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A Primer on Social Epistemology

The Incoherence of the Philoveritors


Much of what we believe is poorly-justified or believed in the total absence of evidence, or even in defiance of abundant counterevidence. So many cherished axioms are problematic or outright false—or else vague, inconsistent, or of an otherwise indeterminable truth-value.

And you know what? Generally, this is not a big problem. In most circumstances, the truth is not particularly important. Nailing down more accurate information (when possible) can be a costly distraction. In fact, in many situations, untrue beliefs can even be helpful. Of course, there are also a number of circumstances in which false beliefs are extremely pernicious; the important thing is to identify the sorts of situations in which information quantity and quality is particularly important (as opposed to the overwhelming majority of conditions in which adequacy trumps accuracy).

A second distinction follows: in addition to the situations in which data quality is important, it is also critical to identify circumstances in which critical information is likely to be hard to obtain or utilize, or be otherwise unreliable. Regrettably, there is extensive overlap. For instance, in situations which are opaque, massive in scale or complexity, fluid, or especially, volatile–the informational environment will be difficult, but often crucial. Regrettably, most geopolitical and socio-economic events fall into this sphere.

However, virtually all human decisions are made under uncertainty of varying degrees; the primary objective is to avoid iatrogenesis (harm by the healer) resultant from naïve intervention.

Towards that end, in situations where information is scarce, difficult to use, or otherwise unreliable—it is often easier and more useful to identify critical pieces of information which one does not know (perhaps cannot know), and what is known to be false. While important in its own right, negative epistemology also assists its more precarious positive aspect: with each malformed strategy cast aside, each false narrative exposed, with each mistake learned from, each pitfall avoided, each constraint identified–one becomes increasingly likely to make a good decision in the face of uncertainty, or at the least, minimize harm from error.

Prudence is another critical strategy. In many situations, action is altogether unnecessary—and interventions into fluid, complex and/or volatile systems under the misguided belief that one should “do something” typically render situations much more difficult to predict or control. A heuristic: act decisively, but only when necessary, and be as non-invasive as possible.

Finally, as we explored at the outset there are many situations in which misinformation, disinformation and ignorance are benign—and many others in which they are extremely dangerous. However, it is sometimes possible to shift from the latter situation into the former by reducing or modifying one’s exposure to particular risks (thereby reducing the amount and quality of data which are necessary to achieve an acceptable outcome).

These are the sorts of epistemological investigations with obvious real-world implications. It should be clear that there will be little room for meta-inquiry, as many of these strategies must be indexed to specific problems in particular contexts.

The notion of “truth” as objective, universal, and morally (rather than merely pragmatically, albeit conditionally) obligating—i.e. as the sort of thing which can be clearly delineated and discussed in grandiose terms—while popular among so-called rationalists, is a fundamentalism derived from monotheistic absolutism, and one difficult to empirically defend:

It is unclear whether one can meaningfully speak of “truth” as anything beyond a socio-linguistic function. Even if we posit the existence of some objective reality in which we are all immersed, it is (or should be) obvious that we do not have the ability to perceive, reflect upon or communicate about said reality in a comprehensive or objective fashion. Accordingly, every epistemic act is one of framing and distortion (further refracted and cascaded in social contexts).

And worse still—these processes are largely opaque: we do not have introspective access to most of our mental contents, and the actions resultant from these processes are largely reflexive rather than reflective, invented intuitively and ad hoc to the particular contours of the situations we find ourselves in. Rationalization typically happens after the fact, and our explanations seem to bear little in common with the cognitive processes guiding our actions.

Unfortunately, the prevailing practice of epistemology is far removed from this growing consensus in psychology, sociology, cognitive science and related empirical disciplines. Accordingly, it is useless at best; we must shed antiquated notions of epistemology in order to render the discipline more viable and useful.

In Building on Nietzsche’s Prelude: Reforming Epistemology for the Philosophy of the Future, we offer up a proposal of what a more relevant epistemology might look like, exploring how such a reformulation might affect social conceptions of “knowledge” and “rationality;” we close with an exploration of fundamentalism in relation to rationalism, scientifism, and related ideologies.  Pick up a copy: it just might change the way you think…about thinking.

Musa al-Gharbi is a research fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC); he has a M.A. in philosophy from the University of Arizona. His website (www.fiatsophia.org) includes links to follow him on social media or subscribe to his posts. A version of this article was originally published by SISMEC.