Part 4: When Should We Trust Other People?

Part 4: When Should We Trust Other People?

Early in the course, we considered thinkers like Socrates and Descartes, who suggested that reasonable people need to examine each of their beliefs carefully and on their own. In our fast-paced and interconnected world, this is not often how we go about acquiring information. In this part, we will broaden our perspectives and ask when we should trust or rely on other people in figuring out what we should believe.

Why Disagreement Matters

Suppose you wanted to know how warm it is outside. So, you look out your window where you have two thermometers set up. One of the thermometers reads 60 degrees F while the other says 55 degrees F. Without any special reason to think that one of the particular thermometers was broken, you likely would not form a belief about what the precise temperature was.

Philosophers have recently used this case as a metaphor for how we should think about some disagreements. If we are both squinting at a distant object that you think is a dog and I think is a rock, we should probably conclude that neither of us has accurate enough information to be sure. But should this generally skeptical reaction be our go-to attitude when we encounter disagreement?

Probably not.

While many disagreements resemble the broken thermometer case fairly closely, not all disagreements are like this. Sometimes, one of the parties in question has access to special knowledge or expertise that the other party lacks. In other cases, the disagreement can be explained by the fact that the two disputants are not really arguing about the same thing in the first place. In these cases, it is important to maintain confidence in our original belief, at least long enough to engage with those with whom we disagree, in order to find out whether one of us is better positioned to figure out the fact of the matter.

In the next video, Paul will take things a step further, and suggest that there are sometimes when we should actively seek out disagreements in order to make collective progress in our pursuit of truth.

Lecture 4: Forming Beliefs In a Social World

In this lecture, Paul looks at how we should think about the fact that many more people disagree with us than we could ever engage in argument. Should such diversity of opinion make us less certain of our views? Or, can we reasonably ignore some of these disagreements without becoming closed-minded and arrogant?

Activity: The Disagreement Test

When we find out that our beliefs are subject to strong disagreement, our initial reaction might be to lose confidence in those beliefs or it might be to dig in and defend them. In this activity, Paul talks about how you can use three simple tests to determine whether you ought to become more or less skeptical in response to a particular disagreement. This worksheet illustrates how you can apply these tests to claims that you encounter.

Applying the Concepts: How to Avoid an Echo Chamber

In this video, Paul draws on recent work by philosopher Thi Nguyen to explain how seeking out views from those we disagree with can help ensure that we do not get stuck in a polarizing “bubble” or “echo chamber.”


You have completed “Big Questions” Course 2. If you have not already, take some time to check out these additional resources from the Notre Dame Alumni Association and the creators of this course, and subscribe to the ThinkND Weekly Digest.

Reflection/Discussion Questions

Consider hosting a Big Questions discussion group using the following questions and the Discussion Leader Guide.

1. What role do experts play in religious, social, and political communities in the United States? Do we rely on these experts too much or too little?

2. When, if ever, is disagreement (diversity of opinion) a good thing? If so, why? And if not, why not?

3. Is there anything you believe “just because” of your starting points or your personal echo chambers or filter bubbles? How should you feel about that?

4. Write down three things you know for certain. Now, find someone here who has different beliefs. What is something they think they know for certain but you think is false? Is there any new info that would change your mind or theirs?

5. Have you ever taken a leap of faith? Was it rational?

6. Do you think religious faith requires proof in order to be rational? Should it?

7. Is there a difference between religious faith and other, more common forms of trust? Should there be?

8. What causes/beliefs do you stand for? Is your conviction fact-based?

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