A typology of disagreement

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How are differences of opinion to be characterised?

That is to say, if there is more than one opinion, what is its status in relation to the others? Are there different types of difference of opinion? It’s hard to write about this matter because as soon as we do so we resort to language that is essentially metaphorical. These metaphors condition our thought and tend to beg the questions. So, for instance, to use the term conflicting opinions or competing opinions or incommensurable opinions is to assume that conflict, competition or incommensurability is a given. Of course, ‘opinion’ itself is a matter of opinion. One person’s opinion is another person’s fact. Even the term difference is somewhat metaphorical. What if it turns out our opinions don’t actually differ, after all? Perhaps by means of  Hegelian synthesis or some such trick, they can be reconciled to one another.

Michael Ruse, author of Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, has written about the ways in which we can characterise the debate between science and religion.  He identifies four approaches, namely:

  • Warfare
  • Independence
  • Dialogue
  • Integration

The contribution of this post is to suggest that these are not merely choices freely made but are pathways already prescribed by social circumstances. We can’t just wake up in the morning and decide that today the relationship between science and religion will be conflictual, and that tomorrow it will be dialogical. The social environment in which the relationship exists conditions to a large extent the way it is characterised. Our pre-existing assumptions and ways of organising make particular lines of reasoning seem ‘natural’ rather than ‘forced’. This point matters because of our tendency to see things as being ‘just the way they are’, without further reflection. If science and religion appear to be in conflict, we tend to jump straight to ontology (‘they just are in conflict – that’s how it really is’), without reflecting on our epistemology (‘how do we know how it really is?’). It is hard to see how the likes of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers could stop being combative, or how the likes of the Catholic Church could stop trying to be all-encompassing. Notice that method and conclusion amount to the same thing.

The relationship between the four approaches identified by Prof Ruse can be clarified by means of Grid-Group Cultural Theory, under which rubric much thought has already gone into the cultural biases, or worldviews which shape our disagreements. Viewed in this context the religion/science debate tells us as much about the institutional framework of the debate as it does about the truth of the matter.

Approach     Metaphor     Typical institution       Cultural Bias

Warfare            Competition    the market                            Individualist

Independence Isolation          courtroom/prison              Fatalist

Dialogue          Consensus       deliberative democracy     Egalitarian

Integration     Nested Truth    bureaucracy                         Hierarchical

The dialogue approach is in the spirit of deliberative democracy, or of Jurgen Habermas’s communicative action.

The Integration approach is in keeping with Donald Davidson’s ideas expressed in his seminal article ‘On the very idea of a conceptual scheme’. Differences of opinion are subordinated to a hierarchical concept of Truth.

The independence approach is in keeping with Thomas Kuhn’s concept of separate paradigms, or the idea of separate (perhaps overlapping) magisteria.

Finally the warfare approach is closest to an understanding of knowledge as competition, with the survival of the fittest and ‘the marketplace of ideas’.

My suggestion is that these types of disagreement don’t just apply to the science and religion debate, but to all disagreements. Michael Ruse has successfully described the totality of parsimonious ways in which a disagreement may be characterised in any field. These relate closely to the ideal type worldviews or cultural biases of Cultural Theory. An interim conclusion is that while you can have any facts you like, your choice of difference of opinion is strictly limited (Prof Marco Verweij’s ‘constrained relativism‘ perhaps).


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