Friday, November 26, 2010

Evolutionary Epistemology

Let's talk metaphysics. There are two longstanding strands of metaphysical inquiry: ontology (inquiry into the basic elements and forces that constitute the universe); and epistemology (inquiry into what we can know about the universe and how we can know it.) Materialism attempts to reduce epistemology to "material things" such as brains, neurons, molecules, or atoms. Idealism atempts to reduce epistemology to "mental things" such as feelings, thoughts, memes, beliefs, theories or in more recent parlance "information." Hence, contemporary ontologists that embrace complex adaptive systems theory as a monistic theory, and thereby avoid Cartesian dualism (and the mind body problem) reduce reality to either matter (and/or energy) or information. Now the most fundamental question of metaphysical inquiry is whether scientists can develop a freestanding ontology that explains the nature of information; or whether ontology presupposes epistemology. Evolutionary epistemologists like Peirce and Popper argue that knowledge of Truth and Value (the primary targets of epistemology inquiry) evolve based on variation and selection. What is the evidence? The history of individual and collective belief systems.

Individual minds and collective minds accumulate beliefs over time whereby old beliefs compete with new beliefs. Hence, the metaphysical beliefs that currently occupy my individual mind have survived 60 years of variation and selection. Many of those beliefs are collective beliefs that I've replicated from previous cultures, I've also replicated other cultural beliefs that have emerged more recently, such as systems theory. I hope that some of my individual metaphysical beliefs get replicated by the larger community of scholars that study evolution. Of course, Darwins' beliefs have been replicated across many different scholarly disciplines: evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary ethics, and evolutionary politics. Before Darwin, Aristotle ruled the roost! All of those scholarly disciplines are comprised of individual minds that share new beliefs and old beliefs (information) within networked groups. Beliefs that survive competition between old and new beliefs are deemed True.

Peirce argued that the basic elements of "The Fixation of Belief" are the feelings of belief and doubt. Of course, today social psychologists and neuropsychologists generate theories that identify the various mechanisms that underlie those processes. They write scholarly papers and books hoping to "sell" those beliefs (literally and figuratively) to scholarly communities and/or the community at large. But all human communities are generally hostile to new ideas, just like Nature is hostile to most genetic mutations. Peirce argued that humans (individually and collectively) literally "love" their beliefs and want to share them with others. But fast-paced, full-blown, sustained intellectual revolutions within large communities of networked minds are pretty rare. Most intellectual revolutions (individual and collective) are slow, incremental, and temporary. After all, we all prefer to bask in the truth of our beliefs and seek to avoid the unpleasant feelings of doubt. In fact, most full-blown scientific (intellectual) revolutions take place only after the minds (and bodies) of the defenders of the previous theories die off. Inexplicably, there are still a few members of the Flat Earth Society, Klu Klux Klan, and Nazi Party. As long as they don't force the rest of us to join their groups, or harbor their beliefs they will eventually suffer extinction.

I "love" the theory of libertarianism. I belong to to several groups that share those beliefs, including: the Independent Institute, Institute for Humane Studies, and the Reason Foundation. We don't all agree on everything. Some libertarians are anarcho-capitalists (reject all government) and some are minarchists (reject big governmment). Because we all tend to hang out together, especially on the Internet, we do not always subject ourselves to other new beliefs that might raise doubts about our old beliefs. A real libertarian deliberately embraces variation of belief and is even willing to defend the rights of welfare liberals and Marxists in an "Open Society." Evolutionary epistemology requires a free market of beliefs, and therefore defends free inquiry more than any one set of beliefs. The ultimate Truth emerges out of what Peirce called the evolutionary process of "Human Inquiry," what Popper called "Conjecture and Refutation," and what Hayek called the "Extended Order."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Scientific and Moralistic Positivism

How can we know what's True and/or what's Good? Philosophers call this area of inquiry epistemology. There are two untenable theories: positivism and constructivism. Positivists argue that human beings can know timelessly universal scientific and/or moral facts, which correspond to reality. A statement is true if it corresponds to the facts. Correspondence is detemined based on a verification process. Hence, positivists argue that "if X is true, than it's true in all times and all places." And/or, "If X is good, it's good in all times and all places." And of course, we all seek these timelessly universal "True Beliefs," and when we think we've got one, we arduously embrace those "facts." A world of timelessly universal facts is highly coveted, but profoundly naive. The other untenable epistemological theory is called constructivism, which argues that Truth and/or Goodness are manufactured by sociopolitical forces. Hence, our beliefs are are relative to time (historical relativism), or place (cultural relativism). Most constructivists are either historians or sociologists. So are there epistemological theories that avoid both positivism and constructivism?

Most libertarians embrace evolutionary epistemology as proposed by Charles Sanders Peirce and Karl Popper. The basic idea is that our individual and collective beliefs evolve over time based on variation and selection. Hence, they reject the verification process in favor of a falsification process, or "creative destruction." Why? Because we can never know when the verification process is over (the problem of induction). How many experiments must we conduct before our theory is finally verified. Peirce and Popper, therefore argued that, although we cannot know the Truth, we can know what's False. Therefore, when we say "X is true," what we're really saying is that "X hasn't yet been falsified." The goal of human inquiry is to dethrone false theories. Over time, our individual and collective beliefs get closer to the Truth, but never achieve finality. So what are the social implications of evolutionary epistemology?

Scientific and moralistic positivists typically claim unqualified authoritative dominion over others based on what they "know," that is "The Truth" and/or "The Good." Finality: it's over! "I know the Truth or the Good, and you don't. I'm the ultimate authority, therefore, you must submit to that authority and bestow up me, the social privilages that I deserve." Libertarians, resist the temptation to coronate timelessly universal "experts." Expertise is inexorably fallible, but not necessarily socially constructed. Libertarians, therefore, question both scientific and moral authorities. Why? Because they forge monopolies.

Theories and experts become authoritative when they dominate any given market. The sellers of theories profit most when their theories gain monopolistic status, which can be achieved via either persuasion or coercion. Theories become natural monopolies when they explain, predict, or control phenomena better than other competing theory and therefore attract a critical mass of buyers based on emotive and/or rational persuasion. Artificial monopolies attract and maintain buyers not by persuasion (emotion or reason) but by coercion, which usually prevents exposure to falsification. Thus there is a difference between "selling" theories of Truth and Goodness within a competitive market of ideas and "forcing" others to buy those theories. The most efficient way to establish an artificial knowledge monopoly is to deploy the coercive power of government via the criminal justice system, which often protects artificial monopolies. That's how theories become ideologies and scientists and moralists become ideologues: by using their enhanced sociopolitical status as justification for exercising coercive force over non-believers. Both Science and Religion can easily fall into the hands of ideologues.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The "Is" and the "Ought"

As I wind up my research on Leadership Ethics I have become more convinced of the centrality of the distinction between facts (is) and values (ought), and how they are related. As social psychologists continue to uncover the mental mechanisms that comprise our "moral psychology," it becomes increasingly evident that we still do not really know what to make of these scientific truths. Here are the basic questions: How does empirical knowledge about mental mechanisms elucidate everyday moral problems? If we knew all of the "facts" that underlie our moral feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, would we also know all of the "values" that ought to guide us? Before we get started, let's clear the air of two fallacies. The naturalistic fallacy says that "facts" determine "values" and that empirical knowledge alone elucidates knowledge of moral goodness. The moralistic fallacy says that knowledge of "values" (moral facts) trumps knowledge of "facts" and/or that "facts" are merely values in "disguise. Most moral psychologists deny that either the naturalist fallacy or the moralistic fallacy is a fallacy. So how does libertarianism approach the is/ought distinction?

First of all, thoughtful libertarians like Karl Popper, F.A. Hayek and myself (;D) deny that there are (in fact) either scientific facts or moral facts. The word "fact" carries with it an aura of finality: "We know the Truth, therefore, we must act on it. If it's True, it's True forever." Libertarians argue that knowledge of facts and values is highly fallible and therefore must be subjected to constant revision. Why? Well, because scientists, like everyone else, are prone to make mistakes and/or succumb to the influence of power structures. Science and ethics, therefore, are about establishing a self-correcting system that uncovers both factual errors and value-errors wrought by ideological corruption. The early libertarians were the first to attack the scientific positivists and the moral positivists by insisting on continued inquiry, even when scientists and moralists insist that they've got it right. That means that thoughtful libertarians are reluctant to bestow unquestioned authority on either scientists or moralists. We are not skeptics or cynics. Our allegiance is not to particular scientific or moral truths but to self-correcting epistemic processes that weed out error and ideological contamination of what's presented as unassailable scientific and moral facts. How does all of this work? I'll have to cover that later. I have a class in 10 minutes and a stack of essays to grade before I can do much else.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nationalism v. Globalism

Check out my friend Peter Corning's most recent blog entry on "Fair Trade" on his FAIR SOCIETY blog and my comment.