Doxastic Determination by Thesis Advisor?

Another head-scratcher from Jason Brennan’s BHL piece on meta-philosophy (timestamp: 10:16 am, February 12, 2020):

Second, what people believe tends to depend a great deal on who their advisors were. People who go to Harvard tend to come out Kantians of some sort. People who go to Arizona tend to come out Gaussian contractualists or Schmidtzean pluralists. Now, some of this is due to selection–the Kantians are more likely to apply to Harvard than, say, consequentialist ANU. Part of it, though, is that when you attend a program with people who defend X, you encounter much better arguments for X and weaker arguments for other positions. But this seems to a rather unreliable mechanism for changing your beliefs. A Guassian contractualist like Kevin would have ended up believing something else had he gone to a different program. Is it just lucky for him he attended Arizona and not Harvard? Is it just lucky for him that he had Gaus as an advisor instead of Christiano, Schmidtz, Wall, Pincione, or someone else?

Isn’t this the kind of claim that requires bona fide empirical support? I don’t see any here. I just see Brennan recording his quasi-empirical impressions of a handful of institutions, followed by a gigantic epistemic generalization about the whole profession. Forget selection versus treatment effects. A treatment effect presupposes an effect. Not obvious there is one.

For whatever it’s worth, Brennan’s claims don’t cohere at all with my grad school experiences at Notre Dame in the 1990s. I don’t think of myself as a MacIntyrean, and you can be damn sure that Alasdair MacIntyre doesn’t regard me as one of his disciples. Beyond that, I feel confident in saying that few people encounter me and think: “The apple doesn’t fall from the tree. I mean, look at MacIntyre and Khawaja!” So going by personal experience alone, Brennan’s claim strikes me as extremely implausible. I certainly was influenced by MacIntyre, but that didn’t make me a MacIntyrean, much less unamenable to considering arguments against MacIntyrean claims to which I was sympathetic.

But you don’t need to dwell on MacIntyre examples, or Notre Dame examples. Since we’re not consulting studies, consider your own experiences, or those of friends and colleagues. Do Brennan’s claims seem plausible to you even from an armchair? Not to deny that they have some truth at some level–yes, some dissertation advisors have disciples–but there’s not nearly enough there to justify his claims.

But fine–suppose the effect is there. Brennan concedes that “some of this” may be “due to selection.” How much? What if most of it is? Since we haven’t measured the effect, and probably couldn’t even if we tried, it seems pointless to say that “some of the effect” is a selection effect, as though we were antecedently sure that not that much of it could be. Imagine putting the claim this way:

Not sure there’s an effect here, but maybe there is. Assuming there is, maybe some of it is selection. Maybe most of it is. Maybe all of it is. But regardless, advisors determine philosophical beliefs.

Really? Again, this is why empirical evidence would be nice. Oddly, sometimes Brennan is the one to demand empirical evidence and rigorous empirical studies. And sometimes, he’s content to let the demand lapse. Not clear to me what principle determines either choice.

Here’s the crux:

Part of it, though, is that when you attend a program with people who defend X, you encounter much better arguments for X and weaker arguments for other positions.

Again, is that clearly true? It almost seems to presuppose a kind of one-one correspondence of doctrines to institutions: one major doctrine per institution. That seems implausible, but maybe it’s uncharitable. Brennan describes Arizona disjunctively as Schmidtzean or Gaussian. That itself seems an overstatement, but let it go. Jennifer Baker went to Arizona, and is neither a Schmidtzean nor a Gaussian. But suppose we accept it. What if a program is relatively pluralistic? Granting Brennan’s principle, wouldn’t it generate a plurality of views? Is his claim that there are no such programs? Not my experience. Notre Dame was.

Brennan also seems to be assuming that if X is the predominant doctrine at an institution (assuming the “predominant doctrine” phenomenon itself), few grad students encounter, much less deal with, equally good arguments for ~X. Again, not my experience (whether at Notre Dame or at Princeton, where I wasn’t a student but spent time), not something I’d accept simply on someone’s say-so, and a long way from the claim Brennan seems to be making: that change in milieu would produce a radical change up and down one’s philosophical belief structure. Maybe I just hang out with robustly stable doxastic agents, but the whole thing seems a big stretch.

Brennan’s response at BHL. 

6 thoughts on “Doxastic Determination by Thesis Advisor?

  1. Someone looking at my work might think that (politics definitely aside) I seem plausibly like a Cornell product: moral realist, plus a broadly Irwinian approach to ancient philosophy. But I was a moral realist with a broadly Irwinian approach to ancient philosophy before I ever got to Cornell; definitely a strong selection effect in my case. Plus my moral realism is different (e.g., more internalist) than the version that was popular at Cornell.

    When I recall courses I took in grad school, they typically involved reading articles defending a variety of positions. Nor did the prof assign strong arguments only for the favoured positions, and weak arguments for the disfavoured ones. For each one we read major and respected proponents of the relevant positions.

    I mean, certainly I was heavily influenced by the Cornell faculty; no doubt about that. But I share your impression that Brennan is overstating his case.


  2. It didn’t even occur to me that people would find this thesis objectionable or implausible. I thought I was pointing out something we all know and pointing out an unfortunate implication of it.


    • I read your post at BHL responding to me. Obviously, I’m not going to dispute that we should have worries about our reliability as truth-trackers, but then, most of us (in this profession) do. I’d be curious to hear what others think, but I wouldn’t even grant the basic assumption you’re making, that there’s so strong a correlation between what advisors believe and what advisees believe. Even Roderick, who grants that he was strongly influenced by his mentors at Cornell, puts politics in a different category. It’d be hard to confuse Roderick’s politics with those of Sturgeon, Boyd, Miller, or Brink.

      There are going to be lots of relevant variables to consider here, but one easily overlooked one is time. I started grad school in the early 1990s, when grad school was less the pre-professional training ground it’s now become. It’s plausible to think that advisors bore a different relationship to advisees then than they often do now. Less pressure might have been involved.

      There’s also just sheer, idiosyncratic differences in attitude to consider. I was a student of Alasdair MacIntyre’s at Notre Dame, but also active enough in the IHS milieu (back then) to know Dave Schmidtz pretty well. Obviously, MacIntyre gave me career advice, but by chance, so did Schmidtz. You couldn’t imagine more radically different attitudes toward the profession than MacIntyre versus Schmidtz. A person trained by one would have trouble imagining what it’d be like to be trained by the other.

      There’s also sheer personality differences in grad students themselves. When I first went to Notre Dame, I was a Randian Objectivist who specifically went there to have antagonists to fight with (primarily MacIntyre, secondarily Sterba). Notre Dame was starting its drive toward becoming a pre-professional training ground, but wasn’t there yet. Put all of this together, and you can see why my experiences at Notre Dame in the 1990s were bound to be different from someone’s experiences at Arizona in the 2000s. But different people are bound to have different experiences.

      Finally, while Vallier can speak for himself, I have a lot of trouble believing that he’s going to cop to the claim that had he gone somewhere else, he’d have radically different beliefs, as though his belief structure was so counter-factually flexible that he could be molded like putty depending on who was advising him. Not only do I have trouble believing he’d cop to it, I have trouble believing it.


  3. Commenter Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson2) makes this comment on Brennan’s second BHL post (Johnson is responding to Brennan’s response to my response to Brennan’s original BHL post):

    My experience suggests that people rarely change their fundamental ideas, no matter what. It’s only at special periods where people actually start serious contemplation of different notions and working out how they apply and whether the consequences seem more apt descriptions of how things are. And they are even less apt to change notions about how they should be. Those kinds of changes tend to be products of time, life lived, not adviser.

    This of course raises a powerful objection to Brennan’s thesis. But if he doesn’t need any empirical support, do I?

    I agree that changes tend to be driven more by life experience than by adviser per se, though of course, experience-with-an-adviser is itself a form of life experience, and potentially influential. My mentors certainly influenced me, but they didn’t literally drive my beliefs, and I don’t think they literally drove anyone else’s, either. The phenomenon Brennan takes for granted strikes me as an exaggerated misinference from the studies he cites. Brennan’s Georgetown colleague Mark Murphy was, like me, a student of Alasdair MacIntyre’s, but it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Murphy would have ended up a Rawlsian if only he’d studied with Rawlsians, or a Gaussian if only he’d studied with Gaus, etc.

    I disagree at least with the spirit of Johnson’s claim that “people rarely change their fundamental ideas.” There’s no real way to know such a thing: it’s hard enough to pin down what’s meant by “their fundamental ideas.” The relevant point is that under favorable conditions, people have the capacity for fairly radical doxastic change and for epistemic virtue. Both Johnson and Brennan seem to dismiss this by offering observations about what (they think) tends to happen. But the observations are in both cases of questionable relevance to the topic Brennan is discussing.


  4. My basic point was summed up by the mischievous observation that if Brennan didn’t really need to cite empirical support, neither did I. The implication is that Brennan’s factual claims, that seem so obvious to him, don’t seem to me to be very true.

    As for the ability of people to change their fundamental ideas—or even to work them out in more systematic form—is indeed quite amazing. It’s why in a period of revolutionary ferment, suddenly, everywhere, ordinary people begin to talk, talk, talk about all manner of issues previously reserved to the proper venues, when the barber will beard the philosopher in his chair. Macaulay observed that in a revolution people will clarify their thoughts with astonishing rapidity, changing their outlook in unexpected ways. As for individuals, rethinking fundamental ideas tend to occur most often when their personal position changes. An advocated for unwanted children can rethink abortion when the unwanted child is theirs. For students, it is the appearance of a world of previously unknown facts that can serve to rearrange their ideas. (Personal example: Reading Jozef Beck’s memoir “Final Report” drastically reordered my thoughts on the outbreak of WWII.) None of this is what Brennan is talking about, though, hence irrelevant to his remarks.

    Yes, it is hard to pin down what fundamental ideas are. I think they are what Brennan would say are other people’s cognitive biases. The feeling that rich people are rich because they are winners (or vice versa,) is one such. The vague but obstinate assurance that things are the way they are because they have to be that way, is another. Seeing other people as motivated solely by personal motives, always intentional and instrumentally rational, whose volition is purely rational. Indeed, the feeling that epistemological skepticism is common sense, rather than posing the problem of how, if every proposition is absurd because the universes is unknowable, mere common sense can “work.” The gambler’s fallacy is a fundamental belief. There are of course fundamental notions that make sense upon analysis and over time. The continuity of self usually experienced is not merely an illusion of association, an impossibly to justify induction, a la Hume. (Hume’s opinion otherwise suggests to me that any philosophy that repudiates induction is fundamentally flawed.) Now, it seems to me that Brennan’s thesis is that the adviser is very powerful in forming such notions, good, bad or indifferent. Here too I suspect Brennan is factually wrong. Here too I lack the library, the time and the industry to support my suspicions otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess I agree with all of that, except this one sentence:

      None of this is what Brennan is talking about, though, hence irrelevant to his remarks.

      I don’t see why. Seems relevant to me. I guess I don’t see the contrast between the fundamental ideas in the first half of your comment, and the biases you mention in the second. But if we’re both agreeing that change is possible on both, then we’re both agreeing that Brennan is overly pessimistic about belief change, and agreeing that his pessimism about it doesn’t seem to have a discernible empirical basis.


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