Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Calling All Epistemological Stalinists

Dr William Feelgood, cognitive psychologist, writes…

Dear Jo,

Mr. Timothy V Reeves has asked me to consider your case as you appear to be poorly adjusted to your world, epistemologically speaking.

As I think Mr. Reeves has made as clear as mud, science is unable to progress on certain questions - in particular if the description of our world won’t yield to simple statistical or mathematical treatment. However, that much of our world is regular and statistical enough to be science friendly is testified by technological advances as you point out. And yet we have no known reason why this “science friendliness” should be so and have no obvious way of turning science on itself on order to scrutinize and throw light on this meta-question. We have no proof that our world has any logical obligation to be amenable to science or that it always will be so. In this sense we are at the mercy of providence.

Historians, of course, have to face “science unfriendliness” all the time, and much of their subject cannot be reduced beyond large swathes of debatable text and dates to remember. String theorists are working hard to reduce even the contingencies of history to a full mathematical theory, but as yet that is barely light at the end of a very, very long tunnel, and in any case their theories hold out little prospect of a logically closed self sufficient cosmos that explains itself.

In the meantime we have to come to terms with the fact that the map of knowledge will forever have blank areas beyond the known world. There are two ways of reacting to this 1. The fearful superstitious reaction of populating the unknown areas with the fanciful monsters and beings of our nightmares Viz: “Here be dragons” (or “little grey aliens” as it is today) 2. The equally fearful reaction of declaring that what is not known or what is not amenable to science simply doesn’t exist.

In order to come to terms with the unknown, I prescribe some simple measures. Firstly say to yourself daily such things as “I don’t know. We don’t know. I may never know. We may never know”. I also advise you to read some of Arthur C Clarke’s books dealing with the mysteries of our world. (Caveat: never get involved with the occult). Also worth reading is Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s book “The Black Swan”. (Taleb is a paradoxical blend of great intellectual arrogance and preciousness and yet exemplary epistemic humility)

Once a position of epistemic humility is fostered one is then ready to receive with great joy discoveries that fortuitously fall into one’s lap. The realization finally dawns that all knowledge is in fact a providential revelation, and an unwarranted, perhaps even undeserved, gift.

The alternative is a foolish, crass and naive truimphalistic “clockwork” scientism based on an irrational and unselfaware faith that it is our unalienable and logical right to receive knowledge in a in cosmos that owes us an epistemological living. That our world can hatch some nasty surprises for us, along with the many good things that are not in our power to receive at will, is then a well deserved and chastening lesson. However, if we adopt epistemic humility we will find ourselves much better adjusted for the mysteries of reality as they truly are. The way is then set for renewed epistemological attitudes that acknowledge where our epistemological bread is buttered. Then with joy, humble hope and expectation we can say. “I may yet know. We may yet know. One day I may know. One day we may know”.

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