Reasons for Reasons

In critical rationalism on 09/10/2011 at 4:10 am

I suggest reading Michael Lynch’s article in the New York Times Opinionator blog before reading past the break.

Done? Good. One paragraph stood out, since the mistakes just piled up over one another.

So one reason we should take the project of defending our epistemic principles seriously is that the ideal of civility demands it. But there is also another, even deeper, reason. We need to justify our epistemic principles from a common point of view because we need shared epistemic principles in order to even have a common point of view. Without a common background of standards against which we measure what counts as a reliable source of information, or a reliable method of inquiry, and what doesn’t, we won’t be able to agree on the facts, let alone values.

The problems in the article stick together like a rat king, merging in a single paragraph. Three points:

  1. During the course of the article, Lynch does not try to solve the Münchausen Trilemma (or even give one of its names, such as the ‘Agrippa trilemma’, or a variation of it known as ‘Fries’s trilemma’), and since no one else has solved the problem using traditional methods, the only possible ‘defense’ of epistemic principles currently available that an epistemic principle is, as far as we can tell, not inadequate. This very epistemic principle, of course, even if it should be found, will suffer from the same problem as before. This is such a weak form of ‘justification’ as to malign its very purpose. That said, it fits perfectly within the umbrella of critical rationalism: while we never know that we are right in the principles we adopt, there are situations when, if we are diligent and luck is on our side, we can learn that we are wrong.
  2. Lynch does not describe what these shared epistemic principles are, but whatever these principles, they should withstand even the most rudimentary criticism. That assumption, as Lynch notes, immediately rules out foundationalist approaches, for they don’t just allow the tu quoque defense, but are disallowed by their own set of criteria. This leaves coherentist programs left, but since coherentism at its most basic allows for any and all coherent systems to stand on equal ground, there must be some other arbitrator that supersedes ‘epistemic principles’. I think epistemic attitudes can solve this problem in choosing between different epistemic principles: the only arbitrators known are humans, and we must decide which principles we will adopt. This attitude rests on the way we behave when we are confronted with problems in our epistemic principles. Again, this solution that fits under the critical rationalist tent. Perhaps I am reading too much into Lynch, but if that his solution is to adopt a principle that suffers from the very problem it seeks to address, there should be something there that does not perpetuate the problem. The term ‘epistemic attitudes’, on the other hand, is used in a different context, since it only forbids certain types of behavior (dogmatism), and says nothing about epistemic assumptions we do or do not make.
  3. Even with the same epistemic attitudes, it does not follow that people will agree on the same facts.


  1. Given those problems, we really need a social order where differences in opinions do the minimum amount of damage. Like the Popperian principle in politics, to limit the damage that bad rulers can do, even while we try to appoint good rulers.

    Same applies to rules!

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