Our Epistemological Crisis

Several essays ago, I mentioned that we are in an epistemological crisis, and I promised further discussion in future essays. In case you have been eagerly awaiting the further discussion, here it is!

"What is our epistemological crisis?" you may be wondering. "And what on earth does 'epistemological' mean?!"

"Epistemology" is a fancy word that philosophers like to use for the study of knowledge itself. Our "epistemological crisis" then is a crisis of knowledge. The particular crisis I see in Western thought is related to how and why religion and science have split apart, and the problems that have been created by this split.

I locate the origin of the epistemological crisis in a particular moment: a moment in the early twentieth century when the logical positivists decided to ground their conception of science in the epistemology of philosopher David Hume instead of that of Immanuel Kant.

The logical positivists were a group of philosophers and philosophically-inclined scientists who tried to clarify our understandings of philosophy, logic, and science. In clarifying the logic of scientific inquiry, they gave us our current conception of the "scientific method," grounding it in Hume's epistemology. Hume was an 18th century philosopher famous for saying that all of our knowledge comes from sense experience. Hume's epistemology is actually too weak to support science, and he himself realized this. He knew that most of our sophisticated, theoretical knowledge about science rests on a deep belief in cause and effect, and he realized that his own empiricist epistemology did not really allow for belief in cause and effect. All we can observe is that we tend to think in causal terms, but we have to be skeptical about whether causality is really real in the world. But Hume mitigated his skepticism: even though we cannot know that causality is real, we do tend to think in terms of causality, and so we can continue to accept this and other basic "common sense" assumptions as long as we understand that we cannot fully justify our belief in them.

Most people who know something about Hume and Kant like Hume and are critical of Kant and so they think that it was a good decision on the part of the logical positivists to ground science in Hume's empiricism. But what they fail to realize is that the reason they like Hume and dislike Kant is exactly because the logical positivists told us to. Since the logical positivists grounded their view of science in Hume's thought, that is how we learn science, and so we are biased towards thinking that that is how science must be. Hume's "common sense" becomes our common sense. But, tragically, the reason the logical positivists favored Hume over Kant was that they did not understand Kant.

Kant was troubled by Hume's argument. Unlike Hume, instead of just stipulating an empiricism that is too weak to justify the most important kind of knowledge, Kant concluded that Hume's empiricism fails and set upon the task of building a better epistemology. His achievement is breathtaking, but really hard to understand. The super-condensed summary of Kant's epistemology is that our minds are not blank slates, but are pre-structured to allow us to receive and organize our sense perceptions. One aspect of that pre-structuring is our ability to perceive the events of the world in terms of cause and effect. I will describe Kant's views further in a future essay. The point that is most relevant now is that Kant appreciated that it is a major task of science to clarify our causal understanding of reality, and so he insisted that epistemology has to account for how we know that there is causality in general.

Hume's epistemology does not account for this deeper knowledge we do have, and thus does not support this most important task of science. Even worse, on Hume's epistemology we do not even know for sure that there is a world: all I can know is that I exist and I have these perceptions -- I cannot know for sure that these perceptions are of a real external world outside of my imagination!

And so it turns out that, although it is common for philosophers of science to say that our epistemology today is generally based on Hume's, in fact Hume's epistemology is not strong enough to support the actual assumptions and aims of science. And, yet, following Hume's skepticism mitigated by common sense, we fudge over these problems by pretending we don't really know that there is causality or an external world, and yet we believe these things anyway -- as if the skepticism itself is not really a problem, and as if then glossing over the skepticism with "common sense" is also unproblematic!

And this is only the tip of the iceberg of our epistemological crisis! We have used the logical positivist interpretation of science to relativise ethics and to raise serious doubts towards religion and metaphysics (the philosophical study of the nature of reality), but in truth none of these is actually any more questionable on Hume's epistemology than our belief in causality and our belief in an external world. What I mean is, yes, Hume's epistemology is too weak to provide strong grounding for ethics, religious belief, and metaphysics, but this weakness is no worse than the weakness of its grounding for science. Hume and the logical positivists happily mitigated their skepticism towards the foundations of science with "common sense," but then arbitrarily withheld this mitigation from ethics, metaphysics, and religion.

So, our current epistemology is actually too weak to support religion, ethics, metaphysics, or science. We patch over this fatal weakness with respect to science by accepting its assumptions on the basis of "common sense," but we dismiss the rest out of hand! Because this is how we have learned to think, few have noticed how selective and arbitrary our skepticism is, and few have demanded a better epistemology. This is our epistemological crisis; I will discuss its further consequences next time.