The Problem with Epistemology

While trying to explore the principles of creation of knowledge, I wanted to run an overview of the epistemology as a way of understanding knowledge from a philosophical perspective. As result of this mini-exercise am writing a brief overview with a few comments, followed by my brief personal critique of epistemology.

What Is Epistemology?

Philosophy as a thinking system likes to explore the universe through “rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge or conduct” (www.dictionary.com). Where does epistemology fit?

According to Peter D. Klein “epistemology is concerned with the nature, sources and limits of knowledge”. This is where the trouble starts. What is knowledge? According to some knowledge should include objective forms, others think that in the context of epistemology, knowledge is only about beliefs that something is true as opposed to knowledge about how to do things.

Epistemology ventures into areas where precise measurement is impossible. This is why there are many definitions of epistemology and heated debates have been going on for centuries.

Propositional Knowledge Epistemology

The focus of epistemology on knowledge analysed on the basis of beliefs and truth takes this philosophy out of the natural philosophy branch, where I would have preferred it to be. In my view this limits the influence of the advances of science on the development of epistemology simply because subjective knowledge is impossible to measure. The claim of the traditional epistemology is that the quality of the reasons for our beliefs determines the conversion of beliefs into knowledge. This approach is called the normative epistemology, and is supported by theories of justification. Another tradition, the naturalized epistemology, claims that the conditions in which the beliefs are acquired determine the truthfulness of the beliefs.

Normative Epistemology

This tradition has two views about the structure of reasons: foundationalism and coherentism. The foundationalism reminds me of the Anglo-Saxon common law. Rulings can be made based on precedent rulings which have been gathered throughout the history of application of the law in territories under the crown for many, many centuries. Some of the rulings are unique and they can form the basis of a new ruling for a case that could occur in the future. When they occur and the reference to the precedent is accepted as being similar, the court can rule without having to repeat the previous process. Thus, according to this view, beliefs can be based on other beliefs which have been proven true in the past, therefore they don’t have to be justified and thus together they form the basis of the aggregating belief and deem it true. In other words if the new belief X is based on A deemed true, then X is true. Of course, it gets complicated when deciding if a belief is true when more than one hypothesises are available.

The basic beliefs can be of several types: empiric (Hume and Locke), rational intuition (Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza), innate (Kant, Plato), or conversational contextual.

Coherentism by contrary, states that a belief is true if multiple beliefs are inferred for its justification. But this is not very helpful either. Gettier formulated a scenario (Gettier’s problem) where the assumptions might be true, but the inferred belief is not necessarily true. Gettier’s example of Jones and Smith when they apply for a job and Smith is making a deduction in which he concludes “the person who has ten cents in his pocket will get the job” which proves in the end to be false, although the hypothesis are true, seems to be focused on semantics rather than facts. When Smith said “the person with 10cents in his pocket will get the job” he was thinking of Jones. Thus, the actual belief was that Jones will get the job because he knew he has 10 cents in his pocket. Gettier tries to prove the point by solely focusing on the last sentence that went through Smith’s mind, not on the actual belief. The experiment clearly makes no connection whatsoever between the 10 cents and the job allocation, hence the hypothesis is false anyway.

Naturalized Epistemology

Also called naturalistic epistemology, this tradition describes the knowledge as produced in natural circumstances and beliefs are considered true based on conditions verified using methods, results and theories specific to empirical sciences. This type of epistemology tends to rely on cognitive psychology and its empirical methods to determine the quality of conditions in which the knowledge is acquired. Quine, a naturalistic epistemologist, considers epistemology as part of psychology, while Thomas Kuhn thinks the social sciences should be applied to epistemology. This approach would solve the Gettier’s problem by qualifying the source of knowledge as not entirely reliable. Mind you, this is not bullet proof because the method cannot be applied to what you don’t know. Smith didn’t know he does not have 10 cents in his pocket, so his statement sounds true.

My Objections

The fundamental issue I have with the proposition offered by epistemology, that knowledge is about beliefs and justification as an indication of truth, is that it is entirely subjective (even the empirical methods ultimately attempt to “guess” the quality of the subjective thought) and limited to human interpretation and mental storage of knowledge.

With the development of computers and large network systems the idea that knowledge is limited to the human brain and defined by individual beliefs is unsatisfactory. There are two major weak points in the traditional epistemology: knowledge can be stored outside the human brain and used as a repository which is accessible on a need by need basis or through gradual discovery and that knowledge could be distributed across large number of people and shared as common source of knowledge.

The first issue is a bit surprising. Epistemology seems to be stuck in a debate that has only marginally changed since Plato, based around a discourse focused on beliefs as mysterious forms of reflection of the external environment or as outcomes that result from internal mental processes. At a time when information was an inexistent concept and everything was mechanical, far more obvious and easier to recognise than thoughts, the fascination with the mind’s perceptions and deductions was understandable. But know this approach is outdated in my view because it does not recognise the possibility of knowledge created by and with computer systems in vast networks.

The second objection has to do with the lack of recognising the socially created knowledge as something that is acquired by large social group through an iterative process of sharing, collaboration and collective action. The role of social networks is ignored completely, thus missing the opportunity to explore the creation of knowledge at a higher order and implications of availability of knowledge across large populations and geographical areas, including the whole planet.

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