Thursday, August 7, 2014

From Natural (or Naturalized) to Social Epistemology

I've been reading an anthology called Naturalizing Epistemology (1986) edited by Hilary Kornblith.

   "Naturalizing" epistemology has been heavily identified with W.V.O. Quine (author of the 2 first articles in Naturalizing Epistemology).

   Others draw parallels between naturalized epistemology and the much earlier philosophy of pragmatism, or John Dewey in particular, as in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society Vol. 32, No. 4, Fall, 1996, "Dewey, Quine, and Pragmatic Naturalized Epistemology".  Or see Stich 1993 "Naturalizing Epistemology: Quine, Simon and the Prospects for Pragmatism".  The title alludes to Herb Simon, the Nobel Laureate (Economics), Turing Prize winner, cognitive psychologist, AI pioneer, etc.

Naturalized epistemology, like many other intellectual approaches has a strong and a weak program, or position.  The strong might be represented by Quine's "Why not settle for psychology".

   Basically, I think general naturalized epistemology aims to ground epistemology in something solid and material like people, and their scientific study -- as opposed to reasoning with purely mental constructs.  Another tendency that claims to be "naturalizing" epistemology is to study how "good reasoners" arrive at what they think is the truth, and this may mean trying to rigorously define how scientists think.

   "Why not settle for psychology" is to pass the buck or forward all questions to another department (e.g. psychology, sociology, history of science), as if the disciplinary traditions of philosophy have nothing to offer.  Do they really have nothing to offer?

   I think one way to not pass the buck is to focus on certain habits that seem to affect, or afflict, virtually all of philosophy when it deals with thoughts, truth, etc.  Namely to talk as if our subject is some "canonical knower", talking of what "is known" without reference to any particular knower, seeming to forget about the fact that I am in my mind and you are in yours.  Descartes' "Cogito ergo sum" might be more naturalistic in this sense if he had written "So you think maybe you don't exist?  But then aren't you experiencing something, an awareness of words and/or pictures that seem to be inside your body.  Call that your 'self' and you can't avoid thinking it exists in some form, whether as a disembodied spirit cohabiting with a body, or a biological process, or a computer simulation.  This only works for your existence.  It won't convince you that I (Descartes) exist -- in fact I might be long dead as you read this."

   The main move in "naturalizing" epistemology without passing the buck is, in my opinion to keep grounded in the realization that there is only me knowing, or you knowing, or either of us believing mistakenly, and there are the processes by which we came to know or believe.  And the canonical knower is a fiction, and declarations like "it is known" or "it is knowable" are just too vague.  This grounds me in the realization that the vast bulk of what I think I know is due to having gotten it from some trusted source.  It used to be trendy to say that would make me an "authoritarianism", but if "authoritarianism" is a real thing to be avoided, it can't just be something we all do because there is no alternative.

   There may be a "right" way to establish a scientific fact, but in almost all cases, hardly one person in a million has actually witnessed it being established.  The vast majority "know" it because they read it in a book.

   So we are left mostly with the sources we have chosen to trust, and the question of what can justify that trust.  Perhaps you believe you do a good job of determining who to trust, and we all know people who we think don't do such a good job.  Alvin Goldman, the only other author besides Quine allotted 2 articles in Naturalizing Epistemology is now (some years after the book was published) the best known proponent of one of two conflicting schools of Social Epistemology.

   I want to suggest if you approach naturalized epistemology right, then social epistemology is a natural outcome. Goldman treats the question of "Who to Trust" seriously in "Experts: Which Ones should you Trust?" in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol 63, No. 2 (7/2001)

   [NOTE: many online papers by Goldman are generously provided at]

  Suppose we wanted to make "general principals of knowing who to trust" a part of the elementary school curriculum.  What would these principles look like?  The following examples involve social reasoning as well as the intentional stance beloved of evolutionists like Daniel Dennett.

   For deciding on the trustworthiness of a magazine, we might suggest "look in the back to see if its ads are directed to really gullible people -- if so, suspect the rest of the magazine is directed to really gullible people.  I suspect a great deal of our ability to discriminate trustworthy sources is based on somewhat similar rules of thumb.  So if the magazine that advertises the "X-ray glasses" says we will all be flying around with jet packs in a couple of decades (a typical example from the 1960s), then deploy bullshit detector.

   You might move to a new location, and at a block party, ask around about who is a good plumber or mechanic (on in some areas, where is it safe/unsafe to walk at night).  Somehow, I think most of us can do a reasonable job of deciding who to take most seriously and who is perhaps a blowhard.  Could that be taught in school?  There are few more important life skills.

   I often get the impression that the best argument against a proposition is the quality of the arguments put forth in its favor.  If on some momentous controversial issue, an advocate of some position sends me article after article that makes me ask "Is that the best they can do?  Is an  85 year old retired atomic scientist the best they can do to impress me with the case against Global Warming?" and similar questions depending on the article, this leads me to conclude that the supposed case they have against Global Warming is ginned up, and until I start hearing more impressive arguments, I will continue to think so based on analysis of what they have to say for themselves -- not because somebody else tells me they're full of shit.  Unfortunately, others read the same writers and see nothing wrong.

  My knowledge of epistemology is uneven, and acquired all on my own motivated by a sense that something is breaking down in terms of people's common sense about what venues to trust, and wondering what has brought this about and what to do about it.  I'm not sure how much help can be gotten from philosophical tradition (that is, its actual instantiation, as opposed to whatever philosophy in theory might be), but I have found some encouragement there as well as in several other places, and am trying to stitch the pieces together.

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