Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Any Ideas? (VI)

[We continue our inventory of Leading Ideas.]

(8) The Importance of Epistemology

During apprenticeship, most scientists somehow absorb the necessary pragmatic attitude, and then go about their business quite successfully, content to leave it to a small handful  to become interested in epistemology.
-- Gerald Holton, The scientific imagination (1978), p. 84
            At first glance, “the Importance of Epistemology” would seem scarcely to qualify as an Idea.  It would seem rather to be simply Sage Advice, like “the importance of Education” or even “the importance of flossing”.  So let us motivate this.
            In fact, it is not so easy to complete “the importance of…” with anything incontrovertible.  I have (with reluctance, having long been its beneficiary, but in company with many another seasoned observer, such as Bertrand Russell) actually come to minimise the importance of education in the usual sense of formal instruction; and as for flossing, it was never an idea in the first place, but merely something we were told, and which could in principle turn out (Woody-Allen “Sleeper”-fashion) to be (What was our surprise!) a Very Bad Thing, carcinogenic to the gums.  My conviction as to the importance of epistemology is, by contrast, hard-won, and  at this point  it is difficult to conceive what further evidence could come in  to suggest that epistemology is not so important after all.  (Yes, I have read the philosophical tracts that proclaim epistemology to be dead;  these are useful principally as toilet-paper.)
            In detail:  At some point in one’s life, one discovers something which “everybody” believed – and hence, which everybody “just knew” -- , only “everybody” was mistaken. (Mark Twain gives a homely example in his Autobiography.  In his day, apparently, it was common wisdom that water would rot the scalp.  He was a contrarian in washing his hair. More dignified illustrations, though of no greater philosophical weight, could be drawn from the history of physics.)  From this rude shock, there are various possible paths.  The one settles into a self-short-circuiting complacency, whereby the “conventional wisdom” is ipso nomine scoffed at.  Another becomes very concerned about the status of our beliefs, as one might be concerned for a patient in critical condition.
            After extended probing, one learns (what is not surprising, after the initial shock) that a great many of our beliefs rest upon the slenderest of evidence; and that others – here things begin to get interesting – are supported by an intricate web of reasons/assertions/assumptions/precedents/axioms and so forth, composed of strands of varying diameter and tensile strength, which it is well-nigh impossible to untangle.  If one is fortunate enough to read Quine, or (yet more blessed) to think independently along Quine’s lines, one is obliged to entertain the notion that  even what had passed as “analytic” is not sheltered from ultimate revision.  So that, what previously would have seemed a point (as in “data-point” or “my point exactly”) in a just-the-facts-ma’am (so to speak) epistemologically-Euclidean space, now comes embedded in a curve, or an intersecting collection of curves, each with their tangents, and tangent spaces, and tangent bundles and  cotangent bundles and what-all else…  It is hard enough to rebuild one’s ship in mid-voyage; we have actually to learn shipbuilding as we go along.

[More here.]

No comments:

Post a Comment