How do we know what the weather will be like tomorrow? How do we know how old the Universe is? How do we know if you are thinking rationally?These and other questions of the “how do we know?” variety are the business of epistemology, the area of philosophy concerned with understanding the nature of knowledge and belief.
Lately, we find ourselves lamenting the post-truth world, in which facts seem no more important than opinions, and sometimes less so.We also tend to see this as a recent devaluation of knowledge. But this is a phenomenon with a long history.
Not all facts are true:To call something a fact is, presumably, to make a claim that it is true. This isn’t a problem for many things, although defending such a claim can be harder than you think.What we think are facts – that is, those things we think are true – can end up being wrong despite our most honest commitment to genuine inquiry.
It’s not only that facts can change that is a problem. While we might be happy to consider it a fact that Earth is spherical, we would be wrong to do so because it’s actually a bit pear-shaped. Thinking it a sphere, however, is very different from thinking it to be flat.
Geometrical hair-splitting aside, calling something a fact is therefore not a proclamation of infallibility. It is usually used to represent the best knowledge we have at any given time. It’s also not the knockout blow we might hope for in an argument. Saying something is a fact by itself does nothing to convince someone who doesn’t agree with you. Unaccompanied by any warrant for belief, it is not a technique of persuasion. Proof by volume and repetition – repeatedly yelling “but it’s a fact!” – simply doesn’t work. Or at least it shouldn’t.
Matters of fact and opinion:Then again, calling something an opinion need not mean an escape to the fairyland of wishful thinking. This too is not a knockout attack in an argument. If we think of an opinion as one person’s view on a subject, then many opinions can be solid.
For example, it’s my opinion that science gives us a powerful narrative to help understand our place in the Universe, at least as much as any religious perspective does. It’s not an empirical fact that science does so, but it works for me.But we can be much clearer in our meaning if we separate things into matters of fact and matters of opinion.Matters of fact are confined to empirical claims, such as what the boiling point of a substance is, whether lead is denser than water, or whether the planet is warming.
Matters of opinion can be informed by matters of fact (for example, finding out that animals can suffer may influence whether I choose to eat them), but ultimately they are not answered by matters of fact (why is it relevant if they can suffer?).
Backing up the facts and opinions:Opinions are not just pale shadows of facts; they are judgments and conclusions. They can be the result of careful and sophisticated deliberation in areas for which empirical investigation is inadequate or ill-suited.While it’s nice to think of the world so neatly divided into matters of fact and matters of opinion, it’s not always so clinical in its precision.
But we can heal that potential rift by further restricting matters of fact to those things that can be verified by others.
Facts and opinions need not be positioned in opposition to each other, as they have complementary functions in our decision-making. In a rational framework, they are equally useful. But that’s just my opinion – it’s not a fact.Epistemology doesn’t just ask questions about what we should do to find things out; that are the task of all disciplines to some extent. For example, science, history and anthropology all have their own methods for finding things out.
Epistemology has the job of making those methods themselves the objects of study. It aims to understand how methods of inquiry can be seen as rational endeavours.Epistemology, therefore, is concerned with the justification of knowledge claims.
The need for epistemology:Whatever the area in which we work, some people imagine that beliefs about the world are formed mechanically from straightforward reasoning, or that they pop into existence fully formed as a result of clear and distinct perceptions of the world.
But if the business of knowing things was so simple, we’d all agree on a bunch of things that we currently disagree about – such as how to treat each other, what value to place on the environment, and the optimal role of government in a society. That we do not reach such an agreement means there is something wrong with that model of belief formation.
We don’t all agree on everything. It is interesting that we individually tend to think of ourselves as clear thinkers and see those who disagree with us as misguided. We imagine that the impressions we have about the world come to us unsullied and unfiltered. We think we have the capacity to see things just as they really are, and that it is others who have confused perceptions.
As a result, we might think our job is simply to point out where other people have gone wrong in their thinking, rather than to engage in rational dialogue allowing for the possibility that we might actually be wrong.But the lessons of philosophy, psychology and cognitive science teach us otherwise. The complex, organic processes that fashion and guide our reasoning are not so clinically pure.
Not only are we in the grip of a staggeringly complex array of cognitive biases and dispositions, but we are generally ignorant of their role in our thinking and decision-making.Combine this ignorance with the conviction of our own epistemic superiority, and you can begin to see the magnitude of the problem. Appeals to “common sense” to overcome the friction of alternative views just won’t cut it.
We need, therefore, a systematic way of interrogating our own thinking, our models of rationality, and our own sense of what makes for a good reason. It can be used as a more objective standard for assessing the merit of claims made in the public arena. This is precisely the job of epistemology.
Epistemology and critical thinking:One of the clearest ways to understand critical thinking is as applied epistemology. Issues such as the nature of logical inference, why we should accept one line of reasoning over another, and how we understand the nature of evidence and its contribution to decision making, are all decidedly epistemic concerns. Just because people use logic doesn’t mean they are using it well.
By what criteria do we evaluate reasons? How are those criteria themselves evaluated? What is it for a belief or action to be justified? What is the relationship between justification and truth? To the extent that critical thinking is about analyzing and evaluating methods of inquiry and assessing the credibility of resulting claims, it is an epistemic endeavor. Engaging with deeper issues about the nature of rational persuasion can also help us to make judgments about claims even without specialist
Epistemology and the public good:One of the enduring legacies of the Enlightment, the intellectual movement that began in Europe during the 17th century, is a commitment to public reason. This commitment provides for, or at least makes possible, an objective method of assessing claims using epistemological criteria that we can all have a say in forging. That we test each other’s thinking and collaboratively arrive at standards of epistemic credibility lifts the art of justification beyond the limitations of individual minds, and grounds it in the collective wisdom of reflective and effective communities of inquiry.The sincerity of one’s belief, the volume or frequency with which it is stated, or assurances to “believe me” should not be rationally persuasive by themselves.
A defence against bad thinking:There is a way to help guard against poor reasoning – ours and others’ – that draws from not only the Enlightenment but also from the long history of philosophical inquiry. So the next time you hear a contentious claim from someone, consider how that claim can be supported if they or you were to present it to an impartial or disinterested person: (1) identify reasons that can be given in support of the claim; (2) explain how your analysis, evaluation and justification of the claim and of the reasoning involved are of a standard worth someone’s intellectual investment; and (3) write these things down as clearly and dispassionately as possible.
In other words, make the commitment to public reasoning. And demand of others that they do so as well, stripped of emotive terms and biased framing. If you or they cannot provide a precise and coherent chain of reasoning, or if the reasons remain tainted with clear biases, or if you give up in frustration, it’s a pretty good sign that there are other factors in play. It is the commitment to this epistemic process, rather than any specific outcome, that is the valid ticket onto the rational playing field.
At a time when political rhetoric is riven with irrationality, when knowledge is being seen less as a means of understanding the world and more as an encumbrance that can be pushed aside if it stands in the way of wishful thinking, and when authoritarian leaders are drawing ever larger crowds, epistemology needs to matter.
The writer is Former Head, Department of Medical Sociology
Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR)