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September 25, 2004

Epistemology Naturalized

I'm becoming more and more convinced that Quine's Epistemology Naturalized has been unfairly dismissed as the lunatic fringe of naturalism. (See Richard Feldman's synopsis in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or Steven Stich's Naturalizing Epistemology: Quine, Simon and the Prospects for Pragmatism for summaries of the usual charges levied against Quine's naturalized epistemology.)

Maybe it's just me, but I think Jaegwon Kim popularized a peculiar reading of Epistemology Naturalized. Kim argues that Quine wants to abandon normative epistemology altogether. I don't think that a close reading of EN supports this conclusion. In the oft-quoted sound bites from EN, Quine urges us to observe how science actually proceeds and to discover how stimuli give rise to beliefs. Most philosophers don't pay nearly as much attention to Quine's rationale for observing science and ordinary human perception.

EN is more of a picture than an argument. Quine is making suggestions for how philosophy might proceed, given the following disappointing results: i) the failure of foundationalism, ii) the failure of translational reductionism, and iii) the intractability of the problem of induction.

EN walks us through a process of elimination. First, Quine reminds us that foundationalists failed to deduce truths about the external world from immediate experience. Quine's next move is to explain why Carnap's translational reduction isn't a viable alternative. Carnap tried to show that we didn't need to vindicate our belief in the external world in order to get on with science. Our scientific discourse seems to be about objects in the external world. So, it seems like we can't justify science unless we can answer the skeptic. The skeptic, after all, doubts that anyone can know how things really are based on how they seem. Carnap's proposed solution was to translate all of our scientific talk into a epistemically unassailable language of sense-data-talk strung together with logic.

It's during the discussion of Carnap that Quine remarks that it would be better to see how science is actually developed and learned--as opposed to the rational reconstruction Carnap advocated.

Kim argues that Quine wants to set aside the entire framework of justification centered-epistemology. Quine never explicitly repudiates normativity or justification. So, why does Kim assume that Quine wants to do away with the evaluative dimension? Kim claims that naturalized epistemology is self-consciously limited to describing perceptual inputs and belief outputs. He argues that Quine is interested only in the causal/nomological aspects of belief formation and not in normative assessments of evidential support or justification. Kim argues that it's "none of the naturalized epistemologist's business" whether the subject's evidence justifies his belief. On Kim's interpretation, all the naturalized epistemologist can do is describe belief formation as a natural process like digestion or respiration.

In EN Quine argues that epistemology and natural science are mutually contained. By this, he means that epistemology and scientific theorizing make use of the same methods (as do common sense reasoning and language acquisition, on Quine's view.) Like epistemology, science is a normative endeavor. Science exists to tell us what we ought to believe and why. Scientists don't aim to construct just any theories. They want to come up with true theories, or more nearly true theories, or well-founded theories, or parsimonious theories, or predictive theories, or (insert virtue of choice).

Science and common sense can tell us something about what we ought to believe. Neither can vindicate our faith in the external world, but both can provide evidence against which to check our belief forming processes. A cognitive psychologist assumes that she knows the right answer when she tests a subject's belief-forming faculties. She knows when there's a cube on the table and when there isn't. She tracks the subject's cube-identification abilities against reality. She thereby ascertains the scope and limits of the subject's abilities. She figures out which tricks will convince him that there is a cube before him when there's only an optical illusion or a hologram.

A large body of such data will tell us a lot about what we ought to believe. We will know that our perceptual belief forming processes are reliable under some conditions and not under others. Knowing these facts, we can scrutinize our own perceptual beliefs. Let's say that I think I can identify a suspect that I glimpsed for an instant, in the dark, at 50 paces. Let's say that I have a deep subjective conviction that I know what the suspect looks like. However, if I knew certain facts about human capacities for facial recognition, these would count as evidence against my belief.

Of course, none of this answers the skeptic or resolves the problem of induction. Quine doesn't think we can answer the skeptic. The best we can do is audit our beliefs against each other. Our picture of the world is a product of our experiences and our methods of reasoning. Our confidence in our methods is constrained by our confidence in our sources, and vice versa. Quine didn't renounce justification-centered epistemology. He just renounced vindication-centered epistemology.

It seems like Quine is really arguing that the scientific method is the best epistemology. The scientific method is subject to ongoing refinements and reassessments, both by scientists and philosophers. It matters both how science is actually practiced and what methodologists say scientists ought to be doing. This activity we call "science" is an amazingly fruitful source of reliable predictions. From an epistemological perspective, it makes sense to investigate this putative empistemological success story in more detail. It also makes epistemological sense to investigate the belief-forming processes of human beings to see whether we are actually capable of performing at the level that science requires of us. By studying our own belief-forming processes we can figure out ways to control for our biases and exploit our strengths in the course of future inquiry.

I'd be very grateful for feedback on the above sketch.

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Comments

"This activity we call "science" is an amazingly fruitful source of reliable predictions."

Well, from outside the charmed circle of the queen of disciplines, what strikes me most is how much of everybody else's actual science we now have to take on simple faith, even if we are scientists.

This activity we call "science" is so large and so collective that I question whether anyone can really grasp it and articulate many overarching intellectual principles to it any longer, let alone feel unquestioningly secure in its fruitfulness and its predictive reliability as a whole.

Nor am I sure that the "science" of Steven Hawking and the "science" of Richard Leaky truly bear that much intellectual resemblence to each other these days. Perhaps they do. But could anyone truly be sure that all the possibilities of "science" could be subsumed under whatever commonalities Hawking and Leaky share?

While no one person can be a modern "Renaissance man" I'm not sure that is really necessary. Rather the community of inquirers end up exercising all sorts of checks and balances on each other. So long as there is the quest for truth then a basic scientific approach will progress. That was the basic pragmatism of Peirce and I tend to agree with the above author that Quine basically adopts a similar position.

This also presumes an intellectual continuity of the "scientific method" over time as well as the intellectual continuity across disciplines. While I would very strongly like to think this, our hostess' very clear formulation of Quine's goal:

"It also makes epistemological sense to investigate the belief-forming processes of human beings to see whether we are actually capable of performing at the level that science requires of us."

calls even this into question. Is it genuinely possible that our science will get so good we will no longer be up to it? An interesting question, surely.

Not having read Quine, Feldman, or Stich, I can only comment on what's here. It seems obvious to me, though, that it's a matter of probability vs. certainty. If, based on past experience, I know something is probably true, then I can act as if it's actually true without worrying about the small possibility that it might not be true. In "science" as opposed to "common sense", the bar for "probably" is set significantly higher, but not at 100%.

To some extent, all reasoning is inductive, as there's no real way to know that all of your experiences prior to the current time are true. The only exceptions are mental constructs like word definitions and games. Induction and deduction don't really mark two separate points, and never the twain shall meet. It's more of a scale with two endpoints, and all real reasoning happens somewhere in the middle. What's important is, rather than trying to force ourselves to accept only absolute truth, we correct as much as possible for those factors that keep us from reaching that truth.

Can you tell I'm not deeply versed in epistemology? If this is anywhere near the target, then your analysis is probably correct--naturally, as it were. Either way I'm going to track down the texts in question, because I'm intrigued.

I used to wonder how studying the processes of scientific inquiry could teach us about the norms of epistemic justification. All it could teach us, I thought, was about the causal processes by which a certain group of beliefs (which happen to usually be epistemically reliable) are formed.

Getting more comfortable with externalist views in semantics has made me somewhat more comfortable with naturalized epistemology. Maybe our concept of justification gets part of its content in the externalist way -- we've encountered some samples of what we call justified belief, and some part of what it is to be a justified belief is to have what these samples have in common, but which samples of unjustified belief don't have. So like the early chemists who did empirical work to find out what all samples of water had in common and discovered a common molecular structure -- H20 -- we need to go out and do some empirical work. We should look at what the samples of belief we call 'justified' have in common that the samples we call 'unjustified' don't have.

If all goes well, we come out with a good reduction base for epistemic justification (just like H20 was for water). It won't be hyperintensionally equivalent to the concept of epistemic justification, because the reduction was synthetic and not analytic, but it's still a very good thing to have. We're interested in finding out which beliefs are epistemically justified in problem cases, and knowing the reduction base gives us an idea of what to check for in order to determine the justificatory status of a belief.

A possible problem with the plan I've suggested above: what if justified belief is multiply realizable? Then studying actual cases of justified belief won't be very helpful, because there might be lots of other ways for beliefs to be justified. Our assumption that justified belief has only one reduction base will be false, and we may go wrong in applying our knowledge of the reduction base to adjudicate problem cases. (BTW, I'm one of those crazy people who has the intuition that water is multiply realizable if the XYZ on Putnam's Twin Earth really exists. So take everything I say with a grain of NaCl.)

I used to wonder how studying the processes of scientific inquiry could teach us about the norms of epistemic justification. All it could teach us, I thought, was about the causal processes by which a certain group of beliefs (which happen to usually be epistemically reliable) are formed.

Getting more comfortable with externalist views in semantics has made me somewhat more comfortable with naturalized epistemology. Maybe our concept of justification gets part of its content in the externalist way -- we've encountered some samples of what we call justified belief, and some part of what it is to be a justified belief is to have what these samples have in common, but which samples of unjustified belief don't have. So like the early chemists who did empirical work to find out what all samples of water had in common and discovered a common molecular structure -- H20 -- we need to go out and do some empirical work. We should look at what the samples of belief we call 'justified' have in common that the samples we call 'unjustified' don't have.

If all goes well, we come out with a good reduction base for epistemic justification (just like H20 was for water). It won't be hyperintensionally equivalent to the concept of epistemic justification, because the reduction was synthetic and not analytic, but it's still a very good thing to have. We're interested in finding out which beliefs are epistemically justified in problem cases, and knowing the reduction base gives us an idea of what to check for in order to determine the justificatory status of a belief.

A possible problem with the plan I've suggested above: what if justified belief is multiply realizable? Then studying actual cases of justified belief won't be very helpful, because there might be lots of other ways for beliefs to be justified. Our assumption that justified belief has only one reduction base will be false, and we may go wrong in applying our knowledge of the reduction base to adjudicate problem cases. (BTW, I'm one of those crazy people who has the intuition that water is multiply realizable if the XYZ on Putnam's Twin Earth really exists. So take everything I say with a grain of NaCl.)

I definitely agree that Kim's critique of Quine, while influential, is highly overrated. I've written a paper of my own outlining why. I think there's also a deeper problem than his neglect of the ways in which naturalism might be normative: he ignores the power of Quine's naturalism in general. I don't actually agree with Quine, but I think that if he's to be opposed, one needs to attack him at a much more fundamental level than Kim does:

http://www.benbayer.com/blog/archives/2005/12/new_paper_negle.html

I think your reading of Quine is correct. In fact, it is explicit in Quine's other writings what normativity is involved in epistemology. Recall Quine's final line in "Two Dogmas":

"Each man is given a scientific heritage plus a continuing barrage of sensory stimulation; and the considerations which guide him in warping his scientific heritage to fit his continuing sensory promptings are, where rational, pragmatic".

We can still rationally justify a change of belief or a belief in something, but this will not be dealt with from the perspective of foundationalism or Carnap's reductionism introduced in his "Testability and Meaning" (1936). Our beliefs about the stimulus-input and belief-output will thus be taken from a pragmatic point of view; i.e., we take into account principles e.g. minimum mutilation, simplicity, expediency, fruitfulness, explanatory scope, etc. Epistemology is still normative in that we come to a pragmatic justification for tossing out the old and trying out the new, viz., Quine's pragmatism. Quine doesn't just say "Trust me, we have to let go of foundationalism", he gives a pragmatic justification, saying, given our ends of inquiry, that is, to get clear on the relation between evidence and hypothesis, it is more practical to study it in terms of stimulus and human behavior since the other ways have failed miserably. The normativity is in the fact that we SHOULD heed a pragmatic argument; moreover, the normativity is found in that we should trust the maxims mentioned above to give us the best results out of our inquiry.

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