Turning epistemology upside down

by Neil Rickert

Epistemology is a core area within philosophy.  It is concerned with questions of knowledge, information, description and truth.  And it is part of what I would like to see turned upside down.  That is to say, the way that I see questions of knowledge, information, description and truth is very different from what we find in the traditional literature.

Epistemology from a design stance

As mentioned in my earlier “upside down” post, I see traditional philosophy as based on a design stance, while I would prefer a more evolutionary stance.  So let’s start by looking at how the design stance seems to work.

The traditional approach begins with ontology, which deals with what exists.  As it was explained to me, if we use logic and language, then ontology gives us the entities that the descriptions and logic propositions are to be about.  Once there are entities, one can presumably have statements which express relations between those entities.  Such statements are roughly what philosophers call “beliefs”.  Traditionally, they then define knowledge in terms of these beliefs.  Typically, knowledge is taken to be justified true belief.

What is the source of these beliefs?  Philosophy is a bit vague about that, though the broad idea is that they arise out of perception.  The traditional view appears to be that perception is passive deliverer of data (or observations), and those observations form the basis for beliefs.  From basic observations, we are said to use induction in order to form broader or more general beliefs about the world.

And then there’s the intentionality problem.  In simple terms, it is the problem of understanding how our words are able to refer to entities in the world.  If our language consists of abstract propositions, why are they about anything at all that is in the world?  It is widely acknowledged that intentionality is not adequately explained.

The evolutionary stance

Looking at things from an evolutionary perspective, my conclusions are very different.

A young organism does not have time to sit back and ponder all of the data that is said to be delivered by sensory cells, using induction to find patterns.  The young organism must, of necessity, satisfy its biological needs for food, etc.  It does not have time to sit back and philosophize.  It must quickly develop behaviors that provided needed nutrition and that satisfy other needs.  So the core of knowledge, to this young organism, must lie in its behavioral abilities to satisfy basic biological needs.  From this perspective, the idea of knowledge as beliefs about the world seems misguided.

While some methods of finding food may be innate for a particular organism, it the organism can improve its abilities then it is better able to be successful.  That calls for a trial and error methodology.  That is, try something and see if it works.  If a behavior is found that works, then try modifying that behavior to see if it can be improved.

The organism might be able to use information to its benefit, but only if it can find information that is beneficial.  So, again, trial and error might be useful, in finding the best ways of getting useful information.  If the organism finds that a particular odor is helpful in identifying food, then it will seek that odor.  It is not passively waiting to receive information, but is actively looking for what will inform it about meeting biological needs.

The view from science

The way science works seems to be closer to that of what I have called the evolutionary stance.  Contrary to popular accounts, science does not begin with data and observations.  Science begins before there is data.  Job number one, for science, is in finding ways of getting useful data about the world.  Or, to say it differently, intentionality is job one.  The scientist is not faced with abstract symbols that he cannot connect to reality.  Rather, the scientist is faced with reality and must often devise a way of getting useful data about that reality.

Data, or observations, for science, are typically in the form of measurements.  But measurement is an invented procedure.  Clocks were invented to make it possible to have data about time.  Thermometers were invented to give us data that approximately corresponds to hotness or coldness.  Our use of a measuring rod for determining distance may go back to antiquity.  However, much of the data used by science follows measurement procedures that were invented within the time span of recorded history.

Intentionality is not a problem for science, just as it is not a problem for that organism.  It is not a problem because scientists invent ways to get useful data, and then give names to the data thereby obtained.  So the data is automatically connected to reality by the procedures that scientists follow in order to get that data.

Summary

The design stance:

  • begin with ontology (the entities to be described), often taken as a priori;
  • somehow, form beliefs as relations between these entities;
  • use induction on beliefs to form more general beliefs
  • intentionality, or how the beliefs refer to the entities, is not adequately explained.

The evolutionary stance:

  • begin with reality;
  • use trial and error to find methods of getting useful data about reality;
  • symbols connect the data to the method use for acquiring it, solving the problem of intentionality;
  • entities are named based on what is learned from the data.
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6 Responses to “Turning epistemology upside down”

  1. Hi, interesting thoughts. I think, though, that it may misrepresent the traditional stance.

    Let me try something else, that might sound weird or strange at first.

    Let’s say your scientist starts with an intention. Say, a geologist studying a rock. Now he starts to gather data, but prior to making a measurement.

    How could we describe the initial phase of this process that brings in the least amount of assumptions (sort of Occam’s Razor here, but not exactly):

    1. An image is observed in awareness.

    Full stop. If this isn’t understood, nothing else will make sense.

    Normally, or at least, in every day language, we would say instead

    1. The geologist observes the rock.

    There are so many ontological assumptions here, so many epistemological attitudes and beliefs, that we’re stuck completely, doomed to a preconceived notion of what a rock is and what obseving is and what a geologist is.

    So instead, we say

    An image is observed in awareness.

    Is there any problem with starting with this? It’s not meant to be positivism; it bears some resemblance to phenomenology (if not of Husserl, perhaps of Merleau-Ponty, but not exactly that either).

    Keep it simple:

    An image is observed in awareness.

    Any problems?

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    • 1. An image is observed in awareness.

      Full stop. If this isn’t understood, nothing else will make sense.

      But this already assumes too much. It assumes perception, which is yet to be explained.

      Let’s say your scientist starts with an intention. Say, a geologist studying a rock. Now he starts to gather data, but prior to making a measurement.

      Most of the data gathered by a geologist today, could not have been gathered by Aristotle nor by anyone from that era. Most of the data gathered today depends on concepts and measurement systems that were invented relatively recently.

      The trouble with traditional epistemology is that it assumes the data is there, ready for taking. It ignores the fact that data does not exist until suitable concepts and measuring systems have been defined.

      Keep it simple

      Let’s keep it real simple. A new baby is born. It sees its mother breast and innately knows to suck.

      But that was false for my children. The mother had to bring the babies mouth to the breast, and then use her fingers to start the milk flowing. The baby did innately like the result, and soon learned how to suck in what I presume was a trial and error process.

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  2. Hi Neil,

    Me again. I’m not sure that your post has quite addressed the question of intentionality. You described it as “the problem of understanding how our words are able to refer to entities in the world.” But your evolutionary account didn’t say anything about that subject.

    My approach is to say that reference (or being about things) is not limited to words. We can look at a simpler case of non-verbally-expressed information which is clearly about something. We could then take your example and say that the organism clearly has information about its environment. That’s intentionality. We need to bring the crucial word “about” or “refer” into our account somewhere. And we can do that in the natural way that I just did.

    Personally I would take the even simpler example of a simple robotic system, say a vacuum cleaner which can learn about the objects in its environment and avoid bumping into them. The advantage of taking a computer-based system is that we can imagine just how the information is represented (if we have enough knowledge of computers).

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    • But your evolutionary account didn’t say anything about that subject.

      I grant you that. I have learned the hard way, that it is impossible to explain intentionality. People, and particularly philosophers, have too many preconceived notions that interfere with an explanation. So the best I can hope to do is attempt to slowly undermine those preconceived notions. However, given my age, I am not going to get very far with that undermining.

      My approach is to say that reference (or being about things) is not limited to words.

      Agreed.

      We can look at a simpler case of non-verbally-expressed information which is clearly about something. We could then take your example and say that the organism clearly has information about its environment. That’s intentionality. We need to bring the crucial word “about” or “refer” into our account somewhere. And we can do that in the natural way that I just did.

      Sure. But that’s like saying that if you sweep the dirt under the rug, you can give the house an appearance of looking clean. However, it evades all of the issues.

      The advantage of taking a computer-based system is that we can imagine just how the information is represented (if we have enough knowledge of computers).

      I see two problems with that:

      • The information as represented in a computer, is the way that we humans have designed a technological representation system. So this only tells us about our own technology.
      • You are presuming that representation, rather than reference, is the problem that needs to be solved.

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    • You described it as “the problem of understanding how our words are able to refer to entities in the world.” But your evolutionary account didn’t say anything about that subject.

      I’m coming back to that, because I misspoke in my prior response. On re-reading my post, I see that I did indeed say something about that. It is just that you are unable to see it.

      Like

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