Epistemology: Why the Focus?

Epistemology: Why the Focus? March 11, 2012

I’m trying to drive at whether there is a way to justify Mormon knowledge claims and perhaps get at whether there are uniquely Mormon ways of knowing. It may seem like I’m taking a bit of circuitous route. I want to get at why people have worried about the things they have the past few centuries. It can often seem like epistemology is so dominated by specialists each debating such nuanced points that the big picture is lost. Last week I got at why we should even care about knowledge. I hopefully showed that there are two reasons to care. The first is to be honest about all those statements we make involving the word “knowledge.” The second is that as both individuals and a society we’re better off when we try to justify our beliefs. Or, put an other way, we’re better off eliminating as many false beliefs as is possible.

Today I want to take a short trip across some of the main issues in epistemology. Rather than focus on this the way a philosopher might I want to look at it with an eye to practicality. Why are these issues? In doing so I’ll be dealing with them on a somewhat superficial level. I more want to get at why we might want to worry about these things rather than getting into the minutiae of the arguments that are still going on over them. I think they are important but they tend to get focused on primarily as abstract intellectual puzzles rather than real human concerns.

The first question is what justification even is. Last week I mentioned that it was tied to ethics and being guilt free. That is we pronounce someone just relative to some action if they aren’t blameworthy. I may not have rescued a drowning child I came across in a river. But perhaps there were mitigating circumstances that meant I wasn’t obliged to save the child. (Maybe I couldn’t swim, for instance) The same thing can happen in knowledge conditions. There may be a duty but we are not always guilty if we don’t do it.

With these conditions we can then ask when we are obliged to believe and when we are obliged not to believe. (Those may seem the same but they aren’t — sometimes we are supposed to do an act but sometimes it’s just particular acts we’re not to do without saying what we should do) However the question remains whether we should consider the justification of belief in terms of ethics. Some people suggest that worrying about duty and obligations misleads us about knowledge. Instead we should just talk about whether a certain set of evidence makes that belief probable. In this view we merely want to know how likely something is to believe without consideration of whether someone has done their duty.

This makes a lot of sense. After all the vast majority of our beliefs don’t seem to have ethical value. It seems that a belief about whether a car’s break is set in a school parking lot where children are at risk is quite different from my belief about whether a particular silly television show is on. By focusing on ethics it may be that we are injecting values into a discussion where they just aren’t appropriate.

I don’t want to get into the real debate between deontological vs. non-deontological conceptions of epistemology, because often they don’t deal with the practical concerns. I do think though that if we start talking about duties we have to talk about importance. Maybe that actually is important to worry about but there’s then the risk that justification depends not just the evidence, beliefs or whatever that we tend to think about but also the importance of a belief.  Now often that’s not raised by people adopting the more ethical approach. They try to treat mathematical and scientific knowing the same as all others. But once you inject ethics I think it raises a particular kind of concern. And if that is so we might start saying that ethically important beliefs may need more or less justification precisely because of their importance. One can’t help but think of those who adopt a kind of scientism who note that radical claims that go beyond science require much more evidence than other claims.

The other big question in epistemology is whether we consider the conditions of justification from a first person perspective or a third person perspective. That is do we consider them as if we are the one knowing. That’s been the traditional way to consider epistemology since Descartes tried to doubt everything and see what was left. If you stop and think about it this makes a lot of sense. After all if we are trying to decide what to believe or disbelief it seems common sense that we worry about what we can reason about ourselves. The focus is on reasoning and critiquing our reason so we reason better.

The more third person perspective has its own appeal though. After all for most of the things we think about we aren’t doing formal reasoning.  When I’m taking a test what I worry about typically is if an answer seems right not necessarily if I can justify it.  (Although often I’ll attempt to do so) If I am able to put correct answers on a test consistently does it necessarily matter if I can provide a sufficient argument for why each answer is correct?  Isn’t enough that I consistently get the right answer?  There are two aspects to this. The first is the recognition that how I think and reason isn’t necessarily the same way I justify a belief. Perhaps they should be the same but not everyone agrees.  Further imagine you have some special ability you can’t explain that lets you know things correctly.  (This needn’t be mysterious – do you know how your vision works in detail?  If you were among a city of the blind wouldn’t your ability matter less than your ability to explain your ability to the blind?)   This more 3rd person focus tends to worry about the abilities and success of a knower rather than the ability to provide justification based upon what that person knows.

Externalism is the term for this approach and one of the dominate strains within it is called reliabilism. This is just the view that if a particular kind of intuition, introspection or so forth is reliable then that is enough to justify a belief.  Needless to say this has been popular with religious apologists who can say that from a certain perspective religious people might have a reliable way of believing in God independent of being able to provide public evidence.

One other form of externalism focuses in on the nature of content. For instance if I live in a virtual world my whole life and talk about water I’m talking about something different from real water – I’m talking about virtual water. If I say I went swimming in water I know it but I’m talking about something quite different from someone here on earth who went swimming and said the same thing. The content of the individual’s thoughts aren’t as important as is the external reality they are embedded in.  In one sense this is the claim that statements we claim to know have to be considered in a broader way than they normally are. Needless to say when talking about visionary experiences which may turn out to be a virtual reality that becomes important.

There are plenty of other types of externalism I won’t get into.  The point is that sometimes you want to worry about what is present to the knower’s mind to see if they are justified and sometimes we want to consider a more third person perspective and worry about the person and what is going on around them. I’m really saying that despite all the philosophical and intellectual arguments there are real practical issues at hand. Sometimes we go on being unaware of why we believe but seem to know and sometimes we are correct without knowing why but are not justified. I may look at a stopped clock and get the right time by coincidence after all. Likewise we say babies have knowledge but it seems hard to ascribe to them the sort of reasoning we often require for justification. There’s a point to both sides and I think we ought keep both in mind.

I want to deal with one last broad set of concerns. Way back when Descartes invented modern epistemology the approach was to doubt everything and what was left was a sure foundation from which to build. Ever since then there’s been a significant position that there are indubitable things we know and all our other knowledge is built out of these. Those foundations might be sense data or basic pieces of knowledge we can verify.

Especially the last century foundationalism has come under more disrepute. Some note that our ability to believe or doubt says nothing about the truth of a position. Some argue that we can’t even control what we believe or doubt. I can’t, for instance, go out under a blue sky and believe it is red. If our beliefs (and doubts) are non-voluntary then perhaps a lot of reasoning about foundations is quite unjustified. Then there is the question about what would be foundational at all. Interestingly the last few decades it has often seemed like it’s religious people who have maintained foundationalism while anti-foundationalism has become dominate among secularists.

If we don’t have a foundation on which to build knowledge – a structure much like an argument with premises and logic to reach a conclusion – then how can we know?  One alternative (among many) is coherentism. Coherentists argue that instead of thinking of justification like a building on a sure foundation we should think of it like a web linking many beliefs. The strength depends upon the links between other beliefs and there are no basic beliefs. Often coherentists seem to simply argue that it’s the best alternative since foundationalism is false. That’s not exactly a strong argument and often their attacks on foundationalism are themselves not as strong as they sometimes appear. (Even if anti-foundationalism is the dominant view today)

There are practical reasons for worrying about this. How do we reason about justification – do we adopt a web like approach or an argument like approach?  The very type of reasons we worry about will be quite different. Likewise with externalism we are either just worrying about what mental arguments we can provide or we have to worry about a lot outside of our thoughts. Do we consider knowing in terms of duty or just probabilities? Does the importance of a belief or piece of evidence matter?  Do values enter into our consideration?  Or not.  These are all very important questions. Even if we discount philosophers as people who made a profession out of useless intellectual puzzles it does seem like these concerns are very real, very practical, and very important.



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