Rocketboom on Epistemology

The daily video blog Rocketboom “explains” epistemology yesterday, very interesting to watch. What are you thoughts on it? One problem is that Decartes “I think therefore I am” is apparently still the litmus test that no one else has been able to overcome in any satisfactory way. Really?

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Wess the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

11 thoughts on “Rocketboom on Epistemology”

  1. Yes, I agree this was pretty terrible. It falsely tells the audience that the majority of philosphers are external world skeptics when almost none are. Contemporary responses to the brain in the vat problem like fallibilism and contextualism are completely ignored. And they even get Descartes horribly wrong–completely ignoring the rest of the Meditations after the middle of the Second Meditation. In particular making Descartes into a fideist when in fact he presents two arguments for the existence of God. Oh well. When philosophers refuse to talk to the general public i suppose it is inevitable that people who fell asleep half way through their freshman philosophy class should jump in to fill the void!

  2. @Richard – glad you watched this. You’re far more versed in philosophical history and discourse than I am so it’s nice to get a deeper commentary. I did think it was interesting that they left out Descartes arguments for God and how that was a really important feature to his meditations. It’s funny, Rocketboom is kind of a news show and I was pleased to see them doing something more “academic” but was ultimately disappointed with the outcome. But I liked your take on how this is the responsibility of the academy to teach better so the general public knows this stuff.

    Btw, What do you think of Toulmin’s Cosmopolis?

  3. I have mixed feelings about seeing philosophy done in popular contexts. I very much want it to be discussed but I would really like the discussion to take it seriously. This video was clearly making fun of philosophy and trivializing it.

    I think we ought to teach philosophy better in our classes but then people do the best they can. Where we have failed in our responsibility is in shirking the duty to be public intellectuals. We don’t write books that the public will find at Barnes and Noble or write articles for the Atlantic or Scientific American. Instead when philosophy is discussed in such outlets it is by people who are not philosophers and usually badly mangle the ideas.

  4. @RichardM: Here’s the link – It’s a pretty good book. As far as I know he’s an analytic philosopher who teaches as USC, this is his account of the birth of modernity and surprisingly Descartes isn’t really the culprit. He puts Decartes in his context and shows why he was doing what he was doing. He also argues for a more pre-modern postmodernity, or rather a postmodernism that is acts as a rebirth of the Renaissance. Anyways, it’s a good read. I don’t agree with everything in it, but nonetheless I found parts of it to be helpful. My buddy Jamie’s written a nice post on it as well —

  5. Great discussion. I think that philosophy can fit into context of many different spheres. You can imagine this topic discussed in a children’s book with the characters of ant and bee, you could see it played out in a George Lucas Film with aliens, Rocketboom with links to wikipedia, or, on the extreme end of things, volumes upon volumes of dense academic, specialized rhetoric.

    In the Rocketboom episode, a 3 min, off beat internet show which substitutes “I think therefore I am” with “IM IN UR WHATEVER”, has the main purpose of being an entertaining conversation starter which hopefully will get people thinking about the topic.

    “Yes, I agree this was pretty terrible. It falsely tells the audience that the majority of philosophers are external world skeptics when almost none are.”

    While most philosophers are not “Skeptics”, with a capital S, I would suggest that most philosophers who are epistemologists do not have a proof for the existence of anything beyond themselves. The problem is that the thinking involves the metaphysical so no one can ever be certain.

    If there was even just one main point of the episode, it was to simply say there is very little that we actually know. Almost everything else is just a belief. If your definition of a belief is a rationally justified true belief, its still, nevertheless, a belief.

  6. @Andrew,

    I’m not sure what you mean by “skeptic” with a capital S. My point was that most philosophers, including almost all specialists in epistemology, reject external world skepticism. That is to say they claim that we do know much more besides our own existence. For example, that there are mountains, rivers, trees, etc. The literature on this is of course quite extensive but I think it is fair to say that most philosophers avoid digging themselves into the pit that Descartes dug for himself by equating knowledge with absolute certainty. Knowledge is justified true belief–sufficiently justified not absolutely justified.

    It would be nice if things like this video started hundreds of conversations like this one here. But I’m afraid that usually the conversation doesn’t get past the video itself. Something like “Hey, did you see that video?” “Yeah, that was cool wasn’t it?” (END) Too many conversations in our culture are like that.

    @Wess. I think this is the same Toulmin who is a noted philosopher of science. I respect his work and mean to get around to looking at his book this summer. I’m trying to do a lot of stuff right now and can’t promise when I’ll have time to look at it, but it does sound worth a read.

  7. “Knowledge is justified true belief–sufficiently justified not absolutely justified. ”

    The first law of logic refutes your claim:
    If its not absolutely justified, then its not absolutely justified.

    That is to say, at the end of the day, if you really want to get to the bottom of what is, “not absolutely justified” is a form of “not justified”.

  8. @Richard – Yes, I’m pretty sure we’re thinking of the same guy. If/when you get to the book, let me know what you think.

    @Andrew – thanks for the continued engagement. The first law of logic itself seems questionable, and “absolutely justified” is a very strong statement, that itself needs justified. The first law of logic is idenitarian: A is A, which is to say that justification comes through the signifier matching the signified. In other words, we’re dealing with on the one hand a language problem.

    What do you mean by justified? Justified by what? Justified by whom? And to whom? These are questions that need to be answered rationally prior to attempting to sustain that they are in fact absolute. Justification does not necessitate absolute justification. For one, we’d have to both agree upon that which you are appealing to for your justification. For another, we’d both have to agree that “absolute” was a possibility, which it seems that at least some of us do not except.

    Second, Descartes needs to be put into his historical context. First, why is he attempting to come to a rock solid foundation upon which all people (and in his case political parties) can agree? Second, he did this by whipping the mental slate clean, utilizing “systematic doubt” he entered into nothingness and sought to construct a foundationalist epistemology.

    Two further problems initially arise from this. One, it is impossible to start from a clean slate, we all live, move and breathe within a cultural context. Our motivations, our theories, reactions are all embodied within our particular temporal location. Descartes is no different. There is no unmediated space from which to start from. Secondly, even his language, 17th century French, is itself a contextual, mediated, form that structures thought. The very structure of Descartes’ thought is formed around this cultural language which suggests that this “pure” foundation is not so pure after all.

    Third, the very idea of a pure or absolute “foundation” of knowledge has been challenged by a world of 20th century philosophers, not to mention the 19th century ones (Nietzsche, Hegel, etc). In the 20th century such diverse thinkers as Wittgenstein, Ricouer, Gadamer, Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, MacIntyre, Kuhn, Quinne, Toulmin, and many others have all rejected this notion of foundationalism. Kuhn a philosopher of science helped paved the way for a nonfoundationalism or post-foundationalism which operates more a long the lines of what RichardM and I are suggesting. That is, knowledge is context specific and so is attempting to justify that knowledge across various “paradigms.” Justification can happen, but no appeal to an objective foundation works.

    Fourth, The idea of justification, especially absolute justification, comes also comes down to a question of power. Those who have been in power in history, as Foucault has shown in his genealogies of things like the “History of Madness” are the ones who do the “justifying” (or rather, saying what is right and what is wrong) at the expense of those who are not powerful. In other words, how we “justify” our beliefs, or who we turn to for that justification, is linked to power-relations. Not all power relations are bad, but as history has shown, few are good.

    This was one reason why I still love Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” it’s a subversive reading of American history from the point of those who were the victims of such power.

    Anyways, enjoying the conversation.

  9. Since you bring Gadamer and Derrida into this, have a look at your response to me and consider how many questions you asked. For instance,

    “What do you mean by justified? Justified by what? Justified by whom? And to whom? These are questions that need to be answered rationally prior to attempting to sustain that they are in fact absolute.”

    This is what I would call a typical quagmire that prevents most people from having any interest in the discussion of philosophy. In the rest of the world, when we get together and chat, we often conclude. Its important to be able to move on be progressive, a natural tendency perhaps.

    The answers to all of your questions can be found in a Websters dictionary.

    Consider this exercise: Setting aside conversations with your philosophy colleagues, try having a philosophical discussion with someone at a party and make your arguments based on an everyday Websters dictionary and see if you can come to a conclusion with the person. Ill be you can. If the world wants to go deeper, it can go deeper from there, but to your initial point, most people likely cant stand philosophy because it requires too much study to have a conversation. Just like most people dont talk about Trigonometry in Galois fields either.

    Sometimes we need to just say, “In my world, when a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear, it makes a sound”. Once again, if you go to the dictionary, you can understand what I mean and we can pretty much leave it at that (unless you want to make a joke about human perception, but that is about as far as most people need to go to have a rich life).

  10. Wess, in the philosophical tradition in which I operate we try to be very careful in using words consistently. So my comments might seem rather tedious to you, but it is my view that only by being very clear and consistent is progress possible at all.

    A is A does not mean that the signifier must match the signified. The latter is just a formulation of the correspondance theory of truth, first espoused by Aristotle. This principle is questioned by some by I would say it is still accepted by all sensible people. And of course A is A does not at all refute what I said. It is a commonplace that epistemological justification comes in degrees. My point was that most philosophers in the Analytic tradition recognize this and do not take Descartes’ gambit of insisting that knowledge require the highest degree of justification. The gambit seemed reasonable to Descartes because he thought he would get a lot of knowledge even if he defined it in this ultrarigorous way. The fact that he didn’t is not a good reason to be an external world skeptic; it is a good reason to reject his starting point of requiring absolute certainty for knowledge.

    I think you draw the wrong conclusion from attacks on foundationalism. What is properly under attack is “strong foundationalism”, that is the idea that there is a set of foundational beliefs that is absolutely certain upon which other beliefs are based. The more moderate position of weak foundationalism can’t be so easily attacked. Weak foundationalism holds that there are indeed some beliefs which count as a foundation for other beliefs in that their justification does not depend entirely on other beliefs but WF holds that these beliefs may be less than certain. Most WFists would put ordinary perceptual beliefs in this category.

    Your fourth point really highlights the difference between how Analytic philosophers look at these issues and how those from the other side of the English channel look at it. From our point of view what you are saying is (please don’t take offense) just plain silly. In science we have an excellent example of a body of beliefs slowly built up over the years by sorting out the highly justified from the weakly justified. And the justification in this case quite eminently objective and has nothing to do with who has power. The periodic table is not a plot by rich capitalists to oppress people of color; it is a truth objectively arrived at. It has nothing to do with “power-relations.” Of course in the political arena people do use power to decieve and oppress. But that is a very different matter. Trying to drag politics into epistemology just creates a hopeless mess.

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