In a recent debate with (mostly) Joyless Moralist, the subject of epistemology was raised. I wrote:
It sometimes happens that an advance in epistemology occasions a loss in real insights which were not developed in ways that satisfy new epistemic standards.
This is one of the funniest statements I've read on this blog. New epistemic standards? So, it's as though the FESC (Federal Epistemic Standards Commission) passed some new rules, and now earlier insights, even though you admit that they're "real", have to be recalled? Maybe we could bribe the Epistemic Standard Police to look the other way while we sell some on the sly through the philosophy black market.
But seriously. When I say that an insight is "real", I mean that it captures some part of the truth. If you're adhering to an epistemic standard that excludes that, there's a problem with your standard, because the whole point of philosophy and theology is to seek the truth.
So I thought I'd quote one of my favorite sources on the ambiguous role of rising epistemic standards in intellectual history, Paul Krugman's Development, Geography and Economic Theory. Krugman uses mapmaking as a metaphor:
A friend of mine who combines a professional interest in Africa with a hobby of collecting antique maps has written a fascinating paper on what he calls "the evolution of ignorance" about Africa. The paper describes how European maps of the African continent evolved from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.
You might have supposed that the process would have been more or less linear: as European knowledge of the continent advanced, the maps would have shown both increasing accuracy and increasing levels of detail. But that's not what happened. In the fifteenth century, maps of Africa were, of course, quite inaccurate about distances, coastlines, and so on. They did, however, contain quite a lot of information about the interior, based essentially on second- or third-hand travelers' reports. Thus the maps showed Timbuktu, the River Niger, and so forth. Admittedly, they also contained quite a lot of untrue information, like regions inhabited by men with mouths in their stomachs. Still, in the early fifteenth century Africa on maps was a filled space.
Over time, the art of mapmaking and the quality of information used to make maps got steadily better. The coastline of Africa was first explored, then plotted with growing accuracy, and by the eighteenth century that coastline was shown in a manner essentially indistinguishable from that of modern maps. Cities and peoples along the coast were also shown with great fidelity.
On the other hand, the interior emptied out. The weird mythical creatures were gone, but so were the real cities and rivers. In a way, Europeans had become more ignorant about Africa than they had been before.
It should be obvious what happened: the improvement in the art of mapmaking raised the standard for what was considered valid data. Second-hand reports of the form "six days south of the end of the desert you encounter a vast river flowing from east to west" were no longer something you would use to draw your map. Only features of the landscape that had been visited by reliable informants equipped with sextants and compasses now qualified. And so the crowded if confused continental interior of the old maps became "darkest Africa," an empty space.
Krugman is using this as a metaphor for the recent history of the field of economics:
In these lectures I will present an interpretation of the evolution of ideas in the two fields of development and economic geography. I will argue that in each of these fields, between the 1940s and the 1970s, there was a cycle somewhat similar to the story of how improved mapmaking temporarily diminished European knowledge about Africa. A rise in the standards of rigor and logic led to a much improved level of understanding of some things, but for a time it also led to an unwillingness to confront those areas that the new technical rigor could not yet reach. Areas of inquiry that had been filled in, however imperfectly, became blanks.
Development and economic geography are fascinating subjects and the dissertation I want to write is related to this passage, but economics is not my concern here. Rather, Krugman's mapmaking metaphor may illuminate what JM found so odd in my statement. Socrates and Descartes, those defining figures of ancient and modern philosophy respectively, are notably skeptical; they question and doubt and undermine, and tend towards substituting acknowledged ignorance for claims to knowledge that are exposed as groundless. To focus on modern philosophy, much that the medievals thought they knew the moderns doubted, demanding reasons that could not be given. And when, as I think sometimes or often was the case, what the medievals believed and the moderns doubted contained a good deal of truth, a loss of real insight may have occurred.
If heightening one's epistemic scruples can lead to losses of true insights, why should we ever do it? Because, of course, credulous people adopt inadequately supported false beliefs as well as inadequately supported true ones. We sacrifice Timbuktu and the River Niger in order to stop believing in the men with mouths in their stomachs. More specifically, it seems to me that epistemic scruples are often made more exacting when people encounter disagreement. If everyone says A, I am satisfied; but if I encounter someone who thinks B instead, I am compelled to look for reasons. Descartes lived in a world of Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, and Jews: who was right? Socrates lived in a Greece whose beliefs had been challenged by encounters with foreign cultures and by new currents in philosophy: what was true? One had to look for a common basis on which to found agreement. The alternative is not appealing. It is simply to insist that one's views are right and shout down the alternatives.
There is, however, an important difference between philosophy and mapmaking, which is related to something I discussed in an earlier post, "The Domains of Reason, and of Intersubjectivity." There are things one can think about quite rationally, but where one can prove little or nothing because one's evidence is internal. Mapmaking deals only in the intersubjective, but philosophy relies, sometimes, on introspection. This limits the degree to which consensus can be established by means of academic debate. The search for truth here ultimately calls for a very different kind of conversation.