Thursday, May 03, 2012

Folk epistemology

Larry Laudan
It was, as always, a delight reading Alex Rosenberg’s essay. It has the usual Rosenberg characteristics: trenchant, clear-headed and unafraid in its dismissal of various influential idols of the tribe. I have scarcely more use than he does for folk psychology or folk religion (although I think he might have shown a slightly more nuanced grasp of Sellars’ distinction between the ‘scientific image’ and the ‘manifest image’, rather than arguing for the wholesale repudiation of the latter).
What puzzles me about the piece is that Rosenberg grounds his scientism on what can only be regarded as a traditional thesis of ‘folk epistemology’. He is, unabashedly, a scientific realist. That realism rests on the quaint belief that, because scientific theories –at least the best of them– predict and explain a staggering range of phenomena, we do and should suppose that they are true. None of the principal arguments of his essay goes anywhere without this version of Putnam’s so-called miracles argument. Rosenberg makes his core epistemic thesis very explicit: “The reason we trust physics to be scientisms’ metaphysics is its track record of fantastically powerful explanation, prediction and technological application.” Can there be anyone (Rosenberg included) who believes that this core assumption is unproblematic?
Among the many troubles with the thesis that “science works so well that it must be true” is that working well, even working very well, is no guarantee that one has managed to cut the world at its joints or that these currently well-working beliefs won’t become casualties of the next scientific revolution. The history of science is a minefield littered with the remains of theories that once worked very well indeed (yes, even to the point of making surprising, precise predictions successfully) but eventually came unstuck, as they encountered one anomaly after another. Ptolemy’s astronomy, Newton’s physics, stable-continent geology, and classical chemical atomism are only a few examples of empirically theories that were strikingly successful until they eventually stumbled over grave anomalies.
Scientism tends to ignore this inconvenient historical fact. That is scarcely surprising since the success of false theories has to be rather unnerving for any project that is founded on the inference rule “X works so X must be true.” Worse, this particular piece of abductive inference is a prime example of precisely the sort of folk epistemology that a hard-headed skeptic like Rosenberg would ordinarily be scathing about. While he is (properly) keen on stressing how empirical research has established that one premise after another of folk psychology, folk psychology and folk biology is ill-founded, he acts as if our folk beliefs about empirical support (and let there be no mistake that the inference from apparent success to prima facie truth is deeply rooted in human doxastic practices) can be taken as largely if not wholly unproblematic.
There would thus appear to be a disconnect between the skepticism Rosenberg brings to most folk practices and his readiness to ground truth claims for science on what boils down to the fallacy of affirming the consequent.
So, Alex, cheer up; the situation looks as glum as you describe it only because you have made yourself hostage to a highly implausible and incorrigibly folk account of what it takes to establish the truth of a theory.

1 comment:

  1. "The history of science is a minefield littered with the remains of theories that once worked very well indeed"

    I once read a piece from Spurgeon which said something very similar, along the lines of "the paths of history are littered with the shattered remnants of scientific theories once held up as the light of knowledge"

    Try as I might, I can't find it anywhere.