Where I’m coming from

I often get into disputes over epistemology. I don’t think I can hope to convince anyone of my position in a blog post, but I can try to clarify it a bit for further discussion. This is a hastily-written, rough first attempt to make it slightly clearer “where I’m coming from”.

My attempted clarification has two steps, which correspond roughly to two stages in my own epistemological development. The first involves the rejection of foundationalism.

Traditionally, from the time of Plato’s dialogue Thaeatetus to the twentieth century, philosophers understood knowledge as justified true belief. Different schools of thought differed on how to understand justification.

Typically, “rationalists” held that beliefs were justified by being based on a priori truths such as Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas”, while “empiricists” held that beliefs were justified by being based on the deliverances of experience such as “sense data”. What these supposedly opposed schools of thought have in common is foundationalism.

By “foundationalism”, I mean the assumption that beliefs are justified by being “based on” a foundation of basic beliefs. According to this picture, knowledge is like an edifice: it rests on its firmest or most certain parts in much the same way as the conclusion of a valid deductive argument can be derived from its premises. So basic beliefs function like axioms in mathematics. As theorems can be derived from axioms by following the rules of inference, empirical knowledge is supposed to be derivable from basic beliefs following analogous rules of deduction or induction.

I reject foundationalism for many reasons. Perhaps the most straightforward of them is that I’m inclined to take natural science rather than mathematics as my “model” of human knowledge. In science, theories do not rest on foundations – rather, they are tested against observations, and indeed they are tested alongside one another. According to this alternative picture, knowledge is more like a spider’s web than an edifice: it does not rest on foundations, but instead is “anchored to the world” at various points where observations test it.

To develop this metaphor a little further, an individual’s “web of belief” is most abstract and uncertain near its centre, furthest away from where it is anchored by – i.e. checked against – observation. Its most concrete and secure parts are closest to these anchor points. This outer area consists of inter-subjectively verifiable observations and modest but widely shared theory. Because it is mostly directly observed or “sensed”, and because it is almost universally shared by users of the same language or “common”, we may as well call this area “common sense”. According to this understanding of common sense, observations consist of everyday truths we learn to recognize as we acquire our native language, such as “it’s raining”, “there’s a banana in this brown paper bag”, and “the needle points to the letter N”. Because these are mostly truths that are obvious to anyone present whose sense organs are working properly, practically everyone who understands the language agrees to them. In addition to these directly observable truths, common sense consists of some other very widely-held truisms that are somewhat less directly observed, such as “the Earth is round”, “the poles are unusually cold”, and “many diseases are spread via infectious material”.

So much for this non-foundational image of human knowledge, which we might call “pragmatism”. What about the justification of beliefs in this picture?

The answer to this question is rather subtle, and I will try to answer it in two separate passes. The first pass is a quick-and-dirty answer: justification is coherence. A belief is justified if it is implied by and/or implies other beliefs in the web of belief. So the more smoothly a belief meshes with the rest of the system, the more justification the believer has in retaining it as part of that system.

Now you might wonder how could mere coherence with the rest of a belief system justify a belief? – The answer is that most of our beliefs are true. That’s hardly surprising, because most of them are about utterly mundane, everyday, obvious facts. We acquired them via innate biological processes whose reliability is more or less guaranteed – at least in normal use – by evolution. By cohering with a largely true belief system, any belief gains something in credibility. Truth being a matter of correspondence with the facts, we might say that most of the time coherence yields correspondence.

That’s the first pass, the quick-and-dirty answer to the traditional question of justification. But strictly speaking, it’s a mistaken or misleading answer. Why? – This traditional question of justification is a mistaken question. No matter who you are, or how misguided your opinions may be, your beliefs form a system, and any one of your beliefs coheres with the rest of the system. So all beliefs are justified, at least according to the lights of the believer whose system they belong to.

If we are forced to embrace the traditional epistemological language of justification, pragmatists like myself will be forced to say that beliefs are justified by coherence. But we have to abandon that language. This brings me to the second stage of my own epistemological development, and the second pass at answering the question above.

The second stage goes further than rejecting foundationalism – we have to reject epistemological internalism as well. By “internalism” I mean the assumption that knowledge consists of beliefs that – in addition to actually being true – enjoy a “guarantee” or assurance of truth that is internal to the mind of the believer. Instead, we have to consider the reliability of the external processes that give rise to the belief – in other words, we have to consider the links that connect the belief and the purported fact (i.e. state of affairs) that makes it true (if it is indeed true).

One “end” of such a link is usually outside the head of the believer. So the link bridges a gap between the external world and the mind of the believer. Such links can be causal, of course, but more generally they must be “informational” so that they connect items that co-vary in a lawlike way. In a word, the link must be reliable.

Turning our attention from the mind’s own “grounds” for belief to the reliability of the links between mind and world involves a sort of paradigm shift. Our attention switches from the “doctrinal” matter of “how to refute the (radical) sceptic”, to the “conceptual” matter of how best to understand belief, information, cause, hypothesis, test, probability, truth, etc.

This paradigm shift opens a gulf between (A) the traditional epistemology of Plato and Descartes, and (B) a new “naturalized” epistemology, which often looks more like a branch of philosophy of science and mind. Although the question of internal justification is largely left behind, there remain questions about what we ought to believe or disbelieve. How can we distinguish denial and scepticism? How does pseudo-science differ from the real thing?

Obviously, although much has changed, some beliefs remain more belief-worthy than others. But just appealing to the contents of the rest of the system any given belief belongs to does not provide any obvious ways of deciding which is better than which. The traditional appeal to the reasonableness of a belief would usually trace it back to its supposed foundations via arguments, including “inductive arguments”. The new approach sees far less “unreasonableness” in belief systems than the old approach, but accepts quite a lot of plain falsity. Arguments are overrated; the real poison is the effect of falsehoods on a belief system, and the damage done by unreliable processes of belief-formation. The unfortunate people who suffer from such unreliable processes tend to have many false beliefs, and the contagion spreads. New beliefs may be internally justified according to the lights of the believer, but they remain embedded in a bad system.

To the new paradigm of externalism and naturalized epistemology, questions about what ought to be believed are generally not settled through navel-gazing or introspection, but rather through discussion, experiment, observation, etc. – in other words, by social activities between believers.

A quick note on “supervenience”

As a simple example of so-called “supervenience”, consider a container of gas at a given temperature. There are infinitely many possible molecular states for any given temperature, and statistically they are bound to differ. The one respect in which they will not differ is in their mean kinetic energy. It sounds strange to say that the property of the gas being at that temperature “supervenes” on the property of its molecules being in this or that state. I would call it downright misleading inasmuch as it suggests that phenomenological thermodynamics describes a different “realm” from that described by statistical mechanics.

In fact, phenomenological thermodynamics and statistical mechanics are just different theories, one of which reduces the other. The fact that they are actually inconsistent with one another is a stark reminder of the difference between them. Yet this remains a classic case of successful inter-theoretic reduction. Statistical mechanics is capable of mimicking phenomenological thermodynamics well enough to recreate Boyle’s Law and other laws of thermodynamics in statistical form. A part of statistical mechanics has the same taxonomy as phenomenological thermodynamics – a taxonomy represented by the tick marks on a thermometer. Rather than saying one property “supervenes” on another property – as if there were “levels of reality” – we should say that the taxonomic classes of two theories are identical. The smoothness of the inter-theoretic reduction between the theories entitles us to make such identity claims.

I use this example because it is not particularly mysterious. When we start talking about the “supervenience” of the mental on the physical, the (traditional, dualist) suggestion that there are two different “realms” is often overpowering.

Are “negative properties” genuine?

We are a property-owning animal, and it makes us look at the world through conceptual “spectacles” that can distort our grasp of reality. I think we see far too much as one thing owning another thing. For example, in ethics we tend to think in terms of rights: individuals are supposed to be the owners of various abstract entitlements. At a more fundamental level, we tend to think of any quality of a thing as its “property”.

Now I don’t think we can stop using the word ‘property’ in the near future, but we can be more careful about how we use it. I think we should think as much as possible in terms of kinds whose members are similar to each other along some dimension of similarity. (It might be mere family resemblance.) In other words, we should think of the qualities of things not as more abstract, further things that are “owned” in some abstract sense by the things that have them, but as sets whose members are similar to each other in some way (or ways).

Some of our everyday descriptive sentences use predicates that don’t stand for genuine properties. For example, consider the predicate of the sentence ‘Superman is known as a superhero’. The words ‘is known as a superhero’ can’t stand for a real property of Superman if it can’t be validly substituted into Leibniz’s Law.

By “Leibniz’s Law” I mean the identity of indiscernibles and its converse. In other words, I take it to say that A is identical with B if and only if every property of A is a property of B. Now we must be careful with the concept of identity, because in everyday speech the word ‘identical’ is used for things, plural, that are extremely similar to one another, such as identical twins. But in logic it’s used where there is just one thing. In logic, when we say “A and B are identical” we mean A is one and the same thing as B. There is a plurality of linguistic terms rather than of things. For example, Clark Kent is identical with Superman. There are two names for one person, even if Lois Lane doesn’t know that “they are” one and the same person.

If the words ‘is known as a superhero’ stood for a genuine property, then (by Leibniz’s Law) Clark Kent would not be identical with Superman, because although the latter is known as a superhero, the former is not. But Clark Kent is identical with Superman. Therefore, the predicate ‘is known as a superhero’ does not stand for a genuine property.

It may seem unsurprising that being known as a superhero is not a genuine property, because so much depends on what ordinary people know rather than the subject so described. But the fact that some predicates do not stand for genuine properties has some significant philosophical implications. Paul Churchland has argued that much initial scepticism about the idea that states of mind are identical with states of the brain springs from the idea that we can recognize our own states of mind, whereas we can’t recognize states of our own brains, which probably would need to be described in some future technical jargon. But if “being recognized as” something isn’t a genuine property, this is not a telling objection.

What about “negative properties” such as the quality this room enjoys of not containing a hippopotamus? To answer this question, let us first wonder what sort of fact makes the sentence ‘This room does not contain a hippopotamus’ true. If we adopt the traditional way of thinking about properties, it may seem as if the room “owns” a strange sort of “nothingness”, the property of there being no hippo in it. And since the room also does not contain an indefinitely vast range of other items, such “negative properties” threaten to grow into vast non-riches like the Irish national debt.

But if we think instead in terms of set-membership, the fact that makes the sentence ‘there is no hippo in the room’ true can be illustrated by a simple Venn diagram, just like most other everyday truths such as ‘snow is white’:

That is, {snow} ⊂ {white things}, and {things in this room} ⋂ {hippos} = ∅

We can see that the predicate ‘has no hippos in it’ does indeed stand for a genuine property, because it is validly substitutable into Leibniz’s Law: we can rule out the identity of this room and the Hippo House at London Zoo knowing nothing more than that the former does not contain any hippos while the latter does. Yet there is no threat of ghostly properties multiplying indefinitely as long as we maintain a firm grasp on the set-theoretic reality. The indefinitely many other sets whose intersection with a given set is empty do not affect the latter in any way.

No it isn’t complicated: we are monogamous

A Slate article available here discusses the question whether humans are monogamous. It’s worth reading as an example of how laughably bad evolutionary psychology can be. Instead of looking at what humans do and what most of us are most interested in, it begins by considering the human penis and wondering which ape penises the human penis resembles most.

…Which reminds me of an old philosophical joke: “My uncle was almost US President – he was skipper of PT 108!” This is funny, because during the Second World War Jack Kennedy was skipper of the patrol boat PT 109. Obviously, the proximity to 109 of the number of the patrol boat you’re the skipper of is no measure of how close you are to becoming President of the US. It assumes a mistaken dimension of similarity.

How would this sort of thinking work in biology? It might emerge in thoughts such as the following: bonobos live in the Congo, and they’re not monogamous; so the humans who live in the Congo aren’t monogamous either. Fail – where you live has nothing to do with how you normally reproduce. Nor is it any better to appeal to genetic proximity between species: species diverge because they occupy different environmental niches, adopt different strategies for reproduction, and so on. Small genetic differences often accompany large differences in lifestyle. For example, Galapagos finches are very closely related to each other, but they eat a wide variety of different foods, and thus have strikingly different ways of life. These differences were essential for their survival, and explain how they diverged in the first place. Similarly, although most non-human apes are not monogamous, some non-human apes are. The fact that we humans are a species of ape implies nothing.

The shape or size of of the human penis is probably entirely irrelevant to the question whether humans are monogamous. The human head is unusually large: that makes unusual demands on the human birth canal, and that in turn makes unusual demands on the human penis. Of course the human penis differs from that of other apes, just as our heads differ from the heads of other apes. No doubt other ape penises differ from each other, like other ape heads differ from each other.

The size of the human head actually does have some bearing on the question of human monogamy. Big brains are costly to maintain and to grow, both in terms of metabolism and learning. If humans who have healthy, well-fed brains, and skilled, knowledgeable minds do better – not just better at survival but better at getting chosen in the tricky game of sexual selection – we should expect to see whichever reproductive arrangements most effectively make them better. I think such arrangements are those of monogamy. The reproductive task of humans is in some ways similar to that of flying birds, which have to convert an egg into a flight-worthy fledgling in a very limited time “window” set by the length of the season. Their usual strategy is monogamy, with both parents involved, although of course monogamy is never perfect because cheating occurs in all monogamous species. Even where cheating occurs, successful reproduction normally makes demands on two adults rather than just one.

But the real clincher is simple observation: wherever we look, at whatever point in history, humans are and have always been intensely interested in love and marriage. Human attachment is more than an interest: it looks more like an obsession when we compare humans to most other animals such as non-monogamous apes. Love is the main theme of all forms of human art. Long-term partnerships are sought everywhere, from classified ads in newspapers to newer forms of “social media”.

The Slate article referred to above tells us that “According to anthropologists, only 1 in 6 societies enforces monogamy as a rule.” What they probably mean is that only 1 in 6 societies disallows divorce as a matter of fanatical adherence to law or scripture. But accepting that marriages often break down is different from not recognizing marriage or not acknowledging long-term partnership as an institution at all. And all human societies recognize long-term partnerships, as evolutionary biologist Helena Cronin often explains in detail.

There are several reasons why anthropologists and others overlook or seek to downplay the ubiquity of monogamy. Some of them illustrate errors that are philosophically instructive in themselves:

  1. Like much “research” in the humanities, anthropologists’ observations are neither repeatable nor inter-subjectively verifiable, and they involve more interpretation than observations within the genuine sciences. Some anthropologists have interpreted their subject matter with such a heavy-handed political agenda or pervasive ideology that their work has become notorious. Margaret Mead’s writings about Samoa are better-known for their errors of interpretation than for what she actually got right.
  1. The urge to say that humans are not monogamous had a resurgence with the “free love” movement of the 1960s. In this movement, a subculture of mostly young people hoped to break free from the hidebound and mostly monogamous arrangements that limited the freedom of their parents. But nearly always, the tensions and jealousies so familiar to those in monogamous arrangements re-emerged. It seems we are hard-wired to become attached to a single partner and to demand that that partner remains attached to us in return. This is an ideal, and the reality often falls short of the ideal. When it does fall short it spells trouble, but not the sort of trouble that can be avoided by ignoring or hoping to override human nature. Alas, for many years the academic establishment was populated by more elderly members of the “free love generation” who did just that.
  1. Members of the “free love generation” weren’t the only ones to adopt an alternative lifestyle that might be expected to leave monogamy behind. Over the centuries, often out of tragic necessity, both male and female homosexuals had to join a sort of underworld of sexual activity in which legal marriage did not exist. In some places this involved unusual promiscuity, much as it did with heterosexual hippies in the 1960s. But in no place did it not involve long-term love partnerships as well. The urge to join such a partnership seems to belong to those of all sexual preference, even those who would eschew it if it really were such an “unnatural imposition” of human culture.
  1. Nowadays, the urge to say that humans are not monogamous is often seen in two superficially opposed corners: feminism and laddism. Both seem to resent any sort of dependency between the sexes, both prefer to think that women don’t need men to help raise children, and for notably different reasons, both prefer to think that mothers shouldn’t depend on the fathers of their children for support. Because “both sides” seem to arrive at the same conclusion, it might seem to be surrounded by an air of consensus. Those who find consensus convincing should look instead at the vast majority of humans who belong to neither of these extremes, and instead agree that the involvement of two parents is the best and most “natural” arrangement for raising children, as well as for growing old in.
  1. It is sometimes claimed that institutions like marriage are imposed on humans by human laws, as if nurture overrides human nature, which would otherwise be non-monogamous. But nurture adds detail to innate human capacities and urges rather than opposing or overriding them. Human culture such as our legal system often involves the policing of arrangements that the majority would abide by anyway, in the absence of such laws, as a matter of unforced natural choice. This is true of laws of ownership, and it is just as true of laws concerning marriage and divorce. So the fact that we have laws that seem to “enforce” monogamy – by making special allowances for it – does not detract from its naturalness. It isn’t a “social construct” or something “imposed by society” as an unnatural afterthought.
  1. The Slate article cited above says that the question of human monogamy is “complicated”. I think they say this because they assume the concept of monogamy is perfect, like the concept of a perfect circle, and therefore simple. Their concept is too simple for the reality to match it, so the reality ends up looking more complicated than the concept. But that perfect concept is too simple. Some members of all monogamous animal species cheat, and in doing so they do not make their species as a whole any less monogamous compared with alternative reproductive arrangements. The concept of “monogamy” in the claim that “humans are monogamous” should be understood as being analogous to the concept of “round” in the claim that “the Earth is round”. We say the Earth is round because it’s shaped like a ball rather than flat. We don’t say it’s round because we think it’s a perfect sphere. Analogously, humans are monogamous because human children normally need the care and attentions of two parents rather than one, and new children are born before older children have reached adulthood. So normally the same parents are involved with each successive child. This involves a pair bond that in favorable circumstances lasts for life. It doesn’t matter much that it often doesn’t actually last for life: an animal that dies before it reaches its species’ life expectancy is no less a member of that species for dying young.

Perhaps it is because a faithful lifelong partnership is not often achieved among humans that monogamy is often treated as an ideal. But it should be understood as a moral or personal ideal rather than as a conceptual ideal like a perfect sphere. But it is also a biological reality, like “good health”. Once we grasp that all the other animals we unhesitatingly call monogamous have the same problems and shortcomings as ourselves, we see that ours too is a monogamous species. It’s simple really.