Sunday, March 28, 2010

Epistemology and Practical Morality

Freddie De Boer has an interesting piece up on Sam Harris and the New Atheist reliance on scientific materialism to solve real-world problems.  A response to Harris' turn at TED, in which he argues that science can answer moral questions, DeBoer's thesis is basically that we should always be skeptical of our own certainty because of the limitations of consciousness. 
I've always felt that the kind of skepticism that is most valuable, that is to our pragmatic benefit, is the skepticism that begins the skeptical enterprise at the human mind, the classical Greek skepticism that regarded any real certainty as dogmatism. Not because it is true, or even because it is superior, but because epistemological modesty seems to me to be an entirely under appreciated tool for the practical prosecution of our lives and our arguments.
That's true as far as it goes.  But it is also untrue as far as it goes.  The main problem I have with the essay is that without examples with which to work, it is difficult to agree or disagree with any of it.

The problem lies in describing exactly what types of certainty we are talking about.  Some things we can be very certain of, and others we cannot.  Thus how much confidence we have in any given thing is contextual.  But what matters is the epistemological tools we use to determine how much certainty there exists, and how adequate they are to the task.

For instance, I know to a high degree of certainty that if I punch my neighbor in the face, he will experience pain, as I have a high degree of experiential as well as objective data that tells me this will be so.

Yet I have very little certainty that he will mind if I knock on his door at 8am instead of 9am.  People wake at various hours in the morning. However if I knock on his door at 3am I can very confident I will bother him.  Very few people wake that early.

I think what worries so many about post-modernism is not when it is a serious and precise philosophical discussion of why epistemology matters, but when it is a way of thinking about the world that seeks to diminish epistemology. What this often results in is a sort of selfish fealty to whatever passion one might currently be feeling. 

We find this all over the political religious, and cultural spectrum.  As a liberal, I've found this frequently in discussions with conservatives.  Trying to get to the root of why they believe what they believe, which somewhat by definition entails an appeal to tradition, the ultimate answer is often, "Well, I don't know".  For instance, when asked about the conservative emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility, and where it might come from aside from genetic and social determinism, the answer is a simple shrug of the shoulders.  Yet trillions of dollars of social policy are at stake!   No matter how I try and make my case, no matter how many studies I cite or arguments I present, a simple shrug of the shoulders can wash it all away.

Now, I'm not sure what I was dealing with was a conscious invocation of post-modernism.  But I was certainly dealing with an argument that gets much of its strength from a social tradition that encourages the embrace of appeals to emotion rather than reason.  The tradition is obviously old - vastly more so than our traditions of science and reason.  The most obvious reason for this is that the epistomological tools of science and reason were not readily available.   Yet to the extent that they now are, I see no reason why we should be afraid to use them.

Now, how much confidence we have in our ability to use science and reason to get at truth will always vary.  Experience also tells us that we overestimate its authority at our peril.  But this is at least as true as when we underestimate it.  The dangers of relying on things other than science and reason are far greater. 

Yet while compromise is in order, the trick is in knowing what we know, and where to place our confidence.  Science has an excellent mechanism for doing this in the most objective and efficient way: consensus.  Due to the degree of complexity and specialization involved in scientific progress, professional consensus is integral to the scientific process.  Were any inaccuracies allowed to corrupt the process, they could not linger long for subsequent results would be unrepeatable.  In this way, scientific progress itself demands a high level of objective honesty.  Consensus of course, can always be wrong.  But not for very long, and it is no more susceptible to error than nonscientific reasoning.

What matters in all of this is context.  Scientific reasoning is not a dogmatic belief that science will always provide the answers we seek - but rather that scientific results should be taken very seriously, and should at a very minimum be held as the gold standard in knowing truth.  This does not mean that results are not open to interpretation, and that scientific inquiry can't be used to draw incorrect inferences.  But we should not be afraid to embrace scientific results that add to our sum of knowledge, especially when they appear to contradict our prior assumptions. 

More and more, it has become the case that expert opinion must be relied upon to make judgments on important issues.  Post-modernism, while a bright reminder to always remain skeptical of our sources of knowledge, must not in skepticism of things he isn't comfortable knowing allow man to substitute his own lack of knowledge for the combined wisdom of his much more able peers.  This is a difficult and humbling place to find one's self in to be sure.  But we can no longer conceive of ourselves as geocentric arbiters of all that is true.  Instead we must seek to strengthen those institutions of society  - be they government or academic -  that ensure that the expertise is not only broad and robust, but accountable and self-critical.  For it will be these institutions that we entrust with our continuing knowledge.

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