PHIL240A Final Paper
# Section I: Trusting Institutions
Is it ever responsible to trust an institution about something that outstrips your individual ability to verify? Explain why. If you answer yes, how do you ground this trust? If you answer no, how do you deal with the fact that trusting at least some institutions is central to the success of (at least a democratic, arguably any contemporary human) society?
In answering this question, there seems to be two different answers depending on how we define trust here. We turn to Hawley’s differentiation between epistemic and practical trust here (2012, p. 2031). Hawley defines epistemic trust as trust in someone as a speaker or source of knowledge and defines practical trust as trust in someone as an actor. I argue that it is irresponsible to have epistemic trust in institutions about something that outstrips one’s individual ability to verify, whereas it is responsible (and in fact necessary) to be able to have practical trust in institutions about something that outstrips one’s ability to verify.
First, note that to answer this question concretely, the act of having a ‘responsible attitude’ (e.g. of trust) needs to be properly defined in this context. Here, I define ‘responsible attitude’ to mean an attitude held by an actor that is justified and which is within one’s control (not coerced).
I argue that it is epistemically irrational behaviour to trust an institution about something that is outside one’s ability to individually verify. Looking to cases of objective knowledge (i.e. scientific knowledge), let us take for example government public health announcements. Generally, all public health announcements made by the government are scientifically supported, which means they are backed by published, peer-reviewed, and supposedly reproducible scientific work. At its core, the scientific method is about doubt. Scientific hypotheses need to be falsifiable, assumptions and priors must be stated. If some theory is unverifiable, then it is invalid as a scientific theory and would be epistemically irrational to treat the opinionated claim by the institution as if it were objective fact.
From the perspective of religious texts, even if the institution were to be a flawless revealed source, it would still be epistemically irrational behaviour to trust the ‘revealed source’. A so-called revealed source still has to be interpreted and this necessarily happens through human interactions mediated by language. As similarly claimed by Dharmakīrti, “[Vedic] words do not [themselves] declare: ‘This is our meaning, not this.’ This meaning [which Vedic words have] must be postulated by humans. The latter are possessed, however, of [moral defects] like desire” (PV 1.312-313 in Eltschinger, 2012, p. 33). This ‘revealed source’ then cannot be taken as a source of epistemic knowledge.
However, proving that trusting individually unverifiable claims made by an institution is epistemically irrational doesn’t rule out the possibility of practical trust. As the question originally asks, how do we deal with trusting some institutions? I turn to the notion of reliability here as a means of evaluating trust, specifically in the context of relying on institutions as actors.
Similar to Goldman’s 5th main piece of evidence for trust, (2001, p. 93), we can look to the institutions past track-records as a good heuristic for reliability. While we may not be able to verify that some claim is ‘correct’ at the moment, we can show that the institution has made historically correct statements. If we treat institutions like computational black boxes that take in inputs and produce outputs, we can reuse Duran and Jongsma’s notion of Computational Reliability, which states that “researchers are justified in believing the results of AI systems because there is a reliable process that yields, most of the time, trustworthy results” (2021, p. 332). At the core of it, the notion of reliability gets at the fact that trust exists as a means to avoid needing to re-evaluate the validity of each statement or each action. If I know that my local cafe opens at 9:30am every morning, I don’t need to check what time it opens today because I trust that they are reliable and open at the time they claim to open.
As such, we extend the notion of practical trust to institutional claims that are outside our individual ability to verify given that they have been historically reliable actors. This does not extend to epistemic trust as this should be grounded in verifiable and falsifiable statements.
# Section II: Resolving the pickle
In the final episode of Marvel’s TV series Loki, Loki and Sylvie have the following exchange:
SYLVIE: What was I thinking trusting you? Has this whole thing been a con?
LOKI: Really? That’s what you think of me… after all this time? Sure. Why not? Evil Loki’s master plan comes together. Well, you never trusted me, did you? What was the point? Can’t you see? This is bigger than our experience.
SYLVIE: Why aren’t we seeing this the same way?
LOKI: Because you can’t trust… and I can’t be trusted.
SYLVIE: Then I guess we’re in a pickle.
Your assignment is to solve the pickle. You can do this by either convincing Sylvie to trust Loki (and by extension He Who Remains), or by convincing Loki that Sylvie’s right and no one (or at least no one in this room, but if not them, then who and about what?) should be trusted. Remember that both Loki and Sylvie are very smart and very attached to their respective viewpoints, so you’ll have to both 1) show them that you understand their point of view (by incorporating counter-arguments to the position you’re arguing in favor of), and 2) give them some new epistemic tools to understand their situation differently if you’re going to be convincing.
I am arguing that Sylvie cannot trust either of them. S: Sylvie; the one who can’t trust L: Loki; the one who can’t be trusted
L: Sylvie, look. We should be looking at multiple different perspectives on epistemic trust and reliability here. It’s clear that we can’t go off of our gut feelings about trust here.
S: You’re just trying to stall for time, we don’t have much time left!
L: Calm down. Just babbling back and forth like this will get us nowhere. Throwing something from one epistemic culture that’s disjoint from another epistemic culture cannot lead to reconciliation without a shared epistemic culture. We need to arrive at a basic shared epistemic culture (Smith and Vaidya, 2022, 8:43)
S: But don’t you see? That’s the main problem! We don’t have any shared epistemic grounds. We may be the same person from different timelines but our experiences have been completely different. I’ve been hunted by the TVA since I was a child. My parents told me I was adopted at an early age. I have known no true home.
L: But why can’t you just default to trusting? Why can’t you hold trust as an unquestioning attitude? If you questioned everything and deliberated everything all the time, you wouldn’t be able to function at all in this world! (Nguyen 2019, pp. 22-23)
S: First off, I just told you why I can’t trust. You give me no additional reason to trust you! Actually, quite the opposite. All you’ve done is trick people! There is no ground on which to even stand on. “The everyday, taken-for-granted reality of civilian life ignores much; civility assumes the nonlethal intentions of others. In war, however, all such assumptions evaporate: one cannot trust the ground one walks on, the air one breathes, nor can one expect with full assuredness that tomorrow will come again” (Kearl 1989, 353, as cited in Nguyen 2019, p. 9). We are in a war right now, Loki.
L: What happened to our friendship? We had a thing going! Shouldn’t you be partial towards your friends? Stroud (2006) and Kelly (2004) argue that we should have partiality towards friends not only in actions but beliefs as well, though this isn’t always the right thing to do. As Stroud says, ‘friendship requires epistemic irrationality’ (Stroud 2006, Kelly 2004, as cited in Hawley, p. 2032). You see, I’m a partialist. I believe that someone who fails to be doxastically partial to me would fail to be a good friend to me (Crawford 2017, p. 1576).
S: Bold assumption of you to make. Are we even friends? Do you think you can play tricks on me that easily? Besides, I am against doxastic partiality for friends anyways. I mean, we can be partial to our friends but not because it is normative to be always partial to our friends. We can be partial to friends but they can also be wrong given state-given reasons. The state-given reason here is that you are only trusting He Who Remains because he promises something you’ve wanted for a long time: the throne. By definition, a reason for an attitude is state-given when its status as a reason is grounded in some relation it bears to a property of having that attitude in one’s circumstances (Crawford 2017, p. 1587). Clearly, you are ‘believing’ He Who Remains only because it can benefit you immensely.
L: Fine! If you can’t trust me, can you trust He Who Remains? He knows all, he’s omniscient. He’s like a god of gods! He has seen all potential timelines and he knows what is the best move to make here.
S: How can we trust he who remains? Nothing he claims is anything we can verify ourselves. All so-called ‘revealed sources’ still needs to be interpreted and this necessarily happens through human interactions mediated by language. We are both listening to him are we not? Yet, we are interpreting this two very different ways. There’s no way to determine who’s right about claims transcending human knowledge (Eltschinger 2012, pp. 33-34).
L: Look, I get that you don’t trust me. But you can trust one thing: “I love to be right” (Episode 2). Objectively, let’s look at how to ensure it’s possible to accurately evaluate whether or not someone is an epistemic authority, hm? Just look at it mathematically. Think about what’s at stake and think about what the tolerance threshold is that we can have in the relevant domain (Smith and Vaidya, 1:01:48). Think about the consequences here! If we make the wrong move, we could end the entire multiverse. We don’t have a lot of time.
S: I’m not convinced. Look, we tried establishing a shared epistemic baseline; it didn’t work. I can’t trust anyone in this room. Loki, I can’t trust you: you’ve lied to everyone in your life up until this point. How can I be sure you’re not just lying to get your way? You’re on the brink of getting everything you’ve ever wished for. He Who Remains, I can’t trust you either. I’ve hated the TVA my whole life and now the guy who runs the whole thing is telling me I have a chance to just kill him and end it all? Of course I’m going to choose to kill you.
L: W-wait. Think of the consequences! How could you trust anyone then?
S: I… can’t. Other people can trust because they’ve needed to for social reasons. Trust encourages them to rely on each other for mutual good (Nguyen, p. 2). But I haven’t had any of that – I’ve never needed to. I’ve never had a family to depend on. Until I have some semblance of reliability and consistency in my life, that just won’t be possible.
[Sylvie sends Loki through a time window and kills He Who Remains]