Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Take It Or Levitt

As the latest installment of our ongoing discussion, Ernie wrote To Good, Too, Be True, in which he attempts to move us forward toward an agreement on epistemology. Has he been successful? Read on.

Before I really get started, let me relate this little tidbit by Norman Levitt that I came across today regarding Steve Fuller and Intelligent Design (ID). Fuller was a defense witness in the Kitzmiller v. Dover School Board, the recent trial where Judge Jones issued a strong ruling against the school board's effort to inject ID into the biology classroom (if only via a brief statement and supplementary textbooks). I read substantial parts of the court proceedings a couple of months ago, before the ruling was issued, but I skipped Fuller's testimony, and I did not really know that much about his involvement in ID. Anyway, the article I read today filled in some details about him. Fuller is a sociologist that studies scientists, and apparently he takes a rather dim view of mainstream science. Levitt writes:

In Fuller's mind, working scientists are in an important sense intellectually deformed. They constitute a narrow, cloistered, inbred hierarchy of myopic specialists largely blind to the "true" nature of science and oblivious to its future trajectory. Science, on this view, maintains its prestige, authority, and access to resources by playing the power game, bullying and intimidating the rest of society. It is "an arrested social movement in which the natural spread of knowledge is captured by a community that gains relative advantage by forcing other communities to rely on its expertise to get what they want." In other words, what we now think of as "science" does not truly comprehend nature, but rather constructs from its own idiosyncratic perspective a limited image of nature, while using the prerogatives of a privileged mandarinate to nullify or suppress all rival knowledge claims that impinge on its territory.

What does this have to do with the current epistemological discussion? I am certainly not saying that Ernie would agree with Fuller; I do not think he would. In fact, I have only ready Levitt's description of Fuller's views and cannot say how faithfully they reflect what Fuller actually says. But there were a couple of phrases in the article that do seem at least superficially similar to what Ernie has recently written. For instance:

There is an obvious nod to the epistemic relativism that is central to the postmodernist view of things, notwithstanding the fact that Fuller indignantly refuses the "postmodernist" label.


From this doctrine, we are to infer that scientific theories are merely variously clever intellectual gizmos cobbled together according to the guild's rules -- a very different thing from a body of reliable and universally valid knowledge. [Emphasis in original]

Now, despite the title of Ernie's post A Post-Modern Faith in Jesus, Ernie more recently wrote "I reject both the Platonic idea that knowledge is truth, and the postmodern idea that knowledge is disconnected from the truth" and he has emphasized the importance of testing knowledge against shared reality. So I would not expect Ernie to be embracing "epistemic relativism". But his continued emphasis on the importance of "subjecting one's analysis and assumptions to critique by a Community" (emphasis mine) and his statement "... within my paradigm I can validly claim to 'know' that Christianity is essentially true ..." bear some similarity to Levitt's statement comparing guild rules to universally valid knowledge. (Or else I misunderstand Ernie's intent.)

That is one of two places where I am still concerned about the epistemology that Ernie is describing. I agree that Community can be helpful in critiquing our claims to knowledge, but there is also the danger that a particular community having the same biases that we have will be used to "validate" our "knowledge". The community that is most valuable in critiquing our analysis and assumptions is a community that is predisposed to disagree with us. But unless that community is convinced (in full or in part), despite that predisposition, what can we say then about what we know?

Now Ernie has elsewhere used the phrase "honest truth-seeking agent", and certainly a community of such agents, even if they shared our bias, would be far better than dishonest non-truth-seeking agents of any kind. But a community of honest, truth-seeking and "contrary" agents is better still. (I believe I am a member of such a community relative to Ernie, as is Ernie relative to me, so this is good for both of us. But neither of us has validated the other's claims of knowledge yet, so we are in that sense both stuck in "epistemic limbo" or something.)

On the other hand, there will always be somebody that disagrees with us on any matter of substance, and who will at least claim to be honest and truth-seeking. I do not think we can wait for 100% agreement before claiming knowledge either. Is the universe thousands of years old, or is it at least billions? I think we can say that we know that answer to that. Many of those that disagree are simply ignorant of the evidence for an old universe. Some are dishonest. Some, I submit, might be honest but have prior commitments to beliefs which are not true, and so perhaps not truly truth-seeking.

How can we account for these considerations in our epistemology? My inclination is to leave the idea of community outside the proper description of the epistemology, or at least to de-emphasize its role. But if I am understanding Ernie, it seems pretty important to him, so I would like to hear his take on this.

The second area of concern that I have has also been touched on before, both by me and by Ernie, and that is the connection that Ernie seems to be forming between epistemology and ethics. As it happens, Levitt touched on this briefly, quoting "feminist philospher" Sandra Harding:

If a theory 'forced' one to assent to politically distasteful, depressing, and counterintuitive claims, then one could regard those consequences as in themselves good reasons to find the theory implausible.

(Again, I am not saying that Ernie would agree with that; I am just highlighting what is at least a superficial similarity in something I came across.)

Now, Ernie just said this:

This would also imply that Good Knowledge does not merely enable us to carry out arbitrary intentions, but explicitly supports those Intentions which produce Good (i.e., Belief in Truth). Sure, "effective knowledge" might be instrumentally useful in some short-term sense, but I am asserting that such knowledge is fundamentally incomplete if it ultimately conflicts with the imperative to believe Truth.

I confess I am having trouble understanding what Ernie is getting at here. But I would like to offer a distinction and see if Ernie agrees. Again, what I find troubling is the coupling between epistemology and ethics, where it seems that what we know affects what is right, and that what is right affects what we know. My discomfort would be substantially reduced, possibly eliminated, if we split things this way: we identify and agree on epistemic virtues that lead to (or at least constrain) our epistemology. What we can claim to know based on that epistemology then influences the rest of our ethics.

I fear I have not made that very clear, but I also fear that my ability to make it more clear tonight is rapidly waning. Worse, I still have to think of a title for this post. Ernie, if you need more clarification before you can respond, let me know and I will try again.

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