2017 SERRC Conference

May 30-31

Virginia Tech Research Center — Arlington, Virginia

Conference Schedule (pdf)
Conference Schedule (docx)

Tuesday, May 30

8:30-9:00 a.m. Coffee and Conversation

9:00-9:45 a.m. “The Status and Future of the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective,” Jim Collier, Virginia Tech

In this session, I will facilitate a discussion about the present and future of the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective (SERRC) as a scholarly collaborative and as a functioning blog. As a basis for the discussion, I will share information regarding the SERRC—statistics, sustained and new projects, outreach, and future possibilities. Moreover, I want to elaborate on the model of epistemic work uniquely, but only partially, realized in the complementary relationship among the SERRC, Social Epistemology (the journal), and “Collective Studies in Knowledge and Society” (our Rowman and Littlefield book series). I believe our model of epistemic work–an achievement of social epistemology in practice—remains relatively unexplored and could be extended if we desire.

9:45-10:00 a.m. Break

10:00-11:45 a.m. “Knowing Humanity in the Social World: The Path of Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology,” Session Chair: Francis Remedios, Independent Scholar

This session is on the issues included in Francis Remedios and Val Dusek’s book, which covers Steve Fuller’s work since 2000 and will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017. Remedios and Dusek argue that Fuller’s vision of social epistemology continues the political and policy focus of his earlier work, but since 2000 it has been increasingly founded in the changing conception of humanity, especially as these project into a ‘post-‘ or ‘trans-‘ human future. We assess Fuller’s work on the following issues: STS, the university and intellectual life, neo-liberal political economy, intelligent design, Cosmism, Gnosticism, agent-oriented epistemology, proactionary vs precautionary principles and Welfare State 2.0. We are especially concerned with Fuller’s response to the changing boundary conditions of the knower due to anticipated changes in humanity coming from the nanosciences, neuroscience, synthetic biology and computer technology. For Fuller, the result is an extended sense of the knower, or ‘humanity 2.0’, which Fuller himself identifies with transhumanism. Other than Fuller’s work, there is no other discussion in the recent literature of sociology STS, philosophy of science, or analytic social epistemology which brings such a wide range of resources and considerations to an assessment of the impact of the technosciences on the concept of humanity – especially the extent to which these changes might constitute ‘improvements’ to the human condition. At the same time, Fuller’s turn in this direction has invited at least as much criticism as his earlier work. The panel will explore these matters from a range of perspectives that correspond to the breadth of Fuller’s work, to which Fuller will then respond.

Session Participants
“Knowing Humanity in the Social World,” Francis Remedios, Independent Scholar

“Fuller’s Science Studies, Intelligent Design, and Alternative Theology,” Val Dusek, University of New Hampshire

“Fuller’s Remedial Script for ‘Humanity 2.0’,” Georg Theiner, Villanova University

In his version of transhumanism, Steve Fuller contends that ‘humanity’ is the name of an ongoing collective project of ontological self-transformation, driven by the divine ideal of ‘achievable perfection’ (Fuller 2010, 2013). Against the backdrop of the Christian doctrine of the ‘original sin’, Fuller conceives of the scientific method as a way of disciplining (‘de-naturalizing’) human nature, and the creative use of technology as means of disciplining (‘humanizing’) the natural world. Drawing on historical accounts of how technology (or the ‘useful arts’) became invested with spiritual significance as a way of redeeming our ‘fallen’ nature (cf. Noble 1997; Harrison 2007), I connect Fuller’s vision of technological progress to the ‘extended mind’ thesis and distributed models of ‘self-as-technology’ (cf. Clark & Chalmers 1998; Clark 2003, 2007, 2008; Theiner 2011). Central to both accounts, I argue, is the advancement of a ‘remedial script’ whereby our creaturely human existence is ‘always already’ subject to an original deficient condition, followed by an enlightened deliverance. A closer analysis of this culturally influential script reveals the oft-neglected theological moorings of contemporary discussions of the ‘mind-body’ problem.

“Human Dignity and the Proactionary Approach,” Alcibiades Malapi-Nelson, Seneca College

Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, Commentator

11:45 a.m.-1:15 p.m. Lunch

1:30-2:45 p.m. Keynote: “Social Epistemology and the Problem of Power in the Post-Truth World,” Steve Fuller, University of Warwick

Although both Francis Bacon and Auguste Comte drew attention to the idea that knowledge is power, the term ‘power’ is conspicuous by its absence in most modern discussions of epistemology and even science studies, outside the Marxist tradition and the work of Nico Stehr. There are many reasons for this curious state of affairs, mostly having to do with the presumed metaphysics of power, which would seem to attribute to knowledge itself to a potential for action. Both Marx and Stehr largely adopt this understanding, claiming Bacon and Comte as their precursors. My own view is somewhat different, deriving as it does from a Platonic sensibility which may be better suited to our post-truth world. I argue that the relevant sense of power associated with knowledge is modal power, which can wreak havoc over any strong sense of true/false by making the true seem ‘virtually false’ and the false seem ‘virtually true’. In the balance is the idea that what really matters from an epistemic standpoint is not what is actually true or false but the conditions under which something can become true or false.

2:45-3:00 p.m. Break

3:00-4:15 p.m. “Cishuman, Transhuman, Posthuman: Whither are we Bound?” Georg Theiner, Villanova University

Given interest in the issues associated with post- and trans- humanism, human extension, and morphological freedom held by members of the SERRC, we will hold a debate/discussion among conference attendees. While the specific structure and guiding questions of the panel have yet to be determined, the general issue involves the relative significance of the post- and trans- humanism debate and social epistemology’s relation to the exchange.

Wednesday, May 31

8:30-9:00 a.m. Coffee and Conversation

9:00-10:15 a.m. “Collaboration through SERRC,” Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

This presentation is based on Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology, by Justin Cruickshank and Raphael Sassower, published in April. After Justin published his “Anti-authority: Comparing Popper and Rorty on the Dialogic Development of Beliefs and Practices” (SE July 2013), Jim asked me to engage in a friendly exchange on the digital collaborative platform. Other contributors included Joseph Agassi and Isaac Reed, and 2 graduate students, Seif Jensen (in the US) and Ioana Cerasella Chis (in the UK). The debates we engaged in ranged across such issues as the construction of intellectual legacies, the role of public intellectuals, the impact of neoliberalism on education and politics, whether capitalism could be rendered moral or transcended using technology, and the need for a more dialogic democracy. At the core of this was a concern with exploring how epistemic and political problems are defined in relation to power.

10:15-10:30 a.m. Break

10:30-11:45 a.m. “Objectivity in the ‘Post-Truth’ Age of Trump,” Guy Axtell, Radford University

My talk initially responds to criticisms of my recent book Objectivity by Shannon Dea, who raises interesting questions about objectivity in what many are calling the ‘post-truth’ era of the Trump administration. More generally, the session addresses what becomes of the concepts of truth and objectivity in the current political climate, and whether and how fact-based science policy can be defended on issues of shared concern, like climate change and global warming.

11:45 a.m.-1:15 p.m. Lunch

1:30-2:45 p.m. “Conspiracy Theory: Three Approaches in Social Epistemology,” Lee Basham, South Texas College/University of Texas, Rio Grand Valley

Popular conspiracy theories are, by far, one of the most intriguing phenomena in our current society. We’ll explore the three basic approaches within contemporary social epistemology to conspiracy theorizing.
1.The Public Trust Approach (PTA) critique of conspiracy theories
Keeley’s classic approach to conspiracy theory rejection will be presented. Problems of circularity and “toxic truths” (truths that are unlikely to be investigated because of their society-destabilizing potential) will be explored. Discussion of this recently appeared in SERRC.
2.Overview of the Pathologizing Approach (PA) to conspiracy theorists
Social scientists expend a great deal of effort and funding attempting to show that conspiracy theorists are irrational and dangerous. A discussion of this also recently appeared in SERRC.
3. The Moral Trust Approach (MTA) critique of conspiracy theorizing
Recent attempts have been made to moralize the issue, SERRC contributor Patrick Stokes’ among them. Here the approach is not merely consequence driven, but returns us to basic questions of trust.

2:45-3:00 p.m. Break

3:00-4:00 p.m. “How Can Blockchain Technology be Extended to/from Social Epistemology?” Gregory Sandstrom (via Skype), European Humanities University

The presentation starts by discussing blockchain technology (e.g. Bitcoin, Ethereum) as an introduction to this currently surging topic and as it applies to social sciences and humanities (e.g. open access publishing issues), specifically social epistemology. It then looks at blockchain through the notion of ‘human extensions,’ including the notions of extended mind, extended knowledge, extension services, university extension, etc. Following this it turns to look at applications of blockchain tech from and to social epistemology, namely individual, collective &/or social knowledge, with reference to “Who would live in a Blockchain Society?” (Sandstrom SERRC 2017). It then closes with potential action steps for social epistemology, including consideration of what a SERRC blockchain might look like. In so doing it re-connects with the Opening Talk by Jim Collier about the status & future of social epistemology as practised, idealised, realised and represented by SERRC.

2014 SERRC Conference

July 28-August 1

Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA

Future Fundamentals of Social Epistemology