Archive for March 6th, 2011

March 6, 2011

The trouble with epistemology

by Neil Rickert

My view of epistemology is probably colored by the fact that I am a mathematician.  We mathematicians seem to think differently about such things.  For example, nothing could be clearer to a mathematician, than that it is possible to know the axiom of choice, yet at the same time to not believe it.  Thus mathematicians are likely to see something wrong in the “knowledge is justified true belief” that philosophers often assume.

If we go by what the epistemology literature tells us, we might conclude that “truth” is the name of an immaterial magical substance that permeates the universe and that people search for.  We might conclude that the universe is filled with immaterial objects known as propositions.  We might also conclude that perception is a magical system for picking up such propositions, and that it has a builtin magical filter that allows it to mainly pick up true propositions.

Well, okay, that was a bit overstated.  The main point is that epistemology gives a very artificial account.  It comes across as an account of what would constitute knowledge for an ideal rational agent living in an imaginary Platonic universe.  Knowledge is defined in terms true beliefs, but “true” and “belief” are never really defined.  So we are left with true beliefs as something like abstract objects.  This leaves epistemology as a kind of logical calculus of abstract objects, so it has something of the appearance of mathematical Platonism.  Because the knowledge is in terms of abstract objects, it does not relate to reality.  But never mind — the epistemologist comes up with a property of intentionality which is supposed to provide that otherwise missing connection.  But intentionality is left as unexplained, so either mysterious or magical.

By contrast, when I look at science, the scientists are very concerned with connecting their scientific statements with reality.  Epistemology has a problem with intentionality, and that problem carries over to scientific epistemology (the philosophy of science).  But science itself does not seem to have that intentionality problem, for it carefully defines its terms in ways that connects it to reality.  It should be obvious from this description, that I see a serious mismatch between scientific epistemology and the science that it is supposed to explain.

The real problem of knowledge is expressed in the question “How is it possible to have knowledge at all?”  This can be further elaborated as “How is it possible for a sequence of letters to say something about reality?” and “How is observation even possible?”  In short, the real problem of knowledge is the problem of intentionality.  That is the problem that drives science.  Epistemology massively avoids dealing with that problem.