Outline of the Research Lines

This Unit of Excellence pursues both theoretical and practical objectives. The former include: (1) analyzing the characteristics of disagreements and the public contexts in which they take place; and (2) offering novel methodological proposals to address them, examine their value and state the conditions for their eventual resolution. As for the practical objectives, we intend to contribute to creating a more just and cohesive society by improving the quality of public argumentation and debate.

Conceptual elements

A growing number of philosophers in the fields of epistemology, the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, etc. have applied their theoretical, abstract proposals to the study of the conditions for inequality, marginalization and propaganda, showing how they are often justified by virtue of arguments that mix data with value prejudices.

In this line of work, the Unit of Excellence aims to study, among others, the concept of truth. Currently this concept has had a great impact on the media, in the format of controversy about post-truth politics. It is necessary to analyze whether, indeed, notions such as interest, power, opinion, etc. have replaced the notion of truth in the field of public debate, whether there are still areas where this notion is essential, or what conception of truth is to be maintained today and what transformations it requires.

Another important conceptual element in this project is the notion of disagreement. In recent years, this notion has played a central role in some of the discussions in the philosophy of language and in epistemology. In our case, the main questions that we must answer are: (1) How can the different types of disagreement be characterized?; and (2) What do we do once we know that we are facing a disagreement of a certain type? One of the main hypotheses of this project is that the resolution of debates becomes complicated when disagreements about facts are confused with disagreements that are not solved by appealing exclusively to facts. For this reason, the answers to these questions may not only shed light on disputes about the nature of meaning and the study of human knowledge, but they may also ground methodological strategies to address the different public debates and improve their quality.

Finally, the nature and possibility of a rational debate depends on psychological abilities that the subjects put into play during the debate. Knowledge of processes such as reasoning, the attribution of mental states or decision making helps to determine the characteristics and scope of human rationality. It is equally crucial to investigate the role of intuition in the acceptance of fundamental beliefs that are frequently unquestioned. These are subjects that the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of psychology have been dealing with for a long time and, at present, they are obtaining new results and perspectives in the interdisciplinary field of cognitive science. The conceptual framework that we have to establish to analyze the public practice of debate must incorporate these results in order to guarantee its empirical plausibility.

Methodological proposals

From a methodological point of view, our main hypothesis is that public debate is a special form of argumentation. Argumentation is a communicative practice in which the persuasion of the other is sought by appealing to that person's own rationality, to the ability to create beliefs according to reasons. When we argue, we submit our affirmations to the other's judgement and we expect to succeed in convincing by using only the strength of our reasons to endorse what we say. In this sense, democratic societies must rely on argumentation as a practice that not only is effective for social interaction – it legitimizes it. However, this requires citizens capable not only of participating smoothly in argumentative discourse, but also of adequately evaluating it. We believe, therefore, that any program to improve the quality of public debate inevitably involves improving the argumentative capacities of citizens. Unfortunately, in our country the study of argumentation hardly receives attention at the different educational levels and many people lack the skills to distinguish between the quality of an argument and its persuasive efficacy.

On the other hand, an adequate framework to improve the quality of public debate must take into account that, just like any other type of communication, debate is not only a way to find the best answers to our questions, but also a mechanism to influence others. This rhetorical dimension of public sphere debate tends to be neglected when the focus is placed on notions such as rationality, truth, justification, etc. For example, the importance of aesthetic considerations for scientists throughout history is not something that is often commented on, let alone in an educational context. However, as the history of science shows, the elegance of a mathematical demonstration or the beauty of a scientific theory are values ​​that have often conditioned the success of a theoretical proposal. Therefore, it is fundamental to adequately articulate this rhetorical dimension of communication in order to avoid an excess of rationalism that, by completely unlinking the justifying force of discourse from its persuasive force, puts an end to any attempt to improve the argumentative skills of society and the very quality of public debates.

Analysis of specific public debates

In the research trajectory of the majority of the members of this research group, there is a predominant interest for philosophy to show its more applied character and for its conclusions to be valued for their social utility. Therefore, special attention has been paid to issues that generate controversy in the public sphere, either because they represent a confrontation between different ideological, moral or political positions in force in society, or because they deal with novel phenomena and technologies that cause disparity of opinions on how they need to be managed.

Thus, as a result of the analysis of the notions of truth and post-truth, we are to explore the debates around the "international truth commissions" that frequently arise in the aftermath of political or war conflicts.

Socially controversial issues also include those that have to do with technologies that challenge our traditional conceptions of "the natural". For example, experimentation with embryonic cells, the use of biomedical and technological advances to improve human abilities, including moral abilities, organ donation, etc. Today, they give rise to such opposite positions that debate and rational resolution of conflicts seem a chimera. The same happens with notions such as Corporate Social Responsibility and the ethics of organizations, the treatment that non-human animals deserve, the challenges associated with the uses of intelligence and Super Artificial Intelligence, etc.

The specific interest of this type of debate has to do with the tension existing between the conclusions reached in the experts' reflections and the social perception that their recommendations can have dangerous, even outrageous consequences. To deal with this dilemma, several alternatives are usually considered: from manipulating or rejecting those conclusions that lead to unpopular or dangerous public policies –in return, we would legitimize a certain degree of intellectual dishonesty–, to maintaining the validity of the conclusions but abandoning the pretension to apply them, when doing so could provoke social alarm or incomprehension. In the latter case, the expert debate would have to give up its role as a vector of transformation and improvement of society and content itself with remaining in the "ivory tower". Our objective, on the contrary, is to show that a third procedural way is possible to approach these debates without compromising academic obligations nor sacrificing the legitimate aspiration to influence and inform public policies.