Naturalistic Epistemology: A Symposium of Two Decades

Book · January 1987with 11 Reads
DOI: 10.1007/978-94-009-3735-2
Issn: 0068-0346
Isbn: 978-94-010-8168-9
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1. AIMS OF THE INTRODUCTION The systematic assessment of claims to knowledge is the central task of epistemology. According to naturalistic epistemologists, this task cannot be well performed unless proper attention is paid to the place of the knowing subject in nature. All philosophers who can appropriately be called 'naturalistic epistemologists' subscribe to two theses: (a) human beings, including their cognitive faculties, are entities in nature, inter­ acting with other entities studied by the natural sciences; and (b) the results of natural scientific investigations of human beings, particularly of biology and empirical psychology, are relevant and probably crucial to the epistemological enterprise. Naturalistic epistemologists differ in their explications of theses (a) and (b) and also in their conceptions of the proper admixture of other components needed for an adequate treatment of human knowledg- e.g., linguistic analysis, logic, decision theory, and theory of value. Those contributors to this volume who consider themselves to be naturalistic epistemologists (the majority) differ greatly in these respects. It is not my intention in this introduction to give a taxonomy of naturalistic epistemologies. I intend only to provide an overview which will stimulate a critical reading of the articles in the body of this volume, by facilitating a recognition of the authors' assumptions, emphases, and omissions.
Chapters (24)
One of the objections most often raised against Kant’s treatment of the nature and foundations of geometry is that it cannot accommodate the rise of non-euclidean geometry, much less its success in providing a more accurate description of the physical world. Russell, however, argued that it was really the discovery by Hilbert and others of a complete axiomatization of euclidean geometry more than anything else that revealed the irrelevance of Kantian intuition for its foundations. The scholar G. Martin, on the other hand, has claimed that Kant was really the first and true champion of the axiomatic method, and indeed in such a way that by Kant’s lights non-euclidean geometry was not only an inevitable logical possibility, but also not constructible in intuition. To evaluate all these claims it is imperative to determine the level of axiomatic consciousness of geometry actually obtained by Kant, for as Hilbert (1922) himself has well remarked, to proceed axiomatically ... is simply to think with consciousness of what one is doing. In earlier times, when they did not use the axiomatic method, men believed in various connections with naive dogmatism. Axiomatics removes the naivete, but still leaves us with all the advantages of belief, (p. 161)
This is a paper of great merit, quite apart from its relevance to the aims of the present book. Webb meticulously, fairly, and imaginatively analyzes Kant’s arguments concerning geometrical knowledge. He brings to bear on this project a large body of information concerning the Kantian texts, the geometrical writings of Kant’s predecessors and contemporaries, and the great harvest of results on the foundations of geometry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Webb deploys this information not only for critically assessing Kant’s theses, but also for exploring possible defenses of them which lie beyond the technical resources which were available to Kant.
This essay will address a dilemma in the foundations of naturalistic epistemology. As the title indicates, the focus will be on one of the great nineteenth-century founders of this interdisciplinary enterprise, to wit, Charles Peirce. I shall attempt to illustrate the dilemma by noting a certain ambiguity in Peirce’s thought; thereafter I shall outline, and discuss the viability of, what I take to be Peirce’s resolution of the dilemma.
In the introduction to his book The Child’s Conception of Time (hereafter, CCT, Piaget (1969, p. VII) wrote that his researches on the development of the concept of time were inspired by Albert Einstein who fifteen years before the publication of that book (i.e. in 1931) presided over the international course of lectures on psychology and philosophy at Davos in Switzerland. Einstein suggested to Piaget a number of questions such as the following ones: “Is our intuitive grasp of time primitive or derived? Is it identical with our intuitive grasp of velocity? What, if any, bearing do these questions have on the genesis and development of the child’s conception of time?” Piaget then continued: Every year since then we have made a point of looking into these questions, at first with little hopes of success because, as we quickly discovered, the time relationships constructed by young children are so largely based on what they hear from adults and not on their own experiences. But when, after trying to apply the idea of ‘groupings’ to the development of the child’s conception of number and quantity, we went on to apply it to the concept of motion, velocity and time, we discovered that the problems of duration and temporal succession had become greatly simplified. The results are presented in this volume.
If ‘naturalistic epistemology’ is broadly construed to mean the investigation of human cognition as a natural phenomenon, then Piaget’s work should be recognized as the most massive contribution to the discipline made by any single person. One wishes to know, however, what the relevance of Piaget’s work is to a more narrowly construed naturalistic epistemology — to a normative discipline which is devoted to judging epistemic claims, but which does so partly by means of scientific information about man’s place in nature. Some of Čapek’s remarks help to answer this question, even though he has not undertaken to do so systematically.
Professor Shimony’s fair comment on my paper provides me with an opportunity to clarify some points which because of their concise presentation may not appear entirely clear. I am glad to note that there are some large areas of agreement between us while the differences of view — some of them at least — are apparently due to misunderstanding rather than to the lack of agreement. I am going to comment on his comments in the same order in which he formulated them.
Konrad Lorenz, winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his contributions to the founding of ethology, has been preoccupied with epistemological questions throughout his career. His writings on the subject began in the 1930s and continue until the present.2 He has discussed the role of instinctual elements in human thinking and behavior and examined the implications for a society which is evolving faster than its individual members are evolving biologically (see Lorenz, 1966, 1974). Lorenz has also done a comparative examination of some features of human and animal ‘a prions’ and has argued that the results vindicate a correspondence theory of truth and justify the belief that human beings can approach to a knowledge of reality (see Lorenz, 1941).
Wilfrid Seilars is, I believe, exceptional among contemporary philosophers for the seriousness of his concern to recognize both the power of the scientific enterprise and the centrality of our ordinary understanding of ourselves as persons. Sellars holds both that “science is the measure of what is and what is not” and that “if man had a radically different conception of himself he would be a radically different kind of man,” for “man is what he is because he thinks of himself in terms of this image [the manifest image, our ordinary way of understanding ourselves]” (Sellars, 1963a, pp. 6 and 15). Sellars’ goal is the formulation of a synoptic vision of human beings in the world, a scientific vision that does justice to our ordinary view of ourselves as sensory, conceptual and intentional agents.
The traditional terms ‘epistemology’ and ‘philosophy of science’ are not quite right for many of the exciting current developments that go by these names. Whereas classical epistemology tried to answer the problem of knowledge without assuming any knowledge in the process, naturalistic epistemologists (Quine, 1969), Copernican epistemologists (Shimony, 1970), and evolutionary epistemologists (Campbell, 1959, 1974a) deliberately beg the question, and undertake epistemological inquiries assuming that present-day physics and astronomy give us approximately valid knowledge of the world to be known, and that evolutionary biology, psychology, and sociology tell us something about man the knower. Such epistemological efforts can be conducted in loyal compatibility to traditional epistemology, as in accepting the negative results of the skeptical tradition: our shared epistemological predicament with Plato’s prisoner in the cave, the scandal of induction, the argument from illusion, and the irrefutability of solipsism. To the traditional epistemological question, ‘Is knowledge possible?’ the logical answer is ‘no’. We cannot be sure that we know, or when we know.
What is the relation of visual perception to the measured order of physical objects? Both vision and measurements are sources of information about physical objects, although they provide this information in different ways and with systematic differences of organization. Although vision is our primary source of information about the external world, it does not supply the whole truth unassisted. Perceptual data do not arrange themselves without ambiguity, nor are they transformed automatically into all the information we desire. The various uses we make of visual data shape the form of knowledge, and to a surprising degree they also shape its content.
Modern epistemology rests on a number of assumptions about ideas, the mind, and the brain. The notions that ideas are in the mind, that the mind is in the brain, and that ideas are somehow caused by whatever causes brain activity, gave birth to both modern psychology and epistemology in the seventeenth century. The successes of this science spurred epistemologists more and more to accept these assumptions. Thus, by the end of the eighteenth century even philosophers who vehemently disbelieved that scientific explanations of mental phenomena could be produced nevertheless went along with the above assumptions.1 From that time forward epistemologists have rarely debated these fundamental premises, taking them as givens.2 Yet I contend that we had better begin to query these assumptions, because they have not led to a satisfactory science of cognition. On the contrary, the puzzles concerning human knowledge of the external world have deepened, not lessened, as an experimental psychology based on the above assumptions has evolved. The purpose of this paper is two-fold. First, to give sufficient historical and critical background for readers to appreciate the many scientific anomalies spawned by the hypothesis that ideas are in the mind which is in the brain.
Ecological epistemology has a strong affinity to phenomenology, particularly the version of Merleau-Ponty (as Reed, 1983, points out). There is a common emphasis upon the richness of experience, the irreducibility of perception to sensation, the importance of proprioception, and the inseparability of valuations from presentations. Ecological epistemology, however, is more dedicated than phenomenology to a controlled, experimental study of perception, and pays closer attention to the physics of the interplay between the perceiving subject and the environment. James Gibson’s demonstration of the intricacy of this interplay constitutes a permanent contribution to experimental psychology, even if he was not as successful and as revolutionary in solving traditional epistemological problems as Reed has claimed.
Quine (1969) in ‘Epistemology Naturalized’, attacks an entire conception of how philosophy ought to approach the topic of human knowledge. This conception, which we could call external epistemology, relies on a number of distinctions which are unsupportable by Quine’s lights: a priori vs. a posteriori knowledge, necessary vs. contingent truth, matters of meaning vs. matters of fact. Lying at the basis of these distinctions are the assumptions that there are such things as linguistic rules, and that these rules have a crucial role to play in a philosophical account of knowledge. Quine’s attack on external epistemology is ultimately an attack on these fundamental assumptions.
“Epistemology,” Quine (1969, p. 69) says at the beginning of ‘Epis-temology Naturalized’ (EN), “is concerned with the foundations of science”. That is, the fundamental epistemological questions ask: ‘What is the nature of (scientific) evidence?’ and ‘How are (scientific) claims confirmed?’ There are two approaches one can take in seeking answers to these questions: the a priori approach and the empirical approach. The former Quine refers to as the project of ‘rational reconstruction’. The latter is just that part of psychology which explains the behavior, exhibited by so-called ‘rational’ creatures, of theory construction and confirmation. The burden of EN is to argue for the second approach. Thus, on Quine’s view, epistemology is a field of natural science, itself the activity epistemology is supposed to explain.
Most of my comments will concern the first section of Levine’s paper, in which he agrees with Quine’s assimilation of epistemology to psychology but differs from him by proposing that the appropriate psychological theory for this purpose is cognitive rather than behavioral. Levine says in effect (p. 262 and Note 1) that if the stimulus-response analysis of behaviorist psychology is inadequate to account for verbal behavior, then a fortiori it is inadequate to account for the intricacies of proposing hypotheses, gathering data, searching, assessing, and inferring that constitute the epistemic activities of ordinary life and of scientific research. I agree with him on the relative merits of behaviorist and cognitive psychology and believe that an adequate naturalistic epistemology must make extensive use of the latter. I do not agree, however, that a naturalistic point of view requires the assimilation of epistemology to any kind of psychology.
I approach Levine’s paper with a very mixed response-pattern, and this fact makes me as nervous as any Pavlov dog. In my disposition to respond with pleasure to Quine’s writings but with suspicion to any behavioristic writings, I was naturally conditioned to gloss swiftly over behaviorist passages in his writings.. I always responded, then, with surprise and incredulity, to friends and colleagues citing Quine’s behaviorism.1 The displeasure incurred by finding myself not well acquainted with the works of an author I have invested some effort in an attempt to master should now disappear with my reading of Joseph Levine’s coherent interpretation of Quine’s philosophy as inherently physicalist and (thus) as inherently behavioristic2 (although without the ability to justify science as a whole except scientifically). It is still a fact that any detailed reduction of any theory of scientific activity to psychology is repellent to me on account of the fact that psychology is universal and science is a product of some cultures and so is not universal. Here, then, is the analysis of my response-pattern to Joseph Levine’s paper. It is for me both anxiety reducing and anxiety raising.
This essay is both an appreciation of the epistemological contributions of Donald Campbell and a statement of an epistemological program which is different from his in several respects.
Bertrand Russell, in the early part of the twentieth century, labored vigorously on a proper foundation for mathematics. One of his efforts resulted in a set theory along with a theory of types, a theory of levels of discourse. The existence of sets was made relative to the level of discourse already employed in the construction of the theory. This is the beginning of what can be termed constructive set theory, the attempt to tie talk of mathematical entities to linguistic operations of a certain kind, and hence to provide a philosophical justification for mathematics. Having embarked on this constructivist path, Russell detoured because he thought it was necessary to talk about collections of sets across levels. Consequently, he introduced his famous axiom of reducibility and committed what Hermann Weyl called the harakiri of reason. This attempt to justify mathematics resulted in suicide.
Sagal criticizes naturalistic epistemology genetically for falling short of the mission of justifying the sciences with “no circles and no gaps,” and he outlines a program, essentially along the lines of Paul Lorenzen’s constructive philosophy, which is intended to carry out that mission. I shall present some reasons for believing that the constructive program is unachievable. The answer which I shall then offer to Sagal’s criticisms of naturalistic epistemology is based in large part upon the inevitability of curtailing our philosophical ambitions.
Paul Sagal offers a compound thesis when he says naturalistic epistemology is the desertion of the traditional philosophical attempt to justify claims for knowledge, which is the suicide of reason. I do agree with him that the traditional activity of philosophy includes as a major item on its agenda the justification of claims for knowledge. I would like to agree with him that W. V. Quine’s naturalistic epistemology consists in the desertion of this task. (As I have argued in my note on Abner Shimony, Shimony’s view of naturalistic epistemology is meant to have the cake and eat it too, but correcting it amounts to either rejecting it altogether or agreeing with Sagal that it amounts to the desertion of the justification of all knowledge claims.) What remains, then, for me to debate is Sagal’s claim that deserting justification of knowledge claims amounts to the suicide of reason. Or, to convert his claim, he says that to reason is to justify claims for knowledge; it is the theory of rationalism as justificationism, which he rightly deems traditional. To disagree with him is to declare non-justificationist rationalism possible, then. My claim is stronger: to stick with justification of knowledge claims, I say, is the suicide of reason. If rationalism is to survive, some non-justificationist, i.e. critical, version of it should be propounded. (The numbering follows that of Sagal.)
Shimony’s ‘Integral Epistemology’, in this volume takes as a point of departure Campbell’s non-justificationist descriptive epistemology: when we say we know something, we make a conjecture, not offer a proof. Shimony has no objection to, and indeed supports, descriptive epistemology, but dissents from Campbell’s view and declares possible analytic epistemology, proof or some other justification. His “purpose ... is to advocate an integral epistemology, in which descriptive and analytic considerations are brought together for the purpose of rationally assessing claims of human knowledge”. The operative words are ‘rationally assessing’. He wants to “shed light upon the reliability of human cognition’, so that “adequate justification can be given for the presuppositions of scientific investigation”.
In a brief space I can only reply selectively to Agassi’s wide-ranging comments, but I shall try to do so as constructively as possible.
Historicaly, epistemology has been ahistorical. That is to say, epistemologists have sought to fix the universal and necessary conditions of any knowledge whatever, or to establish the essential nature of the human mind. Thus, whether empiricist or rationalist, realist or phenomenalist, traditional epistemologies have shared a common essentialism. What made such epistemologies different were alternative accounts of what are the fixed, essential modes of the acquisition of knowledge, or what are the universal and unchanging structures of the human mind. Essentialism merged with foundationalism or justificationism just to the extent that putatively descriptive accounts of the modes of the acquisition of knowledge were tacitly normative (i.e., in that it was knowledge, and not mere belief, or habit, or phantasms of the imagination which resulted from the proper working, or the proper correction, of these cognitive procedures.) Or else, essentialism was openly justificationist, in the converse procedure of constructing just those accounts of, say, perception or cognition such that the normal exercise of these faculties would generate knowledge, or make truth attainable.
At one point Wartofsky summarizes his historical epistemology by saying, “To put it in perhaps too radical a way, I would suggest that it is we who invent or create the mind, construct it, and transform it historically.” His suggestion is too radical because, by his own admission elsewhere, there are “mental and perceptual structures” which the inventive and creative processes must respect. Wartofsky seems to be struggling towards a wide-ranging epistemology that judiciously acknowledges both the genetic and the acquired, and both the neural and the mental aspects of cognition (I hope without conflating these two dichotomies, but I cannot be sure from his text). Unfortunately, the pendulum swings between exaggerated claims and cautious hedging are deleterious to a clear exposition of his epistemology.
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