Archive for July 20th, 2010

July 20, 2010

Epistemology and Intelligent Design

by Neil Rickert

Epistemology (the theory of knowledge) is a traditional part of philosophy.  Typically, it defines knowledge as beliefs, most commonly as justified true belief.  Scientific epistemology is an important part of epistemology.

I want to suggest that epistemology seems to have some of its roots in creationist thinking, particularly the kind of thinking that we see in the intelligent design movement.  There is a tendency to think of the universe as if it were designed, and to think of scientific laws as if they were part of the blueprint on which the universe was built.  Thus scientific laws are sometimes called “laws of nature” or “natural law”, suggesting that they are part of nature.  Any suggestion that scientific laws might be human constructs is met with skepticism, and sometimes with derision.

It is often said that we come by our laws by induction.  We supposedly notice apparent patterns in our observations of reality, and we conclude that these must be instances of a general pattern or a natural law.  This is described as pattern induction.  The validity of induction, as a means to gaining knowledge, has often been questioned, most famously by philosopher David Hume.  Yet people keep returning to induction as the only plausible method by which we could hope to discover the natural laws that are the base on which our universe is said to operate.  This conflict between skeptical arguments against induction, and the need for induction to account for laws of nature, is known as the problem of induction.

There are other problems with traditional epistemology.  One of those is the Gettier problem of finding an adequate characterization of when a belief is justified.  And then there are problems with the term “belief” itself, which is not easily defined.

My suggestion is that most of the problems of epistemology are due to its basis in an intelligent design way of thinking about the world.  This suggests that there ought to be a more evolutionary way of thinking about knowledge.  But that will require a different idea as to what constitutes knowledge.  Traditional epistemology tends to think of knowledge as facts.  It won’t do to say that facts evolve – that suggestion is what leads to skepticism and some derision.  An evolutionary epistemology will require a different idea as to what constitutes knowledge.

I plan to discuss some evolutionary approaches to epistemology in one or more future posts.