By Ken Jubie ’04
“Agree to disagree.” It’s the clichéd line you might hear when people reach an impasse in an argument or debate. But, when they have the same information, why do people disagree in the first place? The answer to that question is what Assistant Professor of Philosophy Joshua Alexander, Ph.D., is trying to uncover through his research on intellectual humility.
“My project is designed to explore more carefully the relationship between intellectual disagreement and our capacity to be open-minded,” Alexander said. His research focuses on the role that situational factors and specific intellectual and contextual perspectives play in someone’s capacity to be open-minded when another person is not like-minded.
To support his research, Alexander has been awarded a two-year grant valued at more than $110,000 from the Fuller Theological Seminary/Thrive Center for Human Development in concert with the John Templeton Foundation.
“We hold certain beliefs that are explicitly rejected by others, and do so even when exposed to all of the same kinds of evidence and arguments,” said Alexander, an epistemologist who has taught at Siena College since 2008.
Alexander hopes that by having a better understanding of what factors influence a person’s capacity to be open-minded in the face of cognitive diversity, he’ll be able to help people better understand the philosophical significance of intellectual disagreement. His research is motivated by the desire to determine “not only what we should do when we disagree, but what disagreement can do for us,” said Alexander.
Alexander is planning to bring his research into the classroom as well. He is designing a course on intellectual disagreement.
“When we welcomed Josh Alexander to our department in 2008 we knew we had hired a passionate educator who would excite students and inspire them to explore the nature of consciousness, knowledge and reason,” said Professor of Philosophy and Department Chair Jenny McErlean, Ph.D. “Students find Dr. Alexander to be not only extremely well-prepared and thorough, but ready to inject humor into all phases of learning.”
Most importantly, Alexander said sharing his research and connecting with students in the classroom allows him to help them become better educated and, in the process, become better people. Given those results, even the most astute among us will have a hard time agreeing to disagree with his approach.