When stupidity is not behind vaccine refusal, philosophy can be the remedy
As detailed in a recent Times of Israel article, Haredi Rabbi Ben Zion Mutzafi expelled a man from his conference over his opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine. We will leave it to the religious authorities to decide whether this man is, as the rabbi proclaimed, a “heretic”. And only a psychiatrist can determine whether the man is, as the rabbi also accused him, “mad.” However, it doesn’t take a rabbi or a psychiatrist to see that the man is tampered with in some way. He may, of course, be just plain stupid – too weak-minded to understand the wealth of evidence that establishes the vaccine’s effectiveness and safety. However, we favor a different diagnosis. According to our knowledge, humans are more likely to have the much more common disease of epistemic stubbornness.
In our field of philosophy, the term “epistemology” refers to the study of knowledge and justification. A philosopher concerned with epistemology seeks a theory of rationality. Such a theory will explain why some beliefs are justified and others are not, as well as why some true beliefs are considered knowledge and others are not. Although many questions within epistemology have become too abstract and technical to concern the layman, almost anyone can appreciate the importance of evidence in justifying a belief. We can or should all recognize that tea leaves or fortune cookies are bad reasons to believe something, while rigorous experimentation or expert testimony are good reasons.
The epistemically stubborn person refuses to adapt his beliefs to the available evidence. They continue to believe, for example, that the COVID-19 vaccine is dangerous despite the plethora of evidence to the contrary. Typically, the fault is not ignorance of the facts – one would have to live in a deep hole not to have been exposed to numerous reports about the danger of the corona virus and the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine – but a stubborn refusal to see the facts as repudiating what we wants to believe.
Epistemic stubbornness is its own kind of illness and arguably even more dangerous than COVID-19. Yes, COVID-19 has, in too many cases, been fatal. But epistemic stubbornness is the driving force behind resistance to the very vaccines that would have prevented those deaths. In addition, epistemic stubbornness manifests itself through a range of questions of the utmost importance.
Can philosophy really change, even to improve the spirits? … Yes, it is possible.
Here in the United States of America, we see epistemic stubbornness behind persistent but patently absurd claims that the election was “stolen” from Donald Trump. There is no doubt that the last presidential election was fair and that Trump lost. The rationale for believing Biden won the presidency is overwhelming. Those who deny this result are, like those who oppose the COVID-19 vaccine, probably not stupid. On the contrary, they are irrational in that, severely misled by cynical and selfish politicians and experts, they simply refuse to believe a conclusion the evidence points so clearly to. They are not ruled by reason, but by desire or passion. They just want to believe that Trump won the election and it is that desire, rather than evidence, that forms the basis of their belief.
We see the same kind of epistemic stubbornness in climate change denial. Can the research data and many computer models that show the effect of fossil fuels on the climate be wrong? Can reports of melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and extraordinarily warm temperatures all be a hoax? Epistemically stubborn people can be very creative in crafting stories that deny the evidence. This is just another symptom of their illness. They settle for a proposition they want to believe in (is it a coincidence that climate change denial is stronger among those who live in oil or coal producing states?) And refuse to accept evidence to the contrary. .
What can we do to cure epistemic stubbornness? A good first step is simply to recognize its existence and how it is distinguished from other impairments, such as ignorance and stupidity. After all, there is no easy cure for stupidity. As philosophers and academics, we place our hope in education. The teaching of philosophy – and the sooner one is exposed to it the better – can only deepen one’s understanding of how reasoning works, the difference between good and bad evidence, how premises support a conclusion, and how to form and maintain (or give up) beliefs in a rational way. Apart from these basic epistemological concepts, philosophy also conveys another type of wisdom. We can learn from philosophy what it means to live a life examined – a life in which we take the trouble to discover what we really know and what we don’t know, a life of epistemic humility that reflects values that do not only lead to personal development and equanimity. (rather than resentment and hatred) but reasonable approaches to social and political issues.
We recognize that some people will dismiss our treatment of epistemic stubbornness as hopelessly naive. Can philosophy really change, even to improve the spirits ? That’s a good question, one that our fifty plus years of undergraduate education prepares us to answer. Yes he can. Even if you doubt it, everyone should be willing to admit that something needs to be done to tackle the epidemic of epistemic stubbornness that is exacerbating the medical pandemic that is now killing people and wreaking economic havoc for a second year. Education, especially in what it means to be a rational person, provides our best hope.
Steven nadler is William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he directs the Institute for Research in the Humanities. His books include At least think about death: Spinoza on how to live and how to die and (with Ben Nadler) Heretics! : The Wonderful and Dangerous Beginnings of Modern Philosophy (both in Princeton).
Laurent Shapiro is Berent Enç Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His books include Zen and the art of running: the way to make peace with your rhythm and The myth of the miracle: why belief in the resurrection and the supernatural is unwarranted.
Nadler and Shapiro’s new book, When bad thoughts happen to good people, is published August 31 by Princeton University Press.