Friday, March 29, 2013

Epistemic Neutrality

A while ago, I wrote a post in which I attempted to show why it is not possible for a thinker to suspend judgment about each and every proposition. He will take for granted that certain words mean certain things, that he doesn't need to act a certain way, etc. This is just another way of saying that everyone makes knowledge claims - implicitly or explicitly. When this is acknowledged, the ordeal of worldview comparisons can begin.

This much is clear. But there are people who seem to think - for whatever reason - that it's good to be epistemically neutral... as if just by their say-so it is true and somehow makes them appear objective? I'm not quite sure what the underlying reasoning is. At any rate, the persons I have in mind don't deny that knowledge is ideal but also continually give the impression that true epistemic humility consists in always learning yet never being able to come to a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 3:7).

The idea that a sort of wiped-clean, blank epistemic slate - "doubt everything," "build from nothing," or whatever other form this idea may take - is a necessary step in order to achieve knowledge is bizarre. In spite of the above considerations, suppose one could suspend judgment on all matters. But if one were ever truly thoroughly epistemically neutral, there would be by definition no criterial basis on which he could ever move to non-neutrality. The first step toward knowledge is not neutrality, it's committing to some criteria by which one can allegedly distinguish what is and isn't knowable.

On Clark's system, for example, I need to know another's first principle in order to show it to be self-defeating on its own grounds. But apagogic argumentation itself presupposes I hold to a worldview from which I am able to operate. To know how to undermine skepticism, for instance, I must first be able to know what skepticism is. But how? Certainly not on skeptical grounds, for skepticism is self-defeating. You can't really criticize another's worldview until you have - or, at least, think you have - one of your own. But then is it is clear that one can't criticize from a self-pronounced position of epistemic neutrality, for one cannot operate from a position whose sole requirement just is to abstain from all positions, including criteria for knowledge. That itself is self-defeating. 

More likely than not, the problem is that people don't mean what they say. They don't actually advocate suspending judgment on absolutely everything. But then so much for their arm-chair objectivity.

No comments: