On Philosophy

December 17, 2007

The Value Of Epistemology

Filed under: Epistemology — Peter @ 12:00 am

It is important to occasionally ask ourselves what the value of the philosophy we do is, not because we need to justify ourselves to someone making a budget, but to prevent ourselves from wandering off into realms of abstraction that are essentially meaningless since they don’t embody any assertions about the world. And, even if we aren’t in danger of doing that, bringing our attention back to the particular problems that we are trying to solve is often worthwhile by itself, as it is also possible to get lost in constructing a theory and in doing so lose sight of what the theory was supposed to do. In that vein let us ask what the value of epistemology is. The answer initially seems obvious: epistemology, done properly, should reveal how we can acquire knowledge. And thus we could use such a theory to eliminate beliefs we only mistakenly believe to be knowledge, as well as help shape our future investigations to better lead us to further knowledge. Hopefully the value of knowledge itself is obvious: knowledge is more likely to be true than beliefs developed in other ways, and true beliefs are obviously valuable instrumentally.

But is epistemology really valuable in this way? To say that it will lead us to possess more knowledge implies that how we presently come to such beliefs is deficient. However I see no evidence of such a deficiency, at least not where it matters most. The sciences seem perfectly capable to coming to true conclusions on their own without additional help. Indeed the only thing that seems like it might help science is simply more evidence, and an epistemological theory is not going to supply that. At best it would seem that such a theory could simply say why science is so successful, but that explanation is not, by itself, valuable. Of course not all disciplines are as successful as the sciences. Indeed philosophy itself seems like a field that might greatly benefit from a theory of knowledge being applied to it. However that gets us into deep waters concerning whether philosophy really does need improvement and about what the value of philosophy is in general, which are probably better not entered into. Thus, if an epistemological theory is supposed to be valuable, it must play some role in improving the way people reason in general. Often we make mistakenly conclude that we know things when we in fact don’t. And such mistakes rarely exist in a vacuum, there is a disturbing tendency for unjustified beliefs to be passed from person to person as knowledge. In this context it does seem that there is work for an epistemological theory to do, that if we could inform people about how knowledge really works that they would make fewer such mistakes.

Of course this assumes that we are capable of conveying our epistemological results to the public at large and that they are capable of actually applying such theories. But let us just grant that both are possible, not simply for reasons of charity, but because I think they really are possible, assuming that people are introduced to such theories early in life, and not later as positions in academic philosophy. I guess then that we are assuming that these people will apply those epistemological theories to their irrational beliefs and thus discard them. But why would they apply that theory to those beliefs specifically? In thinking of them as true they are on the same level with every other belief held as true, including the belief that the Earth is round and that the sun will rise tomorrow. Surely we don’t expect them to turn that theory on every belief that they possess. Checking the reliability of a belief will certainly take some time, and our lives are filled with beliefs thought to be true. Just by moving around an environment we develop a number of beliefs about the placement of objects, and that objects exist where we cannot currently see them, and so on. Validating each of these beliefs as they occurred to us would make life basically unlivable. Well, maybe if they have mastered the epistemological theory at an early enough age they can learn to train how they form beliefs, such that they only form beliefs that count as knowledge. And thus they will have no need to double check every belief they form about their environment because they will have already learned that all such beliefs formed in this way are trustworthy in the absence of any contradictory evidence. This seems more plausible, but there are still problems. Because, as I mentioned earlier, many beliefs falsely taken to be knowledge are the result of being told by someone else that they are the case. This would seem to imply that in order not to endorse as knowledge irrational beliefs a person would have to check every fact that was told to them by some other source. But many facts come to us from such sources. Indeed I couldn’t even imagine learning any complex subject without placing some untested trust in others, simply because not every part of a large body of work can be independently confirmed by us; at best we can spot check it. And such restraint against believing the claims of other people could also lead to a kind of practical paralysis, where they would be unable to function even in situations of ordinary communication (“your shoes are by the door”) because they would be constantly checking those facts against background information.

It would appear then that for an epistemological theory to be useful people would have to apply it just to their irrational beliefs. And obviously that isn’t possible, because if we knew which of our beliefs were irrational we wouldn’t take them seriously, and thus there would be no need for an epistemological theory in the first place. Naturally this problem isn’t restricted to trying to apply epistemological theories but extends to belief revision in general. Given that we may have some false beliefs that we take to be true how should we hunt them down and revise them? Descartes’ radical solution was to try to toss out all of our beliefs and then start over from scratch. Obviously such a project could never work. Not only does Descartes’ surreptitiously sneak in a number of principles that might themselves seem in need of doubting to get anywhere, but eventually he falls back on the idea that god is a nice person who guarantees that anything we feel sufficiently certain of is true. Thus it might seem as if we would just have to accept the fact that some false beliefs may hide among our true beliefs and that we wouldn’t be able to free ourselves from them.

At least that would be the situation we would find ourselves in if we restricted ourselves to trying to identify our false beliefs by looking for signs of their falsehood directly. However, we might able to productively hunt them down by finding some other characteristics of theirs that usually accompanies them. Let’s consider then the nature of persistent false beliefs. If a belief is false we will occasionally come across evidence that points to it being false; that is entailed by the nature of a false belief, it asserts something about the world which is not the case, and given that we live in the world there is the possibility that we will come across something that contradicts it. If a false belief persists in light of such evidence it must be because, regarding it, our natural ability to reason and assess evidence, which we do all possess, is somehow being prevented from working properly. Fortunately we don’t have to grope around in the dark for something that can fulfill that role; psychologists have already discovered that the existence of an emotional involvement with a belief, either desire for it to be true or fear that it might be the case, prevents proper evaluation of the evidence. Thus if we want to find our false beliefs we can restrict our search to those that we have strong feelings about. Although we might not have conscious access to when we are being irrational surely we do have conscious access to our desires. And then we could apply our epistemological theory to this restricted subset and determine which of those beliefs really are irrational (because the fact that we have strong feelings about the content of those beliefs doesn’t necessarily mean that we are in error all the time). Since this is probably a relatively small number of beliefs (compared to the total number of our beliefs) applying the theory to each of them doesn’t seem an impossible task.

And so we are back to our earlier conclusions about the value of epistemology, namely that it can be useful to us in improving our ability to reason in ordinary circumstances, as long as it is accompanied by a heuristic we can use to guide its application. Although we are normally relatively rational, in a basically unconscious way, that capability can be interfered with in certain situations, and there we must lean on an explicit theory of knowledge, since obviously we can’t trust our normal reasoning strategies given that interference, and since they are unconscious we can’t just reflect on them to determine what has gone wrong with them.

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