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I had never heard of the term "reflective equilibrium", although I'm pretty sure that all intelligent human beings have engaged in it at least at some point in their lives. It seems to me that it is healthy exercise.

Massimo Pigliucci introduces reflective equilibrium in his blog "Rationally Speaking":

 

Reflective equilibrium (5 minute philosopher)

by Massimo Pigliucci

Ever wondered how to think like a philosopher? Today we are going to take a look at one of the fundamental tools of the philosophical toolbox, something called reflective equilibrium.

Let’s suppose that you believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Suppose you also think morality comes from God. And further suppose that you maintain that it is immoral to kill children if they curse their parents. Then you read the following in Exodus 21:17: “He that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.”

Now, if you are concerned about the coherence of your beliefs, you have several moves at your disposal. You could admit that the Bible is not infallible, and that God may not have meant what Exodus attributes to Him. Or, you could abandon the idea that morality comes from God. Lastly, you could agree that yes, after all it is all right to kill children who disrespect their elders. In considering any of these options, and actually adjusting your set of beliefs about morality, divinity and children’s behavior, you have engaged in an exercise of “reflective equilibrium.”

The idea of reflective equilibrium was introduced by Nelson Goodman in his book “Fact, Fiction, and Forecast.” Goodman was not concerned with morality, but with the validity of one’s thinking. Goodman’s suggestion was that we justify our rules of reasoning based on how those rules fare when confronted with a range of instances of what we believe are correct inferences. If an inferential rule yields unacceptable results, we may decided to discard that rule no matter how it may have seemed like a good idea at the start.

The most famous application of the principle of reflective equilibrium is found in John Rawls’ highly influential “A Theory of Justice.” Rawls proposed to apply Goodman’s approach to adjusting our sometimes conflicting moral beliefs, just as in the hypothetical case of the Bible and disrespectful children mentioned before. Whether or not one agrees with the outcome of Rawls’ particular analysis of justice as fairness, the reflective equilibrium approach should be compelling to anyone seriously interested in, well, reflecting on her own beliefs.

Turns out that a similar approach had been used in philosophy of science by Pierre Duhem as a way to debunk the commonplace idea that science is about direct empirical testing of theories. Duhem, in a book published in 1908 (La Théorie Physique), pointed out that if there is a disagreement between a theory and the empirical evidence one cannot automatically reject the theory, because scientific theories are complex statements that include many assumptions and sub-theories. The existence of a disagreement between theory and evidence tells us that something is wrong, but not what. It could be that the core theory — say, the Copernican system — ought to be rejected. But it could also be that some adjustment to the theory would resolve the discrepancy (for example, Kepler’s modification of the original Copernicanism to account for the fact that the planets go around following elliptical, not circular orbits). Indeed, it may even be the case that the data is wrong, because of a malfunction of the instrumentation, or an error of interpretation.
Read the rest here. (or just watch the video).

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Replies to This Discussion

This is a good argument "Now, if you are concerned about the coherence of your beliefs, you have several moves at your disposal. You could admit that the Bible is not infallible, and that God may not have meant what Exodus attributes to Him. Or, you could abandon the idea that morality comes from God. Lastly, you could agree that yes, after all it is all right to kill children who disrespect their elders. In considering any of these options, and actually adjusting your set of beliefs about morality, divinity and children’s behavior, you have engaged in an exercise of “reflective equilibrium.”"

That's the paragraph that attracted mt to his article.

I have met him in one of the NYC "Dinner and Philosophy" evening at a Moroccan restaurant. It was fun, in a nerdy way, of course. When I'm done with the crutches, I'll attend another of those evenings.

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