Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Bad Epistemology

There are two popular trends in epsitemology today that, taken as avenues that may add epistemological insight are fine, but taken as the way to do epistemology are nonsense:

1) Evolutionary epistemology. Yes, our history and our genes will be relevant to how we know things and what sort of things we know. But some people want to go further and say, "Any confidence we can have in our knowledge can only be grounded in the fact that evolution has steered things so that our minds can successfully cope with reality, because, of course, only organisms that successfully cope with reality will survive."

The problem with that is you're grounding all your other knowledge on your theory of evolution -- but how do you know that's right? For instance, I reject your idea with my theory of evolution: Nature is perverse, and has assured that only the least fit creatures with the worst cognitive maps of reality have survived, by wiping out all of the most fit ones with earthquakes, floods, droughts, etc.

Of course I think the latter theory is dumb, but it certainly can't be rejected by pointing to the former theory, because that's precisely what's being disputed! So it turns out that we do, after all, have epistemological resources independent of counting on evolution to have weeded out bad ideas.

2) Formal epsitemology: Again, formalism can be useful, sure, but it can't take the place of "old style" epistemology. I can't find the fellow's web site now, but I ran across a guy who said, "There are two types of philosophy: formalized philosophy, and vague philosophy that never resolves anything."

And, once again, the difficulty with mistaking a useful tool for the subject ought to be obvious: A formal analysis may clarify one's thinking on a problem. But the formal analysis can't tell you itself if it does so! For example, let's say I tell you: "You want to know what beauty is in art? That's easy -- just look at the Pythagorean Theorem!" This is obviously silly, but the formalism itself can't tell us that! To see what formalisms are relevant to what philosophical problems, and in what way, requires a non-formal judgment.


  1. Agreed!

    Some creationists use the same type of argument as the evolutionary epistemologists: we can't be justified in trusting our cognitive faculties unless we recognise that they were designed by God to be reliable. (Actually Descartes gave an argument like that too, but at least he recognised that there was a circularity problem and tried to deal with it.)

  2. Gene,

    Help me out here. I totally agree with you, and was going to cite C.S. Lewis (in Abolition of Man, I think) who made the argument Roderick is talking about. Something like, if you believe in evolution, then you have no reason to trust your reasoning faculties, whereas if you believe God created you, then you have reason to believe in absolute truth etc.

    Anyway, what troubles me is that I like the deductive, blow-up-your-opponents-from-square-one approach when it supports my view, but I dislike it when it's used against me.

    Don't you and I hate it when a fan of Hans Hoppe will rip our discussion of the evolution of private law, by saying something like, "You need to know property rights before people can go to arbitration, so you have to have an a priori theory first. Don't tell me the market will 'discover' the best legal rules." ?

    So why couldn't the evolutionary epistemologist hold something analogous to our position on market chosen law?

  3. "So why couldn't the evolutionary epistemologist hold something analogous to our position on market chosen law?"

    He can't base that belief as well on evolutionary theory. (We don't say that the market decided the fact that we think market chosen law is good!)

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Pearce: British Journal for the History of Philosophy Deneen: The American Conservative Chao-Reiss: Computing Reviews