The Current Crisis of Epistemology

Misconceptions about epistemology hamper progress in Western culture. Subjectivism replaces the idea of objective truth with ideas like “personal truth”, regards “lived experience” as superior to objective knowledge, and tends to frame disagreements as power struggles among identity groups. Justificationism, conversely, acknowledges the existence of objective truth, but frames disagreements as clashes among sources of knowledge, which differ in their reliability. Purportedly “reliable sources” of knowledge might include experts (e.g., “trust the science”), women (e.g., “believe all women”), politicians (e.g., “only I can fix it”), or Twitter executives (e.g., “some or all of the information shared in this Tweet is disputed and may be misleading”). Bayesianism analyzes theories in terms of their “probabilities of being true” given some “evidence base”, which misconstrues the relationship between theories and evidence while substituting truth and falsity with probability. Subjectivism, justificationism, and Bayesianism appear in many contexts, including politics, media, business, academia, science, and medicine—in each context, these misconceptions hamper our ability to make progress. Progress entails that we resolve disagreements by inventing explanations, and by then criticizing those explanations to eliminate errors within them. Our culture can overturn subjectivism, justificationism, and Bayesianism by recognizing the following three insights: (1) we can make genuine progress in pursuing objective truth; (2) we can “dispute” any theory on the grounds that it “may be misleading”; (3) we cannot meaningfully describe a theory as “probably true”. With these insights in mind, we should stop framing disagreements as power struggles among identity groups, competitions among sources of knowledge, or attributions of probability based on data. We should frame disagreements instead as competitions among theories about objective reality, where the purpose of the competition is to correct misconceptions in our existing theories. In this framing, disagreements are opportunities for rational thought—for problem solving and progress.

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