Epistemology 101

July 24, 2010

"New Atheist" Richard Dawkins: before they removed the tumor

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. What is knowledge? How is knowledge acquired? How do we know what we know? Can we trust what we know? One of the major problems with the “New Atheists” is that they assume a certain epistemological framework without justifying it (or, I would suggest, understanding that they are even doing it). It has been my experience that many people in science departments assume an epistemological paradigm called Positivism.

Positivism can be illustrated by this:

Observer ————-> Object
– simply looking at objective reality
– tested by empirical observation
– if it doesn’t work, it’s nonsense

Positivism has been almost universally rejected in the philosophical world. As we have observed the global cultures and have been able to study how much cultural assumptions and personal experience colors our interpretation and understanding of sense data there has been growing consensus that Positivism is much too optimistic.

Now the pendulum has swung to Phenomenalism which goes like this:

Observer ————————–> Object
– I seem to have evidence of external reality

– But I am really only sure of my sense data

As you can see, it is much less optimistic about knowledge and is instead quite pessimistic. The result on the popular level is often referred to as “post modernism”. You will sometimes hear people say “that is your truth, this is my truth.” If all our sense data just speaks to our own reality then it is possible to come to completely conflicting conclusions about the world and both be equally right. I happen to disagree with both of these extremes. I am what is called a “critical realist”. My epistemology goes like this:

Observer ————————–> Object

– initial observation

– is challenged by critical reflection

– but can survive the challenge and speak of true reality.

This epistemological approach allows us to account for our cultural assumptions. Our language. Our education. Our background. Our family history. Etc. We can think about how we want the data to come out. We can think about what our culture is blinding us to. But all of these considerations, when noted and accounted for, allow us to better understand the world (not just simply understand our own minds).

So Critical Realism (at least the form of it I have briefly laid out here) is the way to go, epistemologically speaking.

One last note. Many of the New Atheists strike me as *logical* positivists. Logical positivism states that no statement should be accepted as true unless it is:

1) True by definition (ie 2+2 = 4 or a square has four equal sides)
2) Able to be proven empirically

The problem with logical positivism (and the reason that almost no self respecting person who knows what it is accepts it anymore) is that it is self defeating. The statement:

“Believe no statement that isn’t true by definition or proven empirically,”

doesn’t meet its own two criteria. It is not true by definition nor can it be proven empirically.


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