What’s normative about epistemology?

November 29th, 2012 | Posted by:

I’ve been somewhat busy travelling for the Thanksgiving holiday and catching back up with my work, so I’ve neglected a rather long comment by Zach Alexander on my post about how the pursuit for knowledge necessarily (as far as I can tell) has to be grounded in moral concern. Because I think opening these issues to broader discussion is more productive than a narrow back-and-forth buried in a comments section, I’ll muster a quick response and clarification in this post now. Then, I’ll tackle something I addressed in my original response but want to give a bit more attention to in a post soon to come.

First, I just want to point out that Zach never really addressed the meat of my post. I’m not against the idea that the pursuit of knowledge can be inherently valuable, but I haven’t seen a clear case for why it is, yet. To me, it seems really intuitive and plausible, though, that we should pursue knowledge because it makes the world a better place. In fact it often does. But the only response to my main argument that I’ve seen so far is to point, somewhat comically and obliviously, to instances where bad epistemology leads to bad moral consequences, as if that grounds epistemology in anything other than morality. So far, I’m decidedly unimpressed. Again, if we’re not pursuing knowledge to make the world a better place, then why are we pursuing knowledge? What, if anything, makes it intrinsically valuable?

But Zach seems to have backed off the idea that I don’t value knowledge, at least not in the sense that I don’t find it interesting or important, and I appreciate that. He remains unconvinced, though, that I (or Chris) have normative opinions that are “sound and sufficiently strong.” Now I haven’t written much about it because, frankly, I think most people would find it boring and I’d rather talk about Sufjan Stevens or recent work in empirical psychology (I can only imagine how many readers’s eyes glazed over reading the title of this post, alone). So I’m not sure where he’s getting that idea. But he writes that you “can get a PhD in epistemology, and still be a epistemological relativist. You can care a lot about food, and still not have strong normative opinions about what makes food good or bad.” He continues:

So if you’re a budding neuroscientist, I believe that you’re interested in knowledge, truth, and discovery on some level, and perhaps to a great degree. And I could take your word that you do, in fact, have normative opinions on these things as well. But if you have no objection to the concept of faith (do you not?) – belief in the abscence of evidence, or even contrary to evidence – then however great your interest in knowledge and truth as objects of study, it’s hard for me to see your opinions about them as sound or appropriately strong.

Zach’s first point about relativism seems off to me: of course, an epistemological relativist would likely have very strong normative ideas about epistemology (probably that knowledge exists and is perspective-dependent, there are proper methods that should be practiced to justify knowledge from a given perspective, and that we shouldn’t be imperialistic and force our conceptions of knowledge on other perspectives). But that aside, I happen to have some strong feelings myself—for example, I think Bayesian models probably best approximate how we should rationally update our beliefs in light of new evidence, I have strong opinions on the inference to best explanation (and on what exactly constitutes a best explanation, because that’s harder than you might think), and I have strong opinions on how we should justify our basic beliefs.

These opinions inform how I do my science and what my philosophy is. They inform my religious and ethical beliefs. They matter to me. If anything in my writing would suggest otherwise, then Zach certainly hasn’t pointed them out to me. So it’s hard for me not to read this as a charge that my (or Chris’s) normative opinions just aren’t the right kind of opinion (which I guess means ones that Zach or other atheists agree with). That’s, admittedly, a cynical reading. Zach does allude to the implication that I have “no objection” to faith, but I’m not sure where he gets that idea since I don’t recall ever writing about faith.

I said this in my last few posts but it bears repeating: not writing on a topic doesn’t imply a lack of concern for that topic. I hope I’ve made it clear why—because there are a host of reasons you can not write about something. I don’t write a lot about family or sex or video games. All that means is that, for whatever reason, I have things I’d rather write about. It could also be the case that more than a cursory treatment of a topic might be irrelevant for a memoir about interfaith service, or because the topic might simply just be technical and dry. Just because I find some theoretical topic interesting—I will rant for days about metaethics, but Sam Harris publicly jokes that it’s boring even though it’s what he purported to do—doesn’t mean that anyone else will.

But that seems to be a large chunk of Zach’s critique—Chris skimmed over epistemological values in his memoir, and when he addressed it, it was in insufficiently specific language. It apparently wasn’t enough for Chris to affirm the value of critical thinking and education; Zach would have preferred that Chris wax poetic about evolution or reason or Star Trek, it seems. But one would hardly claim a scientist doesn’t have strong normative opinions on morality simply because he treated moral concerns briefly in his memoir of epistemology, with vague appeals to empathy and compassion. I see no reason why the reverse should serve to condemn Chris’s epistemological values.

And, like I mentioned in my original response, I find the language Zach would have preferred serves as a largely poor indicator of someone’s epistemological values. It’s good, though, at signaling group inclusion, which I think is the real problem, here. But I’ll address that in a later post.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

  • JM

    I just want to drop in and point out, mostly to Zach – what if there are concepts that exist in the universe which are not described by falsifiable theories? Why the appearance of a strong requirement that “truth” consist only of things which are verifiable through scientific means?

    This, perhaps, is a necessary stance for a certain (New Atheist) agenda, but these positions do not appear to be adequately defended in the philosophical literature to be held as general fact. Especially given the demise of logical positivism in the late 20th century, I’m interested to see responses that conclusively show the superiority of this position.

  • Vlad Chituc

    I sidestepped that discussion for brevity, but I think you’re exactly right, JM. Thanks for the comment.

    Such heavy insistance on evidence is simplistic and unjustifiable. What evidence do we use to support the conclusion that evidence is important? Does that mean that “evidence is important” is a position accepted on faith in Zach’s definition? It might seem flippant, but it’s a legitimate concern that practically spelled the death of positivism. I’m not so happy to see many atheists trying to revive it.