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.