Tag Archives: rational

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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We can’t trust common sense but we can trust science

The Conversation

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

When a group of Australians was asked why they believed climate change was not happening, about one in three (36.5%) said it was “common sense”, according to a report published last year by the CSIRO. This was the most popular reason for their opinion, with only 11.3% saying their belief that climate change was not happening was based on scientific research.

Interestingly, the same study found one in four (25.5%) cited “common sense” for their belief that climate change was happening, but was natural. And nearly one in five (18.9%) said it was “common sense” that climate change was happening and it was human-induced.

It seems the greater the rejection of climate science, the greater the reliance on common sense as a guiding principle.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott also appealed to “common sense” when arguing against gay marriage recently.

But what do we mean by an appeal to common sense? Presumably it’s an appeal to rationality of some sort, perhaps a rationality that forms the basis of more complex reasoning. Whatever it is, we might understand it better by considering a few things about our psychology.

It’s only rational

It’s an interesting phenomenon that no one laments his or her lack of rationality. We might complain of having a poor memory, or of being no good at maths, but no one thinks they are irrational.

Worse than this, we all think we’re the exemplar of the rational person (go on, admit it) and, if only everyone could see the world as clearly as we do, then all would be well.

Rather than being thought of as the type of reasoning everyone would converge on after thoughtful reflection, however, common sense too often just means the kind of sense we individually have. And anyone who agrees with us must also, logically, have it.

But more likely, as Albert Einstein supposedly put it:

[…] common sense is actually nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind prior to the age of eighteen.

In other words, common sense is indeed very common, it’s just that we all have a different idea of what it is.

Thinking that feels right

The appeal to common sense, therefore, is usually nothing more than an appeal to thinking that just feels right. But what feels right to one person may not feel right to another.

When we say to each other “that sounds right”, or “I like the sound of that”, we are generally not testing someone’s argument for validity and soundness as much as seeing if we simply like their conclusion.

Whether it feels right is usually a reflection of the world view and ideologies we have internalised, and that frame how we interact with new ideas. When new ideas are in accord with what we already believe, they are more readily accepted. When they are not, they, and the arguments that lead to them, are more readily rejected.

We too often mistake this automatic compatibility testing of new ideas with existing beliefs as an application of common sense. But, in reality, it is more about judging than thinking.

As the psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman notes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, when we arrive at conclusions in this way, the outcomes also feel true, regardless of whether they are. We are not psychologically well equipped to judge our own thinking.

We are also highly susceptible to a range of cognitive biases, such as the availability heuristic that preference the first things that come to mind when making decisions or giving weight to evidence.

One way we can check our internal biases and inconsistencies is through the social verification of knowledge, in which we test our ideas in a rigorous and systematic way to see if they make sense not just to us, but to other people. The outstanding example of this socially shared cognition is science.

Social cognition can be powerful.
Pixabay, CC BY

Science is not common sense

It’s important to realise that science is not about common sense. Nowhere is this more evident than in the worlds of quantum mechanics and relativity, in which our common sense intuitions are hopelessly inadequate to deal with quantum unpredictability and space-time distortions.

But our common sense fails us even in more familiar territory. For centuries, it seemed to people that the Earth could not possibly be moving, and must therefore be at the centre of the universe.

Many students still assume that an object in motion through space must have a constant force acting on it, an idea that contradicts Newton’s first law. Some people think that the Earth has gravity because it spins.

And, to return to my opening comment, some people think that their common sense applied to observations of the weather carries more weight on climate change than the entire body of scientific evidence on the subject.

Science is not the embodiment of individual common sense, it is the exemplar of rational collaboration. These are very different things.

It is not that individual scientists are immune from the cognitive biases and tendencies to fool themselves that we are all subject to. It is rather that the process of science produces the checks and balances that prevent these individual flaws from flourishing as they do in some other areas of human activity.

In science, the highest unit of cognition is not the individual, it is the community of scientific enquiry.

Thinking well is a social skill

That does not mean that individuals are not capable of excellent thinking, nor does it mean no individual is rational. But the extent to which individuals can do this on their own is a function of how well integrated they are with communities of systematic inquiry in the first place. You can’t learn to think well by yourself.

In matters of science at least, those who value their common sense over methodological, collaborative investigation imagine themselves to be more free in their thinking, unbound by involvement with the group, but in reality they are tightly bound by their capabilities and perspectives.

We are smarter together than we are individually, and perhaps that’s just common sense.


Peter Ellerton will be online today, Tuesday February 2, 2016, to answer your questions or comments on common sense. Here are the times for Australia’s states and territories:

  • 2pm and 3pm (Qld)
  • 3pm to 4pm (NSW, Tas, Vic and ACT)
  • 2.30pm to 3.30pm (SA)
  • 1.30pm to 2.30pm (NT)
  • Noon to 1pm (WA)

The ConversationPeter 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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