Egalitarian Epistemology

Egalitarianism supposes that the same knowledge is in principle available to us all. For example, although you may not understand advanced mathematics, it is claimed that you could understand it, if only you spent enough time studying it. But this is not true. Not everyone is capable of mathematical genius, whether by nature or nurture. The truths of mathematics may be rational but only a relatively few gifted people possess the ability to see them. One need only make a cursory survey of the popular understanding of science to see that, for all its supposed objectivity and openness, the vast majority do not understand even a shred of scientific theory. The general understanding of philosophy is even worse.

The examples I give are biased towards the rational, intellectual areas of life: I have said nothing about art. But the situation here is much the same. Most people, and I include myself in this category, have a very poor grasp of artistic expression. I am ashamed to admit it but I honestly do not think I know how to read poetry properly. Furthermore, even among those who study the arts, it is clear that some people have a deeper and more intuitive understanding than others.

It simply is not true that all forms of knowledge are equally available to all people. Through natural inclination and aptitude, through education and training, people differ wildly in their capacities for diverse forms of knowledge. It is a rare person indeed who can excel in all the arts and sciences.

And yet, for some reason, we are inclined to treat the claims of scientists as objective while we dismiss the claims of saints and mystics as subjective. If a Buddhist must practice a regime of meditation for many years before he is able to perceive the truth of Buddhism, does that invalidate his truth? A scientist must also undergo many years of training before he can perceive the truths of science. Scientific truths are just as unintelligible to the layman as religious truths are to the uninitiated.

Religions make many claims whose truth is not obvious to me. However, I must admit that the claims of most scientists are also not obviously true either. I have almost no training at all in most sciences, very little training in mathematics (most of what I used to know I have since forgotten) and yet, for some reason, I blithely accept the claims of scientific orthodoxy while doubting the claims of religions.

I think the reason for this is merely that there is a simple procedure for deciding between competing scientific claims, which religions lack. Although I do not understand mathematical physics, I can see for myself that the predictions of physicists are quite accurate. I would not be able to type this article on my laptop if that were not the case. Similarly, I do not understand the principles behind aeronautics but I believe they are valid for the simple reason that I have flown in an aeroplane.

Whereas science has recourse to experiment, religion does not. There are many religions, most of which contradict each other. How does one decide which religious claims are true and which are false?

To the extent that a claim falls within the realm of logic, one can employ metaphysical reasoning to distinguish the incoherent from the coherent. But this method is limited. It leads, in my reasoned opinion, to theism, but it does not lead to any particular religion. Here I would be prepared to defer to an authority with greater power to judge such things than I have. I do not, a priori, assume that the claims of holy men have no validity. Indeed, it seems quite likely to me that some people have privileged access to spiritual knowledge, just as some people have privileged access to mathematical knowledge. But when the mystics disagree with one another, how does one decide between them?

Bill Vallicella recently expressed this crisis quite pithily: “The modern mind won’t allow in any Transcendence that cannot be certified, whose epistemological certificate of authenticity cannot be produced on demand, to put it vaguely but suggestively.” [1]

There is something very modern about this egalitarian epistemology, this demand that even though only a few talented and educated individuals may be able to discover and truly understand truths, everyone must be able to authenticate them. The Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy in existence, has as its motto, “Nullius in Verba”. [2] Translated literally, “There is nothing in words”, which is perhaps more readily understood colloquially, “Take nobody’s word for it.” This motto epitomises the scientific revolution: no claim is to be accepted without evidence; experiment is the final and only reliable arbiter of truth.

When it comes to the natural world, it is hard to argue against such a motto. People are fallible creatures, much prone to flights of fancy and egotistical guarding of their own pet theories, not to mention corruption by great political and financial temptations, such that the human understanding of the natural world makes very little progress towards truth when it is not held on course by strict reference to the natural world itself. However, such an approach cuts us off from any knowledge that cannot be tested by experiment.

[1] William Vallicella, Maverick Philosopher: Professor Anderson and the Hyper-Inscrutability of the Trinitarian Doctrine (Peter Lupu)

[2] See the Royal Society website: What is the Royal Society?

Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 9:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

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