Epistemology naturalized and socialized

There has been a field of philosophy for quite a long time called “epistemology naturalized.” (Here are good articles onnaturalized epistemology and evolutionary epistemology in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Putting the point simply, the goal of this field is to reconcile two obvious points:

  • Human beings are natural organisms, with cognitive faculties that have resulted from a process of natural selection.  All our beliefs about the world have been created and evaluated using these natural and biologically contingent faculties, generally in social interaction with other knowers.
  • We want to assert that our beliefs about the world are rationally and empirically supportable, and they have a certain probability of being approximately true.

The first point is a truism about the knowledge-producing organism.  The second is an expectation of what we want our beliefs to accomplish in terms of their relationships to the external world.

One of the earliest exponents of naturalized epistemology was W.V.O. Quine in “Epistemology Naturalized”, included inOntological Relativity (1969). Here is a definitive statement of his approach:

Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science. It studies a natural phenomenon, viz., a physical human subject. This human subject is accorded a certain experimentally controlled input — certain patterns of irradiation in assorted frequencies, for instance — and in the fullness of time the subject delivers as output a description of the three-dimensional external world and its history. The relation between the meager input and the torrential output is a relation that we are prompted to study for somewhat the same reasons that always prompted epistemology: namely, in order to see how evidence relates to theory, and in what ways one’s theory of nature transcends any available evidence…But a conspicuous difference between old epistemology and the epistemological enterprise in this new psychological setting is that we can now make free use of empirical psychology. (82-3)

What are those cognitive faculties that the human organism possesses thanks to our evolutionary history?  Here are several that are important for belief formation.  We have perceptual abilities; we can observe objects and their sensible properties.  We can form concepts that serve to organize our thoughts about the world. We can identify patterns among cognized events.  We can reason deductively and inductively, allowing us to explore the logical relationships among various of our beliefs. We can formulate causal hypotheses about what factors influence what outcomes.  And we can create hypotheses about unobservable structures and properties that are thought to explain and generate the patterns we identify in the sensible world. These capacities presumably have natural histories and, presumably, cognitive gaps. So how can what we know about the human organism’s cognitive capacities illuminate the rational warrant of the belief systems that we create?

Experimentation is a key part of belief formation, at least when our beliefs have to do with causation.  We may think that a certain mushroom causes insomnia.  We can design a simple experiment to attempt to test or validate this hypothesis: Identify two representative groups of persons; design a typical diet for everyone; administer the mushroom supplement to the diet of one group and withhold it from the second “control” group; record sleep patterns for both groups.  If there is an average difference in the incidence of insomnia between the two groups, we have prima facie reason to accept the hypothesis. If there is no difference, then we have reason to reject the hypothesis. 

So what is the “social” part of knowledge creation?  In what sense does our understanding of knowledge need to be socialized? This is the key question giving rise to the various versions of the sociology of knowledge and science considered in recent posts. It is plain that social influences and social interactions come into virtually every aspect of the “naturalistic” inventory of belief formation offered above. Perception, concept formation, hypothesis formation, theory formation, reasoning, and belief assessment all have social components.The cognitive frameworks that we use, both in everyday perception and learning as well as in specialized scientific research, are socially and culturally informed. This seems to be particularly true in the case of social knowledge, both ordinary and scientific. 

So we can add an additional bullet to the two provided at the start about the conditions of knowledge:

  • Belief systems have substantial social underpinnings in the form of division of labor in belief acquisition, socially shared institutions of inquiry, and socially shared (and contested) standards of belief assessment.

Here are a handful of ways in which knowledge is socially conditioned and created: 

(1) We form beliefs or interpretations about the motives and reasons for other persons’ behavior. These interpretations are formulated in terms of concepts and expectations that are themselves socially specific — honor, shame, pride, revenge, spite, altruism, love.  And this is an important point: the actor him/herself has internalized some such set of ideas, which in turn influences the behavior.  This means that action is doubly constructed: by the actor and by the interpreter. 

(2) We form beliefs about institutions — the family, the mayor’s office, the police department, the presidency. These beliefs are deeply invested in a set of presuppositions and implicatures, which are themselves socially specific. 

(3) Knowledge gathering and assessing is inherently social in that it depends on the cooperative and competitive activities of groups of knowledge workers. These may be communities of scientists, theologians, or engineers. Disagreements are inherent in these social groups, and the embodied norms and power relationships that determine which belief systems emerge as “correct” are crucial parts of the knowledge formation process.

(4) We give weight to certain standards of reasoning and we discount other standards of reasoning.  Some of us give credence to magical claims, and we attach some evidentiary weight to statements about magical connections; others disregard magical claims and arguments. These disagreements are culture-specific. (Martin Hollis, ed., Rationality and Relativism, considers a lot of these sorts of questions.)

(5) Standards and definitions of “evidence” and “reason for belief” are socially variable and plastic. Moreover, there is likely to be more variance in these areas in some zones of belief than others. We may find more unanimity about procedures for assessing causal statements about common observable circumstances than about theoretical hypotheses, and even less for assessing beliefs about the likely effects of social policies.

“Naturalizing” and “socializing” knowledge is important because it allows us to investigate the concrete processes and practices through which human beings arrive at beliefs about the world.  The continuing challenge that the philosophy of science raises is the epistemic one: how can we evaluate the rational force of the beliefs and modes of reasoning that are documented through these empirical investigations of the knowledge enterprise?


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