In a previous post I suggested that traditional epistemology, as studied within philosophy, has developed in a framework based on a creationist or intelligent design way of thinking. Today, I want to look at what might be a way to look at knowledge from an evolutionary perspective.
It’s important to be clear, here, that I am not concerned with the question of whether knowledge evolves. Everyone agrees that there has been a growth in knowledge, and that some old ideas (geocentrism, for example) have been discarded. So there isn’t any important disagreement over whether our knowledge evolves.
The difference being discussed is between the ideas about knowledge that come from a creationist way of looking at things, and those that come from an evolutionist way of looking at things.
The word knowledge itself is one of those confusing words where we are not quite sure what it means. But we need not allow that to be too great a concern. In practice, epistemology is concerned with the question of being able to make true statements about the world. That is, epistemology has to do with having facts, and with what is involved in having facts.
According to the creationist perspective, God created the world based on his own principles. And those principles are the basis for having facts. So the creationist perspective is that there are lots of facts just laying around and waiting to be picked up. The cognitive agent picks up these facts, and then tries to induce the creators principles, based on patterns that can be discerned from within the facts that are picked up.
From an evolutionist perspective, there is no reason that there should be any facts at all. The world exists in its current form, due to the way that elementary parts of matter aggregated, and due to the more stable aggregations being persistent. Thus there are no design principles, there are no laws of nature, and there are no facts that are just laying around. Under the evolutionist’s perspective, if a cognitive agent wants to have facts about the world, then he must first invent ways of having facts (of being able to represent the world).
To illustrate this, consider a statement which we might think of as if it were a putative fact:
At 1 pm, next Wednesday, I shall take a bus trip from Illinois to Wisconsin.
We are able to express this putative fact, only on account of human conventions. Firstly, there are the naming conventions. We know that the words used are conventional, because other people might use French or German or Chinese words instead of the English words used here. But the naming conventions are only part of the story. Both Illinois and Wisconsin represent parts of the north American continent that result from political conventions in how to divide that continent into individual states. The use of Wednesday is an implicit reference to our conventional grouping of the days into weeks, where a week is a group of seven consecutive days. At this time of the year, 1 pm refers to a time expressed in daylight savings time, and that itself is a conventional standard for time. Even the word bus references our conventional partitioning of kinds of transportation devices into cars, vans, truck, buses, etc.
From a creationist perspective, the problem of knowledge is one of picking up facts that just happen to be laying around, and then searching for patterns within those facts. From an evolutionist perspective, the problem of knowledge is one of establishing useful conventions such as would make it possible to have facts in the first place. These are two very different ways of looking at the knowledge problem.