Conclusion: An End to Epistemology?



"Rorty has an unsettling vision of philosophy, science, and culture, and it matters to what extent he is right. . . . and his challenge to the standing of what analytic philosophy calls clarity and rationality remains one to be taken seriously." Bernard Williams(1)
 

Postmodernists would be decidedly unimpressed with my defense of parameter determination offered in the last chapter, relying as it does on the age-old, and much maligned, metaphysical hypothesis that our empirical relationship with the world is best explained by assuming that we are dealing with one objective world with interlinking parts. We return then to where we began. In the introduction it was noted that the postmodernists believe that we have ample historical evidence that this hypothesis has failed, and hence, that we interface with an ambiguous, yielding reality that can be sculpted by a multitude of different perspectives and webs of belief. Furthermore, they believe that much havoc and many ills have been fostered upon an innocent humanity by this objectivist ontology. In the name of expertise in objective truth has been much oppression, and currently a massive onslaught of cultural imperialism. In short, the myth of objectivity endorses a church of reason and a fraudulent power to enforce some interests over others. Remove the philosophical myth and we create truly free human beings.

Thus, postmodern heros parade their works as if they are the enlightened leaders of a new philosophical era, freeing us via hermeneutical deconstruction from a stifling ontology. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty tells a story of how the metaphor of the mind as mirror that accurately represents an objective reality emerged from the notion of a God who has an absolute point of view, who can apprehend the world's intrinsic nature. This notion is deconstructed as anthropocentric. Humans build houses with interlinking parts based on blueprints, so God must have built the big house (the universe) based upon the ultimate blueprint (mathematics). Without this deconstruction scientists are mistakenly seen as priests who have a special divine access to this independent realm, and philosophers (especially epistemologists) are mistakenly seen as bishops who guide the priests via rules along the correct path to this independent non-human reality. Rorty's conclusion is that by giving up ontology, we rid ourselves of the need for elitist epistemology.

It seems to me that this does not work. Like the existentialist who professes not to be an existentialist, and Feyerabend who professed not to have a philosophy but only to be making fun of positivists and post-positivists, postmodern relativists are clearly advocating an ontology themselves. No amount of handwaving, semantic sophistry, or protests that they are being misunderstood because analytic philosophers do not understand hermeneutics can eliminate the fact that they are generalizing an ontology via an historical induction when they tell their stories of history, and then say that it shows that reality yields to different perspectives, that its nature is such that it is capable of being sculpted into any form by human effort, that its substance is flexible and capable of alternate re-presentations, that there are alternate realities that go with alternate rationalities, and that it is possible to live in different worlds. My argument is that similar to Plato's response to Protagoras centuries ago that a claim that there is no truth is still a claim about truth, postmodernists do more than just draw our attention to the fact that our interface with a noumenal realm is a fallible human interface -- hardly a great new insight. They are also saying many things that imply something about the nature of that noumenal realm.

Have we then reached one of those divides in philosophy, an antinomy incapable of rational resolution, whereby one just stakes out his or her hard-core ontological postulate, defending it come what may with circular arguments, remaining at best consistent? Is it not undignified of modern philosophers and a freshman philosophical mistake to think that we can argue about metaphysics? My claim is that we can argue about metaphysics to the extent that we can at least compare contrasting arguments and eliminate those that present the weakest case. Rorty is using the very process he criticizes: he is reasoning inductively (generalizing) to what the world is like via an analysis of history. The issue then is who has presented the best case. My argument is that with dramatic and poetic flair postmodern writers such as Rorty generate grandiose conclusions based on historical inductions, the latter of which my thesis has shown to border on being flippant and slapdash.(2)

According to Rorty, an analysis of history shows that we cannot say that Bellarmine's arguments against Galileo were "illogical or unscientific,"(3) and that our acceptance that Galileo was right and Bellarmine wrong is simply the result of Galileo's successful rhetoric and our present loyalty to the Galilean tradition. But Rorty draws this conclusion without providing his own analysis of the Copernican episode. Instead he claims that the epistemological project of Western philosophy has been deconstructively exposed as an extinct enterprise by such thinkers as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Dewey, Quine, Feyerabend, and Kuhn. However, it is doubtful that Wittgenstein and Dewey would endorse Rorty's characterization of Galileo, Heidegger knew very little science -- he wrote a book on time without any knowledge of Einstein's theory of relativity -- Quine has backtracked on his early "come-what-may" pronouncements, and we have seen that Feyerabend and Kuhn fail to give an accurate account of the Copernican episode. Rorty may be telling us a good story about history, but it is fiction. The premises for his imposing conclusions are empty of empirical content.

Consider some more of the dazzling conclusions. According to Rorty, in this new era the best we should hope for is a "criterionless muddling through"(4) that replaces the traditional notion of the desire to know the truth with a constant, ongoing recontextualizing and reweaving of beliefs in response to the incoherence among beliefs produced, not by empirical observations that "convey" knowledge, but by novel "stimuli" that constantly put pressure on our webs of belief. Hence, we should hope that "our culture should become one in which the demand for constraint and confrontation is no longer felt,"(5) and replace a search for "forced" interpretation based on a foundational common ground with unforced agreement ("or at least, exciting and fruitful disagreement"), an understanding of the hermeneutical circle and the need for edifying conversation in which one immerses oneself in the whole of a perspective to understand its parts. According to Rorty, we will no longer "argue" as to what are the best inferences based on foundational constraints, rather we will become informed dilettantes who are able to transcend our Whiggishness by getting inside new perspectives, trying them out, and getting a new angle on things.

From the standpoint of this thesis, for Rorty there is no need to worry about distinguishing between adjustments to an adjudicatory trail that fail and creative advances in belief through collateral theoretical analysis, pursuit and acceptance, no need to worry if the pursuit or acceptance of one reasoning trail -- one path of propositions-brought-forward-in-defense-of-other-propositions -- is better constrained than another, for the old notion of convergence of belief is not only not possible, it is not desirable. It is not possible, because the search for a mirror of nature is an illusory quest and there is no foundational or compulsory point to be found that will leave us "speechless" and incapable of keeping the discourse going. It is not desirable, because the search for a locus of forced interpretation is a symptom of what Sartre called "bad faith," our constant propensity to deny human freedom and responsibility. Agreeing with Feyerabend, instead we should seek and encourage an unconstrained proliferation of belief or "we shall never be free of the motives which once led us to posit gods."(6)

Rorty's recommendations may be good travelogue advice -- when visiting another country immerse yourself in the culture and judge not by your own lights -- but not in a global context where so many important decisions must be made. My argument is that given the methodological scaffolding discussed throughout this thesis, and a proper understanding of the fallibilism it implies, we see that the responsibility Rorty fears the loss of is left intact and in fact brought forward with focus and urgency: We have the responsibility of making intelligent inferences given many alternatives, knowing all the while that there can never be complete justificatory closure to any of our inferences, no ultimate epistemic security for any point of consensus.

If Rorty is correct, then we are left with a world-view of modern science that is just another story, another narrative; albeit one that is the result of a painstakingly recontextualized trail in which we have nothing to be ashamed of, that stems from the ancient Greeks, through Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Einstein, and Bohr. My argument is that we can do better than this and that there is a lot at stake. Proliferation of purported equally valid beliefs produces not only toleration, but confusion and delay in allegiance to belief as well. As Philip Kitcher has remarked, "To represent as equal ideas of unequal merit is to mislead and confuse."(7) With daily reports of ozone depletion, species extinction of over 100 per day, greenhouse warming, and the dire consequences narrated as objective facts within our tradition, delay in allegiance and acceptance of many well-supported beliefs is dangerous. It is important to decide on the fruitfulness and reliability of many beliefs and inferences. It is important to decide if meditating together during a harmonic conversion of the planets, or salvation from a superior, benevolent extraterrestrial culture will save us and we need not worry about our problems. It is important to know if John Sununu was right that we have nothing to fear concerning greenhouse warming.(8) It is important to know after 60,000 deaths by handguns in the United States in just two years whether we should accept the Maharishi's proposal to spend ten cents per person per city to send in TM meditators to each city to meditate and think good thoughts.(9) It is also important to know for purposes of education and public policy whether scientific claims, such as "smoking cigarettes is the principal cause of lung cancer," or "sexual orientation is genetically based," have greater rational support than the alternatives, that the alternatives can not be equally well-supported in terms of the extant evidence. Similarly, are there any epistemic signs indicating that we should continue to invest in cold fusion research, investigating perhaps the construction of better neutron detection equipment and continuing to pursue reproducibility?

Rorty has taken a Kantian truism (of course our theories do not re-present a noumenal realm untouched by human filters) and blown it all out of proportion. Providing a good argument that we do not and cannot accurately represent the world as it is itself does not automatically entail, as Rorty assumes, that we do not interface with one world that responds evidentially to our webs of belief, such that we learn that some belief networks are better than others. This poor inference is another species of the same general post-foundational mistake that we have seen in another guise. That we can never achieve either certainty or a secure resting point at any node within a web of belief does not mean that some webs do not hang together better than others.

According to Rorty, philosophers should realize that the reflective enterprise of standing back from a practice and distilling some sort of profound intrinsic message is no different than a sheltered priest interfering with the lives of real people. How ironic! Rorty should have immersed himself more in the real practice of the Copernican episode and the flesh and blood attempts to get different webs of belief to work.

A post-foundationalist normative epistemological project remains, I argue, for those who see the urgency of walking a difficult path between the false dilemma of a bankrupt foundationalism and an easy relativism.(10) It is important to know if harmonic conversion, extraterrestrial salvation, and numerous other new wave competitors to the world view of modern science are equally valid. We have enough results of "stimulations" from the world; we need to know when the world is "speaking" to us, and this requires a theory of ampliative inference for rational pursuit and acceptance, and at the very least contextual and tentative criteria that are themselves well-supported by historical evidence as to their reliability.

We need be neither foundationalists nor naive realists to accept the notion that it is most likely that we are dealing with one objective world that speaks to us in a consistent, unified fashion.(11) Furthermore, we need not have some sort of ultimate, self-evident justification for believing in the long-term reliability of the general methodological strategy of confronting the world empirically, and constantly reflecting on which of competing webs of belief, or which adjustments to an existing web of belief best match that empirical confrontation. It is the best we can do, but as to why it is the best, it is a simple matter: we have learned that we will be more successful in unifying more experience and diverse fields of study if we proceed this way.

Recall Kuhn's struggle (chapter 3, pp. 139-140) with the notion that we are dealing with "one world." He tells us that in one sense he still believes in the traditional notion that the objective world does not literally change beneath our feet when paradigms change, that only our interpretations change. But he then turns around -- almost as if he envisions Feyerabend and other chic postmodernists laughing at him at a Berkeley coffee shop or bar for adopting such an old-fashioned metaphysics -- and tells us that the notion of "living in different worlds" must have some substantial meaning. In a strikingly revealing passage, in one of the last responses Kuhn made to critics, I think such waffling leads Kuhn to say,

". . . those who have followed me thus far will want to know how a value-based enterprise of the sort I have described can develop as a science does, repeatedly producing powerful new techniques for prediction and control. To that question, unfortunately, I have no answer at all, but that is only another way of saying that I make no claim to have solved the problem of induction."(12)

No answer at all! And, according to Kuhn, "idiosyncracy must be invoked to explain why Kepler and Galileo were early converts to the Copernicus's system . . ."

To be fair to Kuhn here, the rest of this passage reads, "(but) the gaps filled by their efforts to perfect it were specified by shared values alone."(13) In other words, as Feyerabend has claimed, initial commitment was irrational and nonepistemic and requires psycho-social explanation. For Kuhn, they switched gestalts (worlds) and saw within this new perspective things others did not see. They then filled in the picture to convince others. They saw unity and fruitfulness; others did not. So, these values, according to Kuhn, cannot function algorithmically in choice.

The burden of this thesis has been to show that such torturous responses are not necessary. Yes, we must acknowledge that neither scientific change, commitment, pursuit, nor acceptance is the result of an algorithmic process and a tidy response to empirical data. Yes, we must acknowledge that history reveals a rich texture of flesh and blood idiosyncracies, soap-opera-like contingencies, and messy meandering trails. However, the burden of this thesis has been to show that these acknowledgments underscore all the more that we ought to invest in an enterprise that stands back from the fray and attempts to see what we do when we are at our best. That we do indeed confront the world with webs of belief, but these webs are best seen as networks that can be adjusted piecemeal and not as hegemonic paradigms or gestalts with all aspects of a point of view locked neatly in place. It is ironic that Kuhn and others, who have been taken in by what Popper called the myth of the framework, did not see that such holism is inconsistent with the very messiness of history they so often point out. History would be a much neater appearing story, if our webs of belief were such locked-in frameworks. The complexity of history is much better understood by seeing scientists as debating, adjusting, pursuing, and accepting complex hypertextual adjudicatory trails of reasoning; of making the best ampliative inferences that they can given the context.

On several occasions in this thesis I have pointed out the parallel between my view of epistemology and current efforts in artificial intelligence. Standard computers operating via the assumptions given to us by logical positivism and logical empiricism respond only to direct manipulation and the directed control of an algorithm. They do not test new trails of thought on their own, create their own algorithms, and they surely do not learn. New approaches involving neural networks and artificial life function on the notion of on-going testing -- gradual strengthening or weakening -- of reasoning networks. In neural networks, a reasoning trail is not set in stone and then made to respond to input. Instead a "soft" trail is tried in response to input (experience), and initially various nodes along this soft trail may be given very weak values. In conjunction with fuzzy set theory these values are not constructed to be crisply true or false, on or off, but are given the potential to have any degree of truth, any value within a full range of values between totally true and totally false. Gradually, via repeated input and testing, the relative strength of various nodes will change, being given higher or lower values. Change in such values will have ramifications throughout the network. In artificial life, a diverse profusion of reasoning trails are tried, and then some characteristics of some trails self-replicate (survive) in response to their environments in a natural selection process.

My contention is that there is a direct parallel between the failure of the epistemological machinery of logical positivism and empiricism to explain scientific change, and the failure of artificial intelligence efforts to fulfill the high-flown promises made in the 1960s. The fruitfulness of new approaches to artificial intelligence should alert us that the failure of one approach need not force us to conclude that there is no more thinking about thinking to do. Kuhn's perplexity is due to his being grounded in many of the assumptions of logical positivism and his discovery of many instances in history inconsistent with the implications of these assumptions. Although philosophers such as Feyerabend and Rorty have contributed poignantly to our understanding of the failure of one approach to epistemology, their grandiose negative conclusions regarding all versions of critical rationalism are best seen as a blip of despair in response to this failure of only one approach.

What postmodernists fear most is that unless the pretensions of scientism are undermined, a bounty of reliable beliefs in a multitude of successful cultures will be obliterated, like so many shinning sea shells on a beach of diversity washed away by a tidal wave of the world view of modern science.(14) They believe that we must protect diversity by eliminating all desire for convergence and unity. Wrong. Can we not believe in galaxies and the efficacy of herbal medicine at the same time?(15) A much healthier possibility is that the full articulation of a humble philosophy of science that retains the faith in reason of the critical rationalist will establish a fallible, but self-corrective path that promotes unity without destroying diversity. It is toward that end that hopefully this thesis has made some small contribution.
 

Notes for Conclusion:
 

1. 1990, pp. 27 & 35.

2. An exception is Feyerabend. Although I have shown that his analysis of the Copernican episode does not support his conclusions on epistemology or ontology (scientists as "sculptors of reality"; reality as "yielding"), his use of the results of quantum physics constitutes a more serious challenge. See note 11 below. Responding fully to this challenge, however, is beyond the scope of this thesis.

3. Rorty, 1979, pp. 328-329.

4. Rorty, 1991, p. 28.

5. 1979, p. 315.

6. 1991, p. 27.

7. Kitcher, 1983, p. 173. Kitcher's comment concerned the court battle between so-called Creationist science and the theory of natural selection. Although it is true that in a democracy we assume, because of our faith in people, that the unequal merit of ideas will be revealed if they are allowed to compete side by side, there is a difference between allowing ideas to be presented in a biology class as equal scientifically and allowing those same ideas to be debated in the public arena. Within the context of a scientific curriculum we have the responsibility to present the best ideas, those backed by the best evidence. Furthermore, with so much at stake, even in this age of multiculturalism scientists should not be so timid as to not make firm recommendations on reliable beliefs.

8. When Sununu was George Bush's chief of staff, he drew attention to the fact that the standard model of greenhouse warming was in trouble, that it needed, in our terminology, some auxiliary patching. Thus, it is important to decide whether to pursue this patch or not. See Broeker, 1992, and Monastersky, 1992 for a discussion of this problem.

9. The Maharishi took out full page ads in major city newspapers in the Fall of 1992 claiming that this would substantially reduce the crime rate in these cities.

10. Rorty and his followers will no doubt point out that his acceptance and expansion of Kuhn's distinction between normal and revolutionary science -- couched in Rorty's philosophy as a distinction between normal and abnormal discourse -- allows Rorty to claim that all the above issues can be rationally decided within a limited rule-based epistemology of normal science. I have argued that scientific change is much more piecemeal than that reflected in Kuhn's distinction. Furthermore, once it becomes meaningless, its collapse along with the other claims Rorty makes leaves us with an "anything goes" stance within so-called normal science as well.

11. Even in quantum physics there is a consistency (limits) to how the world speaks to us. The interfaces that we create with the microcosm reveal either particles or waves, but not elephants. Even Feyerabend admits that not all interfaces with reality will work. For instance,

"I do not assert that any combined causal-semantic action will lead to a well-articulated and livable world. The material humans (and, for that matter also dogs and monkeys) face must be approached in the right way. It offers resistance; some constructions (some incipient cultures -- cargo cults, for example) find no point of attack in it and simply collapse." Feyerabend, 1989, p. 405.

Well then, it seems there is not much difference (other than rhetoric) between Feyerabend's position and the traditional epistemological project modified by fallibilism. If not all theories work, we want to know why. We want to be able to spot for future reference, the features of methodology that enabled us to rationally pursue and accept one theory rather than another. We want to know why it is not a good idea to invest a lot of resources in cargo cult beliefs, and/or perhaps cold fusion. As epistemologists this is what we do: we stand back from the fray an attempt to grasp how to approach a "resisting" reality "in the right way."

It is worth noting that Feyerabend follows the above passage with the claim that there is no difference between the interface offered by CERN and that which produces a world alive and full of gods!

12. Kuhn, 1977, p. 332. Emphasis added.

13. Ibid.

14. According to Feyerabend, "we are stuck in a scientific environment." Our environment was "once full of gods; it then became a drab material world; and it can be changed again, if its inhabitants have the determination, the intelligence, and the heart to take the necessary steps." 1989, p. 406.

15. See Wu, 1995. This question is not meant to imply that the benefits of herbal medicine will be or must be reduced to current scientific theories or even practice. The results produced by another culture could very well effect a rational change in current theories and methodology. For instance, Wu notes that Western medicine tends to see drug efficacy in terms of discrete magic bullets, and even U.S. regulations require that a drug be identified as a single chemical entity. Whereas in Chinese philosophy, a much more holistic approach is used based on the underlying belief that chemicals not only work in conjunction, but that the whole is not simply the sum of its parts. According the Wu, the influence of this approach is leading to changes in cancer treatment where combination therapies are beginning to be used.