Norris’ "Epistemology" Postscript, I

Book Discussion of Christopher Norris’ “Epistemology: Key Concepts in Philosophy”

Concluding Scientific-Realist Postscript –

Section I.

First-off, I can’t help thinking of Kierkegaard’s “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” when reading the title of this chapter, but Norris never overtly names him.

Norris basically begins this chapter the way he began the book, noting that he did what he could in the space permitted.

He boils epistemology down to the various positions regarding “the basic issue between realism and skepticism concerning the existence of an ‘external’ (objective or mind-independent) world that is not just a construct out of our various sense-data, conceptual schemes, paradigms, language-games, discourses, cultural life-forms or whatever.”

He says there is no philosophical answer to the skeptic which would prove to them the existence of the external world—he dismisses G.E. Moore’s pointing at his other hand, and Wittgenstein’s claim that skeptical doubts can be “laid to rest merely by observing that they have no place in our communally sanctioned language-games or life-forms and must therefore be counted strictly unintelligible.” To the skeptic, realism and anti-realism alike are just habits of thought which cannot guarantee their own veridical status.

The realist will ask whether the skeptical conclusion has “more rational warrant than appeals to the self-evidence of progress in various tried and tested fields of everyday experiential and applied scientific knowledge.” Norris’ use of self-evidence here is eyebrow-raising, especially since he goes on to say that “our theories or working hypotheses are…by no means secure against any prospect of future revision or rejection.” I always took self-evident to mean something like ‘certain’ or ‘unquestionable’. If it is subject to future revision, how is it self-evident? Maybe he is not saying appeals to progress are appeals to self-evident progress—maybe he is saying they are not, but skeptics apparently expect folks to believe the sceptical position is self-evident? Anyway, Norris says the “burden of proof falls squarely on those who would reject the case for convergent realism, or for scientific method as our best guarantee that most of our theories or working hypotheses are on the right track, even though (as the realist will readily concede) by no means secure against any prospect of future revision or rejection.”

The sceptic will respond with the “argument from error”—that so many past-accepted theories have got it wrong, and so many of our current theories will eventually be shown to be wrong, and so therefore nothing can be trusted. But in order to make that argument, the sceptic must rely on a realist premise: “that we now have adequate scientific reason to count those earlier theories false” or inadequate.
1. Phlogiston and the luminiferous ether are out for different reasons:
a. phlogiston never referred to anything, and was replaced by Lavoisier’s oxygen-based theory of combustion
b. the luminiferous ether referred to what is now more adequately called the electro-magnetic field
2. Aristotle’s concept of bodies falling to find their ‘natural place’ is replaced by gravity
3. Mass, molecule, atom and electron–all have undergone some rethinking.

–Paradigm relativists would say all the theories make equally good sense.
–Kuhn would say they are all (even theories like 1b and 3) talking about something completely different.
–Convergent realism (our hero) puts up “a strong case…for the partial conservation of certain theories that have not…relinquished any claim to describe or explain the physical phenomena concerned.” This is referring to theories 1b and 3, “where the range of descriptive or identifying criteria has likewise been subject to large-scale revision but where these terms can nonetheless be taken as referring to the self-same entities.”

Norris says this sort of engagement in concrete examples is “the best starting-point for discussion, rather than high-level abstract debates about the ‘problem of knowledge’ or the ‘existence of an external world’.” The sceptic may consider the whole engagement to be circular, but not without “renouncing any claim to provide an intelligible account of our everyday experience as well as our knowledge of the growth of scientific knowledge.”

Norris connects this whole discussion to the issue of how to change human existence for the better through applied scientific knowledge.
1. Wittgenstein view: “there is no appeal to values of truth, rationality or ethical and social justice beyond those that play a meaningful role in the language-game or life-form concerned.”
2. Dummett: “denies the existence of objective, recognition-transcendent truth-values for statements of the so-called ‘disputed class’, i.e., those for which we possess no means of ascertainment or decisive proof”—including “standards of objective moral good or natural justice”.
3. Rorty: “ideas about the good life…(are) a product of our various language-games, metaphors or preferred ‘final vocabularies’. … all that is required is a switch to some alternative ‘description’ whereby the problems can be made to disappear (or the solutions to emerge) through a kind of verbal alchemy.”
a. This is kind of like Kuhn’s paradigm-shift.
b. This is a reaction to “theological ways of thinking” which “make ‘Nature’ do duty for God” but Norris replies that redescribing reality is playing God, and offers false hope.
c. Christian fundamentalist, creationist, ‘pro-life’ (anti-abortion) and other such conservative fronts…can readily exploit the ‘strong’-descriptivist line.
Note: I’m a Christian, I believe in evolution, and I believe in a God-describing GR.

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