Tag Archives: epistemology

How do you know that what you know is true? That’s epistemology

The Conversation

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How can you justify your knowledge? Epistemology has a few answers. Flickr/World’s Direction

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

How do you know what the weather will be like tomorrow? How do you know how old the Universe is? How do you know if you are thinking rationally?

These and other questions of the “how do you know?” variety are the business of epistemology, the area of philosophy concerned with understanding the nature of knowledge and belief.

Epistemology is about understanding how we come to know that something is the case, whether it be a matter of fact such as “the Earth is warming” or a matter of value such as “people should not just be treated as means to particular ends”.

It’s even about interrogating the odd presidential tweet to determine its credibility.

Read more: Facts are not always more important than opinions: here’s why

Epistemology doesn’t just ask questions about what we should do to find things out; that is the task of all disciplines to some extent. For example, science, history and anthropology all have their own methods for finding things out.

Epistemology has the job of making those methods themselves the objects of study. It aims to understand how methods of inquiry can be seen as rational endeavours.

Epistemology, therefore, is concerned with the justification of knowledge claims.

The need for epistemology

Whatever the area in which we work, some people imagine that beliefs about the world are formed mechanically from straightforward reasoning, or that they pop into existence fully formed as a result of clear and distinct perceptions of the world.

But if the business of knowing things was so simple, we’d all agree on a bunch of things that we currently disagree about – such as how to treat each other, what value to place on the environment, and the optimal role of government in a society.

That we do not reach such an agreement means there is something wrong with that model of belief formation.

We don’t all agree on everything. Flickr/Frank, CC BY-NC

It is interesting that we individually tend to think of ourselves as clear thinkers and see those who disagree with us as misguided. We imagine that the impressions we have about the world come to us unsullied and unfiltered. We think we have the capacity to see things just as they really are, and that it is others who have confused perceptions.

As a result, we might think our job is simply to point out where other people have gone wrong in their thinking, rather than to engage in rational dialogue allowing for the possibility that we might actually be wrong.

But the lessons of philosophy, psychology and cognitive science teach us otherwise. The complex, organic processes that fashion and guide our reasoning are not so clinically pure.

Not only are we in the grip of a staggeringly complex array of cognitive biases and dispositions, but we are generally ignorant of their role in our thinking and decision-making.

Combine this ignorance with the conviction of our own epistemic superiority, and you can begin to see the magnitude of the problem. Appeals to “common sense” to overcome the friction of alternative views just won’t cut it.

We need, therefore, a systematic way of interrogating our own thinking, our models of rationality, and our own sense of what makes for a good reason. It can be used as a more objective standard for assessing the merit of claims made in the public arena.

This is precisely the job of epistemology.

Epistemology and critical thinking

One of the clearest ways to understand critical thinking is as applied epistemology. Issues such as the nature of logical inference, why we should accept one line of reasoning over another, and how we understand the nature of evidence and its contribution to decision making, are all decidedly epistemic concerns.

Just because people use logic doesn’t mean they are using it well.

The American philosopher Harvey Siegel points out that these questions and others are essential in an education towards thinking critically.

By what criteria do we evaluate reasons? How are those criteria themselves evaluated? What is it for a belief or action to be justified? What is the relationship between justification and truth? […] these epistemological considerations are fundamental to an adequate understanding of critical thinking and should be explicitly treated in basic critical thinking courses.

To the extent that critical thinking is about analysing and evaluating methods of inquiry and assessing the credibility of resulting claims, it is an epistemic endeavour.

Engaging with deeper issues about the nature of rational persuasion can also help us to make judgements about claims even without specialist knowledge.

For example, epistemology can help clarify concepts such as “proof”, “theory”, “law” and “hypothesis” that are generally poorly understood by the general public and indeed some scientists.

In this way, epistemology serves not to adjudicate on the credibility of science, but to better understand its strengths and limitations and hence make scientific knowledge more accessible.

Epistemology and the public good

One of the enduring legacies of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that began in Europe during the 17th century, is a commitment to public reason. This was the idea that it’s not enough to state your position, you must also provide a rational case for why others should stand with you. In other words, to produce and prosecute an argument.

Read more: How to teach all students to think critically

This commitment provides for, or at least makes possible, an objective method of assessing claims using epistemological criteria that we can all have a say in forging.

That we test each others’ thinking and collaboratively arrive at standards of epistemic credibility lifts the art of justification beyond the limitations of individual minds, and grounds it in the collective wisdom of reflective and effective communities of inquiry.

The sincerity of one’s belief, the volume or frequency with which it is stated, or assurances to “believe me” should not be rationally persuasive by themselves.

Simple appeals to believe have no place in public life.

If a particular claim does not satisfy publicly agreed epistemological criteria, then it is the essence of scepticism to suspend belief. And it is the essence of gullibility to surrender to it.

A defence against bad thinking

There is a way to help guard against poor reasoning – ours and others’ – that draws from not only the Enlightenment but also from the long history of philosophical inquiry.

So the next time you hear a contentious claim from someone, consider how that claim can be supported if they or you were to present it to an impartial or disinterested person:

  • identify reasons that can be given in support of the claim
  • explain how your analysis, evaluation and justification of the claim and of the reasoning involved are of a standard worth someone’s intellectual investment
  • write these things down as clearly and dispassionately as possible.

In other words, make the commitment to public reasoning. And demand of others that they do so as well, stripped of emotive terms and biased framing.

If you or they cannot provide a precise and coherent chain of reasoning, or if the reasons remain tainted with clear biases, or if you give up in frustration, it’s a pretty good sign that there are other factors in play.

It is the commitment to this epistemic process, rather than any specific outcome, that is the valid ticket onto the rational playing field.

The ConversationAt a time when political rhetoric is riven with irrationality, when knowledge is being seen less as a means of understanding the world and more as an encumbrance that can be pushed aside if it stands in the way of wishful thinking, and when authoritarian leaders are drawing ever larger crowds, epistemology needs to matter.

Peter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking, Director of the UQ Critical Thinking Project, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Facts are not always more important than opinions: here’s why

The Conversation

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The message over the doorway to London’s Kirkaldy Testing Museum. But don’t be too quick to believe the facts and dismiss the opinions. Flickr/Kevo Thomson, CC BY-NC-ND

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

Which is more important, a fact or an opinion on any given subject? It might be tempting to say the fact. But not so fast… The Conversation

Lately, we find ourselves lamenting the post-truth world, in which facts seem no more important than opinions, and sometimes less so.

We also tend to see this as a recent devaluation of knowledge. But this is a phenomenon with a long history.

As the science fiction writer Issac Asimov wrote in 1980:

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”.

The view that opinions can be more important than facts need not mean the same thing as the devaluing of knowledge. It’s always been the case that in certain situations opinions have been more important than facts, and this is a good thing. Let me explain.

Not all facts are true

To call something a fact is, presumably, to make a claim that it is true. This isn’t a problem for many things, although defending such a claim can be harder than you think.

What we think are facts – that is, those things we think are true – can end up being wrong despite our most honest commitment to genuine inquiry.

For example, is red wine good or bad for you? And was there a dinosaur called the brontosaurus or not? The Harvard researcher Samuel Arbesman points out these examples and others of how facts change in his book The Half Life of Facts.

It’s not only that facts can change that is a problem. While we might be happy to consider it a fact that Earth is spherical, we would be wrong to do so because it’s actually a bit pear-shaped. Thinking it a sphere, however, is very different from thinking it to be flat.

Asimov expressed this beautifully in his essay The Relativity of Wrong. For Asimov, the person who thinks Earth is a sphere is wrong, and so is the person who thinks the Earth is flat. But the person who thinks that they are equally wrong is more wrong than both.

Geometrical hair-splitting aside, calling something a fact is therefore not a proclamation of infallibility. It is usually used to represent the best knowledge we have at any given time.

It’s also not the knockout blow we might hope for in an argument. Saying something is a fact by itself does nothing to convince someone who doesn’t agree with you. Unaccompanied by any warrant for belief, it is not a technique of persuasion. Proof by volume and repetition – repeatedly yelling “but it’s a fact!” – simply doesn’t work. Or at least it shouldn’t.

Matters of fact and opinion

Then again, calling something an opinion need not mean an escape to the fairyland of wishful thinking. This too is not a knockout attack in an argument. If we think of an opinion as one person’s view on a subject, then many opinions can be solid.

For example, it’s my opinion that science gives us a powerful narrative to help understand our place in the Universe, at least as much as any religious perspective does. It’s not an empirical fact that science does so, but it works for me.

But we can be much clearer in our meaning if we separate things into matters of fact and matters of opinion.

Matters of fact are confined to empirical claims, such as what the boiling point of a substance is, whether lead is denser than water, or whether the planet is warming.

Matters of opinion are non-empirical claims, and include questions of value and of personal preference such as whether it’s ok to eat animals, and whether vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate. Ethics is an exemplar of a system in which matters of fact cannot by themselves decide courses of action.

Matters of opinion can be informed by matters of fact (for example, finding out that animals can suffer may influence whether I choose to eat them), but ultimately they are not answered by matters of fact (why is it relevant if they can suffer?).

Backing up the facts and opinions

Opinions are not just pale shadows of facts; they are judgements and conclusions. They can be the result of careful and sophisticated deliberation in areas for which empirical investigation is inadequate or ill-suited.

While it’s nice to think of the world so neatly divided into matters of fact and matters of opinion, it’s not always so clinical in its precision. For example, it is a fact that I prefer vanilla ice cream over chocolate. In other words, it is apparently a matter of fact that I am having a subjective experience.

But we can heal that potential rift by further restricting matters of fact to those things that can be verified by others.

While it’s true that my ice cream preference could be experimentally indicated by observing my behaviour and interviewing me, it cannot be independently verified by others beyond doubt. I could be faking it.

But we can all agree in principle on whether the atmosphere contains more nitrogen or carbon dioxide because we can share the methodology of inquiry that gives us the answer. We can also agree on matters of value if the case for a particular view is rationally persuasive.

Facts and opinions need not be positioned in opposition to each other, as they have complementary functions in our decision-making. In a rational framework, they are equally useful. But that’s just my opinion – it’s not a fact.

Peter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Not so simple

The claims by “crude positivists” reveal a lack of rigour that is a threat to rationalism.

By James Fodor

Key points:

  • “Crude positivists” have many shortcomings in their arguments
  • They are prone to “scientism”: the tendency to dismiss the knowledge derived from other disciplines
  • They often make pragmatist claims that science is to be trusted because it “works” when the science can be entirely wrong but result in initiatives that work.

In this essay I wish to address a particular set of opinions that seem to be quite popular among many contemporary atheists, rationalists, and freethinkers. It is not a single specific position, but rather a patchwork of overlapping ideas and perspectives sharing a more-or-less constant core.

Being somewhat amorphous, the position of which I am speaking does not really have a distinct name. For the purposes of this essay, however, I shall refer to this constellation of views as “crude positivism”.

“Positivism” is a complex and controversial philosophical perspective, which, broadly speaking, is characterised by a strong respect for science and empirical enquiry, and an opposition to truth claims based on metaphysical speculation, faith, or authority.

My purpose here is not to attack positivism itself, but rather the relatively crude form of it that is popularised, to varying degrees, by figures such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Stephen Hawking. While once again emphasising that I am describing a family of related and overlapping viewpoints, rather than a single well-defined doctrine, three of the key most commonly-encountered components of this “crude positivism” are the following:

(1)          Strict evidentialism: the ultimate arbiter of knowledge is evidence, which should determine our beliefs in a fundamental and straightforward way; namely that we believe things if and only if there is sufficient evidence for them.

(2)          Narrow scientism: the highest, or perhaps only, legitimate form of objective knowledge is that produced by the natural sciences. The social sciences, along with non-scientific pursuits, either do not produce real knowledge, or only knowledge of a distinctly inferior sort.

(3)          Pragmatism: science owes its special status to its unique ability to deliver concrete, practical results: it “works”. Philosophy, religion, and other such fields to inquiry do not produce “results” in this same way, and thus have no special status.

My goal in this piece will be to challenge these three claims. In particular, I will argue that the crude positivism typified by these three views presents an overly narrow conception of knowledge, and represents an ultimately fragile basis upon which to ground challenges to superstition, pseudoscience, and other forms of irrationality.

My key contention is that we need to move beyond such crude positivism in order to have a stronger intellectual underpinning for the atheistic/rationalist/freethought movements.

A final note on style: when I use the phrase “crude positivists” I don’t mean to imply a well-defined group of people. I just use it as shorthand to refer to those who, to varying degrees, hold to one or more of the three positions outlined above.

Strict evidentialism

Crude positivists insist that all beliefs, or at least all beliefs concerning anything of importance, ought to be based upon appropriate evidence.

While I agree with this as an abstract principle, I have concerns about the manner in which crude positivists typically interpret and apply this maxim in practice.

The trouble is that, when challenged, nearly everyone will be able to provide some sort of justification for their beliefs, something that they regard to be “evidence”. To consider a specific example, the evangelical Christian may claim to know that God works in the lives of believers because they have seen it happen with their own eyes, and experienced it personally in their own lives.

Needless to say, this is not the sort of “evidence” that adherents of crude positivism are likely to accept as legitimate. The question, however, is why not? After all, the justification in question is empirically based, in that it is derived from making observations about the world. Generally positivists respond that such experiences are uncontrolled and anecdotal, and thus cannot be trusted to provide reliable evidence.

To this, however, the Christian may simply agree, arguing that while such experiences are anecdotal, and thus do not qualify as scientific evidence, nevertheless they do constitute evidence of the relevant sort for the domain in question, namely the domain relating to knowledge and experience of God.

According to this perspective, only certain particular phenomena, or aspects of reality, are susceptible to the investigative methods of the empirical sciences, and the nature of God and mankind’s relationship to him would not be one of these areas that science can study. These phenomena can be empirically studied, but this is done by applying different standards from those used for scientific inquiry, using methods that are much more personal and experiential.

Scientific methods are applicable in the scientific domain, while other methods and other forms of empirical evidence are applicable in other domains.

I am not attempting to defend this “separate domains” position. Instead, I am arguing that it is not sufficient to respond to a position like this by simply asserting that beliefs should be based on evidence, since that is not the point under dispute. That is, the question is not whether some form of “evidence” is important, but the type of evidence is deemed acceptable, and how that evidence justified claim being made.

A related problem concerns the issue of how evidence should be interpreted.

Crude positivists often speak as if evidence is self-interpreting, such that a given piece of evidence, simply and unambiguously, picks out one singular state of affairs over all other possibilities. In practice, however, this is almost never the case because evidence nearly always requires an elaborate network of background knowledge and pre-existing theory in order to interpret.

For example, in order to understand a historical text, one requires not only knowledge of the language in which it is written, but also a broad understanding of the relevant social and political context in which the text was written.

Likewise, the raw output of most scientific observation or experiments is unintelligible without use of detailed background theories and methodological assumptions.

Given the important role that background assumptions and perspectives shape our interpretations of a given piece of evidence, it is very common for different people, coming from different perspectives, to conclude that the same evidence supports wildly different conclusions. For instance, many young Earth creationists interpret the fossil evidence, and other evidence, in light of their pre-existing belief that the Bible is the literal and infallible word of God. As a result, they conclude that the extant evidence points to a divine creation event in the recent past, devising various ingenious methods of reconciling their beliefs with the apparent evidence to the contrary.

My intent is not to defend creationists, but to illustrate that it is not enough to simply say that creationists ignore the evidence. These creationists are responding to the evidence (indeed they argue that it supports their position), but are interpreting it differently on the basis of different suppositions and approaches. We cannot simply dismiss them as being blinded by their presuppositions, since (as I have just argued) evidence can never be interpreted in a vacuum, free of assumptions or preconceptions, but can only ever be interpreted in the context of an existing methodological framework and various background assumptions.

To say this isn’t to endorse some form of epistemic relativism, but simply to point out that, if we want to explain why creationists and others like them are mistaken, we have to move beyond the crude positivistic cry of “seek the evidence” and articulate a more detailed set of criteria and epistemological principles upon which certain initial assumptions and modes of interpretation are to be preferred over others. We need to do a better job of explaining what types of evidence are most reliable, how to interpret evidence, and why these approaches are more conducive to the formation of true beliefs than other, competing approaches.

Narrow scientism

The second aspect of crude positivism that I want to discuss is the view I have termed “narrow scientism”, which refers to the tendency to dismiss, or significantly downplay, the importance and status of all disciplines outside the natural sciences.

Physics, chemistry, biology, and geology produce reliable knowledge, while psychology is a bit of a question mark, and economics and political science are clearly “not sciences” but belong with disciples like philosophy and much of the humanities, the domain of fuzzy opinion and not verifiable fact. This, at least, is the typical perception among my advocates of crude positivism.

In my view, however, this disciplinary classification is arbitrary, and fails to demarcate any epistemologically relevant distinction. In particular, what is the justification for the view that the only “real sciences” are only the natural sciences? It cannot be the result of having adopted a superior set of methodologies, since in many cases there is more methodological continuity across different disciplines than within single ones.

For example, analytical chemistry and cognitive psychology are both largely focused on laboratory experiments, while in astrophysics and macroeconomics experiments are mostly impossible, and so these disciplines instead rely predominantly upon observation and development of mathematical theories.

Likewise, piecing together the evolutionary relationships of different species has more in common with the linguistic analysis of different languages than it does with other sub-fields of biology.

Nor can it be the subject matter of the disciplines which sets them apart, since there is a continuum between the study of primate behaviour in biology and the study of human behaviour in the social sciences, and also between the study of natural history in geology and biology, and the study of human history in the social sciences and humanities.

Furthermore, many mathematical models originally developed in the context of physics and chemistry have also been profitably applied to many other fields, especially economics and sociology (e.g. equilibrium theory, network analysis, complex systems theory).

My contention here is not that there is literally no difference between the natural sciences and social science or non-scientific disciplines. I do, however, think that there is a great deal of continuity and intermingling between them, both in terms of methodologies and subject matter, a fact which belies the sharp science/non-science dichotomy advocated by crude positivists.

This is not, however, merely a question of whether disciplinary boundaries are sharp or fuzzy. The real point I am trying to make is that crude positivists simply have no justification for elevating the natural sciences (whether their boundaries are fuzzy or not) on a pedestal above all other disciples. That is, I do not think the natural sciences are epistemically privileged in the way that crude positivists claim that they are. After all, what is so special about the natural sciences relative to, say, economics, history, or even blatant pseudosciences like astrology?

The most straightforward answer, and I think the one crude positivists have mostly in mind, is that the natural sciences apply a rigorous scientific method not found in any of these other disciplines, and this method is more conducive to finding truth than other competing methods.

My response to this is threefold.

Firstly, I note that this is not a claim that finds a home in any of the natural sciences (i.e. it is not a scientific claim), but seems to appeal to philosophical criteria that lie outside of science. I do not think there is anything wrong with that, except for the fact that it seems to sit at odds with the crude positivistic view that only science is to be trusted.

Secondly, as I have argued above, it is simply not true that the natural sciences systematically apply different methodologies from those used in other disciplines. Within any discipl[in]e the quality of work varies dramatically, some being much more careful and rigorous than others, and this applies just as much to the natural sciences as to other disciplines.

Thirdly, and most importantly, if the superior status of the natural sciences is based on their superior adherence to a particular set of epistemological principles, then it is those principles themselves that are the true bearers of the superior status, not the physical sciences themselves. Applying these same principles to any disciple[in]e should yield knowledge justified to similarly rigorous standards.

If this is correct, and what is at the bottom of the success of the physical sciences is adherence to a particular methodology or methods of inference, then it is those methods that we should focus on championing, whatever discipline they may be applied in.

It has been argued that the subject matter of the social sciences and other such disciplines is inherently “messier” and more complex than the comparatively simpler physical systems studied by the natural sciences. However, even if this is true, application of appropriate methodologies should still result in reliable knowledge; the only difference will be that the knowledge will be less precise and known with less confidence, since our understanding of the system in question is less complete and less detailed.

This will not, however, result in a qualitatively distinct and far inferior form of knowledge, contrary to the claims of the crude positivists. Some argue that the subject matter of history and social science is such that it is not suited to study by the rigorous methods of natural science. If this were true, it would seem to leave us with two options: either no reliable knowledge about such things is possible in principle (i.e. we can say little or nothing about human history, how societies and economies work, etc.), or the reliable methods of attaining knowledge in such disciples are distinctly different and at odds with those used in the natural sciences.

The former possibility strikes me as deeply implausible: why should we not at least be able to know a great deal about such topics through careful investigation, and furthermore, how could we possibly know if this were the case given that we could not study these topics?

The latter option seems equally unpalatable, for it is essentially identical to the argument by which evangelical Christians claim that their supernatural claims are outside the bounds of scientific investigation. Indeed, if it is the case that the appropriate methods for studying any subject outside of the natural sciences are fundamentally different to, and at odds with, scientific methods, then any ground for objecting to irrational or unscientific claims is lost.

Whether it is religious claims (“the divine cannot be studied scientifically”), alternative medicine (“human health is too holistic to be subjected to scientific methods”), or the paranormal (“the spirits don’t respond under controlled conditions”), it can always be argued that the subject matter lies outside of the natural sciences, and hence different, non-scientific investigative methods are applicable.

In my view, this absurd outcome shows that, if we grant superior respect and status to the claims of the natural sciences, it must be because (when conducted properly) the natural sciences use justified and reliable general epistemological processes, processes which should similarly be conducive to knowledge acquisition when applied to other subjects.

Crude positivists who instead reject any application of scientific methods outside of the natural sciences cannot then simultaneously berate those making religious, paranormal, and supernatural claims for failing to use scientific standards and methods, since by their own admission such methods are only applicable to certain subjects. Narrow scientism, then, is at odds with the core principle of basing all important beliefs upon reliable evidence.


The third and final aspect of crude positivism that I wanted to discuss in this piece is pragmatism, the appeal to the past successes of science as the primary and overriding justification for its epistemically superior status.

Science, so the argument goes, simply “works”: it puts men on the Moon, builds aircraft that fly, and makes transgenic fish that glow in the dark. Ways of knowing that rely on appeals to authority, esoteric knowledge, or personal experience, are inferior precisely because they do not “work” in this way.

While I do think this sort of argument has some validity, I think the crude positivist goes too far in advocating practical utility as the defining feature of knowledge.

One simple problem with this approach is that many people think that prayer, mystical experiences, etc., “work” in a very real way: they pray to Jesus, and they feel God’s love pouring out over them. The crude positivist, of course, is unlikely to admit that as being a valid example of “working”, but all this shows is that science comes out best when judged by its own criteria of what it counts as legitimate “success”, while the types of “success” (e.g. drawing closer to God, becoming one with nature, etc.) defined by other ways of knowing are simply disregarded.

Beyond this issue of defining criteria for success, there is a deeper philosophical issue concerning the relationship between the “success” of a theory, and the “truth” of that theory.

Most of the examples of science “delivering results” are, properly understood, really applications of engineering, not science itself. Of course, engineers use scientific findings and theories, but there is nevertheless an important distinction between the development of theory and its practical application. This is important because some schools of thought in philosophy, especially the sort of instrumentalist, pragmatic viewpoints that crude positivists are most closely aligned with, argue that the ability of a theory to deliver successful applications is insufficient to validate the accuracy of that theory in describing the way the world truly is.

One example is that of Ptolemaic astronomy: it was capable of generating accurate predictions of the positions of the planets, despite the fact that its underlying model for reality (an Earth-centred cosmos with the planets orbiting about crystalline spheres) is completely wrong.

To take a more recent example, scientists and engineers still routinely use chemical and physical models which treat atoms as solid spheres interacting in accordance with the laws of classical mechanics. As a description of reality, this is entirely incorrect: atoms are mostly empty space, and what is not empty space consists of protons, neutrons, and electrons, which according to our best theories behave (very loosely) like smeared-out probability wave packets, evolving in accordance with the laws of quantum (not classical) mechanics. Notwithstanding this completely inaccurate description of the underlying reality, however, the “billiard balls” approach is still very useful and “delivers results” in a wide range of applications.

Such examples are one of the major arguments used by those philosophers who adhere to a position known as scientific anti-realism, which is the view that, while science produces very useful predictive models, it does not necessarily describe the way things “truly are”. Thus, according to this view, science is not in the business of finding “truth” per se, but merely of producing theories that are “empirically adequate” and useful for prediction and practical application.

My point here is not to argue that anti-realism is correct, or that science doesn’t describe reality. Rather my argument is that, either way, these considerations pose a problem for the simple pragmatism of crude positivists.

If, on the one hand, scientific anti-realism is false, and scientific theories do truly describe the way the world is, then the extreme focus on scientific theories being special because they “work” becomes difficult to justify, since under this view science is special not predominantly because it “works” but because it yields true descriptions of reality.

The simplistic pragmatism defence thus simply cannot work, and the fact that other disciplines (e.g. philosophy or theology) may not “deliver results” does not mean that they cannot accurately describe reality.

On the other hand, if scientific anti-realism is true, and scientific theories don’t necessary say much about the way reality truly is, then the crude positivist has no basis for critiquing non-scientific ways of knowing for not making predictions or “delivering results”. This is because these other ways of knowing (e.g. faith based) don’t necessarily claim to be able to provide predictive models, but claim to describe parts of reality as they truly are.

If science and faith, intuition, etc., are not even trying to do the same thing, the one attempting to generate useful models, the other not caring about predictive accuracy but about providing true descriptions of reality, then it is unclear how the crude positivists can even compare the two in the way they seem to want to.

This approach also seems hard to reconcile with the fact that many adherents of crude positivism do very clearly make truth claims about subjects like religion and the paranormal. If this form of pragmatism is correct, then science and non-science aren’t incompatible, but rather are incomparable, for they are not even trying to do the same thing.


Some people will doubtless read this piece as an attack upon the value of science, or a defence of pseudoscientific, faith-based or emotion-based methods of reasoning.

As I have said throughout this piece, however, this is not my intention at all. My goal is in fact to equip sceptics and rationalists to deliver a robust, cogent defence of the value of science and critical thinking in learning about the world, and the superiority of such methods over various rivals.

What concerns me is that the constellation of views that I here describe under the label “crude positivism” is quite popular among many rationalists and sceptics.

As I have argued, however, I think these views are philosophically naïve and very hard to rigorously defend. Worse, some of the more intelligent defenders of non-scientific practices, including religious apologists, practitioners of alternative medicine, and defenders of various pseudosciences, are aware of the problems with such views, and will vigorously critique rationalists who espouse them.

I think we can answer their objections, but to do so requires a greater familiarity with philosophy and relevant methodological issues than many rationalists and sceptics have, especially when they so often dismiss these fields as irrelevant.

In order to advance the cause of science and rationality, therefore, we need to abandon crude positivism and replace it with a more sophisticated, thoughtful, and philosophically rigorous account of science and rationality.

James Fodor is studying science at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of the blog The Godless Theist. 

From the Australian Rationalist (Melbourne), v. 103, Summer [December] 2016: 32 – 35. (Reblogged with permission of the author). 

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The Stoic theory of universals, as compared to Platonic and Aristotelian theories

By Tim Harding

The philosophical problem of universals has endured since ancient times, and can have metaphysical or epistemic connotations, depending upon the philosopher in question.  I intend to show in this essay that both Plato’s and the Stoics’ theories of universals were not only derived from, but were ‘in the grip’ of their epistemological and metaphysical philosophies respectively; and were thus vulnerable to methodological criticism.  I propose to first outline the three alternative theories of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics; and then to suggest that Aristotle’s theory, whilst developed as a criticism of Plato’s theory, stands more robustly on its own merits.

According to the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, particulars are instances of universals, as a particular apple is an instance of the universal known as ‘apple’.  (An implication of a particular is that it can only be in one place at any one time, which presents a kind of paradox that will be discussed later in this essay).   Even the definition of the ‘problem of universals’ is somewhat disputed by philosophers, but the problem generally is about whether universals exist, and if so what is their nature and relationship to particulars (Honderich 1995: 646, 887).

Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle who hold that universals exist are known as ‘realists’, although they have differences about the ontological relationships between universals and particulars, as discussed in this essay.  Those who deny the existence of universals are known as ‘nominalists’.  According to Long and Sedley (1987:181), the Stoics were a type of nominalist known as ‘conceptualists’, as I shall discuss later.

Plato’s theory of universals (although he does not actually use this term) stems from his theory of knowledge.  Indeed, it is difficult to separate Plato’s ontology from his epistemology (Copleston 1962: 142).  In his Socratic dialogue Timaeus, Plato draws a distinction between permanent knowledge gained by reason and temporary opinion gained from the senses.

That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is (Plato Timaeus 28a).

According to Copleston (1962: 143-146), this argument is part of Plato’s challenge to Protagoras’ theory that knowledge is sense-perception.  Plato argues that sense-perception on its own is not knowledge.  Truth is derived from the mind’s reflection and judgement, rather than from bare sensations.  To give an example of what Plato means, we may have a bare sensation of two white surfaces, but in order to judge the similarity of the two sensations, the mind’s activity is required.

Plato argues that true knowledge must be infallible, unchanging and of what is real, rather than merely of what is perceived.  He thinks that the individual objects of sense-perception, or particulars, cannot meet the criteria for knowledge because they are always in a state of flux and indefinite in number (Copleston 1962: 149).  So what knowledge does meet Plato’s criteria?  The answer to this question leads us to the category of universals.  Copleston gives the example of the judgement ‘The Athenian Constitution is good’.  The Constitution itself is open to change, for better or worse, but what is stable in this judgement is the universal quality of goodness.  Hence, within Plato’s epistemological framework, true knowledge is knowledge of the universal rather than the particular (Copleston 1962: 150).

We now proceed from Plato’s epistemology to his ontology of universals and particulars.  In terms of his third criterion of true knowledge being what is real rather than perceived, the essence of Plato’s Forms is that each true universal concept corresponds to an objective reality (Copleston 1962: 151).  The universal is what is real, and particulars are copies or instances of the Form.  For example, particulars such as beautiful things are instances of the universal or Form of Beauty.

…nothing makes a thing beautiful but the presence and participation of beauty in whatever way or manner obtained; for as to the manner I am uncertain, but I stoutly contend that by beauty all beautiful things become beautiful (Plato Phaedo, 653).

Baltzly (2106: F5.2-6) puts the general structure of Plato’s argument this way:

What we understand when we understand what justice, beauty, or generally F-ness are, doesn’t ever change.

But the sensible F particulars that exhibit these features are always changing.

So there must be a non-sensible universal – the Form of F-ness – that we understand when we achieve episteme (true knowledge).

Plato’s explanation for where this knowledge of Forms comes from, if not from sense-perceptions, is our existence as unembodied souls prior to this life (Baltzly 2106: F5.2-6).  To me, this explanation sounds like a ‘retrofit’ to solve a consequential problem with Plato’s theory and is a methodological weakness of his account.

Turning now to Aristotle’s theory, whilst he shared Plato’s realism about the existence of universals, he had some fundamental differences about their ontological relationship to particulars.  In terms of Baltzly’s abovementioned description of Plato’s general argument, Plato thought that the universal, F-ness, could exist even if there were no F particulars.  In direct contrast, Aristotle held that there cannot be a universal, F-ness, unless there are some particulars that are F.  For example, Aristotle thought that the existence of the universal ‘humanity’ depends on there being actual instances of particular human beings (Baltzly 2106: F5.2-8).

As for the reality of universals, Aristotle agreed with Plato that the universal is the object of science.  For instance, the scientist is not concerned with discovering knowledge about particular pieces of gold, but with the essence or properties of gold as a universal.  It follows that if the universal is not real, if it has no objective reality, there is no scientific knowledge.  By Modus Tollens, there is scientific knowledge, and if scientific knowledge is knowledge of reality; then to be consistent, the universal must also be real (Copleston 1962: 301-302).  (Whilst it is outside the scope of this essay to discuss whether scientific knowledge describes reality, to deny that there is any scientific knowledge would have major implications for epistemic coherence).

This is not to say that universals have ‘substance’, meaning that they consist of matter and form.  Aristotle maintains that only particulars have substance, and that universals exist as properties of particulars (Russell 1961: 176).  Russell quotes Aristotle as saying:

It seems impossible that any universal term should be the name of a substance. For…the substance of each thing is that which is peculiar to it, which does not belong to anything else; but the universal is common, since that is called universal which is such as to belong to more than one thing.

In other words, Aristotle thinks that a universal cannot exist by itself, but only in particular things.  Russell attempts to illustrate Aristotle’s position using a football analogy.  The game of football (a universal) cannot exist without football players (particulars); but the football players would still exist even if they never actually played football (Russell 1961: 176).

In almost complete contrast to both Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics denied the existence of universals, regarding them as concepts or mere figments of the rational mind.  In this way, the Stoics anticipated the conceptualism of the British empirical philosophers, such as Locke (Long and Sedley 1987:181).

The Stoic position is complicated by their being on the one hand materialists, and on the other holding a belief that there are non-existent things which ‘subsist’, such as incorporeal things like time and fictional entities such as a Centaur.  Their ontological hierarchy starts with the notion of a ‘something’, which they thought of as a proper subject of thought and discourse, whether or not it exists.  ‘Somethings’ can be subdivided into material bodies or corporeals, which exist; and incorporeals and things that are neither corporeal or incorporeal such as fictional entities, which subsist (Long and Sedley 1987:163-164).  Long and Sedley (1987:164) provide colourful examples of the distinction between existing and subsisting by saying:

There’s such a thing as a rainbow, and such a character as Mickey Mouse, but they don’t actually exist.

A significant exclusion from the Stoic ontological hierarchy is universals.  Despite the subsistence of a fictional character like Mickey Mouse, the universal man neither exists nor subsists, which is a curious inconsistency.  Stoic universals are dubbed by the neo-Platonist philosopher Simplicius (Long and Sedley 1987:180) as ‘not somethings’:

(2) One must also take into account the usage of the Stoics about generically qualified things—how according to them cases are expressed, how in their school universals are called ‘not-somethings’ and how their ignorance of the fact that not every substance signifies a ‘this Something’ gives rise to the Not-someone sophism, which relies on the form of expression.

Long and Sedley (1987:164) surmise from this analysis that for the Stoics, to be a ‘something’ is to be a particular, whether existent or subsistent.  Stoic ontology is occupied exclusively by particulars without universals.  In this way, universals are relegated to a metaphysical limbo, as far as the Stoics are concerned.  Nevertheless, they recognise the concept of universals as being not just a linguistic convenience but as useful conceptions or ways of thinking.  For this reason, Long and Sedley (1987:181-182) classify the Stoic position on universals as ‘conceptualist’, rather than simply nominalist.  (Nominalists think of universals simply as names for things that particulars have in common).  In a separate paper, Sedley (1985: 89) makes the distinction between nominalism and conceptualism using the following example:

After all the universal man is not identical with my generic thought of man; he is what I am thinking about when I have that thought.

One of the implications of a particular is that it can only be in one place at any one time, which gives rise to what was referred to above by Simplicius as the ‘Not-someone sophism’.  Sedley (1985: 87-88) paraphrases this sophism in the following terms:

If you make the mistake of hypostatizing the universal man into a Platonic abstract individual-if, in other words you regard him as ‘someone’-you will be unable to resist the following evidently  fallacious syllogism.  ‘If someone  is in Athens, he is not in Megara.  But man is in Athens. Therefore man is not in Megara.’ The improper step  here is clearly  the substitution of ‘man’ in the minor premiss for ‘someone’ in the major premiss. But it can be remedied only by the denial that the  universal man  is ‘someone’.  Therefore the universal man is not-someone.

Baltlzly (2016: F5.2-15) makes that point that the same argument would serve to show that time is a not-something, yet the Stoics inconsistently accept that time subsists as an incorporeal something.

I have attempted to show above that Plato and the Stoics are locked into their theories about universals as a result of their prior philosophical positions.  Although to argue otherwise could make them vulnerable to criticisms of inconsistency, they at the same time have methodological weaknesses that place them on shakier ground than Aristotelian realism.  However, I am also of the view that apart from these methodological issues, Aristotelian Realism is substantively a better theory than Platonic Realism or Stoic Conceptualism or Nominalism.  In coming to this view, I have relied mainly on the work of the late Australian Philosophy Professor David Armstrong.

Armstrong argues that there are universals which exist independently of the classifying mind.  No universal is found except as either a property of a particular or as a relation between particulars.  He thus rejects both Platonic Realism and all varieties of Nominalism (Armstrong 1978: xiii).

Armstrong describes Aristotelian Realism as allowing that particulars have properties and that two different particulars may have the very same property.  However, Aristotelian Realism rejects any transcendent account of properties, that is, an account claiming that universals exist separated from particulars (Armstrong 1975: 146).  Armstrong argues that we cannot give an account of universality in terms of particularity, as the various types of Nominalism attempt to do.  Nor can we give an account of particulars in terms universals, as the Platonic Realists do.  He believes that ‘while universality and particularity cannot be reduced to each other, they are interdependent, so that properties are always properties of a particular, and whatever is a particular is a particular having certain properties’ (Armstrong 1975: 146).

According to Armstrong, what is a genuine property of particulars is to be decided by scientific investigation, rather than simply a linguistic or conceptual classification (Armstrong 1975: 149).  Baltzly (2016: F5.2-18) paraphrases Armstrong’s argument this way:

  1. There are causes and effects in nature.

  2. Whether one event c causes another event e is independent of the classifications we make.

  3. Whether c causes e or not depends on the properties had by the things that figure in the events.

  4. So properties are independent of the classifications that we make and if this is so, then predicate nominalism and conceptualism are false.

Baltzly (2016: F5.2-18, 19) provides an illustration of this argument based on one given by Armstrong (1978: 42-43).  The effect of throwing brick against a window will result from the physical properties of the brick and window, in terms of their relative weight and strength, independently of how we name or classify those properties.  So in this way, I would argue that the properties of particulars, that is universals, are ‘real’ rather than merely ‘figments of the mind’ as the Stoics would say.

As for Platonic Realism, Armstrong argues that if we reject it then we must reject the view that there are any uninstantiated properties (Armstrong 1975: 149); that is, the view that properties are transcendent beings that exist apart from their instances, such as in universals rather than particulars.  He provides an illustration of a hypothetical property of travelling faster than the speed of light.  It is a scientific fact that no such property exists, regardless of our concepts about it (Armstrong 1975: 149).  For this reason, Armstrong upholds ‘scientific realism’ over Platonic Realism, which he thinks is consistent with Aristotelian Realism – a position that I support.

In conclusion, I have attempted to show in this essay that the Aristotelian theory of universals is superior to the equivalent theories of both Plato and the Stoics.  I have argued this in terms of the relative methodologies as well as the substantive arguments.  I would choose the most compelling argument to be that of epistemic coherence regarding scientific knowledge, that is, that the universal is the object of science.  It follows that if the universal is not real, if it has no objective reality, then there is no scientific knowledge.  There is scientific knowledge, and if scientific knowledge is knowledge of reality; then to be consistent, the universal must also be real.


Armstrong, D.M. ‘Towards a Theory of Properties: Work in Progress on the Problem of Universals’ Philosophy, (1975), Vol.50 (192), pp.145-155.

Armstrong, D.M. ‘Nominalism and Realism’ Universals and Scientific Realism Volume 1, (1978) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Baltzly, D. ATS3885: Stoic and Epicurean Philosophy Unit Reader (2016). Clayton: Faculty of Arts, Monash University.

Copleston, F. A History of Philosophy Volume 1: Greece and Rome (1962) New York: Doubleday.

Honderich, T. Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Long A. A. and Sedley, D. N. The Hellenistic Philosophers, Volume 1 (1987). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Plato, Phaedo in The Essential Plato trans. Benjamin Jowett, Book-of-the-Month Club (1999).

Plato, Timaeus in The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu//Plato/timaeus.html
Viewed 2 October 2016.

Russell, B. History of Western Philosophy. 2nd edition (1961) London: George Allen & Unwin.

Sedley, D. ‘The Stoic Theory of Universals’ The Southern Journal of Philosophy (1985) Vol. XXIII. Supplement.

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