Stuck/Quine/Epistemology Natualized

Ok, what I’m about to do may turn out to be a very poor decision but at this point I don’t have much to lose.  Here’s the situation.  I have one term paper left and for some reason I just cannot make any progress.  I’m so confused by now that I can’t tell if the problem is that I don’t understand the content of if I can’t synthesize the information or if I need more information, or if I have too much and it’s just disorganized.  I don’t know.  I’m embarrassed to admit how much time I have devoted to this stinkin’ paper and I have nothing but a few pages of unfinished thoughts that lead nowhere.  So, here’s my plan.  I’m going to summarized the issues here in my blog.  I feel like I’m talking to friends, you’re not going to grade me, and my writing seems to flow better when it’s “for fun”.  The risk is that nothing may come of this and I will have wasted more valuable time that maybe should have been spent doing more research or rereading material.  Anyway, speaking of wasting time, enough with the preamble:


  So my paper is about a philosopher named Quine and the problem of knowing whether we can justify our system of scientific knowledge.  I know what your thinking…um, just put on lab coat, and run some experiments and if the evidence confirms a theory, then ta-da! it works.  Why do philosophers need to make everything so complicated?  In a sense this response is correct, and it is in some ways related to what Quine says.  
  The general topic that we are investigating is “how we know what we know”.  This area of philosophy is called epistemology.  Traditional epistemology saw one of its primary roles as trying to find a rational justification for our knowledge of the world.  This type of reasoning must be distinguished from experiential reasoning, or as philosophers call is “synthetic” or “a posteriori”(after the fact).  The problem can be framed like this “how do we know what we know?” Answer: “we learn through experience” Question: “how do you know that experience gives you a reliable picture of the world?”  Typical answer, “because further experiences confirm that my beliefs are true”.  Did you catch the problem?  If you didn’t, here it is.  This is an instance of circular reasoning.  You are setting out to prove the reliability of beliefs derived from experience by appealing to experience.  It’s not a good argument if you support what you are trying to prove with the thing you are trying to prove.
  So what does Quine say about all this?  He says, all this talk of trying to prove science (experiential knowledge) from something other than experience is just crazy talk.  We haven’t made any progress since Descartes, who formulated the problem in its modern form, and Hume, who pointed out even more problems.  Lets just stop all this madness and allow for a certain amount of circularity.  Why? because unless you want to postulate divine revelation, clairvoyance and other untenable ways of knowing, all we have is appeal to experience.  So, instead of continuing on this fools errand of trying come up with a logical proof for how it is that science (seems) to work, lets look at how it actually does work.  In other words, instead of looking at how we ought to derive beliefs, lets look at how we actually do derive our beliefs (in science).  How do we do this?  We appeal to empirical psychology.  
  Empirical psychology is the study of how we go from sensory stimulation to some sort of behavioural (maybe assertions) output indicating belief.  Now I know what some of you are thinking: Whoa! Nelly! Stop right there.  That sounds like behaviourism and I remember hearing that behaviourism is the devil!  Lets make a distinction here between philosophical behaviourism and methodological behaviourism.  The former, which is probably the one that most people object to, is the position that all there is is behaviour.  There are not mental states, emotions, etc….we are basically all just machines.  Well, you’d be right to object, and in academia that view died a long time ago.  Quine is proposing methodological behaviourism.  This is the idea that, while people may have mental states, emotions, and sensations, the only thing that we can observe as outsiders is behaviour.  Behaviour here should be construed in a broad sense: from the macro scale all the way down neural and sensory receptor stimulations, firing of synapses and so on.  There is no way to observe what someone’s feeling of feels like but we can observe their behavioural responses.  That’s all this means.
  Moving on.  So, suppose we accept this model and ignore, for the time being accusations of circularity. Are there any important questions that this new paradigm will not be able to answer? A common argument against this model is that it provides no guidance in areas of norms.  Let me explain:  Norms are standards by which we measure success.  Norms are the basic level of competence required for an operation to be considered successful.  For example, the academic norms for grade 3 are that you are able to read and write at a given level and maybe know all your multiplication tables.  If you are below the norms, you cannot successfully carry out these tasks.  
  So, what’s an example of a case where we need to know something about epistemic (to do with knowledge) norms?  Lets say 2 people are having an argument about the results of a science experiment. The experiment was, in a beaker (I have to say that word any chance I get!) they pour 1 cup of sugar into one cup of water: the result is that the beaker now shows the meniscus to be a 1 1/4 cups.  Scientist 1 (I’ll call her Mary) says this proves that 1+1=1 1/4.  Scientist 2 (Bob) says, no: this does not disprove the laws of arithmetic.  
  So what does this all have to do with using psychology to solve epistemic problems?  Here it is:  psychology can give us an account of how the light reflecting off the beaker and solution stimulated the visual system and, after a long causal chain, produced a behaviour in the scientists that indicated they perceive the meniscus to have risen to indicate 1 1/4 cups.  If we appealed to neuro-psychology we could learn the neuro-pathways that were stimulated when Mary and Bob came to their respective conclusions.  To summarize, the scientific method could tell us how the reasoning occurred but it cannot tell us which method of reasoning is preferable.  This is because science is descriptive, not prescriptive or normative.  
  So, does it end here?  Case closed?  I think there’s more to the story.  I think there are ways that science can tell us which ways of reasoning are preferable.  Let me elaborate:  We know that depending what type of problem we are asked to solve and how we frame a problem it will influence how we solve the problem.  For instance, sometimes people voice opinions/beliefs based on emotions, other times they use logic.  Depending on what type of “reasoning” process they are using, neuro-psychology tells us that different parts of the brain are engaged.  It is safe to assume that for most problems, resolution is preferably achieved through using the rational, rather than emotional part of the brain.  So, since we know which part of the brain is preferable and the conditions which bias toward our engaging it, we can set up conditions for us to yield “true” beliefs.  
  Lets take a step back so we can go into more detail.  When I said that I assumed that for most problems it is preferable to engage the rational part of our brain, in a sense I was expressing a norm.  Strictly speaking science cannot say “this method is better because it produces true beliefs”.  This presupposes a norm or value, that of producing true belief.  So, there are 2 issues here, that of expressing preference for an outcome and the notion of truth.  
  Scientific theories cannot tell us what is true.  They can only tell us that to which experience, thus far, has conformed.  Science history is littered with examples of theories that where at one point as sure as, well…lets just say they were held as true.  Sometimes there are competing theories to explain the same phenomena.  The point is the the notion of truth in science, as in most places, is not “true come what may”.  Again, science simply gives us a best account of the evidence at hand.
  So, how can science distinguish between thought patterns for justification?  The same way that it adopts any theory.  Setting up circumstances that biasing our thinking in ways that use the rational part of our brain will lead to beliefs that will conform better with experience and help us to better navigate our world than if we had chosen a cognitive process that would bias toward other beliefs.
  Anyway, those are two of the central themes.  There’s a lot more but I’m struggling with it.  If you made it to the bottom I thank you for taking the time to read this crap.  I’m so screwed.  I have no idea what I’m going to write….


By the way, if there are any philosophers out there reading this, any helpful suggestions will be graciously accepted…. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s