Saturday, August 03, 2013

Epistemic Notes.

Epistemology embraces everything.

ONE) Establishment Science, like the law courts, is a formal social institution that seeks successful explanation of the human predicament. But as with the courts, institutionalized science is epistemically hamstrung when it comes to many questions; like, e.g., the identity of Jack Ripper, or what the future holds. Although Jack the Ripper and the future have an ontological reality, their scientific intractability doesn't make them any less real. Nevertheless, in spite of these awkward ontologies lacking amenability to unequivocal scientific determination people can and do have rational opinions about both the identity of Jack the Ripper and the course of the future; although these opinions can’t make claim to being institutionally authoritative. Rationality, it seems, doesn't suddenly cut-off when institutionalized science ends. Instead there is a gradual fade out of rationality as we leave the formal proceedings of science behind and strike out into greater informality. Although there is no sudden obvious cut-off, we find that at the extreme ends of the spectrum the difference between rationality and irrationality becomes more pronounced; compare, for example spring extending and test tube precipitating science with the theories of David Ike. In between these extremes, however, there are vast grey areas of epistemically debatable territory.

TWO) The rationality spectrum is a consequence of a trade-off between rigour and epistemic progress and between criticism and imagination. Imagination fuelled theorizing, without the tempering effects of rigour and criticism, is a chancy hit and miss affair (mostly “miss” in fact), but on the other hand if we sacrifice the products of imagination to the stultifying effects of extreme critical scepticism epistemic progress comes to a standstill.  Somewhere a balance has to be maintained and achieving this balance is made all the more difficult by the fact that not all ontologies are equally amenable and accessible to our epistemic methods. The consequence is that in some disciplines a paucity of experiential protocols gives more latitude to the imagination.

THREE) The rational amenability of the ontologies we deal with differs and so also does just how cognitively primed we are to cope with what reality throws our way. By way of illustration: From a relative paucity of observation children quickly learn languages – this is because languages conform to the patterns that a child’s language instinct expects and therefore from a few observational clues they make fast progress in the learning of  languages. When a priori expectation and ontological rationality are well matched epistemic progress is fast. If our world as a whole has an a-priori rationality about it then relatively few observational clues may be sufficient for us to correctly infer the patterns of its ontology. In fact considering the progress that has been made in the physical sciences it is clear that there are aspects of our world that wholly fulfil our a-priori expectation of rationality. That the physical sciences have prospered is evidence of this rational fruitfulness.

FOUR) Ideally a theoretical narrative makes predictions: A track record of correct predictions increases the chances of a theory being right. However, as I've repeatedly said in this blog, predictive testing at will is not always an easy option with ontologies that have an open ended complex of variables and are relatively inaccessible to boot. For example, although it would be certainly wrong to say that history isn't testable, remoteness in time is variable that promotes a logical distance, a distance which can conflict with ease of testing. In the most difficult cases we may have little option but to retrospectively juggle our theoretical narratives with a given suite of post-facto experience in order to seek a “best fit” between the theory and the experiential protocols to hand  - “abuductive science” is, I think, the technical name. However, in the absence of formal cannons that define just what constitutes a “good fit”, then for complex open ended ontologies it is no surprise that the abductive process is subject to the foibles and irregularities of opinion. When the relatively simple ontologies of spring extending and test tube precipitating science are combined with our clearly primed cognitive ability we have a model of rational fruitless, which is in stark contrast to the complex ontologies, such as we find, say, in sociology and history.

FIVE) One frequently hears complaints that contentious theories (such as homoeopathy, for example) have “no supporting evidence”. Given that seldom do states of affairs have sharp enough cut-off criteria to warrant an absolute “no”, it is better in my opinion to talk about “insufficient evidence” rather that “no evidence”.  Even the most baroque notions, like say David Ike’s conspiracy theories, have evidences in the sense that a narrative, no matter how bizarre, will attempt to assimilate at least some agreed observations into its “explanatory” structure. What we really mean by “no evidence” is in fact whether there is a “good fit” between the narrative and a sufficient suite of experiential protocols.

SIX) If a theoretical narrative is at least a reasonable approximation to truth then that narrative will imply a set of likely expectations about experience. I'm not going to call these expectations “predictions” because in the general case they may be assimilated post-facto into the body of the theory rather than being predicted. Given that most grand theories embrace situations with an open ended number of adjustable variables, the degree of freedom entailed by these variables may so great as to permit a trivial fit to almost any experiential circumstance;  in effect the net the theory is providing has become so stretched that its ability to “catch” experience is simply down to a fortuitous “hit”.

SEVEN) Evidences don’t so much lead us in a logical and rigorous way to theories as theories lead us to evidences in the sense that we can see how the evidences follow if the theory is right. This relationship between theory and evidence can be expressed using the logical implication sign as below: (Where I use “!” to represent negation):

Theoretical Narrative => Evidence

Evidence !=> Theoretical Narrative

These relationships explain why it is difficult to make clear cut judgements as to just what is rational and what is not. The evidences in hand will be a relatively small set, but in contrast the ability of humanity to create narratives that embrace those evidences is open ended; the human imagination ensures that explanatory stories need suffer no such restriction and therefore being human ensures that there is always a risk of over theorizing, particularly with complex opened ended ontologies. Just because spring extending and test tube precipitating science deals with an ontology that favours high standards of “proof” it doesn't follow that other ontologies of greater complexity and less accessibility can emulate such standards of “proof”.

EIGHT) Is a rational, stable, logical universe a “proof” of God? No; in fact using the relationships above we can understand why not. The evidence of a logical stable universe doesn't imply God; any number of atheists can accept a-priori that the universe is stable, logical and comprehensible, and consequently reap the scientific rewards of this belief and yet remain atheist. “The rain falls on the just and unjust”. But for a theist with a traditional narrative of God, epistemic knowability is a fact that makes sense in the light of God’s providence. Ergo, we can move from theology to the evidence of a comprehensible universe but we can’t move with any rigour in the reverse direction; that is from cosmic comprehensibility to God. However, for the atheist epistemic comprehensibility, aside from seeming to be an inexplicable brute fact, ultimately has no absolute assurance. Therefore, if the atheist finds himself not secure in this brute fact he is then in danger of triggering a conflicting self-referencing loop and sliding into postmodern nihilism,

The unstable self-referencing loop that epistemology can become.

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