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December 08, 2004

Epistemology embodied

The following is an informal precis of a larger paper that I'm currently working on. Any and all feedback would be very much appreciated:

Some traditionalists argue that empirical data are at best peripherally relevant to epistemology. They acknowledge that specific claims to knowledge are dependent, as a contingent matter of fact, on the reliability of the psychological processes that generate and sustain them, but they maintain that these details are relatively unimportant to epistemology.

Traditionalists argue that the real philosophical action takes place at the conceptual level. They argue that we must understand concepts like "knowledge" and "justification" by consulting our intuitions about the conditions for the proper applications of these concepts. The critical tests are thought experiments with N's of 1. Philosophers reflect on paradigm cases and attempt to recognize the factors that, say, differentiate knowledge from mere true belief. Then they test out their conditions by trying to formulate counterexamples in which the proposed criteria are met but the concept can't be applied. One such thought experiment is the scenario in which a person unwittingly acquires a reliable capacity for telepathy. Suddenly his mind is filled with true beliefs about what other people are thinking, but he doesn't know that he's telepathic. Would we say that he knows what other people are thinking?

This kind of philosophical methodology makes a lot of empirical assumptions about human cognitive capacities of the philosophers undertaking the analysis. We take ourselves to be analyzing the ordinary concept of knowledge. So, it is important to know whether we are capable of holding on to the ordinary concept and the intuitions that go with it even as we acquire other philosophical commitments. If philosophical study is subtly warping our epistemic intuitions, our confidence in our ability to analyze the ordinary concept of knowledge may be misplaced.

One of the best arguments for naturalized epistemology is encapsulated in this paragraph from Quine's seminal essay, Epistemology Naturalized:

The old epistemology aspired to contain, in a sense, natural science; it would construct its somehow from sense data. Epistemology in its new setting, conversely, is contained in natural science, as a chapter of psychology. But the old containment remains valid, too, in its way. We are studying how the human subject of our study posits bodies and projects his physicis from his data, and we appreciate that our position in the world is just like his. Our very epistemological enterprise, therefore, and the psychology wherein it is a component chapter, and the whole of natural science wherein psychology is a component book—all of this is our own construction or projection from simulations like those we were meting out to our epistemological subject. Thus there is reciprocal containment, though containment in different senses: epistemology in natural science and natural science in epistemology.—W.V.O. Quine, Epistemology Naturalized, pg 25.

In this passage Quine explains why it is important to study the cognitive psychology of individual human subjects. As an empiricist, Quine holds that all evidence is sensory evidence. Scientists are human beings who grapple with the same limitations as our ordinary subject. They are attempting to formulate much more complicated theories from more unusual kinds of data, but ultimately their task is the same as that of every human being trying to make sense of the world.

Quine reminds us that epistemologists are also human investigators who must also compile and analyze sensory experience to understand knowledge as a natural phenomenon. According to Quine, we acquire concepts of like knowledge and justification by extrapolation from observations of the applications of these terms in everyday life. If so, it is an important empirical question whether members of a linguistic community end up with the same or similar concepts despite having slightly different experiences.

Steven Stich summarizes a lot of important empirical work on epistemic intuitions in this paper. Therein, he cites evidence for diversity in basic epistemic intuitions in the general population (including interesting variations by ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc.) Interestingly, the incidence of externalism is much higher among some populations than others.

If Stich's claims are borne out, they have important implications for how we ought to do epistemology. One of Stich's key concerns is that there might be different but equally defensible sets of basic intuitions about justification. The internalism/externalism debate often proceeds as if the task were to come up with the definitive analysis of a shared concept of knowledge. The discovery of diverse but stable intuitions would shift the terms of debate. The debate might shift to choice of intuitions. Here again, empirical data might be directly relevant. It might matter how people acquire these basic intuitions. Maybe some arise by more defensible means than others.

There are interesting epistemological and empirical issues involved in the measurement of people's intuitions. How do we know whether two people have the same intuition? Can we measure changes in intuitions? If intuitions do change, how do we ascribe reasons and causes for the shift?

These data are important to the normative aspects of epistemology. One familiar criticism of naturalized epistemology is that it leaves out the evaluative dimension. Allegedly, traditional epistemology retains its prescriptive force because a successful conceptual analysis would vindicate certain doxastic norms by showing them to be implicit in our very concept of knowledge. As Kitcher and Stich have argued, the next question is always why we ought to accept that particular conception of knowledge.

Traditionalists might argue that the conceptual possibility of divergent intuitions was already acknowledged long before the research bore it out. Epistemologists have been struggling with this issue from their armchairs for years. The naturalized epistemologist should reply that we can't decide the implications of these findings without further understanding of the psychological processes that generate and sustain intuitions. The diversity of intuitions might be evidence against the human mind's alleged a priori access to key concepts. Moreover, naturalized epistemologists of pragmatic bent might argue that the "choice of intuitions" problem should be resolved by appeal to pragmatic investigation of the effects of these different intuitions. If internalism or externalism were shown to confer an advantage in achieving certain cognitive ends, this might be an argument for switching sides or broadening one's account of justification to include more than one sense.

From cognitive psychology we learn more about how human beings, ourselves included, learn and reason. By observing scientific practice and reflecting on scientific methodology, we observe the expansion of empirical knowledge. When we reflect on questions of justification, we must do so in light of our understanding of ourselves as limited, embodied beings. The validity of our methods depends on our ability to rule out or compensate for certain limitations or distortions imposed by our own cognitive makeup.

Edit: Thanks to Thomas Nadelhoffer of Experimental Philosophy for the kind linkage.

Also, EP blogger Jacob Weinberg has posted a link to his new paper about calibrating intuitions. Check it out.


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An extremely lucid and succinct deflation of the more extreme pretensions of the epistemology naturalization program can be found in Thomas Nagel's slender book "The Last Word."

Lindsay, That looks wonderful to me. (Maybe I just happen to share your intuitions!) Really: top notch.

I might just be missing the point (probably am), but here goes.

I don't see how questions like

"How do we know whether two people have the same intuition? Can we measure changes in intuitions? If intuitions do change, how do we ascribe reasons and causes for the shift?"

have impact for the normative dimension of epistemology. Two points:

1. These questions fall into the domain of applied psychology or linguistics, not epistemology. They aren't philosophical questions, though they may have significance for philosophical methodology (see below).

2. It is true that the answers to these questions will have philosophical significance. If it turns out, for instance, that we cannot determine whether two people have the same intuition from the armchair, then certain armchair-bound philosophical methodologies will leave philosophers open to certain kinds of errors (if those methodologies are not supplemented by non-armchair-bound ones). However, these questions will have this kind of significance for all areas of philosophy, since every area of philosophy (just about) pumps intuitions.

So I don't see how these questions are supposed to be significant for normative epistemology *specifically*. On the one hand, we have to farm the questions out to applied human sciences in order to get answers to them; on the other hand, once we get those answers, we'll have to apply them across the board, in every area of philosophy - not just epistemology, and not just *normative* epistemology.

I'm sure I'm missing something; probably the full version of the paper would clear this up for me. Feel free to ignore this comment if it's not useful.

Maybe because I am a scientist I am having a hard time with this. Just because I do science doesn't mean I know the first thing about how science "works" or what justifies our methods. As a wag once put it, "Expecting a scientist to understand the scientific method, is like expecting a fish to understand hydrodynamics." So in a sense I have disqualified myself from commenting on what is way out of my field. But that has never stopped me before nor will it this time. You wanted "any and all feedback." Be Careful What you Wish for.

I haven't had time to come up with a coherent critique (and probably couldn't if I had the time) but I will be bold enought to make a few observations, as a scientist (I can hear the switch going to the off position). Let me state my epistemological prejudices, crude as they are. They are typical of most scientists. I believe there is a real world out there, it exists independently of me and my intuitions, I can learn or know something about it (of course what that means is just the problem, but let's leave it for a moment), and science or scientific method is the way I can do that. The real world pushes back at me. It is not subordinate to my intuitions or perceptions.

That's not a theory, that's my experience of the world and I think it is most people's as well (I'm not claiming that gives it a special validity, only making a statement of fact). The only people who don't seem to share it are many (but not all) epistemologists and some people under treatment. But the questions epistemologists ask are real questions about the world and our place in it as cognitive beings, hence we arrive at a naturalized epistemology of sorts.

Having said all that, let me make some random observations, not in order of importance but as they occur to me as I write this.

Quine's notion of a reciprocal containment seems like nonsense to me. Mathematicians show two sets are equal by showing that A is contained in B and B is contained in A. What Quine is describing as reciprocal containment sounds to me much more like infinite (or indefinite) regress, the bane of any reflexive enterprise like a psychologized epistemiology. I frankly don't see how to avoid it. It smacks of handwaving. But then I'm not a philosopher (I am indulging in the typical scientist's cheap shots; forgive me, although I do know what I do).

There seem to be too many philosophical antipodes floating around here for my comfort, for example, rationalism, empiricism, realism, anti-realism, social constructivism, naive Baconism, etc., etc. In my simplistic view I like the simpler way Fred Dretske put it in one of his essays (“The conceptions of knowledge: rational vs. reliable belief,” in, Perception, Knowledge and Belief: Selected Essays, Cambridge Studies in Philosophy, Cambridge Univesrsity Press, Cambidge, UK, 2000, pp. 80 – 81):

“There are two ways to think about knowledge. One way is to start, so to speak, at the bottom. With animals. The idea is to isolate knowledge in a pure form, where its essential nature is not obscured by irrelevant details. Cats can see. Dogs know things. Fido remembers where he buried his bone. That is why he is digging near the bush. Kitty knows where the mouse ran. That is why she waits patiently in front of the hole….

“This … is one way of thinking about knowledge. Call it the bottom-up strategy. It appeals to those philosophers who seek some naturalistic basis for … integrating philosophical questions about knowledge, perception, and memory with scientific concerns about the psychological and biological mechanisms for implementing our cognitive transactions with the world. [From the evolutionary point of view, knowledge] is what animals need in order to coordinate their behavior with the environmental conditions on which their survival and well-being depend.

“There is, however, another strategy, something I will call a top-down approach to understanding cognitive phenomena. It takes its point of departure from Descartes, from traditional worries about skepticism, from the normative considerations that dictate proper methods of inquiry and appropriate standards for belief. White-frocked scientists, not furry pets, are the exemplars, the models, the ideal. Patient and objective inquiry, supported by observation, testing, and experiment, leading (if one is lucky) to confirmation of one hypothesis over its rivals—that, and not brute perception, is the yardstick to be used in taking the measure of knowledge. Knowledge is what you get when you conduct inquiry, and fix belief, in that way. The rest is, at best, true opinion or an inferior grade of knowledge.”

This seems to me a good summary of the positions you are discussing, but maybe not. The trouble with philosophers (and others) is that they often cut up the world in different ways so that the individual pieces are no longer comparable.

So that's my feedback. Too many vital positions mixed together. Aren't you glad you asked?

You write: Scientists are human beings who grapple with the same limitations as our ordinary subject. They are attempting to formulate much more complicated theories from more unusual kinds of data, but ultimately their task is the same as that of every human being trying to make sense of the world.

Not exactly. Ordinary human beings who are not scientists are not trying to understand the world in a deep sense, but are trying to get by. So they settle for rules-of-thumb that seem to work. If it seems to work, ordinary people don't want to probe too deeply. They don't want to rock the boat. Ordinary people who aren't scientists are not terribly bothered by holding inconsistent beliefs, as long as the situation where the inconsistency would cause a problem never comes up.

Scientists, though, are never satisfied with what just seems to work. They always want to probe deeper and find the limitations of their laws and find newer laws that don't have those limitations. For the scientist, inconsistencies are always a sign of something that needs to be fixed, something broken, even if the inconsistency only comes into play in some exotic situation (black holes, the Big Bang, etc)

Reminds me of a post from a while ago in Fake Barn Country, "Death to Internalism!"

I like .."empirical assumptions.."- a type of which the Virgin Mary would have shunned, perhaps.

If "natural science" is less than the Nature that it intends to delineate, and/or is considered a subset of that Nature, then how can a subset of "natural science" (eg Epistemology) contain "natural science"? It reminds me of the self-referential illustrations (eg the tv set showing itself showing itself, etc). Only if there is Knowledge without "the known" can this case be worthy of considering. I suppose that if "natural science" ultimately allowed one to extrapolate from what is known of Nature (ie a vast but ultimately finite quantity) and 'create' realms logically (& physically) possible, albeit beyond proof of existence (let's call them "supernatural") then one could say that "natural science" may be considered a greater thing than Nature- but is that "knowledge" (intuitional or otherwise)? Maybe "epistemosophy" covers such...

When one considers .."internal vs external.." are these code for "nature vs nurture" (or "genetic vs experience-derived")? It's likely that both will have (or produce) "intuitions"- perhaps of quite different sorts- and/or one type tempering the other. Abilities to extrapolate based upon simple observations would appear to be the result of a combined "internal/external" procedure.

As one who was visited physically by a fledgling crow (that learned to fly after being carried to a home next door by a young male- who also fed the bird and introduced it to our household), I can offer these observations (& questions): the bird would fly to our house, (within 3 days of learning to fly at all) at the sound of the doors opening in the morning, and sit on my shoulder, or head; while on my shoulder, the first time it visited, it preened my eyebrows and picked at my lower teeth- Very carefully; it also preened my eyelashes; it offered examples of incredible control of its beak; it looked me in the eye; despite crows' reputations for being attracted to shiny objects, it left my eye alone, ie did not attempt to probe it, or examine it physically. One question: was this an example of ethical behavior on its part?.. Another question: since this animal was capable of "skills of interaction" between species, and of making the behavioral choices that it did, am I also capable of similar behavior, "knowing" or not?

Re the 'telepath' example, does one differentiate between "being aware of" and "knowing", with regard to epistemological paradigms?.. hope so!

'epistemoffalot- an epitaph to which many aspire- ^..^

Your site has thrown some traffic to my site (more traffic than I'd imagine - excuse the lame joke) so I thought I'd weigh in on this, your paper.

First of all, I can't imagine that you'd initially dispense with Davidson since, in an intuitive epistemology, he is your primary adversary in this thesis. As you well know, by Davidson, no matter how you perceive, describe, and devise hypothetical tests for our reality (in relation to our 'intuition' of how those descriptions inform such hypotheses), reality remains independent of our pre-determined constructs, intuition be damned. Thus, if you're going to argue for intuitive determinations for epistemological constructs, you really have to push aside Davidson's 'radical interpretation' (IMHO).

Quine throws us off track; we're left with Schrodinger's Cat, no determination if the cat is alive or dead. Quine posits we should trust our instincts - intuition - break the seal on the and grab the cat to see if it's still alive. That's reactionary and seemingly empirical but it's a non-start.

Break the seal and you've only fed into the mindset of the consrevative thinker.
I hope your traffic is because at least I have my P's and Q's in line. Mind Davidson - he's formidable.

You ask "if philosophic study is subtly warping our intuitions..". It depends, maybe, on the level of development that one has achieved in the pursuit of recognition and analysis of one's intuitions, prior to formal philosophical study. A fair analogy might be the person who learns to play an instrument 'by ear' with some facility, before beginning to learn to read music, contrasted with another person whose initial introduction to musical studies coincides with the pursuit of facility on a musical instrument. I have observed 'sight readers' who 'know' (ie would recognize) a fiddle tune, say; and have played it perhaps dozens of times. Still, they may not be able to play without their sheet music, because the two acts (reading and playing) have always been combined.
A great deal of these queries into 'knowing' what "knowledge" is must, I realize, be reduced to the utmost simplicity, in order that one may establish (theoretically) testable hypotheses, in the true Western fashion of repeated differentiation (eg the construction of botanical keys). The real is inclusive, however; and the possibility remains that, despite our best attempts with this approach, "knowing" may be an holistic, um... "mechanism" isn't the word I want, but it points toward the outlines of a quality that is at present ineffable, to me. What I will say about my own experience of knowledge is that, since weight & measure do not yield anything, the results are best expressed as feelings, and actions. If these are a bit too close to the "dog that 'knows' where his bone is buried", well, so be it. Do 'we' assume, then, that there was no "knowledge" before there were words? Even a thoughtful reading of the beginning of the gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Word," etc makes it obvious that this is a self-referential "deifying"; and that the 'god' alongside which this "word" was posited, and which it has apparently displaced (ie the mute god of feelings and actions, which we shared with all 'others'- certainly other 'creatures') was/is a deity, as well. One can be "of two minds", quite legitimately, imho... ^..^

On what basis do we know that knowledge must be either "naturally intuited" or, "not naturally intuited" (at the same time and in the same respect, of course)? Why not say that the principle that gives us this knowledge is the fundamental thing we know?

Wouldn't we get the best results if we started with the principle of contradiction? (which is sometimes called "the law of non-contradiction")

please post this article for me

Isn't this just a summary of moderate kinds of standpoint epistemology?

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