Archives For propositional belief

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, serrc.digital@gmail.com.

Riggio, Adam. “Immovable Presumptions as Philosophical Limit.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 19-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45d

Image by Russell Davies via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The essay collection Relations: Ontology and the Philosophy of Religion is fascinating and curious. As a contribution to ongoing issues in contemporary ontology, philosophy of religion, and the history of philosophy. There are many things to praise about its different essays and all of the authors. All of them are valuable additions to their discourses.

However, I’m reviewing the book from a peculiar position. My own philosophical work includes a great deal of thinking on the ontology of relations, so I began the book thinking that I’d have much in common with the authors. Yet I found myself at times alienated from the discussion.

Sometimes, it will be an issue of method. For example, some essays discussed the ontology of relations in linguistic terms. A central example here would be something like ‘John is far away from Justin,’ analyzed as if there were some simple property or object in common between John and Justin called ‘far away.’

I know this approach because it’s the same as that of the linguistic turn in analytic philosophy’s first generation. But my tradition of ontology focuses on material assemblages of forces and substances. Simple descriptions of relations like ‘far away’ or ‘larger than’ do not stand for actually simple relations, but complicated physical assemblages.

I experienced similar moments throughout the book, where contributors and I would seem to share a common subject, but without much common ground. It’s difficult to know whether the different discourse communities of our academic sub-disciplines are so separate because of institutional pressures, or because we all discuss truly different concerns. So the following reflections will engage with the book meta-philosophically, to discover ways that essays in one fairly restricted subject matter can produce insights and questions that matter to us all.

On What Ground Should We Trust Our Presumptions?

I may not be a specialist in the precise areas of all the experts that the book’s editors, Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini, assembled to contribute to this volume. But I am still a philosopher, and so can identify mistakes, errors, or other problems someone makes in their inferences. Specifically for the following case, I can identify, among many of the essays collected in a volume, any common presumptions, and examine whether we should take for granted what a particular writer does.

The best example of this in the Relations volume is Mario Micheletti’s “Radical Alterity and the God-World Relationship.” One of the major points of his argument is to lay out what limits are present among different explanations for the existence of the universe. He argues that an atheist’s range of such explanations is more limited than those that a believer in God can hold. This is because an atheist cannot accept the contingency of the universe, since its contingency would make its nature depend on an external clause. Micheletti writes:

“The atheist can  . . . claim that while the universe has an explanation of its existence, the explanation lies not in an external ground, but in the necessity of its own nature. This is however, an extremely bold suggestion which, Craig notes, atheists have not been eager to embrace. For we have a strong intuition of the universe’s contingency, and we generally trust our modal intuitions.”

Yet there is no reason why we should trust our modal intuitions, our at-first-glance presumptions about the contingency and necessity of existence as a whole, as well as particular events and states of affairs. Micheletti presumes that the universe, without the external contingency of God’s will, would unfold with an immanent total necessity. But there is no reason why the immanent nature of the universe need be necessary; the only necessity immanent to the universe may be its own radical contingency.

After all, what makes sense to Micheletti to presume about the nature of the universe does not make sense to me. Since these are intuitions, there is no ground to establish whether he or I are correct. As intuitions, they provide the starting points for our arguments, but are rarely themselves interrogated. When they are interrogated, as in the philosophical surveys and focus groups of experimentalists like Jonathan Weinberg, intuitions are revealed as variable, ungrounded, unprovable, contingent.

So there is no genuine ground for us to trust our modal intuitions, our intuitions about what is contingent and necessary, or what the source of contingency and necessity would be. Yes, we may “generally trust our modal intuitions,” but there is no guarantee that they will turn out to be just as reliable as our intuition in everyday perception that the sun spins around Earth.

From this line of criticism, take the following question. Why do you believe in the truth of your intuitions, when an intuition is merely a presumption you have never thought to question?

Paths Divided Laid Down in the Travelling

Vera Tripodi’s “Beyond the Transcendence: The Feminist Critique of the Concept of God” is admirable in its ambition. She aims, ultimately, to synthesize a feminist conception of God from sources that would seem, at least to me, utterly ill-suited to the demands of our time.

She writes that her project draws upon “the classic ontology of being – that is, the tradition that conventionally begins with Thomas Aquinas – and the ontology of becoming that finds in Alfred North Whitehead its essential reference point.”

Blending the ontologies of Aquinas and Whitehead together is an admirable project of synthesis. Yet Tripodi writes as if Whitehead’s is the only ontology of becoming available to us in any great detail. Whitehead’s work on the ontology of becoming is historically remarkable. He used his background in mathematics and logic to develop a concept of process, central to any ontology of becoming.

He developed a detailed, technically sophisticated system for this process ontology that ultimately understood the development of organic powers of perception, human powers of knowledge, foundational principles of morality, and even the nature of God. Impressive, and an excellent reason for Tripodi’s choice of Whitehead’s work to blend with that of Aquinas for her creative synthesis.

What irks me as a reader is that Tripodi doesn’t treat Whitehead as the best possible choice because she gives a reasonable set of justifications; instead, she treats Whitehead as the best possible choice because he is the only possible choice. That is simply not true.

Henri Bergson had developed an ontology of becoming while Whitehead was still working on Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell, which had become far more popular among academics and the general public during his own lifetime. This achievement of fame for his work is far from anything Whitehead could have claimed.

A two-headed conflict with Albert Einstein over the interpretation of relativity theory and over the management of French-German reconciliation through League of Nations organizations did serious harm to Bergson’s reputation by the 1930s. But in the same period, Bertrand Russell’s confused rejection of Process and Reality did similar harm to the reputation of his former teacher Whitehead.

So while I am proud to count Tripodi among those bringing Whitehead’s ideas to the mainstream. Yet to treat him as the only source of approaches to ontologies of process or becoming ignores an equally fruitful revival of Bergson-inspired ideas. The work of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and others who followed their influence such as Luce Irigaray and Antonio Negri has built a vibrant new tradition of ontological and political philosophy in France and Italy.

The ontology of becoming – whether influenced primarily by Whitehead or Bergson – is a bold and creative direction to move in philosophy. Yet I am left wondering why the Bergson-influenced tradition of ontology of becoming is absent from Tripodi’s essay and the entire Relations collection. It appears simply to be a matter of her not having seen any of it. How deeply does what we take for granted affect the ideas and traditions we expose ourselves to? Or question?

The Most Bizarre Ontology to Make Perfect Sense

Speaking of how presumptions guide our place in traditions, “Russell and the Question of Relations” by Federico Perelda looks explicitly at an ontology utterly counter-intuitive to my own presumptions about the nature of reality. So much was this the case, that as a student I took several courses on the subject matter and only realized its central presumption on the eve of graduating with my doctorate.

I’m talking about Bertrand Russell’s propositional realism: the ontology that logical and linguistic propositions and terms are the primary constituents of the world; facts of existence therefore only exist insofar as they instantiate those propositions and terms. My own presumption or obvious (to me) starting place for ontology is that the world is primarily the material arrangements and processes of actual bodies, forces, and fields, all interacting through contingent causality. Logic, mathematics, and language are the tools of thinking and communication that we use to build frameworks of thought to understand all this stuff.

Perelda frames his essay as bolstering Russell’s argument against Ludwig Wittgenstein’s foundational axiom, “The world is everything that is the case.” Russell and Perelda both stand firmly for an ontology of propositional realism, whereas I am just as adamant a fellow-traveller of Wittgenstein on this point.

Nonetheless, Perelda was brilliant, insightful, and informative about the sources of Russell’s ontological foundation of propositional realism: it was the one inheritance from his scorned professor Francis Herbert Bradley. Perelda traces Russell’s intellectual evolution as an acolyte of Bradley, who rejected his professor’s metaphysics of absolute idealism. Orthodox accounts of this split, which are typically taught in North American university courses on early analytic philosophy, take the split to have been over idealist ontology itself.

Perelda’s insightful historical and philosophical analysis argues that the real reason for Russell’s split from Bradley was over the ontology of relation, a much more complex and subtle question than the brute simplicity of the choice over idealism and materialism.

Bradley considered all relations internal, and so illusions of our limited perceptual powers. Russell considered relations as fundamentally external, and so real. But Bradley held that, because relations are fundamentally internal, considering them to be real is a terrible mistake, trusting your senses where they are unreliable. The split that created analytic philosophy was not metaphysical or ontological, but epistemic: whether we should trust our senses to reveal the true nature of relations as they exist in the world and in logic.

Russell never disagreed with Bradley over propositional idealism, and in fact always shared that ontological principle. Throughout his life, Russell was a propositional idealist who believed that material reality was ontologically anterior to logic, simply the medium through which propositions instantiated themselves. The order of logical propositions is, for Russell and for Perelda himself, the fundamental constituent of existence because it is necessary.

Remaining unspoken is any argument for why a necessary structure, like that of the propositions and terms of mathematical logic, must be the fundamental ordering principle of the universe. Causality’s contingent character need not disqualify it from a foundational role in an ontological system, unless you explicitly argue for why contingency is necessarily a dealbreaker. That is how philosophical system building works.

So we are left in an impasse of uncertain direction for philosophical work. How does it become so difficult to think of the world as contingent?

Does Existence Need Limits?

Relations is also a contribution to philosophy of religion, its focus being the ontology of the divine, or the nature of God’s existence. Jaco Gericke’s essay probes this question directly, its aim being to identify and begin developing a more precise metaphysical conception of God. Coming from a Western tradition of religious metaphysical thinking, Gericke follows the language of the Old Testament.

His goal is to understand the meaning of God as a term of the Old Testament’s language, knowing the complete set of propositions that describe God.[1] However, there is a problem with Gericke’s philosophical method: it is equally theological as it is metaphysical and ontological, because it restricts its logical analysis to the Christian tradition. Such a conception of God, logically rigorous though it may be, remains limited, a hypocritical universal.

First, I should explain the nature of this hypocrisy. Gericke hopes to develop a concept of God that grounds the universality we presume of God in the universal scope of logic. But that logical interpretation rests on the analysis of the Old Testament, a single (if massive and hugely influential) text. It is a Christian text, and therefore partisan. But it is the Christian uptake of what was originally a Jewish text, the Torah. So it also overwrites the tradition, including the theology and philosophy, that produced it.

The Old Testament is the uptake of Torah into the Christian tradition, Torah interpreted always and inevitably in relation to the Gospel. It erases the Jewish theological ontology of divinity, overwriting the Christian. There are profound differences between these two theologies, which complicate terribly any straightforward application of logical and linguistic analysis to the words themselves of any holy book.[2]

One important ontological critique of Gericke’s method comes from the Jewish tradition that is obscured by the presumption that Torah is the Old Testament. Gericke seeks to understand the extension of the term God, but the conception of Torah’s text according to Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig makes such a general extension disappear.

In Buber and Rosenzweig’s approach to Torah, there is no single logical term instantiated in each mention of God. Each mention of God is itself a unique, context-appropriate logical term, incommensurable with every other such mention. Each manifestation of God is a unique divinity, and that from which it emanates has no nature adequate to logic.

Torah understands God as a divinity understandable only as a concretely situated manifestation. The Old Testament understands God in the context of the Incarnation, where God demonstrated oneness with humanity by becoming Jesus and the Christ. Christianity therefore rests on a metaphysics of thorough ontological monism, in which God is a thing just as a mountain, person, fungus, river, star, boat, or blade of grass is. Since God is a thing, it is the extension of a term, and this term is no different than any other term.

The work of Duns Scotus best explores this ontological monism that is a fundamental metaphysical presumption of theologians and philosophers in Christian traditions who explore the nature of God. But the project of exploring the nature of God seems terribly limited when constrained by the presumptions of a single tradition. Why do such presumptions become unquestionable?

When the Refusal to Choose Is Itself a Dogma

Jeffrey Long brings a possible antidote to this prison of presumptions. His essay is “Anekantevada: The Jain Ontology of Complexity and Relationality, and Its Implications for the Philosophy of Religions.” He analyzes an approach to the metaphysics and ontology of divinity in the Jain religion that promises to avoid problems of absolutism like those I discussed above.

Jainism, in short, holds that the divine is essentially multifaceted. Its pluralism could likely be a partial reflection of Jainism’s place as a minority religion throughout its existence; at no point in the history of Jainism has it ever been the dominant religion in a territory. Conveniently, its ontology of divinity depicts all religions as valid accounts of divinity.

Jain thinking is a perspectivism about the nature of divinity. Hindu and Buddhist communities, taking relevant examples for Jainism’s historical place in India, each have their own perspectives on the overall nature of the divine. So the concept of God in each religion (or in each concept of God within many theological traditions) understands a few aspects of the divine.

The parable about the blind men and the elephant might be useful here. That parable also shows the theological hypocrisy Long identifies in Jain ontology. From the Jain perspective, theirs is the only religious tradition that accurately and completely understands God, because other religions mistake their perspectival limitations for absolute truths. Jainism itself thereby becomes an absolutism, the unquestionable presumption that its pluralism is the only true conception of divinity because it includes all the variety that God can be.

Even this attempt to find an escape from absolutism closes itself off, because the temptation to consider your own perspective to be the most correct, or the only fully correct, never disappears. All our judgments would seem to rest on presumptions which are simultaneously unassailable and fragile.

Fragile because they are unassailable. Every argument and conceptual exploration must rest on presumptions that are themselves taken for granted. But to question those presumptions exposes their inevitable limitations. Knowledge requires firm foundations, but examining those foundations exposes that they need foundations of their own.

Knowledge therefore rests on dogma inevitably, a refusal to question. For any system of thinking to stand, questioning must cease somewhere, but the decision to cease is never a conclusion, always a decision. Do our unquestioned and unquestionable presumptions leave us no antidote for absolutism, and its inevitable dangers of dogmatism and fanaticism?

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Gericke, Jaco. “The Folk-Metaphysics of Relations in Old Testament Extensions of Generic Divinity.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 267-282. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Long, Jeffrey. “Anekantavada: The Jain Ontology of Complexity and Relationality and Its Implications for the Philosophy of Religions.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 235-50. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Micheletti, Mario. “Radical Divine Alterity and the God-World Relationship.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 157-170. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Perelda, Federico. “Russell and the Question of Relations.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 41-58. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

Riggio, Adam. “Lessons for the Relationship of Philosophy and Science from the Legacy of Henri Bergson.” Social Epistemology (2015): 1-14. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2014.971916.

Rosenzweig, Franz. The Star of Redemption. Translated by William W. Hallo. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.

Tripodi, Vera. “Beyond the Transcendence: The Feminist Critique of the Concept of God.” In Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion. Pp. 171-180. Edited by Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. Verona: Mimesis International, 2018.

[1] Using logic to know the names of God? – Editor’s Note

[2] Leave aside as well the problems of the plurality of holy books themselves, many of which overlap with ritual (as in the Nishnaabeg moral theology of their oral and practical tradition), or materialist ontology (as in the ontological arguments of the Daoist tradition). How to reconcile in a single concept of divinity those of Rome, Chi’Nbiish (Lake Ontario), and Beijing through logical analysis of text alone? – Writer’s Note

Author Information: Rik Peels, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, mail@rikpeels.nl.

Peels, Rik. “Exploring the Boundaries of Ignorance: Its Nature and Accidental Features.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 10-18.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-456

From the Metropolitan United Church in downtown Toronto.
Image by Loozrboy via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This article responds to El Kassar, Nadja (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

As does Bondy, Patrick. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 9-14.

Nadja El Kassar is right that different fields in philosophy use rather different conceptions of ignorance. I also agree with her that there seem to be three major conceptions of ignorance: (i) ignorance as propositional ignorance, which she calls the ‘propositional conception of ignorance’, (ii) ignorance as actively upheld false outlooks, which she names the ‘agential conception of ignorance’, and (iii) ignorance as an epistemic practice, which she dubs the ‘structural conception of ignorance’.

It is remarkable that nobody else has addressed the question before of how these three conceptions relate to each other. I consider it a great virtue of her lucid essay that she not only considers this question in detail, but also provides an account that is meant to do justice to all these different conceptions of ignorance. Let us call her account the El Kassar Synthesis. It reads as follows:

Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices).[1]

My reply to her insightful paper is structured as follows. First, I argue that her synthesis needs revision on various important points (§2). After that, I show that, despite her ambition to capture the main varieties of ignorance in her account, there are important kinds of ignorance that the El Kassar Synthesis leaves out (§4).

I then consider the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance and suggest that we should distinguish between the nature of ignorance and its accidental features. I also argue that these two other conceptions of ignorance are best understood as accounts of important accidental features of ignorance (§5). I sketch and reply to four objections that one might level against my account of the nature and accidental features of ignorance (§6).

I conclude that ignorance should be understood as the absence of propositional knowledge or the absence of true belief, the absence of objectual knowledge, or the absence of procedural knowledge. I also conclude that epistemic vices, hermeneutical frameworks, intentional avoidance of evidence, and other important phenomena that the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance draw our attention to, are best understood as important accidental features of ignorance, not as properties that are essential to ignorance.

Preliminaries

Before I explore the tenability of the El Kassar Synthesis in more detail, I would like to make a few preliminary points about it that call for some fine-tuning on her part. Remember that on the El Kassar Synthesis, ignorance should be understood as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 1: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices).[2]

It seems to me that this synthesis needs revision on at least three points.

First, a false belief is an epistemic attitude and even a doxastic attitude. Moreover, if – as is widely thought among philosophers – there are exactly three doxastic attitudes, namely belief, disbelief, and suspension of judgment, then any case of ignorance that manifests itself in a doxastic attitude is one in which one lacks a belief about p or one has a false belief about p.

After all, if one holds a false belief and that is manifest in one’s doxastic attitude, it is because one holds a false belief (that is the manifestation). If one holds no belief and that is manifest in one’s doxastic attitudes, it is because one suspends judgment (that is the manifestation). Of course, it is also possible that one is deeply ignorant (e.g, one cannot even consider the proposition), but then it is simply not even manifest in one’s doxastic attitudes.

The reference to doxastic attitudes in the second conjunct is, therefore, redundant. The revised El Kassar Synthesis reads as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 2: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (epistemic virtues, epistemic vices).

What is left in the second conjunct after the first revision is epistemic virtues and vices. There is a problem with this, though. Ignorance need not be manifested in any epistemic virtues or vices. True, it happens often enough. But it is not necessary; it does not belong to the essence of being ignorant.

If one is ignorant of the fact that Antarctica is the greatest desert on earth (which is actually a fact), then that may simply be a fairly cognitively isolated, single fact of which one is ignorant. Nothing follows about such substantial cognitive phenomena as intellectual virtues and vices (which are, after all, dispositions) like open-mindedness or dogmatism. A version that takes this point into account reads as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 3: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs: either she has no belief about p or a false belief.

A third and final worry I would like to raise here is that on the El Kassar Synthesis, ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs—and, as we saw, on versions 1 and 2, in her intellectual character traits (epistemic virtues, epistemic vices). I find this worrisome, because it is widely accepted that virtues and vices are dispositions themselves, and many philosophers have argued this also holds for beliefs.[3]

If so, on the El Kassar Synthesis, ignorance is a disposition that manifests itself in a number of dispositions (beliefs, lack of beliefs, virtues, vices). What sort of thing is ignorance if it is a disposition to manifest certain dispositions? It seems if one is disposed to manifest certain dispositions, one simply has those dispositions and will, therefore, manifest them in the relevant circumstances.

Moreover, virtue or the manifestation of virtue does not seem to be an instance or exemplification of ignorance; at most, this seems to be the case for vices. Open-mindedness, thoroughness, and intellectual perseverance are clearly not manifestations of ignorance.[4] If anything, they are the opposite: manifestations of knowledge, insight, and understanding. An account that takes these points also into account would therefore look as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 4: Ignorance is an epistemic agent’s having no belief or a false belief about p.

It seems to me that version 4 is significantly more plausible than version 1. I realize, though, that it is also a significant revision of the original El Kassar Synthesis. My criticisms in what follows will, therefore, also be directed against version 1 of El Kassar’s synthesis.

Propositional, Objectual, and Procedural Ignorance

On the first conception of ignorance that El Kassar explores, the propositional one, ignorance is ignorance of the truth of a proposition. On the Standard View of ignorance, defended by Pierre Le Morvan and others,[5] ignorance is lack of propositional knowledge, whereas on the New View, championed by me and others,[6] ignorance is lack of true belief.

I would like to add that it may more suitable to call these ‘conceptions of propositional ignorance’ rather than ‘positional conceptions of ignorance’. After all, they are explicitly concerned with and limit themselves to situations in which one is ignorant of the truth of one or more propositions; they do not say that all ignorance is ignorance of a proposition.

More importantly, though, we should note that ever since Bertrand Russell, it has been quite common in epistemology to distinguish not only propositional knowledge (or knowledge-that), but also knowledge by acquaintance or objectual knowledge (knowledge-of) and procedural or technical knowledge (knowledge-how).[7]

Examples of knowledge by acquaintance are my knowledge of my fiancée’s lovely personality, my knowledge of the taste of the Scotch whisky Talisker Storm, my knowledge of Southern France, and my knowledge of the smell of fresh raspberries. Examples of technical or procedural knowledge are my knowledge of how to navigate through Amsterdam by bike, my knowledge of how to catch a North Sea cod, my knowledge of how to get the attention of a group of 150 students (the latter, incidentally, suggests that know-how comes in degrees…).

Since ignorance is often taken to be lack of knowledge, it is only natural to consider whether there can also be objectual and technical ignorance. Nikolaj Nottelmann, in a recent piece, has convincingly argued that there are such varieties of ignorance.[8]

The rub is that the El Kassar Synthesis, on all of its four versions, does not capture these two other varieties of ignorance. If one is ignorant of how to ride a bike, it is not so much that one lacks beliefs about p or that one has false beliefs about p (even if it is clear exactly which proposition p is). Also, not knowing how to ride a bike does not seem to come with certain intellectual virtues or vices.

The same is true for objectual ignorance: if I am not familiar with the smell of fresh raspberries, that does not imply any false beliefs or absence of beliefs, nor does it come with intellectual virtues or vices. Objectual and procedural ignorance seem to be sui generis kinds of ignorance.

The following definition does capture these three varieties of ignorance—one that, for obvious reasons, I will call the ‘threefold synthesis’:

Threefold Synthesis: Ignorance is an epistemic agent’s lack of propositional knowledge or lack of true belief, lack of objectual knowledge, or lack of procedural knowledge.[9]

Of course, each of the four versions of the El Kassar Synthesis could be revised so as to accommodate this. As we shall see below, though, we have good reason to formulate the Threefold Synthesis independently from the El Kassar Synthesis.

The Agential and Structural Conceptions of Ignorance

According to El Kassar, there is a second conception of ignorance, not captured in the conception of propositional ignorance but captured in the conception of agential ignorance, namely ignorance as an actively upheld false outlook. This conception has, understandably, been particularly influential in the epistemology of race. Charles Mills, whose contributions to this field have been seminal, defines such ignorance as the absence of beliefs, false belief, or a set of false beliefs, brought about by various factors, such as people’s whiteness in the case of white people, that leads to a variety of behavior, such as avoiding evidence.[10] El Kassar suggests that José Medina, who has also contributed much to this field, defends a conception along these lines as well.[11]

The way Charles Mills phrases things suggests a natural interpretation of such ignorance, though. It is this: ignorance is the lack of belief, false beliefs, or various false beliefs (all captured by the conception of propositional ignorance), brought about or caused by a variety of factors. What these factors are will differ from case to case: people’s whiteness, people’s social power and status, people’s being Western, people’s being male, and people’s being heterosexual.

But this means that the agential conception is not a conception of the nature of ignorance. It grants the nature of ignorance as conceived of by the conception of propositional ignorance spelled out above and then, for obvious reasons, goes on to focus on those cases in which such ignorance has particular causes, namely the kinds of factors I just mentioned.[12]

Remarkably, much of what El Kassar herself says supports this interpretation. For example, she says: “Medina picks out a kind of ignorance, active ignorance, that is fed by epistemic vices – in particular, arrogance, laziness and closed-mindedness.” (p. 3; italics are mine) This seems entirely right to me: the epistemology of race focuses on ignorance with specific, contingent features that are crucially relevant for the debate in that field: (i) it is actively upheld, (ii) it is often, but not always, disbelieving ignorance, (iii) it is fed by epistemic vices, etc.

This is of course all perfectly compatible with the Standard or New Views on Ignorance. Most people’s ignorance of the fact that Antarctica is the largest desert on earth is a clear case of ignorance, but one that is not at all relevant to the epistemology of race.

Unsurprisingly then, even though it clearly is a case of ignorance, it does not meet any of the other, contingent criteria that are so pivotal in critical race theory: (i) it is not actively upheld, (ii) it is deep ignorance rather than disbelieving ignorance (most people have never considered this statement about Antarctica), (iii) it is normally not in any way fed by epistemic vices, such as closed-mindedness, laziness, intellectual arrogance, or dogmatism.

That this is a more plausible way of understanding the nature of ignorance and its accidental features can be seen by considering what is widely regarded as the opposite of ignorance: knowledge. According to most philosophers, to know a particular proposition p is to believe a true proposition p on the basis of some kind of justification in a non-lucky (in some sense of the word) way. That is what it is to know something, that is the nature of knowledge.

But in various cases, knowledge can have all sorts of accidental properties: it can be sought and found or one can stumble upon it, it may be the result of the exercise of intellectual virtue or it may be pretty much automatic (such as in the case of my knowledge that I exist), it may be morally good to know that thing or it may be morally bad (as in the case of a privacy violation), it may be based primarily on the exercise of one’s own cognitive capacities or primarily on those of other people (in some cases of testimony), and so on. If this is the case, then it is only natural to think that the same applies to the opposite of knowledge, namely ignorance, and that we should, therefore, clearly distinguish between its nature and its accidental (sometimes crucially important) features:

The nature of ignorance

Ignorance is the lack of propositional knowledge / the lack of true belief, or the lack of objectual knowledge, or the lack of procedural knowledge.[13]

Accidental, context-dependent features of ignorance

Willful or unintentional;

Individual or collective;

Small-scale (individual propositions) or large-scale (whole themes, topics, areas of life);

Brought about by external factors, such as the government, institutions, or socially accepted frameworks, or internal factors, such as one’s own intellectual vices, background assumptions, or hermeneutic paradigms;

And so on.

According to El Kassar, an advantage of her position is that it tells us how one is ignorant (p. 7). However, an account of, say, knowledge, also need not tell us how a particular person in specific circumstances knows something.[14] Perceptual knowledge is crucially important in our lives, and so is knowledge based on memory, moral knowledge (if there is such a thing), and so on.

It is surely no defect in all the many accounts of knowledge, such as externalism, internalism, reliabilism, internalist externalism, proper functionalism, deontologism, or even knowledge-first epistemology, that they do not tell us how a particular person in specific circumstances knows something. They were never meant to do that.

Clearly, mutatis mutandis, the same point applies to the structural conception of ignorance that plays an important role in agnotology. Agnotology is the field that studies how various institutional structures and mechanisms can intentionally keep people ignorant or make them ignorant or create different kinds of doubt. The ignorance about the effects of smoking brought about and intentionally maintained by the tobacco industry is a well-known example.

Again, the natural interpretation is to say that people are ignorant because they lack propositional knowledge or true belief, they lack objectual knowledge, or they lack procedural knowledge. And they do so because – and this is what agnotology focuses on – it is intentionally brought about or maintained by various institutions, agencies, governments, mechanisms, and so on. Understandably, the field is more interested in studying those accidental features of ignorance than in studying its nature.

Objections and Replies

Before we draw a conclusion, let us consider El Kassar’s objections to a position along the lines I have suggested.[15] First, she suggests that we lose a lot if we reject the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance. We lose such things as: ignorance as a bad practice, the role of epistemic agency, the fact that much ignorance is strategic, and so on. I reply that, fortunately, we do not: those are highly important, but contingent features of ignorance: some cases of ignorance have them, others do not. This leaves plenty of room to study such contingent features of ignorance in critical race theory and agnotology.[16]

Second, she suggests that this account would exclude highly important kinds of ignorance, such as ignorance deliberately constructed by companies. I reply that it does not: it just says that its being deliberately constructed by, say, pharmaceutical companies, is an accidental or contingent feature and that it is not part of the nature of ignorance.

Third, Roget’s Thesaurus, for example, lists knowledge as only one of the antonyms of ignorance. Other options are cognizance, understanding, competence, cultivation, education, experience, intelligence, literacy, talent, and wisdom. I reply that we can make sense of this on my alternative, threefold synthesis: competence, cultivation, education, intelligence, and so on, all come with knowledge and true belief and remove certain kinds of ignorance. Thus, it makes perfect sense that these are mentioned as antonyms of ignorance.

Finally, one may wonder whether my alternative conception enables us to distinguish between Hannah and Kate, as described by El Kassar. Hannah is deeply and willingly ignorant about the high emissions of both carbon and sulfur dioxides of cruise ships (I recently found out that a single cruise trip has roughly the same amount of emission as seven million cars in an average year combined). Kate is much more open-minded, but has simply never considered the issue in any detail.

She is in a state of suspending ignorance regarding the emission of cruise ships. I reply that they are both ignorant, at least propositionally ignorant, but that their ignorance has different, contingent features: Hannah’s ignorance is deep ignorance, Kate’s ignorance is suspending ignorance, Hannah’s ignorance is willing or intentional, Kate’s ignorance is not. These are among the contingent features of ignorance; both are ignorant and, therefore, meet the criteria that I laid out for the nature of ignorance.

The Nature and Accidental Features of Ignorance

I conclude that ignorance is the lack of propositional knowledge or true belief, the lack of objectual knowledge, or the lack of procedural knowledge. That is the nature of ignorance: each case meets this threefold disjunctive criterion. I also conclude that ignorance has a wide variety of accidental or contingent features. Various fields have drawn attention to these accidental or contingent features because they matter crucially in certain debates in those fields. It is not surprising then that the focus in mainstream epistemology is on the nature of ignorance, whereas the focus in agnotology, epistemology of race, feminist epistemology, and various other debates is on those context-dependent features of ignorance.

This is not at all to say that the nature of ignorance is more important than its accidental features. Contingent, context-dependent features of something may be significantly more important. For example, it may well be the case that we have the parents that we have essentially; that we would be someone else if we had different biological parents. If so, that is part of our nature or essence.

And yet, certain contingent and accidental features may matter more to us, such as whether or not our partner loves us. Let us not confuse the nature of something with the accidental features of it that we value or disvalue. If we get this distinction straight, there is no principled reason not to accept the threefold synthesis that I have suggested in this paper as a plausible alternative to El Kassar’s synthesis.[17]

Contact details: mail@rikpeels.nl

References

Driver, Julia. (1989). “The Virtues of Ignorance,” The Journal of Philosophy 86.7, 373-384.

El Kassar, Nadja. (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance”, Social Epistemology, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

Le Morvan, Pierre. (2011). “On Ignorance: A Reply to Peels”, Philosophia 39.2, 335-344.

Medina, José. (2013). The Epistemology of Resistance (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Mills, Charles. (2015). “Global White Ignorance”, in M. Gross and L. McGoey (eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies (London: Routledge), 217-227.

Nottelmann, Nikolaj. (2015). “Ignorance”, in Robert Audi (ed.), Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Peels, Rik. (2010). “What Is Ignorance?”, Philosophia 38, 57-67.

Peels, Rik. (2014). “What Kind of Ignorance Excuses? Two Neglected Issues”, The Philosophical Quarterly 64 (256), 478–496.

Peels, Rik, ed. 2017. Perspectives on Ignorance from Moral and Social Philosophy (New York: Routledge).

Peels, Rik. (2019). “Asserting Ignorance”, in Sanford C. Goldberg (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Assertion (Oxford: Oxford University Press), forthcoming.

Peels, Rik, and Martijn Blaauw, eds. (2016). The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Russell, Bertrand. (1980). The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Schwitzgebel, Eric. (2002). “A Phenomenal, Dispositional Account of Belief”, Noûs 36.2, 249-275.

[1] El Kassar 2018, 7.

[2] El Kassar 2018, 7.

[3] E.g. Schwitzgebel 2002.

[4] Julia driver (1989) has argued that certain moral virtues, such as modesty, imply some kind of ignorance. However, moral virtues are different from epistemic virtues and the suggestion that something implies ignorance is different from the idea that something manifests ignorance.

[5] See Le Morvan 2011. See also various essays in Peels and Blaauw 2016; Peels 2017.

[6] See Peels 2010; 2014; 2019. See also various essays in Peels and Blaauw 2016; Peels 2017.

[7] See Russell 1980, 3.

[8] See Nottelmann 2015.

[9] If the Standard View on Ignorance is correct, then one could simply replace this with: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in lack of (propositional, objectual, or procedural) knowledge.

[10] See Mills 2015, 217.

[11] See Medina 2013.

[12] El Kassar in her paper mentions Anne Meylan’s suggestion on this point. Anne Meylan has suggested – and confirmed to me in personal correspondence – that we ought to distinguish between the state of being ignorant (which is nicely captured by the Standard View or the New View) and the action or failure to act that induced that state of ignorance (that the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance refer to), such as absence of inquiry or a sloppy way of dealing with evidence. I fully agree with Anne Meylan’s distinction on this point and, as I argue in more detail below, taking this distinction into account can lead to a significantly improved account of ignorance.

[13] The disjunction is meant to be inclusive.

[15] See pp. 4-5 of her paper.

[16] As Anne Meylan has pointed out to me in correspondence, it is generally true that doxastic states are not as such morally bad; whether or not they are depends on their contingent, extrinsic features.

[17] For their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper, I would like to thank Thirza Lagewaard, Anne Meylan, and Nadja El Kassar.

Author Information: Patrick Bondy, Wichita State University, patrick.bondy@wichita.edu.

Bondy, Patrick. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 9-14.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44n

Image by The Naked Ape via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance,” Nadja El Kassar brings disparate conceptions of ignorance from recent epistemology into contact with each other, and she proposes an integrated conception of ignorance which aims to capture the important aspects of each of these conceptions. This paper is both useful and stimulating for anyone interested in the subjects of knowledge and ignorance, especially those who might be ignorant of work on ignorance conducted in other branches of epistemology.

El Kassar’s View of Ignorance

El Kassar identifies three broad approaches to ignorance in the epistemology literature which lead up to her proposed integrated conception:

(1) Propositional conception of ignorance

This is the standard approach in epistemology. On this approach, ignorance consists of a subject’s lacking either knowledge of or belief in a true proposition.

(2) Agential conception of ignorance

Agential ignorance goes beyond mere propositional ignorance, in “explicitly includ[ing] the epistemic agent as contributing to and maintaining ignorance” (p.3). Epistemic vices such as arrogance, laziness, and closed-mindedness contribute to this sort of ignorance. On this approach, the particular way in which ignorance is brought about or maintained is viewed as partly constitutive of the ignorance itself.

(3) Structural conception of ignorance

Like the agential conception, this conception of ignorance views the causes of ignorance as partly constitutive of ignorance. Unlike the agential conception, however, the structural conception takes into account belief-forming practices and social structures that go beyond the individual cognizer.

(4) Integrated conception of ignorance

El Kassar argues that each of these other conceptions of ignorance gets at something important, and that they are not reducible to each other. So she proposes her integrated conception, which aims to bring the key features of these approaches together: “Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices)” (p.7).

In the remainder of this commentary, I will do three things. First, I will briefly argue in defense of the Standard View, on the ground that we can say everything we want to say about ignorance, taking the propositional conception of ignorance as fundamental. Second, I will suggest that proponents of the Standard View of ignorance do not need to choose between viewing ignorance as a lack of knowledge and ignorance as lack of true belief. Just as there are strong and weak senses of “knowledge,” there can be corresponding weak and strong senses of “ignorance.”

Third, I will propose that we should recognize another kind of ignorance, which we might call practical ignorance, which consists of not knowing how to do things. There is a clear way in which practical ignorance is distinct from propositional ignorance, given that knowledge-how and knowledge-that appear to be different kinds of knowledge that are irreducible to each other. But there is also a sense in which practical ignorance can be partly constitutive of propositional ignorance, which is similar to how El Kassar sees agential ignorance as partly constitutive of ignorance in general. Indeed, I will suggest, El Kassar’s integrated view of ignorance might easily be extended to cover practical ignorance as well.

Propositional Ignorance as Fundamental

I want to defend the view that propositional ignorance is the most fundamental kind of ignorance. Viewing ignorance this way is intuitively plausible, and it allows us to say everything we need to say about ignorance.

The claim that propositional ignorance is most fundamental is ambiguous. On the one hand, it might mean that agential and structural ignorance are entirely reducible to it, in the sense that the crucial aspects of agential and structural ignorance as described above, such as the cognitive dispositions of individual subject or the knowledge-producing institutions extant in a society, are themselves all forms of propositional ignorance or that they derive from propositional ignorance.

El Kassar notes that that kind of reductivism is implausible, and it is not the view I mean to defend here. Instead, I mean to defend the proposal that “The propositional conception is most fundamental because the second and the third conceptions are not really conceptions of ignorance but rather accounts of different causes of ignorance” (p. 4).

On this view, the only condition that constitutes ignorance is lack of knowledge or true belief, and so all ignorance is propositional ignorance. But propositional ignorance might be brought about in various ways, and it is useful to distinguish the various ways in which it can be brought about or sustained, especially when some of those ways make a person’s or a group’s ignorance particularly dangerous or resilient.

This approach does not aim to denigrate the projects pursued by proponents of agential and structural conceptions of ignorance. It does not even aim to prevent us from talking about different kinds of ignorance as differentiated by their agential or structural causes.

Just as we can categorize propositional knowledge into different kinds based on the subject matter of what is known and the methods by which knowledge in different areas is acquired, all the while acknowledging that these are still all kinds of propositional knowledge, so too we can distinguish kinds of propositional ignorance based on the subject matter and the ways in which ignorance is caused or maintained, while still recognizing these as kinds of propositional ignorance.

El Kassar objects (p. 4) that this proposal misunderstands the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance, for they aim to broaden our view of ignorance, to incorporate more than just propositional ignorance. They view certain kinds of agential or structural causes of ignorance as part of what constitutes ignorance itself. Propositional conceptions of ignorance cannot capture these aspects of ignorance; these aspects of ignorance are not propositional in nature, after all.

But it seems that propositionalists can make two replies here. First, if virtue epistemologists such as Greco (2009) are right, then knowledge itself depends on subjects possessing and exercising certain cognitive abilities. In that case, there are agential aspects to propositional knowledge—and in some cases, to propositional ignorance. So some aspects of agential ignorance can be built into propositional ignorance.

And second, it’s not clear that we need to broaden the conception of ignorance to include things beyond propositional ignorance. Granting that there are aspects of agential and structural conceptions of ignorance that are left out of the account of what ignorance is when we take propositional ignorance as fundamental, it does not follow that we cannot take those aspects of agential and structural ignorance into account at all.

Some kinds of causes of ignorance are worth dwelling on in our theories of knowledge and ignorance. We just don’t need to think of the causes of ignorance as themselves forms of ignorance, or as part of what constitutes ignorance.

So it seems to me that we can still say everything we want to say about what are here called propositional, agential, and structural ignorance, even if we only ultimately count propositional ignorance as ignorance proper, and we count the features of agential and structural ignorance as important causes of ignorance proper but not themselves constitutive of ignorance.

Propositional Ignorance: Lack of Knowledge or True Belief?

El Kassar notes that if we take the propositional conception as fundamental, then we will need to decide whether to take ignorance to consist of a lack of true belief or a lack of knowledge. But perhaps we can have it both ways. As Goldman and Olsson (2010) note, ordinarily, from the fact that S lacks knowledge that p, one may infer that S is ignorant of p. Knowledge and ignorance appear to exhaust the logical space, for a given subject S and true proposition p.

Furthermore, in ordinary English there are strong and weak senses of “knowledge,” with the weak sense meaning simply true belief, and the strong sense meaning Gettier-proof justified true belief. In the weak sense of “knowledge,” ignorance is a lack of knowledge and a lack of true belief, because knowledge and true belief are one and the same, on this conception of knowledge.

In the strong sense of knowledge, on the other hand, a lack of knowledge results from lacking true belief, or from lacking justification, or from being Gettiered. But, Goldman and Olsson argue, lacking justification or being Gettiered do not make a person ignorant of whether p is true. As long as p is true and S believes p, it is incorrect to say that S is ignorant of p.

So Goldman and Olsson plump for the view of ignorance as lack of true belief. But another option is to take their initial point about ignorance as a lack of knowledge at face value. Given that ignorance is a lack of knowledge, and given that there are strong and weak senses of “knowledge,” one would expect that there also are strong and weak senses of “ignorance.” A lack of knowledge in the weak sense would be ignorance in the strong sense, and a lack of knowledge in the strong sense would be ignorance in the weak sense. Because knowledge in the strong sense consists of more than knowledge in the weak sense, a lack of knowledge in the strong sense takes less than does a lack of knowledge in the weak sense.

Practical Ignorance

The proposal here is that ignorance at bottom consists of a lack of knowledge. So far, in line with the Standard View, we have only been considering propositional knowledge: ignorance consists of the existence of a true proposition p, and S’s lacking knowledge that p.

But on the assumption that knowledge-how is not reducible to knowledge-that, it seems useful to have a conception of ignorance which will apply to the lack of knowledge-how.[1] For example, it seems natural enough to say that I am ignorant of how to kick a field goal, or how to speak Mandarin, or how to build a sturdy chair. And if knowledge-how is not just a species of knowledge-that, then my ignorance of these things consists of more than a simple lack of true beliefs about how these things are done: they consist at least in part of my lacking the ability to do them. We can call this kind of ignorance practical ignorance.

Importantly, practical ignorance is not reducible to the agential kind of ignorance discussed above. Although the agential conception takes cognitive abilities and dispositions to be partly constitutive of ignorance, practical ignorance would be much broader, encompassing practical inabilities as well as cognitive inabilities. Further, the agential conception of ignorance draws our attention to ignorance that can sometimes be actively maintained by very sophisticated intellectual abilities, in which case such ignorance does not manifest practical ignorance.

For example, one might have the ability to reinterpret data to support a preferred outlook. That is not a truth-conducive ability, but it is an ability to form desired beliefs, and it is an ability at which people can become quite proficient. In cases where a subject exercises such an ability, she might successfully maintain a distorted or mistaken outlook because of the exercise of practical abilities, not because of practical ignorance.

Like propositional ignorance, practical ignorance can be partly caused or sustained by agential and structural features of a person or a society. For example, practical ignorance can be actively maintained by an individual’s interference in her own development, or by other people’s interference in her development. Social structures geared toward the oppression of segments of the population, or which simply encourage members of certain social groups to participate in some activities and not to participate in others, can also contribute to sustaining people’s practical inabilities.

And, like agential ignorance, practical ignorance can be responsible for maintaining propositional ignorance in individuals or in groups, about individual propositions or about whole domains of knowledge.

For example, the inability to speak local languages can keep victims of human trafficking from gaining knowledge of the kinds of resources that might be available to them. The inability to perform relatively simple arithmetical calculations can prevent an individual from knowing whether she is receiving the correct amount of change in a transaction. The inability to conceptualize certain kinds of behaviour as abusive can sustain a lack of understanding of one’s situation.[2] And so on.

So although practical and propositional ignorance are different kinds of ignorance, on the assumption that know-how and knowledge-that are irreducible to each other, they appear to be susceptible to being intertwined in these ways.

The nature of practical ignorance and its relation to propositional ignorance bears further investigation. One potential feature of El Kassar’s integrated conception of ignorance is that, although it has a doxastic component built in, and so it does not account for practical ignorance as I am conceiving of it, it might be straightforwardly extended to cover practical ignorance as well.

For example, theoretical and practical ignorance might be defined and brought together as follows:

Theoretical ignorance: this would remain as El Kassar formulates her integrated conception of ignorance, as “a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices)” (p.7).

Practical ignorance: a disposition of an agent that manifests itself in her actions – where S fails to φ, or S does not φ well or properly – and her practical attitudes (ethical and pragmatic attitudes, ethical or practical virtues and vices).

Ignorance in general: combines theoretical and practical ignorance. Ignorance in general would then be: a disposition of an agent that manifests itself in an agent’s beliefs or actions – whereby she fails to succeed in achieving the characteristic goal of the activity in question (believing truly, knowing, or successfully carrying out some practical action) – and in her epistemic and practical attitudes (doxastic attitudes, ethical attitudes, epistemic and practical virtues and vices).

Of course, this is only a suggestion about how practical ignorance could be conceptualized. I have argued in defense of the Standard View of (theoretical) ignorance, so this sort of unified integrated conception is not available to me. Nor do I mean to suggest that El Kassar is committed to developing her view of ignorance in this direction.

Still, given a commitment to El Kassar’s integrated view of ignorance, and given that we should also want to give an account of practical ignorance, this seems like a plausible way to deliver a unified treatment of ignorance.

Contact details: patrick.bondy@wichita.edu

References

El Kassar, Nadja (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

Goldman, Alvin and Olsson, Erik (2009). “Reliabilism and the Value of Knowledge.” In: A. Haddock, A. Millar, and D. Pritchard, eds., Epistemic Value. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 19-41.

Greco, John (2009). “Knowledge and Success from Ability.” Philosophical Studies 142 (1): 17-26.

Fricker, Miranda (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Peels, Rik (2010). “What Is Ignorance?” Philosophia 38: 57–67.

[1] Peels (2010) briefly considers the possibility of practical ignorance, only to set it aside and focus on propositional ignorance.

[2] I have in mind here Fricker’s (2007) treatment of hermeneutical injustice.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Sir Wilfred Grenfell College (Memorial University), bwills@grenfell.mun.ca.

Wills, Bernard. “Weak Scientism: The Prosecution Rests.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 31-36.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-41T

Whoever has provoked men to rage against him has always gained a party in his favour too

Image by Vetustense Photorogue via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

On a lazy afternoon there is nothing like another defense of Weak Scientism to get the juices flowing. This one “Why Scientific Knowledge is Still the Best” is quite the specimen. It includes, among other delights, an attempt to humble my perceived pride based on a comparison between myself and my wonderful colleague Dr. Svetlana Barkanova. (Mizrahi, 2018c, 20)

Here I must concede defeat. I don’t hold a candle to the esteemed Dr. Barkanova and would never claim to be her equal. Plus, I need no metrics to convince me of this. I am well aware of her overall excellence as she is an acquaintance of mine. However, this petty display overshoots its mark. All I said was that journals have, in fact, published things (by me) Mizrahi explicitly claimed no journal would publish (2018b, 46) and, frankly, I think I have established that point with any objective reader. I am certainly not bragging or claiming I have some rock star status as a scholar. Let’s proceed then to address the specific arguments he offers in his essay.

Material Causes Behind Intellectual Appearances

I will begin with quantity. This is a point he claims I overemphasize though at the same time he claims it is a crucial component of his own argument. (2018c,19) At any rate, he goes on yet another tangent about the superior quantity and impact of scientific research. To this I respond again, so what? It is no doubt true that more research and more ‘impactful’ research is produced in the sciences but why is this so?

To quote Bill Clinton, “It’s the economy stupid”. Science serves the interests of corporations and the military in ways that the humanities do not and so more money gets directed to the sciences. Since this is the case more scientific research is produced overall.

Now one could make an argument that this speaks to an overall greater utility for the sciences as opposed to other domains, but this is not the argument Mizrahi makes. Rather he asserts raw quantity itself as a feature that makes for the superiority of science. In both my replies I explained the problem with this and in neither of his replies has Mizrahi rebutted my points.

I pointed out a. that commercials are not superior to great artworks even though their number and impact is greater and b. Shakespeare scholarship would not be superior to physics if it simply happened that there were more of it. Mizrahi’s response to this is to complain about the word ‘odd’ (Mizrahi, 19) as if I intended it as a gratuitous personal insult. Actually though, I intended only to imply that his position seemed odd. It still seems odd to me to claim that if Shakespeare scholars suddenly put out a tremendous burst of articles (and pulled into the lead in the great race to produce more and more research) then that would somehow throw particle physics in the shade.

But, if Mizrahi wants to accept that conclusion then he is certainly welcome to it. If he wants to say that weak scientism is only contingently true and that it is only contingently the case that the sciences happen currently to produce more impactful research (for whatever reason), then he has done only what he all too often does; won a debating point by reducing his own thesis to a truism, here, that more =more. (Mizrahi, 19) At any rate, the frustrating thing here is that while Mizrahi asserts again and again the quantitative superiority of science he never condescends to explain why quantity is a valid metric in the first place, he asserts the fact without explaining why I or anyone else should regard that fact as significant.[1]

An Unanswered Question: Recursivity and Science

And, since Mizrahi is obviously sensitive on the point, let me say that calling an argument a sophism is merely an objective description not a personal insult as Mizrahi seems to think. (Mizrahi, 21) Mizrahi still does not recognize the fallacy, perhaps a kinder, better word than sophism (mea culpa), he committed in his reply to my point concerning recursive knowledge. Let me try again. My point was simple. Any argument founded on the claimed quantitative superiority of science founders on the fact that recursive processes, any recursive processes, can produce an infinity of true propositions.

In response to this Mizrahi said that this is not a problem for scientism for we can reflect recursively on scientific propositions in the same manner. To this I responded by saying that this was true but irrelevant as this had nothing whatsoever to do with whether a proposition was scientific or not. Nor does his account of scientific explanation include reflexivity as a source of knowledge. Reflecting recursively on a scientific proposition is not the same as thinking scientifically.  His response his fallacious because it conflates two distinct processes.

This is why it does not matter in the least whether two people, a scientist or non-scientist, can produce an equal amount of knowledge by performing recursive acts in parallel. Neither are doing science. This perfectly obvious point is something Mizrahi claims he addresses in his replies to Brown (Mizrahi, 21) yet my examination of the passages he cites leaves me baffled for nothing in them touches remotely on the question of recursivity or explains how reflecting recursively on a scientific proposition is equivalent to uttering a scientific proposition as a scientist.

Since Mizrahi does not intend to reply any further I suppose I will just have to scratch my head on this one and bewail my own lack of native wit. Plus, as Mizrahi seems to set great store by citations and references even in informal spaces like a review and reply collective it is a little jarring to see HIS not quite panning out (more on this below however).[2]

Systems and Ideologies

Why does Dr. Mizrahi still think I am calling him a racist when I intended to speak only in terms of systemic and not personal racism (Mizrahi, 21-22)?   In a systemic and so intersectional context, non-white identity does not mean one cannot occupy a place of privilege. He still does not see the difference between an ad hominem attack and an ideological critique of scientism. (Mizrahi, 23) Lorraine Code and Helen Longino, among others, have explained how standard accounts of scientific method have (WITTINGLY OR NOT!!) excluded women as knowers and Mizrahi can consult their works if he is interested.[3]  He may also consult Edward Said on how pretensions to scientific ‘objectivity’ underwrite colonialism.

I, however, will use a different example, one closer to my own interests and experience. In the institution in which I teach a significant portion of the students are of indigenous Miq’maw heritage. They are, by and large, NOT interested in hearing that their elders convey a secondary and qualitatively inferior kind of knowledge when compared to western scientists. Now, you could say that this is simple perversity on their part; they should ‘man up’ and accept the gospel of weak scientism! Things are not however so simple.

It is idle to claim that the experience of colonial oppression is irrelevant because science is universal, objective and politically neutral. It is idle to claim that the elevation of scientific procedures to qualitative superiority has no social and political ramifications for those whose knowledge forms are thereby granted second class status. This is because the question of scientism is bound up with the question of authority.

The fact that Indigenous knowledge traditions are grounded in local knowledge, in traditional lore and in story means that on questions of importance to them indigenous peoples cannot speak. It means they have to listen to others who ‘know better’ because the propositions they utter have the form of science.[4]

Thus, whether intended or not, the elevation of scientific knowledge to superior status over indigenous knowledge elevates white settlers to authority over indigenous people and justifies the theft of their land and even of their children. Worse, indigenous people can see for themselves (because they are not blind) that this privileging of settler knowledge over their own is not benign. It is viciously exploitative and intended to keep indigenous peoples in a place of dependence and inferiority. Thus, Mizrahi’s facile assumption that scientism is ideologically innocent will not stand even cursory examination.

Partiality of Knowledge and the Limits of Learning

When I say that Mizrahi’s position is self-interested I am again simply pointing out a fact. If I were to write a paper arguing that the humanities are qualitatively superior to the sciences, deserved more funding than the sciences and that the hermeneutical practices of the humanities should be adopted by the sciences would Mizrahi not wonder if I was, in fact, being a little bit partial? Of course he would.

I, though, am not making that kind of argument, he is. I am not suggesting anyone is inferior to anyone; he is and as such I think it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether his position is tainted with bias. This is so especially as he has no much to say about the lack of ‘good faith’ in others.

On now to our unexpectedly long-lived example of Joyce scholars. Here I must thank Mizrahi for proving my point for me. Unaware that he is shooting his own argument in the foot he takes great pains to distinguish simplicity in scientific explanation from simplicity as an aesthetic quality.[5] He also distinguishes ‘accommodation’ (which the Joyce scholar seeks) from ‘novel prediction’ (which the scientist seeks). (Mizrahi, 25) It is indeed the case, as I myself asserted, that explanation in the humanities and in the sciences are related analogically not univocally. Terms from one domain do not immediately transfer directly to the other.

This is a perfect illustration of why scientific explanation is not the same as literary explanation. Simplicity is a desideratum for both forms of explanation but there is no answer to the question of whether general relativity is simpler than reader response theory for the obvious reason that different disciplines will parse the notion of simplicity differently.

But if this is so I ask again what makes a scientific theory qualitatively better than a critical reading of Joyce when they do not employ commensurate standards and have such fundamentally different aims? I ask again, what could ‘better’ possibly mean in this context? In what sense is a scientific theory simpler than a Joyce commentary if on Mizrahi’s own admission we are not dealing with univocal standards or senses of simplicity? In what sense is a scientific theory more coherent if we are not using ‘coherence’ in the same way in both domains?

Further I asked and ask again why the Joyce scholar even needs to make a novel prediction? Why is it a problem for his discipline if he does not use things he does not need? Further, Mizrahi resorts yet again to the canard that I am accusing him of saying the Joyce scholar does not produce knowledge as if this was even an answer to my question. (Mizrahi, 26)

Next, Scriabin. I think the best description of what my daughter did with the Prometheus chord is that she reverse engineered it. She worked backward from it to tell a story about how it came to be. Obviously this did not require any novel prediction about future Prometheus chords by future Scriabins. There is one Prometheus chord and it already exists. Further, the process by which it was created occurred once in the past.

Thus we are constructing an explanatory story about the past concerning a singular object not formulating a general law or making a testable prediction. This kind of story is used in all kinds of contexts. It is used here in music theory. It is used in those sciences concerned with past events. It is used by law enforcement to reconstruct a crime. Now, even if by some feat of prestidigitation one could contort such explanatory stories into the form of testable predictions this would be an after the fact rationalization not description of how actual people reason.

A World of Citations

Thus, let me emphasize once again that testability does not make science superior to on non-science for the simple reason that non-science does not typically need tests such as Mizrahi describes. Or, to put it another way testing is not employed in the same way in science and non-science so that if one says that, in some sense, the Joyce scholar ‘tests’ his ideas against the text one is speaking analogically not univocally as I attempted to point out in my previous reply. (Wills, 2018b, 38) Thus, Mizrahi’s claim about testability (Mizrahi, 28) is, yet again, beside the point.[6]

Now I turn to the minor objections. Dr. Mizrahi is upset that I have I have not cited the extensive literature on scientism. (Mizrahi, 18) Well Mizrahi has professed to show that science is superior to things like historiography and literary criticism even though he himself does not cite anything from those fields and shows no familiarity with what goes on in them.

Two can play at the rhetoric of citation and it is Mizrahi who claims that scientific procedures are better than non-scientific ones without making any direct comparison with the latter except for his cherished bugbear ‘armchair philosophy’. To return to the question of privilege, Mizrahi seems to assume that he is owed a deference he does not need to grant to others. As Latour says, citation is not accidental but essential to the rhetoric of an academic paper. (Latour; 1987, 30-62) Mizrahi’s use of the rhetoric of citation conveys the message that that his side has an epistemic privilege the other side does not: they are obliged to engage his literature but he is not obliged to engage theirs.

Again, Mizrahi accuses me of Eurocentric bias in citing Augustine and Aristotle (Mizrahi, 23) yet a glance at his own references does not reveal ANY citations from Shankara, Ashvaghosa, al Ghazzali, al Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Lao Tzu, Kung Fu Tzu, or any other thinker outside the western tradition. Miizrahi’s own citation list betrays the very story he is trying to tell about mine!  Finally, in a somewhat involved passage he responds to the charge that he vacillates between Weak and Strong Scientism by citing the full text of a passage from one of his replies to Brown. (Mizrahi, 24) I don’t why he does this because his words say the exact same thing even when put in this larger context.

He reports that certain philosophers and scientists think of knowledge as “the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study studies, as opposed to non-scientific study.” He then states, directly, that he follows this view. (Mizrahi, 24) This does indeed look like vacillation between weak and strong scientism.

However, I will not hammer him on one passage for what might, after all, be an unintentional slip or loose phrasing. If he says his position is weak scientism and weak scientism only then I take him at his word.

Conclusion

I will reiterate again the one basic reason why I think weak scientism is unconvincing and that is that it seems to be an exercise in bare arithmetic. Is there more scientific research than non-scientific? Well, more is better! Does science have 4 of the features of good explanation and history only 3? Science wins! This purely arithmetic procedure completely ignores the contexts in which different scholars work and how they reach their conclusions.  I conclude by saying what I said in my first reply: that Mizrahi’s Weak Scientism is the mountain that gave birth to the proverbial mouse.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Bohannon, John. “Hate Journal Impact Factors? New Study Gives You One More Reason.” Science Magazine. 6 July 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/07/hate-journal-impact-factors-new-study-gives-you-one-more-reason.

Mizrahi, Moti. “What’s So Bad About Scientism?” Social Epistemology 31, no. 4 (2017): 351-367.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Weak Scientism Defended Once More.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 41-50.

Van Wesel, Maarten; Sally Wyatt, and Jeroen ten Haaf. “What A Difference a Colon Makes: How Superficial Factors Influence Subsequent Citation.” Scientometrics 98, no. 3 (2014): 1601-1615.

Wills, Bernard. “On the Limits of Any Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 34-39.

Wills, Bernard. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

[1] Mizrahi is not going to like this but some have questioned whether impact ratings and other quantitative metrics have the significance sometimes claimed for them. See Callaway, as well as Van Wesel, Wyatt,  ten Haaff, and Bohanon. Indeed, Mizrahi seems to have internalized the standards of the university’s corporate masters (with their spurious emphasis on external metrics) to an uncritical and disturbing degree.

[2] Is Mizrahi claiming in these passages that ‘scientific knowledge’ is any knowledge that happens to be produced by a scientist as ‘practitioner’ in a field (Mizrahi 21) whether accidental to her practice or not? If so, he has yet again defended his thesis at the cost of making it trivial.

[3] He may begin with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if he likes.

[4]  See D. Simmonds on this point (addressing an anti-indigenous activist notorious in Canada): “My particular interest here is the way in which science has been reified by Widdowson and Howard and used to legitimate state decision-making on behalf of oppressed peoples. Science is counterposed to indigenous traditional knowledge, which by way of a children’s parable (The Emperor’s New Clothes) is denounced as mere superstition in the service of a corrupt “aboriginal industry.” The state is called upon to harness scientific rationalism in the old colonial interest of “civilizing the savages.” In the words of Widdowson and Howard, “It is not clear how the remnants of Neolithic culture that are inhibiting this development can be addressed without intensive government planning and intervention” (252).

[5] Simplicity as I use it here does not refer to ‘simple language’ but to the economy of a work’s design. I admit though that I should have distinguished between two kinds of simplicity here. The simplicity of the work itself and the simplicity of the critic’s exposition of the work which of course formally differ. It is the latter case that more closely resembles the simplicity of a scientific theory though if Mizrahi wants to deny they are identical that is entirely to my own purpose for I deny this as well.

[6] This speaks to the overall banality of Mizrahi’s thesis. He tells us that the best explanation is one “explains the most, leaves out the least, is consistent with background knowledge, is the least complicated, and yields independently testable predictions.” (Mizrahi, 28) He then adds “Wills seems to grant that “unity, simplicity and coherence are good making properties of explanations, but not testability. But why not testability?”. (Mizrahi, 28) Well I have said many times why not. Testability as Mizrahi defines it is not relevant to all inquiries. It is not even relevant to all scientific inquiries. ‘Testing’ can take different forms that resemble each other analogically not univocally. I don’t know how many different ways I can say this: the test of a thesis on metaphysics is elenchic. The test of a thesis about Joyce is a close examination of his texts. The test of an archeological claim is the examination of artefacts. Mizrahi’s entire argument boils down to the claim that science beats non-science 4 to 3! Yet clearly Mizrahi has tilted the field by asking non-science to conform to a standard external to it and applied arbitrarily. Unity, coherence, testability and so on are resemblance terms that cash out differently in different inquiries.

Author Information: Benjamin McCraw, University of South Carolina Upstate, bmccraw@uscupstate.edu

McCraw, Benjamin. “Thinking Through Social Epistemology: A Reply to Combes, Smolkin, and Simmons.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 4 (2016): 1-12.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2NU

Please refer to:

trust_door

Image credit: Steve Simmonds, via flickr

I want to thank Richard Combes, Doran Smolkin, and Aaron Simmons for their gracious, penetrating, and excellent commentaries on my paper. They’ve offered me outstanding points to consider, objections to ponder, and directions to pursue. In what follows, I’ll offer some thoughts of my own and respond to what I think are the truly insightful criticisms they raise for my model of epistemic trust (ET). Let me address Combes first.  Continue Reading…