Epistemology: Just the Facts?

I recently bemoaned the misuse of important philosophical concepts by the blogosphere. I came across another article that uses the term epistemic closure and the usage in this article is even more puzzling than in the first. While this article by Rod Dreher is no more about epistemology in a philosophical rigorous sense than Christian Science is about Christianity or science, Dreher, through his autobiographical mea culpa does touch on some topics that epistemologists do find interesting.

The first is the relationship between epistemology and psychology. Philosophers tend to study knowledge and belief in the abstract—what these things are or what ought they to be. It’s rare for an epistemologist to do actual clinical studies of specific belief states and draw hard analytic data from them. Surely actual beliefs are considered but they tend to become the fodder for abstract cases that can then be analyzed and discussed. (Incidentally this level of abstraction seems to be attractive only for purely academic philosophers. Will Durant found the discipline so disconnected from reality that he called it “that dismal science” and purposefully neglected it in his popular work The Story of Philosophy (Preface to the Second Edition, xix)). Even so, philosophical epistemology and epistemic psychology ought to be joined at the hip.

Dreher observes that actual belief formation isn’t a pure assimilation of the facts which are then run through an impassioned logical framework which produces beliefs and knowledge. Beliefs are formed in the nexus of a variety of intentional states including desires, fears, hopes, and the like. An analysis of the actual process of belief formation must include these dynamics if it is going to be at all accurate. Dreher writes in reference to his belief that the war in Iraq was justified,

As longtime readers will remember, I've written about how I ignored or otherwise dismissed all arguments and information contrary to what I wanted to believe. I was entirely closed to any contrary viewpoint. But here's the thing: I thought I was the one with the open mind, and all the naysayers were so blinded by ideology, fear or cowardice that they couldn't see what was plainly true. In retrospect, I have been able to see how the strong post-9/11 emotions I had conditioned all the information I took in the march up to war.

His belief about his beliefs about the war were that they were not the product of a “pure” analysis. Rather, intentional states like desires and fear played a strong role. And certainly this is true for a lot of the beliefs we hold. John Searle, in my opinion, has done some of the more significant recent work on intentionality in his book by the same name (he started this project in his book Speech Acts). Searle defines intentionality as a property of mental states (not sentences) in which the content of that mental state has as its referent some object or state of affairs ("the specification of the mental state . . . requires the specification of some object or state of affairs") which is not identical with the mental state (182). Intentionality is a primitive in Searle's ontology.It is how the mind grasps things in the world.

He contrasts intentionality with intensionality. The latter “Intentionality-with-a-t is, so to speak, a ground floor property of the mind. It is how the mind grasps other things. But intensionality-with-an-s is primarily a property of sentences and other forms of representation. Some though not all intensional sentences are about intentionality-with-a-t.” (189). Searle describes two essential concepts important to intentionality.

Representation. He emphasizes that his use of this term is logical not ontological. By this he means that representation does not mean a picture of the belief or 'meaning' or the like. Rather, representative content means that the Intentional state has propositional content which determines a set of conditions of satisfaction that its mode (Intentional states are in a psychological mode which I take to mean the type of thing it is) which determines the direction of fit (mind to world) of the propositional content (12). But representation is not the only aspect to an intentional state. "The key to understanding representation is conditions of satisfaction."

Conditions of Satisfaction. Conditions of satisfaction are "those conditions which, as determined by the Intentional content, must obtain if the state is to be satisfied….Thus, if I have a belief that it is raining, the content of my belief is: that it is raining. And the conditions of satisfaction are: that it is raining--and not, for example, that the ground is wet or that water is falling out of the sky." In traditional epistemology, the conditions of satisfaction would be similar to the correspondence relation between a proposition and a state of affairs in the world (the Correspondence Theory of truth).

Given this, he describes belief as “a propositional content in a certain psychological mode, its mode determines a mind-to-world direction of fit, and its propositional content determines a set of conditions of satisfaction." (15) Searle attempts to sidestep the mind-body problem by addressing Intentionality in terms of its logical properties and then rely on a separately-argued worldview (or better, metaphysic) to solve the ontological problem: how the logical properties of Intentionality are realized in the world (see Intentionality, 15). Intentional states then make up the basic framework of thought and the content of the mind can be described in terms of the intentional states it has at any given moment. Belief is just one intentional state among many and the content of the mind is a matrix of these states in dynamic interplay.

Dreher’s article focuses on specific issues the Catholic church is dealing with and how much the leadership of the church actually knew regarding those issues. Dreher takes a guess. But I wonder if he misses another crucial point about epistemology and psychology: knowledge probably is irreducibly first person which makes it very difficult to make statements from a distance about what another person actually believes (or believed). If Dreher’s analysis of Ratzinger is solely based on what he reads in the media, he’s largely reading words used by an editor that publicize his beliefs about what his writer wrote down about his beliefs about what people largely removed from the Pope believed about what the Pope believed. This is not skepticism about knowledge. It is an acknowledgement that epistemology is a tough business.

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