Sunday, January 22, 2012

Epistemological Styles

by Gary Berg-Cross

I see that recent Blog posts, such as The incomprehensible, everything good, god, explore some theist-revised god-concepts:

  • "What if there were concepts of God that had something to offer or add to the fulfilled?
  • What if we had concepts of God based on creativity?
  • On a positive definition of incomprehensible peace?
  • On imaginative joy?

This subverts some Greek-old questions about existence and dresses it up in new clothes. The Greeks were the first we know of to develop elaborate reasoning on the nature of existence and reality. But this was more on an exploration of naturalist concepts of what we see existing as part of a continuous fabric of reality. Parmenides put it this way:

We can speak and think only of what exists. And what exists is uncreated and imperishable for it is whole and unchanging and complete. It was not or nor shall be different since it is now, all at once, one and continuous...”

He wasn’t speaking about god’s existence, so much as about his world, but people push the discussions that way with an unseen spirit in back of everything. Some call it metaphysical, but in his Metaphysics Aristotle defined the scope as 2 important philosophical questions:

What exists?' and How do I know?'

They are separate questions, but related. The first question he discussed as Ontology - the meta-philosophy or world view of reality. The seminal ontological question wasn’t so religious as psychological - ‘Is there a "real" world out there that is independent of our knowledge of it?'

Naturalist assume a natural world out there existing on its own one, not invented by our conceptions. Theists say reality isn’t a human invention, but a godly one. God must exist to explain the complex ontology of things we find in nature. Discussions about god as an existing object are therefore ontological too. The argument is that god is as real as a tree and maybe more so.

People whose ontology posits a god, angels, devils, miracles etc, want to talk about these concepts, while Naturalists, such as Dawkins aren't so interested. When Dawkins dismisses these subjects, such as in revealed text, he is criticized as not knowing anything about Religion. That is, he knows nothing about the ontological entities that religion believes exist and have value. True enough because an atheist's ontology doesn’t include them. Why talk about what an enormous list of ancient writers might have invented as part of their psychology a long time ago?

Others may be willing to talk about God as a “scientific hypothesis. ” But looked at this way shouldn't it be tested? But even that moderate position is a divisive questions to some...

"He who is not with Me is against Me;
and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad."

—Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew, xii, 30

It's clear that there are big differences between religious believers and non-believer's ontology. This is often discussed in detail, at least by theists. But how do believers know that god exists? This brings in the 2nd questions and Epistemology, which is the philosophy of how we come to knowledge and how we justify arriving at something as known. The epistemological positions that brings people to a particular ontology is also important, but less discussed. Unlike the clarity of the question it’s complicated, at least in part because people aren't pure philosophers and their "knowing" gets intertwined with personality and values as they grow up in a culture which has implicit positions on styles of knowing and believing.

Even science has different investigatory styles/paradigms that can lead to alternative views. Scientific historian Alistair C. Crombie described several main styles in the Western tradition of scientific thinking:

  • the simple method of postulation exemplified by classic Greek sciences
  • the deployment of experiment to explore postulation with controlled observation and measurement,
  • hypothetical construction of analogical models
  • ordering of variety by comparison and taxonomy,
  • statistical analysis of regularities of populations etc.

To these styles, philosopher Ian Hacking added a contemporary laboratory scientific style in “Statistical Language, Statistical Truth and Statistical Reason:The Self-Authentification of a Style of Scientific Reasoning" (Hacking’s thesis is that ontological truth conditions for certain kinds of propositions are given by a style of scientific reasoning – that is the method of inquiry constructs the truth of a proposition.)

One might argue that people in general are like this in that they approach the question of truth and reality through styles of inquiry. Some come to a style by reflection, experience and reason, but most of us are strongly influenced by existing patterns of inquiry which may come from groups we identify with. These styles might be thought of as composed from many, mutually supporting parts, engineered to work together over time. But for social transmission they often get packaged as meme-like labels such as realist, skeptic, theists, atheists, liberals, conservatives etc.

For example, at a broad level a theist may have an approach to knowledge as revealed and they take that on faith and they take faith as supported by group belief. An alternative approach to knowledge relies on evidence proof and reason.

But there are finer aspects to people’s style of thinking epistemologically and people’s preferences for things that is more like what psychologists call styles of personality . For example, there is familiar thinking versus open ended thinking. We accept something if it is familiar and described in commonsense terms. This is often part of a layman's style of knowing.

When talking about personality styles some use binary, common sense distinctions about reasoning and investigation styles. So some people are curious while others are intellectually lazy – George Bush comes to find for the latter category. We might build a better model by adding a scale along which people fall from lazy at one end and curious at the other. That’s better, but there are other dimensions of reasoning to consider. Some people are skeptical while others are not. Now we have 2 dimensions and we could add a 3rd of critical thinking. These dimensions seem somewhat related but not identical. We can add more orthogonal dimensions like simplicity vs. appreciation of complexity. John Wayne illustrates simplicity when he was reported to have said in an interview, "They tell me that things aren't always black and white. I say, 'Why the hell not?'" This is a simple, common sense view that affects how much energy we might bring to investigating a topic. It speaks in a common language and thus has popular appeal and has the advantage of being able to spread meme-like.

But people’s epistemological styles are even more complex than that and can be thought of as existing in epistemological layers and frameworks. The framework includes, and is influenced by, people's ontology and pre-existing assumptions about such things as diverse as:

  • objectivity,
  • what is real and
  • group values.
These serve as broad guides for reasoning. Other factors include the nature of evidence and the value of observation, the role of theory (what is a theory?), what are acceptable method to test ideas, and what they define as logical or reasonable.

People and groups are stunningly different in attitudes towards such things as to what constitutes truth. As Hacking noted for scientific styles the approaches are put together and maintained by networks of people to answer their needs, interests and ideology. This is illustrated by the work of Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, for example, who studied on liberal-conservative differences in style and arguments. The style supports and is maintained by people who share a strong desire for unity and group membership which is guided by ideas of truth, rightness etc. This is a light, morality based epistemological stance. “Conservatives”, for example, quickly get disgusted with ideas that violate their ideas of reality and means of determining it. At the political level Republicans, more than Democrats, tap into universal moral passions to foster in-group solidarity. This goes along with concerns about being contaminated by outgroups and their thinking.

A related style is seen in people who value the idea of ancient, private wisdom existing inside people or available via divine revelation. These are believed to give access to a body of eternal truth independent of scientific investigation. To protect this stance it helps to distrust experts - at least some types of experts whose opinions may challenge existing social bonds. Better to keep hold of an ancient view, wrapped up and supported by your own justification. With defenses like these it is hard to have a conversation on why people believe as they do. Thus a reasoning style with its ontological beliefs has mutually supporting factors that provide a defense against foreign reasoning styles.

A natural science orientation, in contrast, views truth as derived from a method of public, empirical observations. One needs some methodological expertise to qualify to achieve knowledge. This is challenging to some who like to attack it by characterizing it as dogmatic. The dogma here is one of method and a testable one that can lead to what seems closer to the true.


Explicit Atheist said...

I don't buy this argument that epistemology is an issue of personal styles and preferences, like a preference for shirts with button down collars versus non- buttoned collars. Let's say you are on trial for a crime that you didn't commit. Which epistemological "style" would you prefer the jurors to adopt?

It makes a big difference, and is of fundamental importance, that the jurors adopt an epistemological "style" of determining what is true or false that is reliable and trustworthy for correctly distinguishing what is true from what is false. And I don't think that people who have a free-floating "style" that isn't anchored tightly to empirical evidence are jurors that can be trusted to render correct decisions.

Explicit Atheist said...

I agree that psychology can be an important factor, but I don't agree that the psychology issues that are the focus of Psychologist Jonathan Haidt are about epistemology. Psychology adds more complexity, of course, but that isn't complexity of epistemology, it is the complexity of psychology. That is a different, and more general, topic that applies to all and any issues related attitudes, including these discussed by Edd Doerr, entirely independently of epistemology.

Don Wharton said...

Obviously folk epistemology is not real epistemology any more than folk physics is real physics. However, Gary is saying something very important about the world we live in. He does raise the question about how do we create progess in a democratic society when the average person uses these folk conceptions about sytles of knowing?

Gary Berg-Cross said...

For a related blog item see 2002 Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman talk at the National Academy on "Thinking that We Know. "