Epistemology

by on February 20, 2006 at 5:56 am in Philosophy | Permalink

Everyone should be forced to blog about a topic they hate...

A few points:

1. "Transcendental" arguments fail in epistemology, as in most other realms.  "Well, if you couldn’t know things, really know them, you couldn’t even be here to doubt that we can know things…" etc.  Please.  Don’t bring this up.  It is not logically impossible to imagine a non-knowing computing device spewing out all sorts of true claims.

2. I love Thomas Reid, but I run away when I meet others who like him, much less love him.  He is too often used to dismiss the doubts that others have about your ridiculous, completely unsound philosophical positions.

3. The relevant real world question is why we ignore obvious truths, rather than how we come to know the tough things we do.

4. The quest for "justified true belief," a’ la Nozick, is a chimera.  Gavagai, I say, and no, Quine does not require behaviorist roots, even though Quine was a behaviorist.  As a general rule, expect either underdetermination or overdetermination in your theoretical endeavors.  For that same reason, don’t think that epistemology can be reduced to neuroscience.

5. Ask an agnostic to give you betting odds on the existence of God.  Most of them hate this question, but I do not see how they can eschew it.  Hard-core atheists will be torn between "zero" and "one in a trillion," but when you ask them where the "one" comes from, they get flustered.

6. Bryan Caplan still mocks me for saying "one in twenty."

7. When they shoot phasers ("set to kill") in the original Star Trek, how does the phaser "know" to wipe out the person and his clothes, but not the ground nor the boulder he is leaning upon.

8. You are wrong so, so, so often.  That is, or rather should be, the central lesson of epistemology.  It is a lesson which hardly anybody ever learns.  And you don’t need the fancy philosophical machinery to get there.  That is why the rest of epistemology is so often so fruitless.

1 Gabriel Mihalache February 20, 2006 at 8:45 am

If you like Reid but you think he’s a bit too much (I myself doubt the value of applying his work), perhaps you should look into Wittgenstein.

His On Certainty is a very interesting little booklet!

His approach, an extension of his work in the Philosophical Investigations, lets us keep our everyday certainties but also describes the mechanisms for doubting, knowing, asking, what does it mean that something is certain, etc.

Kuhn was a Wittgensteinian and many smart people will tell you that his the Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a Wittgensteinian take on knowledge in science.

Wittgenstein also has some nice work on the foundations of mathematics: Reflections on the Foundations of Mathematics, for example.

So, if you’re looking for a simple, unassuming approach that will explain both the certainty of math and the issues of everyday knowledge in natural language, them W. might be for you.

2 Matthew Cromer February 20, 2006 at 10:01 am

Tyler, I’d love to hear WHY you hate the topic!

3 Daniel Klein February 20, 2006 at 12:08 pm

“Epistomology” was defined in LA Rollins’ Lucifer’s Lexicon as follows:

The theory of knowledge, as opposed to the knowledge of knowledge.

4 Charles Martin February 20, 2006 at 12:22 pm

Obviously, if you examined the ground underneath a Star Trek phaser victim closely, you’d find shallow footprints where the soil dematerialized to approximately the thickness of the person’s clothing.

5 Admiral February 20, 2006 at 12:35 pm

*Ahem* Speaking as a Starfleet officer, indeed, the Chief of Starfleet Operations, I think I have a duty to explain the phaser issue to you.

At least, I would if I didn’t violate the Prime Directive by doing so. Is it so hard to wait a few hundred years to find out? It’s a wondrous future.

6 Zac February 20, 2006 at 10:43 pm

One in twenty? Please tell me you’re kidding.

7 Ronald Brak February 20, 2006 at 11:42 pm

With regards to number 5, I really don’t think Elvis is alive but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to fight for the best odds if we’re going to bet about it.

And as for the phaser question, if you extrapolate increases in computing power over the past 50 years into the 23rd century then a single phaser will have more compuational power than the combined brains of every single human being who has ever existed. Everything that happens in Star Trek is merely for the amusment of the phasers and other machines. Haven’t you noticed by now that the Enterprise takes sadistic delight in tossing its occupants around while transporting anyone who tries to install seat belts into the depths of space?

8 Tom T. February 21, 2006 at 12:57 am

“Epistemology: Everyone should be forced to blog about a topic they hate…”

When I first read this topic heading above the fold, I thought it said “Episiotomy.” I was prepared for a much more ghastly discussion than what actually followed.

9 DK February 21, 2006 at 12:21 pm

It should be obvious that the phasers use the same technology that the transporter uses to make sure it gets exactly the person being beamed, his/her clothing, and anyone who grabs on at exactly the right moment.

10 michael vassar February 21, 2006 at 7:15 pm

I also want to know why Tyler hates this topic.
I’m all for assigning the probability of god’s existance as the prior for god’s existance, as there is no reason other than the prior for believing or disbelieving. The prior for any given hypothesis is subjective, but for any coherent system of priors it should fall with the algorythmic information content of the hypothesis. Like all other beliefs, the more you think you know about god, the more likely, a-priori, that you are wrong. Unlike other beliefs (but not so much unlike them) knowing more doesn’t help the a-posteriori
Tyler, do you have any particular recommendations for how people who appreciate
8. You are wrong so, so, so often.
should behave?

11 Timothy February 24, 2006 at 1:04 pm

Kuhn made me hate epistomology. I like Popper, though. My girlfriend is always getting on my feeling that non-falsifiable claims are useless and should be ignored in any scientific or logical inquiry. And she gets tired of hearing that I can’t falsify her God claim, and I will thusly ignore it. I also get sick of “well, you can’t prove X anymore than I can prove Y” from people, as if all claims have equal merit and probability based on the other things we already know.

I’ve also never found any practical reason to inquire very deeply, as the world behaves for all practical purposes as if we truly know the things we think we know. Might as well just assume that we know things and get on with our lives.

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