Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Why Study Philosophy? Epistemology Edition

I been having this weird experience of questioning the value of studying philosophy.  Well, not so much for me personally, but for people who are not already interested.  Here's the thing: I, like pretty much anyone who teaches and studies philosophy, am passionate about it.  There's clearly no need to sell me on it.  The problem is that I realized that the things I find interesting and important about philosophy might not be interesting and important to those on the outside.  It's kind of like your favorite food or TV show: It's hard to conceive of why anyone wouldn't find them to be great or at least see the value in them.

Over the summer semester I'm teaching a 101 class.  As with most 101 classes, I begin with epistemology.  Epistemology is the study of knowledge.  Two of the traditional main questions are (1) what is knowledge? (E.g., what's the difference between simply believing something and knowing something) and (2)  what can we know? (E.g., it seems that many beliefs that were previously held to be true can end up being false, so is there a way to systematically decide before hand which are likely to be true or false).  A third issue I include in my class is the issue of justification:  What conditions have to be met before we can say someone's belief is justified.

As I was preparing my lectures I started to ask myself why should Joe-Shmo care about what knowledge is?  Or what we truly can or can't know?  Or what counts as a justified belief?  I was actually in the middle of my lecture today when these doubts came to a head, in my head.

We were discussing whether a person who holds a belief has to have conscious access to the reason why his belief is justified in order for the belief to be justified.  Let's back up a step.  Intuitively, or at least historically, we think that in order for someone to hold a justified belief they have to be able to provide some sort of argument for why they hold the belief.  That is, they have to be able to provide the justification.  If you asked someone "why do you believe X?" and they answered "I don't know but it's justified" most of us would think that this person's belief couldn't possible by justified.  They have no reason supporting why they believe what they believe.  This, by the way, is called "internalism" (the reason why a belief is justified to the believer must be consciously accessible to the believer at the time he is asked to justify the belief).

But hold on a tick. Suppose you do a logic puzzle and the answer turns out to be "yes".  Your belief that the answer is "yes" is justified by the logical proof that you performed.  The process of following the rules of logic yielded the answer.  10 years later someone gives you the same logic puzzle but you don't remember how to do the logic part to get the answer.  You do however remember that the answer is "yes" although you have no idea how you got that answer: in fact, you don't even remember if you even did the proof or if someone else had just told you the answer.  Are you justified in believing that the answer is "yes"?  Most of us would say "yes".  So, it seems that you can have a justified belief that the believer can't in the moment provide a justification for.  This is called "externalism" (the justification for a belief can be external to the believer's consciousness).

Anyhow, as you can see, it all gets very abstract very fast.  As we got bogged down in this I noticed some of the students tuning out.  It was it this point I had my little internal panic attack.  Does what I have devoted my life to have value to anyone outside of the profession?  Why should these people care about this?

Answer 1
One common response (aside from "who cares) to these seemingly esoteric debates is subjectivism: Whatever counts as justification for you is fine and whatever counts as justification for me is fine. There are a couple of problems with this:  First of all it's not a solution: it's surrender.  The second is that no one seriously believes this.

Everyday we are bombarded with information.  Why do we choose to believe some of that information reject other parts of it?  We don't randomly decide what to belief and what not to (well....actually, most of the time we just go with whatever confirms our biases but lets restrict this to deliberative inquiry).  If someone came to us for advice on what they should and should not believe, no one would think it's good advice to say "it doesn't matter why you believe something--just believe whatever you like."

Here is why epistemology matters:  Ultimately we have to figure out how we are going to live our lives. The decisions we make will directly influence the quality of our lives.  But the decisions we make are a direct result of what we [choose to] believe and don't [choose to] believe.  If we have no principled way to distinguish between something we have good reason to believe and something for which we don't, we will very easily make poorly informed decisions about how to live our lives and how to treat others which will in turn directly impact the quality of our life.

In short, your beliefs are more likely to be true if they have good justifying reasons supporting them. But if you have no principles or rules for what distinguish a good justification for a bad one (or none at all) you'll be in for a rough ride.  Before you can act you must have beliefs and the "truthiness" of your beliefs will determine the quality of your action and its likelihood of producing the desired result.  For this reason, it's important for everyone to study the properties of good and bad justification.

If you don't at least spend some time thinking about what you can and cannot know and to what degree of certainty before entering other domains of knowledge, you might be on a fools errand.  If you seek knowledge about something which is impossible know, yet you failed to reflect on this beforehand, you just wasted (part of) your life.

Answer 2:
Beyond the general answer to why epistemology matters let's return to why we should care about the abstract and esoteric issue of internalist justification vs externalist justification.

Click on the link and watch the video:

Ok, so if you didn't have a chance to watch the entire video here is the most relevant point:

72% of wrongful convictions that are later overturned by DNA evidence are a result of eyewitness testimony.

Consider Jennifer Thompson's testimony.  Pretty convincing right?  She has access to all the justifications for her belief about who raped her.  From the point of view of internalism, she is justified in her belief.  Now, lets consider the same situation from the point of view of an externalist.  We know that the process of eye-witness memory and testimony is unreliable, in fact, it's very unreliable.  So, if we adopt an externalist model of justification, we ought to reject Jennifer's testimony.  It isn't a justified belief.

Our preferred philosophical theory of epistemic justification has huge practical implications in many domains, and it is made most readily apparent in the court of law.  As a thought experiment, think about the practical consequences to your area of expertise of applying one theory of justification vs another. You'll likely find there are important consequences.

Epistemology matters.

Ok, I feel a bit better now.  Back to grading reflections.

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