Tuesday, March 09, 2010

What Is Knowledge?

 
John Wilkins said something in the comments on his blog [On the need for grownups [Thoughts from Kansas]] that I'd like to discuss.
I do not think, contrary to some, that science exhausts the realm of knowledge, largely because I have a fairly broad and fallibilistic notion of what it is to know something – you can know that it is wrong to eat fish on a Friday, for example, or that one must not abuse children, neither of which are scientific questions. So I have no truck for those who merely assert that knowledge is all and only scientific – you have to argue for it.
I'm one of those naive scientists who don't understand philosophy so forgive me if I make some silly errors in logic.1

First, John, I wish you'd stop making false claims about those people you disagree with. I don't know anyone who simply ASSERTS that science is the only way of knowing. On the other hand, I do know people (I am one) who adopt it as a working hypothesis.

I'm looking for evidence of other ways of knowing that might provide valid knowledge. So far I haven't found any so my hypothesis hasn't been falsified.

Now, the problem here falls into the realm of epistemology—defined as "the study of knowledge and justified belief" (Epistemology). As with most philosophical issues, the discussions in that field are far too obtuse for most people to follow. Just look at the article I linked to. I imagine that 99% of people who follow that link will not read past the first section on "What Is Knowledge?"

Here's how I think of "knowledge" in the context of this debate. Knowledge, in my mind, is a form of justified belief that can be affirmed as true by all people. In other words, "knowledge" in this sense is something that applies universally and not just to particular individuals. Your definition of "knowledge" is much broader and that means we are talking past each other. I'm surprised you didn't recognize this.

Here are some examples. I think we should "know" that the Earth revolves around the sun, we should "know" that life evolved from a common ancestor, we should "know" that our species was not almost wiped out by a giant flood in 2500 BCE, we should "know" that some humans believe things that aren't true, and we should "know" that humans have a finite life span. These are all examples of the kind of knowledge that I'm referring to.

Note that there's an immediate problem here since clearly not everyone agrees with my statements of knowledge. In other words, they are not really universally accepted. Does that disqualify them from being examples of true knowledge? Perhaps, but I think we can at least agree that they are good candidates for the kind of knowledge I'm talking about. (We can't realistically demand "universal" acceptance since there will always be some kooks who disagree with even the most obvious examples of knowledge.)

Another potential candidate is, "God exists." The tough part is trying to decide which of these potential candidates for knowledge are true and which ones aren't. The ones we reject don't count as knowledge. I claim that the scientific way of knowing is a tried and true approach to arriving at knowledge of this sort, i.e. things that we can universally agree on. I don't see any other ways of knowing that have achieved the objective.

What about statement such as, "I know that it's wrong to eat fish on Friday" or "It's wrong to abuse children"? I don't think either of those qualify as "knowledge" in the sense that I'm concerned with. You may believe that it's wrong to eat fish on Friday and that belief may be justified by your desire to remain a respected member of your Roman Catholic church, but it hardly qualifies as the kind of knowledge that might be universally accepted as true.

The rule that you shouldn't abuse children isn't "knowledge" at all, in my opinion. It's a rule that our society accepts in order to promote peace and harmony and conform to our concepts of rights and respect for fellow humans.

That rule may be informed by evidence and rationality or it may derive from what your pastor tells you about God's perceived will. But no matter how you come to accept these rules of society they don't count as potential examples of universal knowledge. At best, the rule is secondarily derived from such potential universal knowledge that remains to be proven (Universal Moral Laws).

I'm not sure if this makes sense.

One more thing, when John says, "neither of which are scientific questions" it reveals a different version of science than the one I propose. I'm trying to make the case for science as a way of knowing and, if John accepts my definition, then every question about knowledge is potentially a scientific question. One can't just arbitrarily dismiss something as not being a scientific question without explaining why you can't get an answer by applying rationality, evidence, and skepticism. When John dismisses questions arbitrarily it's called "begging the question."

His logic goes like this:
1: Science can address all questions about knowledge.
2: Some questions are not scientific.
3: Therefore, science can't address all questions.


1. John Wilkins says, "First of all I have little confidence that scientists and other science-based critics of the philosophical arguments have a good grasp of what those arguments are."

34 comments :

  1. Larry, I can see a honey pot in your argument for those argumentative bees. It seems (correct me if I'm wrong here) you are using science to include all the 'spectrum' of rational thought. Many would not include mathematics and philosophy under science. Probably because of old distinctions where philosophy birthed mathematics and natural sciences. So, we know that 1 + 1 = 2. That (p->q and p) gives q (modus ponens). Neither of these are empirical I think.

    I don't think there is a line dividing philosophy, maths, logic, and other fields of rational inquiry from science. Science itself presupposes a lot of rationality. So if I've correctly captured what you mean by science as the spectrum of rational inquiry, then I'd agree that up to this point science is the only method of gathering knowledge we have. This is a working hypothesis for me. If a religious person comes along giving reliable knowledge that cannot come from another method and such then I'd assent that religion is a method of gaining knowledge. Being a working hypothesis it isn't open to the charge of being self-defeating like is leveled at the verification principle of logical positivism. I'm not claiming it's a rule of logic or a-priori correct, only that up to this point it works and nothing else does as a matter of fact that could change.

    I hope that made sense.

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  2. If only scientists and religious apologists that choose to discuss "truth" and "knowledge" first agreed to define some common definitions - sadly, it seems that ambiguity tends to favor religious arguments, so I doubt it'll ever become the norm.

    There is a legitimate philosophical argument against science revealing certain kinds of "truths" about "reality" -- if, for example, there was some unobservable, undetectable realm of the universe, science as practiced today could say little about it.

    That said, using that argument against a scientific claim of "truth" by a religious apologist is laughable! The same could be said of how they have come to acquire their religious beliefs. The apologist making that argument seems to be shooting him- or herself in the foot with that argument, then failing to notice they did so.

    But yeah, muddling "belief" and "knowledge" suggests this guys not exactly being precise with in making any philosophical arguments.

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  3. Larry

    There are a couple problems with the links in your article. Instead of going to "http://..." they have an extra "http" so go to "http.com". They should read: http://evolvingthoughts.net/2010/03/06/on-the-need-for-grownups-thoughts-from-kansas/#comment-27520

    Same thing with the Epistemology link, which should be: http:///plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/

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  4. The statements "it is wrong to eat fish on a Friday", and "one must not abuse children" are not knowledge. They're not even complete thoughts. My definition of knowledge would includes things that can be verified as true and that are always true no matter what your personal values or beliefs may be. John's statements fail since they carry loads of value judgments behind them. After all, if you want to be the most sadistic monster possible, then one must abuse children. John's examples are not true or false on their own, so it's difficult to see how they could be considered knowledge.

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  5. I "know" how to play the piano. There are many subjective images and mental aids I use to accomplish this that are hardly scientific, but they work. The same could be said for any artist or even for many athletes. Are you saying that their non-scientific subjective knowledge is not useful?

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  6. I "know" how to play the piano
    Knowing how to do something is a learned skill. It is not knowledge as in some justified belief. Vagaries of the language I guess.

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  7. Knowing how to do something is a learned skill.

    Yeah, like learning how to pass a chemistry test or do a lab experiment. It's all knowledge.

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  8. @Anonymous piano player: Recall that there's an element of verification--at least that's the easiest way i think to get a grasp of the useful meaning of knowledge.

    Just because you think you know how to play the piano, doesn't mean other people think so. To convince them that you do know how to play the piano, you'd have to overcome their skepticism with evidence, such as displaying a modicum of ability along a scale that has been evidenced to be pleasing to humans. And if one disagrees about the relative difficulty or worth of certain display of skill, saying "well, god thinks bach requires the most skill" doesn't win it.

    It doesn't matter how vivid and exciting one person's internal mental lives might be, it doesn't count in this meaning of valid knowledge. Hint: yes, that's part of why religious "knowledge" is considered useless.

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  9. Tyro says,

    There are a couple problems with the links in your article.

    Thanks. I fixed them.

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  10. I think one could make an interesting debate over whether "it is wrong to abuse children" might count as knowledge even by your carefully-tailored definition.. but absolute underpinnings of morality are not what I want to comment about.

    What I want to say, though, is that with a somewhat broader definition of knowledge, it is true that there are useful epistemologies are than science. (I choose the word "useful" very carefully here, to distinguish it from "valid" or "accurate") The example I like to use is, how do I know that I love my wife? Science is very good at describing the biochemical processes that result in this sensation, but it is not very good at telling me, the individual, which particular person I am in love with. In that sense, I don't think that science is the only useful epistemology. The only valid one, sure, but not necessarily the only useful one.

    I don't disagree with your post, though, because you have defined "knowledge" in a somewhat narrower way than I have, i.e. because my love for my wife is only a personal belief, one that is demonstrably irrational, you would not consider it knowledge -- and therefore you would argue that it has nothing to do with epistemology to begin with. Which is a fair position; as I say, I think it's just a difference of definition. And as Paul says, agreeing to some common definitions is a prerequisite.

    Moreover, even by my looser definition of knowledge, which opens the door for other epistemologies to be useful, even if inaccurate... religion still remains utterly useless! :D Which, by the way, is why I even bother to bring this up... even if you allow a vaguer, more general definition of "knowledge", that opens the door for some selective irrationality, but still does not justify religion.

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  11. Yeah, like learning how to pass a chemistry test or do a lab experiment. It's all knowledge.

    I guess I balk a little at this. A bird can be taught skills. Does it have knowledge? Does a parrot singing a song know what it's doing when it sings?

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  12. I'm looking for evidence of other ways of knowing that might provide valid knowledge. So far I haven't found any so my hypothesis hasn't been falsified.
    Well, you know what they say about absence of evidence... How about this statement: "The leaves of the tree look green to me." Is that knowledge?

    As with most philosophical issues, the discussions in that field [epistemology] are far too obtuse for most people to follow. Just look at the article I linked to. I imagine that 99% of people who follow that link will not read past the first section on "What Is Knowledge?"
    This isn't any different from biochemistry. 99% of educated people who read an introductory biochemistry text won't get past the first section there either. Ignorance of the discipline is hardly justification for dismissiveness.

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  13. I guess I balk a little at this. A bird can be taught skills. Does it have knowledge? Does a parrot singing a song know what it's doing when it sings?

    That's actually a very good question, touching on the subjective nature of all knowledge. I have no real answers for it. I suspect that some level of consciousness awareness is required for knowledge, but I have no evidence for it.

    When scientists first began to model the world, commonly accepted "knowledge" told them that things were made of billiard-ball-like particles. In the context of their time, that knowledge worked well for them, in the same way that my subjective models of the piano work well for me. Later of course, the billiard ball model was found to be an incorrect description of reality. We still don't really know what the ultimate nature of reality is (if there even is an ultimate nature) - all we know is that when we poke something in one way, something else usually happens. Everything else is just an abstract mental model in our heads - i.e. knowledge, that is consistent with what is observed. Knowledge is not about what "is", it is about what is useful to us.

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  14. Everything else is just an abstract mental model in our heads - i.e. knowledge, that is consistent with what is observed. Knowledge is not about what "is", it is about what is useful to us. So I could know that Earth is torused shaped and has two triangular moons if that what is most useful? There seems to be a disconnect between reality (whatever that is, it is presupposed) and knowledge in what you say. Not that I have anything useful to offer. Guess that means I know nothing, knowledge equating with utility. :)

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  15. D'oh, in my effort to make a lame joke I overlooked the 'consistent with what is observed' part of your stipulation of knowledge. Whoops!

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  16. Guess that means I know nothing, knowledge equating with utility. :)

    I am certainly also at fault. Knowledge is not only what is useful, but also what interests you. And that gets into something called free will (a topic I suspect is not appropriate for this site).

    What you observe in life or even in the lab, depends a great deal on the choices you have made, and the choices you will make.

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  17. Brian has already made the point that science is just one of the categories into which rational thinking is typically divided. Others include philosophy, mathematics, history, etc. So even with regard to rational thinking (as a way of knowing) science is not the only game in town.

    As Brian also points out, these categories are not divided by neat lines of demarcation. (Accommodationist attempts to draw a convenient demarcation line between science and philosophy don't work.) Still, they are distinctive enough that universities have separate faculties for each of these categories, and we generally know which faculty to go to when we want a particular question answered.

    However, I would go further and say that rational thinking is not the only known way of knowing. There is also intuition. I'm not referring here to anything supernatural, just our subconscious mental processes which enable us to know things without necessarily thinking about them rationally. We have knowledge of all sorts of simple events that we directly experience (things we see, feel, etc) without having to consciously think about them. For non-human animals--who presumably don't think rationally--this sort of subconscious learning is the only way they can know anything.

    With regard to moral questions (like "is it wrong to abuse children?"), John Wilkins is assuming that there is an actual fact of the matter for us to know. He appears to be taking a "moral realist" position. I believe I'm right in saying that the majority of philosophers are moral anti-realists, i.e. they deny that these are matters of fact. So it seems surprising that John--who appears to know a thing or two about philosophy--fails to even acknowledge this possibility. In any case, even if moral realists are correct, there is no known way of knowing such moral facts. That is, we cannot justify any moral claims. (I should say that I'm being a little simplistic here. There's a lot more that could be said on this difficult subject.)

    So I would argue that the only known ways of knowing are rational inference and intuition. And I would suggest that even many of our rational inferences have intuitive elements. Perhaps abstract deductive arguments (e.g. those of mathematics) can be reduced to pure logic, not dependent on any intuition. But I don't think the same can be said for our non-deductive inferences about the real world.

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  18. P.S. Larry, I overlooked that you've tried to define "knowledge" in such a way that it must be "universal". But that's not what the word means. You can't just redefine words at will. You are of course welcome to restrict your claim to universal knowledge, instead of making a more general claim about all knowledge. But that's still not helpful, as most scientific knowledge is not universal. There are plenty of uninformed people who don't share it (besides informed people who reject it). Perhaps you should talk about "inter-subjective" knowledge instead, if you want to eliminate knowledge which is available only to one person. But I don't see how any restriction of this sort helps you. You still can't ignore intuition, since the same intuitions are often available to many people.

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  19. P.P.S. Perhaps you could restrict yourself to "reliable" knowledge, and argue that intuition isn't reliable.

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  20. Don't Catholics believe you should eat fish on Fridays? Or, more precisely, that you shouldn't eat meat on Fridays?

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  21. Don't Catholics believe you should eat fish on Fridays? Or, more precisely, that you shouldn't eat meat on Fridays?

    Indeed, I noticed that error too, but I declined to point it out since it didn't really modify the discussion.

    I guess that's what happens when you get a bunch of atheists trying to examine religion as an epistemology ;)

    See now, that must be the reason we don't believe in God, is because we are not sufficiently educated about the idiosyncracies of dogma. Shame on us for criticizing the emperor's invisible blue clothes, when anybody who knows anything knows that his invisible clothes are clearly red!!! ;D

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  22. Paul: "There is a legitimate philosophical argument against science revealing certain kinds of "truths" about "reality" -- if, for example, there was some unobservable, undetectable realm of the universe, science as practiced today could say little about it."

    Unobservable doesn't necessarily mean never open to observation, only currently so. I'm not clear how this limits the potential of science revealing certain kinds of truth. The infrared spectrum was at one time an unobservable part of the universe (to us).

    Richard W. "There is also intuition [...] our subconscious mental processes which enable us to know things without necessarily thinking about them rationally."

    I doubt that there's a clear line of demarcation between conscious and subconscious thought. Additionally, you seem to be interchanging rational with conscious and intuition with subconscious.

    Before I'd say intuition qualifies an an alternative way of knowing, separate from rational thought, I would first define my terms. Intuition can be a stand-in for biological instinct, or something akin to a detective's hunch or something else entirely. Hunches are partly based on emotive memories of past experience. Are these "low-road" memories always subconscious?

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  23. @caynazzo: You're right, but (understandably) missing my broader point -- my bad for being unclear.

    Suppose someone asserts that there is a supernatural part of reality that is totally unobservable and never will be observable. By definition, studying this unobservable thing is (practically speaking) beyond the realm of what science can currently (or ever) address. So as far as I can tell, the claim that science can be informative here is totally valid. It's possible (though I think far from probable) that there are such things which we can't learn about via the scientific method. Practically speaking, we also can't currently understand the things we can't observe -- so yes, there's potential, but still no existing insight.

    Now, does this little limitation really mean anything? I personally don't think so, and it certainly does not somehow nullify any existing scientific insights.

    If it doesn't affect observable (or potentially observable, or previously observable) reality, then it simply doesn't matter at all in the context of observable reality.

    The somewhat separate point I failed to make clear: Suppose someone (i.e. an anti-science religious apologist) wants to get picky about "how do we know what we know, and what are the limitations of that way of knowing?" -- using this as an attack on science. They shoot themselves in the foot, in my opinion, because the foundation of their own religious beliefs are almost certain to crumble under this same level of scrutiny.

    Simply put, talking about the limitations to forming understanding/beliefs using science totally begs for a comparison between the mechanisms for and limitations of forming accurate [or useful, or true, or ...] beliefs about reality based on either (1) science, or (2) however it is that people obtain religious beliefs. Off the top of my head, that includes blindly taking someone's word as absolute truth (i.e. from a religious a leader, parent, etc.), adhering to a subjective interpretation of a collection of unquestionable/sacred historical documents/information, subjective interpretation of personal emotional experiences, and so on.

    Under this comparison (as far as I can tell) the limitations of how people obtain their religious beliefs are so severe that the approach clearly doesn't work for understanding observable reality, and if we compare across religions, their histories, and differing individual religious beliefs -- it doesn't seem to work well for understanding the supernatural world either.

    Thoughts?

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  24. Err - make that "...the claim that science can't be informative here..." ;)

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  25. Ever notice that whenever someone brings up an example of something science can't ever "know" it's something subjective in nature? It's never a brute fact about our shared, external reality; but rather some subjective "fact" like you can play piano, that you love your wife, or that chocolate is your ice cream flavor.

    This is a conflation of two huge categories: the subjective, or self-knowledge; vs. the objective, or knowledge of the external and universal. Yes, science only works for the latter. It doesn't reveal subjective truths, only objective ones.

    But here's the thing. The claim that god exists in reality? That's an objective claim. It's exactly the sort thing science is supposed to address. It seems that the religious apologists love to treat the fact of god's existence as a subjective claim. But unless one is willing to admit that god doesn't exist outside of human minds, essentially adopting the atheist position, then it's comparing apples to oranges. You can't have it both ways. Either god is exactly like love, something which you can just know for yourself and doesn't exist beyond yourself (and your god dies when you die), or god is a proposed entity that exists apart from humans whose existence must be established through scientific proof.

    Those are the choices.

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  26. As with most philosophical issues, the discussions in that field are far too obtuse for most people to follow.
    The philosophically correct term for these discussions is abstruse, not 'obtuse'.

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  27. anonymous says,

    The philosophically correct term for these discussions is abstruse, not 'obtuse'.

    Actually, it's both. Lots of philosophy (the worst part) is not only difficult to understand (abtruse) but also dull (obtuse).

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  28. Suppose someone asserts that there is a supernatural part of reality that is totally unobservable and never will be observable. By definition, studying this unobservable thing is (practically speaking) beyond the realm of what science can currently (or ever) address.

    This reminded me of a youtube video by qualiasoup that discusses the limits of knowledge:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wV_REEdvxo

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  29. @HH: I agree entirely with your example and argument. Might even go further and say internal thoughts might as well be halucinations, possibly hypotheses we test out when we act on them but not knowledge.

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  30. First, I'd like to poke a bit at a conflation that you keep making. You start from the idea that science is a way of knowing. I get that, and agree (it would be stupid of me not to). But then you immediately leap from there to claiming science is the ONLY way of knowing. Which I disagree with, for the obvious reasons. Most pointedly, that philosophy can do everything that science can do, and probably more besides. There are possibly many valid ways of knowing, even if I take your basic view of science. I argued in another comment that I can discover a perfectly valid way of knowing by simply rejecting skepticism, which wouldn't be science. So that move is far too fast.

    And you do seem to be simply asserting it. It's okay to use it as a working hypothesis as long as you don't use that to argue against anyone else. But you DO use that to argue against other people, but never really show WHY science is the only valid way of knowing or why we should accept the basic ideas of reason, evidence and skepticism. Without that argumentation, I and everyone else are free to ignore your arguments.

    Onto knowledge. Putting aside that you have limited knowledge quite strongly from how not only philosophy but everyone else sees it, you don't draw a distinction between "known" and "knowable" in your own arguments. You list things that we know and something that is probably knowable (limited life span). We don't know that it is impossible to give ourselves immortality or that there is no life after death. But I agree that that is probably knowable in at least some sense, under your "universal" criteria.

    Which turns to the moral questions. You concede that there might be a universal moral law that we can use to derive things like "Abusing children is wrong". But then you argue that we don't know it yet. Fair enough. But moral objectivists think that it is universally knowable, and that we can prove that base moral standard. This might be different from moral realism in that I, certainly, do not think that I can find this by going out and looking at the world -- hence not scientific -- but think that I can reason it out starting from what a moral code actually is and what is required for it. This, then, to me makes it knowable as a universal principle, which should make it the sort of knowledge you want to talk about ... except that it isn't going to be scientific, leaving that out.

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  31. Allan said: "I argued in another comment that I can discover a perfectly valid way of knowing by simply rejecting skepticism."

    Do you use "knowing" here as simply forming internal beliefs?

    Assuming there is an objective external reality, the goal isn't just to hold a belief about it, but to hold the most accurate belief possible.

    In that sense, I'm at a loss to see how rejecting skepticism leads to an equally or more effective means of creating accurate beliefs about reality, relative to (inherently skeptical) scientific means.

    Care to clarify your alternative "perfectly valid way of knowing"??

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  32. Paul,

    Well, I'll slightly quibble over your "as accurate as possible", since all we want for knowledge is that we eventually get true results, which is in fact as accurate as possible but allows for different ways to get there.

    So let me start by clarifying skeptical and non-skeptical. I'm going to allow that the skeptical approach doesn't require one to be skeptical of absolutely everything, because then one has to not accept that there's an external world, and no one wants that. So then I ask for the same concession and have you accept that the non-skeptical approach doesn't mean that you have to accept everything, and so the distinction is this: the skeptical approach says "Be skeptical unless given reason not to" while the non-skeptical approach says "Don't be skeptical unless given reason to". Note that in both cases these reasons don't have to be evidentiary, so science can decide to not be overly skeptical about sense experiences in general -- and avoid solipsism -- simply by saying that if they are that skeptical they can't do anything, and the non-skeptical approach and be skeptical about something on the basis that being right or wrong about that is really, really important.

    Okay, so since both of these accept evidence and reason -- the only difference is over skepticism -- it's clear that they can work on all the same propositions. The difference in the two is basically this: the non-skeptical approach evaluates the evidence it has on hand and accepts the most likely one, and doesn't feel -- on principle -- any need to add on other tests. They don't need to have their results peer-reviewed or even be repeatable, and they don't have a standard for when that acceptance meets the skeptical challenge (in general). The skeptical approach, on the other hand, as a matter of principle DOES require such things.

    So, the effective difference is that the non-skeptical approach adopts propositions earlier -- but still based on evidence and reason -- and then is self-correcting (since it still bases its claims on evidence) as evidence comes in showing it unreasonable. The skeptical approach adopts them later, still can self-correct, but doesn't need to as often.

    So, the non-skeptical approach works well in cases where you need fast decisions and where you don't need a perfectly accurate answer, at least right away. In short, it works when you need to make a decision. The skeptical approach works better when you have time and really, really care about getting it right the first time.

    I argue that every day reasoning is, in fact, non-skeptical. Science is skeptical.

    Now, neither of them preclude the other, but since this is coming out of an accomodationist debate I don't see why I should have to do that [grin].

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  33. Got it - thanks for clarifying. I overall agree with you. I was just confused by the terminology since I wouldn't consider this "non-skeptical" approach as non-skeptical. There's some skepticism in there, it's just applied conditionally instead of by default.

    I'll probably remember this argument as "conditionally skeptical" instead of "non-skeptical" -- but either way, you make a good point.

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  34. Paul,

    Call it what you like, as long as you accept that it isn't "skeptical" in the same sense that Larry Moran uses the term in describing science, since that's the whole point of making the distinction.

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