Saturday, 1 December 2012

Epistemology II

Here's a stripped-down view of how beliefs are justified.  (See part one here.)

One view is that there is a single basis for all beliefs.  Anything you believe can be justified by reference to a foundational belief, such as belief in a deity or even belief in one's own existence.  This view, relying as it does on a single foundational belief, is called foundationalism, and the test of justification is how well a belief accords with the foundational belief, which cannot be called into question.  (Religious belief is foundational, and foundationalism is basically a dogmatic position, wherein the foundational belief cannot be called into question without all other beliefs collapsing like a house of cards.)

Foundationalism clearly doesn't work, because any foundational premise can be disputed and turn out to be wrong.  For instance, there don't seem to be any deities, and basing the justification of your other beliefs on the premise that a deity exists is surely not a good idea if their existence can be called into question.  This implies that people don't base their beliefs on a single foundation, and, instead, have a different and more basic epistemology.   Moreover, it isn't often clear how these foundational beliefs justify other beliefs.  How does belief in a deity justify the belief that water consists of hydrogen and oxygen atoms?

So foundationalism is out, although some people refuse to accept this.  The theologian William Lane Craig frequently tries to justify belief in god on the basis that without that belief, all other beliefs have to be called into question.  Lane Craig seems to believe that without belief in god, you can't have a conversation or like music.  This is self-evidently wrong, and, of course, Lane Craig never justifies why appreciation of music depends on god.

It's also a common misconception that science relies on a foundationalist epistemology, but it doesn't.  We'll come to how it works a bit later.  But what's important is that attacks on the scientific enterprise by various figures are unfounded if they attack the supposedly 'foundationalist' basis of it (as does, say, Stanley Fish), because science doesn't depend on any single belief.

Another view is called coherentism.  It takes the idea that no belief is foundational and runs with it.  Instead of all beliefs relying on a single basis, coherentism takes it as read that beliefs support one another, and that epistemology has to consist of understanding how beliefs can coherently support one another within a closed system of beliefs.  If there's no foundation, then the belief that rain is wet is supported by other beliefs that you have about rain, related not in a hierarchy of beliefs (a la foundationalism) but in a circle.  The test of justification is how well a belief fits in with other beliefs that you already hold.

This doesn't cut it either, for another obvious reason: if beliefs are sorted into closed systems of self-supporting ideas, then how does new information intrude?  On what basis can new information override previously-held beliefs, if justification of belief is held to reside in the belief's ability to fit in with other beliefs?  That would imply that experiment and evidence aren't important, except to people who already believe that they are the criteria of justification.

Coherentism is clearly not a good position, and it can lead to extreme epistemological relativism - the view that any belief is true if it is justified by the person's belief system.

Before I get onto the next logical step in advancing epistemology, I want to point something out here: neither of these epistemological views can be overridden.  If you genuinely believe that there is a single foundational belief that is necessary to justify why rain is wet and why oats are good for you, then you can disregard all the evidence and logical connections between beliefs, because you already believe that you know the truth, and that it boils down to one essential feature.  And if you genuinely believe that there are no 'true' beliefs and no independent justification of belief (which also relies on a certain ontological view - I'll get onto that in another post), then no amount of evidence and reason can convince you otherwise, because you can simply wave your hand and say that it comes from a particular school and view of justification, and, like any other belief, has no independent justification.  So they're both annoyingly circular positions.

The latter, of course, is found most commonly in the academy - no normal person could hold such a silly view - and it is a favourite of critical theorists who, in their daily lives, rely on a more realistic view of the world than the one they profess to hold academically.  The former is most commonly found outside of the academy, and is a particular favourite of religious people.

So what's the resolution?  Well, the British philosopher Susan Haack, now at the University of Miami, has proposed a third distinct approach to the problem of the formal justification of beliefs.  Instead of a circular coherentism or a baseless foundationalism, Haack has proposed that beliefs may be justified like the choice of letters and words in a crossword.  No individual answer on a crossword can be taken as guaranteed.  It may appear to fit the spaces on the puzzle and it may appear to answer the related question satisfactorily, but new information may come to light that overrides the previous choice.  In trying to answer another question, you realise that another word would fit the question and the spaces even better than your former answer, and so you replace it.

All the answers are provisional - they could be shown to be wrong by new evidence at any point.  But as the answers pile up and as they continue to support one another, they become increasingly better supported, even though a new answer could potentially cause a rethink of any or all of them.

The difference between the attempt to understand the universe (from a human position) and a crossword is that crosswords are finite and you can get all the right answers.  In science, we can keep going and going, and we'll never know if our answers are more than best guesses justified by the evidence we've got (instead of, I guess, metaphysical truths).  But this approach - which Haack labels foundherentism, a neologism composed of both coherentism and foundationalism - allows us to believe that beliefs can be justified independently through investigating the world in some way, and that research can disprove or corroborate existing ideas, without holding to the view that all beliefs have to be justified by an unquestioned foundation.

That's how science works, and it is also how we justify ourselves in ordinary life.  A lot of people seem to believe that science depends on an a priori belief in the power of reason and in the truth of naturalism, but it actually doesn't.  It's just that those beliefs come about through the progressive attempt to solver lower-level problems, correlating the knowledge attained through this process in a similar manner to a crossword puzzle, seeing where certain new answers don't fit and overturning older answers on the basis of better-justified, newer information.

The belief that water consists of atoms of hydrogen and oxygen isn't justified by recourse to a foundationalist claim about the nature of the universe.  It's justified by experiment after experiment showing that no other answer fits with either new experiments or old data, and by the fact that no other model permits a better understanding of water and its properties.  And the belief that experiment is a criterion of truth is justified by the fact that it tends to work to resolve problems, and that we have no real reason to doubt it.  Either of those beliefs could turn out to be untrue, but what we need is a reason to believe it - some piece of evidence that shows why those specific beliefs are wrong.  It's not enough to say that scientists are dogmatic in proposing the material nature of water if all of the actual relevant evidence says that water is material.

Let's say I have an argument with my girlfriend about whether I cleaned the dishes yesterday.  She might say that I didn't, because they weren't clean.  I distinctly remember cleaning them, but maybe I'm mistaken.  If I take my memory - possibly flawed - as foundational, then going to check the dishes isn't going to help, because I already know that I cleaned them.  If I take a coherentist position, then my beliefs are justified by my own worldview (dependent on the memory of cleaning the dishes) and her beliefs are justified by hers (dependent primarily on the fact that the dishes aren't clean), and neither of us can be 'wrong', because our systems of belief justify our beliefs about the situation.  (This is why coherentists of various stripes place such an emphasis on ideas like the 'paradigm', because a paradigm shift would mean a radical rethink of the very basis of the universe.)  But if I take a sensible position and asssess the actual evidence, then maybe I have to rethink my belief in the power of my memory.

Then again, if I go and check the dishes and they turn out to be clean, then maybe I don't have to do that.  Or, they could be dirty, but if I had reason to believe it, I might suspect my girlfriend of making them dirty in order to find a reason to be angry at me (which I suppose is possible).  The important thing is that we look at the different reasons we have for believing things about the world, taking no belief as foundational.

Foundherentism also means that 'scientific' facts are not different to other kinds of facts.  A scientific fact is just a fact.  Science is just an extension of how people already reason, not a different sort of activity.  No one is actually a foundationalist; if William Lane Craig lost his belief in god, that wouldn't necessarily mean that he would suddenly hate Wodehouse and curl up in a nihilistic ball, because he is a foundherentist in real life, just like everyone else, and his belief in god is fundamentally unconnected to the enjoyment he gets from reading and listening to music.  If you accept that the universe exists, is reasonably well-ordered, and that logic dictates certain conclusions - as you must do if you are alive, reading this, and not insane - then you have to accept the conclusions of science, as they are justified in the same way you justify every belief you've ever held, and follow from the same basic ideas.

In popular archaeology, you come across a lot of people who claim that the academy is dogmatic in its rejection of, say, the 'ancient alien' theory.  They say that archaeologists are dogmatists who rigidly pursue a naturalistic, materialistic, scientific agenda and aren't open-minded enough to accept the truth: that ancient astronauts came down to earth and inspired human civilisation globally.

But that's not how it is at all.  How it works is this: not only does ancient alien theory not fit with any of the existing evidence - and so doesn't cohere with the existing views of the scientific community - it also fails to provide any reason why it is a superior model to the one we already have, and so doesn't justify rethinking all the previous answers on the crossword.  What data does it explain that the current, realistic, scientific, view doesn't?  What reason does it gives for us to overturn all of the other evidence we've got, or at least drastically reassess it?

Archaeologists aren't being dogmatists in saying that Borobudur wasn't built by aliens.  They're just going by what all the evidence says - not depending on a naturalistic worldview to support the belief, but rather accepting it as a matter of course.  And if you've got a reason to believe something that is supported - not foundationally, but foundherently - by a large set of other beliefs and data, then it isn't dogmatic to say that some ideas are wrong.  It's just how you deal with beliefs that are wrong, even if that assessment can only ever be provisional.

And a final point: it could be claimed in response that such an answer depends on the a priori - foundational - belief in evidence.  In this view, science can't independently justify anything, because it depends on the foundational belief in evidence, itself unjustified.  But this isn't true.  All evidence means is 'a reason to believe something'.  It's nothing more than that, and you can't get rid of the idea of having a reason to believe something, even if you adopt a coherentist position.

Next time: Ontology and epistemology - how they relate to one another, and the presupposition of the existence of reality.


  1. @Bora - I have put my comments here to avoid disrupting the SM comments any further. :)

    Most of my reading these days is in archaeology, ethnohistory, and linguistics, as well as history, rather than recent ethnographies. I don't think any of these methods requires a great diversity of theories - in fact, they're strongest when they're working together. And there are now lots of works that attempt to unite molecular biology, social anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics, including the flawed-but-useful Genes, Culture, and Human Evolution by Linda Stone and Paul Lurquin, which portrays the culture/gene co-evolution position of people like Lewontin and Cavalli-Sforza (the linguistics side of it is awful, but otherwise it's quite good). So I'm not really getting your point. There's nothing about archaeology or linguistics that requires that they be separate from biology or anything else, and the success of an inter-disciplinary team of archaeologists, climate scientists, linguists, etc, depends on them a) all trying to investigate the same basic problems and b) sharing a basic theoretical/philosophical framework - which it can't be guaranteed that social anthropologists will share because of their extreme diversity of continental-philosophy-inspired views. If the divisions in anthropology were only methodological, that would be fine, but they aren't, and in fact many anthropologists would object to the very idea of investigating the past in this scientific way.

  2. First of all, sorry for the delay in this response. Since the institution where I work blocks "social networking", I cannot comment in wordpress or blogspot. Second, I hope you can see past my poor English skills - I can read and speak well, but I am still learning how to adequately express my ideas in text. I wanna clarify the point I was trying to make in SM. I understand the diversity in theoretical approaches in Anthropology as a consequence of the holistic approach the discipline has. It is challenging to deal with the different aspects of human phenomena without enganging different theories. The recent overating of post-modern/critical theory approach isn't to my linking, especially because it reduces all aspects of complex social interactions to an issue of "power". The problem with social sciences in general, is that we have a different dynamic concerning theory: some approaches tend to become trendy to point of ubiquity, and so they have to be discarded, basically because they start to "explain everyting". The other sciences usually abandon theories because they cannot explain all the aspects.

  3. My comparison between archaeology and anthropology comes from my work in both fields. One of my professors used to say that "archaeology" is not a science itself, but a combination of different sciences and methods. I am inclined to say something similar about anthropology, specially the one based in the "four fields" approach, that goes beyond social anthropology.

    The issue with theoretical approaches and anthropology is mostly based on the character of anthropological work. The usual work is all about small scale analysis, and not general theory of social interactions. Whoever tries to do a general theory, like Lévi-Strauss elementary structures of kinship, has to dwell deep in to comparative data and reserach for years or decades. Without the data that comes from inumerous ethnographies, this effort is impossible.

    The problem between this approach and its dialogue to biological theories of the human phenomena comes from one issue that we discussed in SM for a time: reducionism. Anthropological science wants to deal with all the complexity of man kind without submitting it to overall all explaining theories. I enjoy reading Jared Diamond´s books, but I do not agree entirely with his approach - and frankly, nobody has do agree entirely with anything, and that doesn't mean that Diamonds contributions should not have to be taken in to account.

    The main problem in the tumultuous (lack) of debate between social anthro and (for example) biology is not just the "continental-philosophy-inspired views". One of the main predicaments of anthropological method is to take different forms of knowledge into account: or as Lévi-Strauss would say, "anthropology is the science of the observed". Too much continental philosophy ends up eclipsing what ethnography is supposed to reveal through the dialogue between the anthropologist and those he study among. Too much biological determinism doesn't "explain" why the Nuer feed their kids before they eat or why amazonian caboclos do it the other way around. More than food availability issues, or adaptation strategies, it has much to do with etiquette and social rules. Does it actually makes sense to argue about what comes first? If cultural behavior is develop from evolutionary adaptations or the other way around? This question itself is based on separations between mind and body, will and instinct, that just makes sense in science because they derive from Western philosophy.

    I like Ingold's approach to evolution, culture, language and behavior because it takes a lot of different fields contributions and it is still based in hard ethnographic data. The same Ingold has a lot to say about why the debate between anthropology and sociobiology has never taken off

  4. I'm sorry I haven't responded earlier - been quite busy, although I did manage to crank out a review post. Anyway, I've always found the idea that anthropology is not 'a science' to be based on spurious reasoning. Sometimes people say it's because science is supposed to find laws - which it isn't (or else taxonomy, or indeed the whole of biology, is not science); my tutor at Oxford was keen on this one - and sometimes they say it's because the nature of people as speakers and symbol-users means that they can't be studied as part of the natural world (who is to say that language and symbols are not natural phenomena?), and sometimes they say, as did your professor, that archaeology and anthropology are made up of lots of little sciences.

    But that isn't how science works. Science is just the attempt to find out about the world and correlate the knowledge gained from the investigations together, so that we can have one or two reasonably coherent accounts of the entire world. That's the idea behind it. Something is scientific if it a) makes a sincere attempt to find out about some aspects of the world and b) makes an equally sincere attempt to ensure that whatever claims it makes about the world do not outright contradict more securely-known ideas (like, say, atomic theory).

    This is why I dislike the 'multiple theory' view of anthropology. We don't need multiple mutually-incommensurate theoretical positions. We need one that can link up with everything else. We need a set of basic propositions that we all agree with, like the truth of evolutionary biology and the evolved nature of human faculties (even if we disagree with hard sociobiology). That emphatically isn't what we've got in anthropology departments today. Instead, we've got a bunch of theoretical positions that don't really add much to our explanations of events. Students learn about theoretical positions as the substance of a course, not as different methods for finding things out.

    I think social anthropologists should be able to link up with geneticists, linguists, and anyone else. And many of the questions you asked in your post - "Does it actually make sense to argue about what comesfirst? If cultural behaviour is developed from evolutionary adaptations or the other way around?" - have some answers in theories that seek to unite biology and social anthropology productively, including the culture-gene co-evolution theory of Cavalli-Sforza (and Richard Lewontin, of course). I'd also point out that understanding prescriptive rules does not entail seeing them as something other than an evolved feature of humans. How rules and social principles work is a feature of many research programmes, including that of John Searle.

  5. I also really, really, really don't think we should privilege ethnography anymore. As the world is becoming more homogenised, it is no longer possible to investigate many pertinent features of human life ethnographically. Human sacrifice is out. Cannibalism, in a strict sense, is out. Tit-for-tat warfare - outside of urban gangland, of course - is minimal. Literacy is not ubiquitous but most people in the world know someone who is literate, and both literacy and urbanism impact on the lives of everyone in the world, even if they think they don't. So ethnography isn't and shouldn't be the core of anthropology. It should only be the most astonishing, descriptive, enlightening part of it - the part that helps make sense of the rest, and that has unfortunately passed its sell-by-date in terms of effectively addressing problems in the study of non-industrial societies.

    Also, anthropologists are, as a rule, unclear about what reductionism is. They think it means 'simplistic theory'. It doesn't. It means trying to understand something in terms of its component parts. It means thinking in terms of parts instead of wholes, because there are no true wholes in the world. It turns out that everything in the world consists of atoms and all of the properties of everything that has ever existed seem to reduce to the properties of the atoms that compose them. Far from making explanations of human phenomena simplistic, a reductionist view sees humans as incredibly complex, composed of so many little bits of stuff and matter as to make it difficult, if not impossible, to explain every little bit.

    Moreover, I find very little worthwhile in Ingold's work. His 'being alive', for instance, does reduce, whether he likes it or not, to the properties of consciousness and specific parts of the nervous system. I'm not that interested in reading his works. Emotive and not interesting, and directly opposed to understanding humans naturalistically, even if he doesn't think so. His criticism of Dunbar's theory of society was terrible; it was just the moralistic fallacy writ large. I really don't understand why he is so celebrated.

    I just don't think anthropology should be separate from other disciplines in the way that it is, and I don't think there is anything special about ethnography that makes it so central to the anthropological project of understanding human beings. Yes, it was revolutionary in the beginning, but there is an absolute limit to what it can achieve when investigating what it was originally conceived to investigate - non-industrial human life.


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