishing between our reasonable and unreasonable opinions, in light of evidence about bias, information overload, and rival experts. This method guides us to greater intellectual openness--in the spirit of skeptics from Socrates to Montaigne to Bertrand Russell--making us more inclined to admit that sometimes we don't have the right answers. With vibrant prose and fascinating examples from science and history, Ballantyne shows how epistemology can help us know our limits.

344 pages, Hardcover

Published September 19, 2019

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Nathan Ballantyne

2 books2 followers

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Displaying 1 - 3 of 3 reviews
Profile Image for Matt.
11 reviews
October 5, 2020
This is one of my favorite books I've read in a while. With so much disagreement related to political, moral, and religious ideas that I see around myself, this book provides a framework for thinking about such controversial topics.

Nathan Ballantyne carefully presents a method of regulative epistemology for how to think about controversial questions. He defines controversial questions as ones that informed/intelligent people with similar reasoning/critical thinking capabilities as yourself disagree on. Common examples throughout the book included: morality of capital punishment, belief in a god, determinism vs. compatibilism, and so on.

While not an absolute requirement for using the method, he suggests that most people who do carefully think about these topics will recognize the need to decrease your confidence level in controversial beliefs (same type of topics referenced above for controversial questions) you hold. This will result in you being more doxastically open and able to reason more carefully on such questions.

The overall steps of the method include recognizing:

1) that you have your own implicit biases influencing the beliefs you hold
2) that if you subjected your beliefs to critical inquiry by a large group of peers (even those whose methodology generally match your own), both ones who exist or potentially don't, then you would likely receive very valuable criticism on your beliefs
3) that you are ignorant of some amount of relevant evidence related to the question
4) that epistemic trespassing is very prevalent (infringing on fields that you are not an expert in) and therefore you must rely on the testimony/reports from experts
5) that there are conflicting testimony/reports from in-field experts

These steps will typically cause you to regulate your confidence in your belief and therefore lower it, potentially even suspending belief or abandoning the belief altogether. Ballantyne steps through general character traits that he hopes will be developed as people strive to follow this method and think carefully about controversial questions. These traits include:

* tolerating significant intellectual conflict (being willing to consistently and charitably consider various different viewpoints on controversial topics)
* intentionally putting yourself in spaces where you can explore your ignorance on a topic (as opposed to typically isolating yourself in an information silo with those you hold the exact same beliefs, potentially to a dogmatic level)
* developing independence in forming beliefs and positions on controversial topics (as opposed to being unduly swayed by tribal/partisan/familial identities)
* feeling a sense of wonder regarding your questions (whether due to gaining more understanding on a complex topic or being humbled by your exposed ignorance)

Two of my favorite excerpts from the book are below:

"But I should probably comment on briefly on my own predicament, in case the reader is curious and hasn't already figured it out.

I encounter disorder and chaos in most quarters of my intellectual world. Oftentimes, the best response I can muster is to confess that I don't know what on earth is going on out there. I look on as an outsider, a dabbler, a know-nothing. Whenever I think I have some point to which I can cling and fasten myself, it shakes free and leaves me behind. Nothing stays still for me. What is the use of pretending to have powers I don't? What do I know? On many controversial matters, I have reasons to doubt my ability to arrive at confident and settled views on my evidence, even though on many uncontroversial topics I readily take myself to know a lot. Bertrand Russell once wrote that, after thinking philosophically, "we shall find doubt more frequently justified than we supposed" and we will "substitute articulate hesitation for inarticulate certainty." I know doubt and hesitation. I see I should only be confident about what lies close at hand. Let me seek, learn, and try to see, not make-believe I know more than I do."


"Philosophers who promote skeptical, open-minded ideals routinely struggle to persuade their audience. Human beings are believers by nature, not skeptics. Convictions appeal to people more than nagging doubts; we prefer confident affirmation to perplexity. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "We are born believing. A man bears belief as a tree bears apples." Perhaps people following the regulative method described in this book will cut and trim their controversial opinions down to size and become more doxastically open. But the method is bound to seem unnatural to those who need it most.

Many people will feel the regulative method is unwelcome if it tells them to quit having confident opinions about controversial matters. Who wants such advice? Bertrand Russell said that "people hate skeptics far more than they hate passionate advocates of opinions hostile to their own." Confident beliefs can give us meaning and comfort. When our beliefs are challenged, we may feel anxious and insecure. Confident believers on opposing sides of controversial questions will often dislike one another, but whoever insists that nobody really knows what they're talking about is perhaps more upsetting still. Imagine that some philosophers barge uninvited into a party. The partygoers had been enjoying themselves in passionate debates about politics and religion, trading repartees, dismissing anybody who disagrees. The party-pooping philosophers announce that everyone should give us many of their cherished convictions. The partygoers are scandalized by the crashers. Who do they think they area? How dare they spoil our fun!"
30 reviews5 followers
November 1, 2020
Ever wonder why it's so hard to convince others to your point of view? This academically challenging book helps us understand just why politics, religion, and any other ideology can be so divisive and recommends ways we might get around those parts of our own psychology and philosophies that limit personal and civic dialog. "It's a way for us to determine when opinions are unreasonable for us to hold". It might help you learn how to seek advice from others, approach controversial topics and information overload with others, and even learn about the basis of your own beliefs, distorted prejudices, and misjudgments while examining the media who might often promote the same. While there have been critics of this work, the tools it may provide within our ever more diverse and divisive world may prove worth examining.
Profile Image for Grace Kunik.
63 reviews6 followers
May 3, 2022
Read this for school and just had my LDOC. It just wasn’t my thing, I’m a big fiction girl. I like history and psychology but it was a dense read and I just didn’t like it
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