Sunday, February 26, 2006

EEE Is Not a Shoe Size

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief (roughly speaking).

"Epistemology of Empirical Essentialism" (E3) is the phrase that Ernie is using to describe this little epistemological project of ours. In his most recent post, he summarizes what he thinks we have agreed on, including the ontological and ethical premises on which it is based. Here, I will quote and comment, and hopefully suggest an appropriate way to move forward.

First, Ernie's summary of E3:

  1. Belief in truth is absolutely good
  2. Knowledge is contextually accurate, paradigmatically-justified belief.
  3. More accurate knowledge enables more accurate predictions
  4. Knowledge approaches truth via honest, collaborative inquiry amongst competing alternatives

Note that I've added the term "absolute" to (I), reflecting our shared belief that Truth is "inherently" good, not contingent on some other good. I've also added "competing alternatives" to (IV) to address the "groupthink" problem. I trust these emendations meet with Alan's approval.

Regarding "absolutely good", I agree that we've agreed that belief in truth is not contingently good, and that "absolute" can mean "inherently or "non-contingently", but I would have preferred either of those two alternatives to "absolutely", since "absolute" can also be taken to mean something like "ultimate". I am concerned that the word "absolute" will lead to later confusion. (We have already had some confusion over epistemological and moral virtues.) For instance, Ernie also lists "Absolutes" in his list of ontological assumptions present in E3. It is not at all clear that "Absolutes" in that context is simply "Non-Contingents" and I am not even sure that "Non-Contingents" properly belongs in an ontology. What do you think, Ernie?

Ernie's other addition, "amongst competing alternatives", strikes me as being a reasonable clarification that reflects my concerns about the role of community and the danger of "group-think" in E3.

I want to emphasize that my understanding of (II) is as a meta-definition of knowledge. I use "meta" here because specific definitions of knowledge will depend on the context and the paradigm. This is bothersome. It means that one person can say "I know X is true" and another can say "I know X is false", and both can be accurate so long as either their contexts or their paradigms differ. Ernie and I are trying to agree on a paradigm. The "context" part is a bit murky here. Ernie introduced this in "Brothers, Can Youse Paradigm", but without a clear (to me) description of what is included or excluded by the context. He said:

I take this infinite regress problem seriously. If that is the only viable definition of knowledge available, I'd have to agree with the skeptics that genuine knowledge is unachievable. However, I choose an alternate path: I reject the notion of 'absolute knowledge'. Instead, I affirm what may be called 'contextual knowledge.' In fact, I would argue this is much closer to what people mean when they say, "I know X is true." Apart from analytic statements (true by definition like, 2+2 = 4), all human knowledge is necessary incomplete. There is no real data for which we have perfect confidence to infinite accuracy; we are always constrained by our context.

However, that doesn't mean knowledge is arbitrary, or disconnected from reality. "Knowledge" in this definition still requires both some a priori justification, as well as a posteori validation. However, my formulation explicitly notes that the former depends on a paradigm, and the latter on a specific context of reality. I honestly can't think of any other meaningful definition of knowledge: can you?

This of course still begs the second-order question, how do we know if our context and paradigm are themselves valid? Certainly we believe they are true, but (to use your phrase) how do we know we are not "self-deceived"?

Must we agree on a context before we can agree what it means to know something? That is, will we "instantiate" the meta-definition of knowledge by supplying both an agreed-upon paradigm and context? Or will we agree that we have differing contexts and that what is known to be true in one context may be unknown or known to be false in another?

Sometimes I would like to get Ernie on the phone and hash out some of these things, but that would not be fair to all (three) of our readers. But I have another observation. In E3 as it exists so far, (I) says we want to believe true things, (II) defines knowledge in a context- and paradigm-dependent way and (IV) describes a paradigm in terms of three epistemic virtues (honesty, collaboration and inquiry). Only (III), as far as I can tell, is concrete enough to be applied as a "truth test". I wonder if we ought not include a couple of other things somehow. How does logic or reason fit? How about parsimony?

Really, I am not trying to be difficult. I want to get on with things, and I am tempted just to pass on some of these things to that we can continue. But being honest and collaborative means, I think, that I should raise these questions now. On the other hand, Ernie, if you think we can safely pass and proceed, and deal with such things as they come up, we can do that. Sometimes having a concrete example to discuss can bring a clarity that abstract frameworks cannot.

As far as "specific assertions, ontologies, and/or ethics that [I] would like to examine next", how about:

  • The Bible is (is not) an honest and reliable document.
  • Eternal damnation can (cannot) be justified (if the Porsche is not already red)
  • Social good is (is not) evidence for the truth of Christianity.
  • Christianity is (is not) best explained as a solely human construction.f

Those are a couple of possibilities. I will think about that some more, and review what we have already written to see if anything else has come up. Obviously, Ernie, if you (or any of our three readers) have suggestions, they would also be welcomed for consideration.

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