Critical Realist Epistemology
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First off, thanks for the very lucid and thoughtful response. I hope I can make some sense here too.
I'll start with a disclaimer that may be obvious, but it's worth saying anyway: this is just
of Critical Realist epistemology, and Polanyi, and Wright, etc. I could be totally misconstruing what they are really saying. Probably am
Quote:"Critical Realist" epistemology is actually the preferred epistemology of most working scientists, from what I understand. Bertrand Russell is even included among their ranks, if I'm not mistaken. I think it can basically be summed up by saying that while absolute certainty is impossible, the pursuit of knowledge is not necessarily a fruitless enterprise. I think Michael Polanyi is an important figure in this line of epistemology, who points out that presuppositions are the necessary tools we use to work out a picture of reality; the only way to examine anything is with the "tool" of a presupposition. If you want to think critically about your presupposition, you can only do it by using yet another presupposition. As such, Wright suggests that "The proof of the pudding is in the eating."
Ok. Not what I was remembering. It sounds as if this is going to end up at the supposed "problem of induction," which is addressed really well by probability (Bayes). I say addressed because there's some quibbling over whether or not the problem is solved or circumvented, but for my money, if you can legitimately circumvent a problem, you have solved it....
I'm really not familiar with Bayes, or the "problem of induction"; I'll have to read up on that.
I don't know too many scientists who would even use the phrase "the pursuit of knowledge is not necessarily a fruitless enterprise." I think it would be more like "The pursuit of knowledge is the only way to effectively gain specific knowledge." The descent into nihilism negates the argument that uncertainty = no knowledge. The only question is whether or not we can come up with an intermediate definition of knowledge between deductive certainty and complete ignorance. The traditional "justified true belief," where justification comes from empirical scientific certainty, and true comes from accurate data, seems to do just fine.
If these folks are not going to end up at the problem of induction, how are they going to get to even empirical plausibility for god? If they're not going to get to empirical plausibility, how are they going to justify knowledge?
Right on. Critical realism is the attempt to arrive at just such an intermediate position, but Polanyi, I think, expands the concept of justification beyond only "empirical scientific certainty", with what he calls "tacit knowledge". I think the reasoning goes something like this:
If presuppositions are unavoidable (as I mentioned before), and cannot be justified without presupposing something else, then it must be the case that if we have "knowledge" (i.e. justified, true belief) at all, we must "know more than we can tell." As such, when dealing with ultimate, foundational presuppositions, justification (in the traditional sense) is not necessary to begin with. Justification comes not before assent to the presupposition, but after you sort of "test drive" the belief to see if it works or not. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating", as they say.
As for presuppositions, I think this is adequately addressed by noting the difference between individual colloquial presupposition and the existence of justification. I do not need to presuppose my own existence, for I experience it directly.
I think I would agree with you that you can have certainty about your own existence, and mathematics. But someone pointed me recently to the fact that an Eastern philosopher might have a problem with Descartes' cogito, and foundationalist certainty of your own existence, because according to some Eastern thought, the ultimate truth is "No self". I don't really understand this, but I'm interested in trying to understand it better.
From there, if I take the time, I can deduce logic and math entirely for myself. With these tools, I can deduce probability theory. At this point, all I have to do is avoid nihilism by admitting that what I perceive is a mental representation of an actual reality, and I'm home free.
I think that's where the problem comes in: such an admittance is an unjustified belief. What is more: we know from experience that what we perceive can be deceiving.
Plug in what, by all available standards, appears to be empirically true, and trust probability, which is deductively derived.
There's a problem with probability too, because reality sometimes (obviously) contradicts probability. As such, you can have justified knowledge (via probability) that is not true, such as my justified belief that the air conditioner would turn on (like it has turned on every other time: probability) the other day when I pressed the button, but it didn't because it was broken. Or to use the BIV illustration, it is improbable that I am a brain in a vat, but it is still possible that I am. If it is the case that I am a BIV, then I have justified, false belief.
Now take another case closer to our ultimate issue. According to science and medicine, it was improbable that the cancer Joy Gresham Lewis' bones would get better when she seemed to be on her deathbed. But C.S. Lewis believed that when he prayed that he could suffer in her stead, she would get better, and he would get worse. His belief was not justified in the empirical-scientific sense, but his belief was "true" because that is what happened.
The theist suggestion would then be (I know you've heard this before... it probably even has a name to it) that while belief in God may not be justified in the scientific sense, it is one of those instances that the true belief is the one that appears improbable (according to traditional terms). This is a presuppositional belief to which you assent in order to find its justification. As I mentioned earlier, so far for me, assent to Christianity has made enough sense out of the reality I experience that I don't see the need for changing my belief.
To use still another illustration: syntax. It is sometimes the case that in a sentence, you cannot know the true meaning of a word until you reach the very end of the sentence, or sometimes until you reach the end of the paragraph, or whatever the case may be. You stick with your initial "hunch" of a definition until that hunch proves inadequate. But even then, you can take a "risk" and keep your original definition. It may end up correct in the end.
But really it is a risk whether you keep your original definition, or change to the more probable one. How many times have you got into what you thought would be the faster checkout lane because there were less people, and less items to be checked, only to find out that this woman had 30 coupons stuffed into her pocket she was going to use?
But of course, then you have the problem of basing belief on what is improbable. But I think you could say that the improbable belief is not arbitrary: there are reasons for such a belief.
Ugh... it is 3:30 am... there is much more that needs to be said, including the obvious fact that I do not have all of this neatly worked out; I'm still trying to understand this Critical Realist mumbo jumbo. There is probably also much that should be edited out of this response...I am sorry for not being as lucid! Must sleep now....
Ockham's Razor is only as sharp as you are.