EpistemologyEpistemology is the theory of knowledge; what does it mean to say "I know?" The competing foundations of social knowledge are rationality and power and knowledge is also seen to be evolving and changing, much as biologists see living things as evolving. This page argues that the idea of knowledge as being founded on rationality does not cohere with evolutionary theory, while knowledge as social power is consistent with evolution. Hence, it is argued that epistemology can be merged with evolutionary theory only if social knowledge is taken to be a manifestation of social power.
Epistemology, the Theory of Knowledge
Epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge. It is an interesting field for the scientist, not just for its own sake but because, in more ways than one, it sits on the boundary between science and philosophy.
Scientific philosophy is a branch of epistemology, arising especially from attempts to provide fundamental justifications to knowledge claims. For many years, philosophers and logicians attempted to find a methodology for "induction," a supposed logical process that would enable investigators to go from a sufficient number of specific experimental instances to a valid generalization. A major reason for this belief in induction was that no less a figure than Newton insisted that he did not use hypotheses, a claim that effectively rejects a falsificationist methodology. However, following Einstein, it became apparent that Newton's ideas were not only falsifiable but had actually been falsified, a fact that disproved his claim to use induction and showed his dynamics to be a falsifiable hypothesis.
Karl Popper changed scientific philosophy forever by recognizing that no general logic of induction was possible. The best possible logical process science could achieve was to falsify as many ideas as possible. That is, for each possible theory, try to find some experiment whose result falsified the theory by being incompatible with its predictions. Whatever theory remained unfalsified was not necessarily true but it would be the best possible estimate of true knowledge. This process, of suggesting many possible conjectures or hypotheses to explain a phenomenon, and then seeking to falsify them, is Popper's logic of science. His ideas are the best statement of scientific logic yet achieved and, in Popper's system, knowledge means simply, "a best estimate of truth."
The problem with Popper's methodology is that people do not use it. Although scientists habitually claim to be rational, they are very reluctant to apply Popper's logic, a fact pointed out by such critics as Kuhn and Feyerabend. The ability of human beings to apply Popper's logic has been studied systematically, originally by the psychologist Peter Wason and this general intellectual process of using Popper's logic has become known as the Wason task. The conclusions psychologists have drawn are that humans are generally bad at applying Popper's logic. We are, it seems, congenitally prone to look for confirmations of our ideas and very reluctant to examine or look for contradictions to them. We are, in short, not very good at logic.
Popper's logical scientific philosophy is an example of an epistemology that is, at heart, rationalist. It argues that knowledge arises from considered rational thought and argument. There are many such epistemologies and they began with the Greeks, particularly with Aristotle. Rationality emerged as a dominant theme in Western philosophy during the renaissance, and was represented by men such as Descartes, Leibnitz and Spinoza. Rationality is generally thought to have reached its highest expression with Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant effectively tried to derive reason by means of reason. That approach that leads inevitably to an infinite regression as each piece of reason needs another to justify it and the infinite regressions that followed from studies such as Kant's do show that it is ultimately impossible to give any knowledge claim a complete and totally rational justification. That, of course, does not mean that we should not try to be rational, only that we must recognize the limits of reason.
However, there is another view of knowledge which argues that the ultimate foundation for knowledge is not reason but power, by which we mean social power. This is a viewpoint that also began with the Greeks, especially with Thrasymachus, a sophist philosopher who was derided by Plato. The view of knowledge as power was taken up by Bacon but he was mostly concerned with knowledge giving men the "power to do." Hobbes, heavily influenced by the British civil war, argued that the power of the state, the Leviathan, should be near absolute and thus that power should be able to dictate what the population should see as knowledge. This view of knowledge as being, essentially, an assertion of social power appears in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche In the modern era, it is represented by the work of the French thinker Michel Foucault.
This author's own work, in The Architecture of Thought, is concerned with merging epistemology with evolutionary theory and the question arises, which view of knowledge, rationally founded or power based, can be merged with evolutionary theory. The answer is clear, it is knowledge as social power that coheres with evolutionary theory. However rational evolution may be as a biological theory, the process of evolution is by no means rational but it is, very much, power based.
Popper, Toulmin and Plotkin have looked at knowledge from an evolutionary viewpoint, arguing that knowledge statements and concepts become refined and epitomized by selection and use, in much the same way as do genes during the evolution of living things. Among some users, this idea has become refined into memetics, a field that seeks to analyze the evolution of human knowledge in terms of basic component parts, which it calls memes, just as genetics analyzes the evolution of animals in terms of genes.
Plotkin (in The Nature of Knowledge) adopted another approach and divided knowledge into components formed from primary, secondary and tertiary heuristics. This approach has greatly influenced the evolutionary view of knowledge taken in, "The Architecture of Thought." However, a different terminology is adopted and knowledge is taken to be divided into four levels, depending upon the nature and position of the selection.
Level1 knowledge is genetic knowledge and subject to biological selection, which might be natural or sexual selection. In social animals group selection also becomes a possibility.
Level2 knowledge is sensory knowledge. This is perceptual knowledge, knowledge arising through vision, hearing etc. The point of selection lies in the perceiver, specifically in the Darwinian processes of the brain. Another order in rank2 evolution occurs in the immune system, which is also Darwinian in operation and produces knowledge of the infectious environment. (See Plotkin for a discussion.)
Level3 knowledge is social knowledge. Social knowledge is subject to selection when two groups compete with one another and survival or fitness depends upon being a member of the winning group. In the view developed in "The Architecture of Thought", the point of selection for social knowledge is in the brain of the transmitter. Selection serves either educational, parent to offspring, or political, social control, purposes.
Level4 knowledge is professional knowledge or, more generally, subcultural knowledge. Here selection is moved away from either transmitter or receiver and becomes associated with subcultural rules or professional methodology.
In science, Popper's methodology produces the most valid level4 knowledge because its structure, derived from the logical process of modus tollens, is the logical structure most analogous to evolutionary selection.
Level2 knowledge, sensory knowledge, is not inherited but level3 social knowledge is inherited by being passed, by teaching and learning, from parent to offspring. This fact seems to have greatly influenced human evolution and leads from logical epistemology to a social epistemology in which knowledge is an assertion of social power. In this epistemology, knowledge is best seen as a means whereby members of social groups exercise power over other members of their group. Thus in this social epistemology, knowledge is not simply, or even at all, a best estimate of truth. Rather it is one means whereby social groups form and maintain their political hierarchies. On this basis social knowledge becomes an articulation of the ideologies or vested interests of the people or groups who assert it.
Knowledge thus appears as a medium through which power, especially conditioned power, is asserted. (The term Conditioned Power is taken from J. K. Galbraith's The Anatomy of Power.) In other words, the transmission of knowledge is a means whereby domination is achieved in social groups.
However, another aspect of knowledge and social domination is just as important but much less widely recognized. The group selective advantages of social knowledge cannot be achieved without the social domination that knowledge, as power, can achieve. These group selective advantages require, firstly, that some leader will become dominant and, secondly, that the leader's followers will become subordinate. From that situation, leaders can transmit knowledge that followers will accept and internalize. The Architecture of Thought borrows the terms Dionysian and Appolonian for the traits associated with transmitting and receiving knowledge. Because humans have both these sets of traits (in different degrees) human groups can come to share a unified body of social knowledge.
Hence, societies have bodies of knowledge associated with them. These bodies of knowledge are commonly called cultures or social knowledge sets. In the parlance developed by "The Architecture of Thought" they are level3 knowledge sets. Level3 knowledge is transmitted from one generation to another by such processes as teaching and learning and by the exercise of social power. As a result, the cultures associated with human groups, evolve much as do the genomes of organisms. On this basis, humans are the product of two evolutions, an evolution of their genes and the other an evolution of their cultures. This double evolution is sometimes called gene-culture coevolution but I prefer the term bioepistemic evolution. This term "bioepistemic evolution" serves to emphasize the role knowledge plays in both situations and allows other level of knowledge to be introduced; it also serves to distance my own development from memetics, a field that is often associated with gene-culture coevolution and which I consider vacuous.
The theories of sexuality presented on this site arise from this dual evolution and argue that the properties of cultural knowledge have become transferred into sexuality. Much of its development is concerned with showing how this transfer is likely to have occurred.
© This page is the epistemology page of the site sexandphilosophy.co.uk and might best be read as part of that site, all of which is copyright to the author, Dr. John A. Hewitt.
Last Modified 20 November 2005