Wednesday 30 June 2010

The cancer of epistemology

Much has been written (including a wonderful little book by Jacob Brownowski) on the Common Sense of Science. And there is a case that science is the opposite of common sense - that the most powerful science is counter-intuitive yet un-refutable or exceptionally explanatory.

But I have observed (common-sensically) that reflection on the philosophy of science has been associated with the destruction of science, and an increasing focus on questioning the validity of decision-making in clinical medicine and medical research has been associated with the destruction of these activities.

In other words science and medicine have been consumed by 'epistemology' - discourse which purports to examine the nature and validity of knowledge.

What has actually happened is that the failure to answer philosophical questions has led to the arbitrary manufacture of ‘answers’ which are then imposed by diktat. So that a failure to discover scientific methodology led to the arbitrary universal solution of peer review (science by vote), the failure to understand medical discovery led (ineter alia) to the arbitrary imposition of irrelevant statistical models (p < 0.05 as a truth machine).

Yet, science is not a specific methodology, nor is it a specific set of people, nor is it a special process, nor is it distinctively defined by having an unique aim - so that common sense does lie at the heart of science, as it does of all human endeavor.

By common sense I simply mean the spontaneous evaluations of the generic human mind.


It is striking that so many writers on science are so focused on how it is decided whether science is true, and whether the process of evaluating truth is itself valid. Yet in 'life' we are almost indifferent to these questions - despite that we stake our lives on the outcomes.

Once we start examining each decision to check whether it is certainly correct, life falls apart in our hands - we get the characteristic nihilist metaphysic: there is no reality, truth is relative, all is subjective, nothing matters...

So, starting out with an attempt to attain certainty, modern culture arrives at willful subjectivism.

How do we decide who to marry? How do we decide whether it is safe to walk down the street? How do we decide whether or not something is edible - or perhaps poisonous?

Such questions are - for each of us - more important, much more important, than the truth of any specific scientific paper - yet (if we are functional) we do not obsess on how we know for certain and with no possibility of error that our answers are correct.


It is not that these questions of life and science are unimportant - quite the opposite: my point is that very important decisions are made all the time by each of us; and these decisions have not been assisted by ‘epistemology' – by theories of how we know what we think we know.

Philosophy is fraught with hazard – and is perhaps mostly driven by pride and hidden agendas. This applies to specialist philosophers and also to everyday questioning of the kind engaged in by so many people. The result of detached, isolated, undisciplined philosophical enquiry is usually to undermine without underpinning.

The results can be seen all around, where philosophical questions of the ‘how do you know that?’ type are tossed around (with an air of intellectual sophistication) leading to futile but deeply dispiriting interchanges, to de-motivation, to de-realization – to the detachment from life itself.

Of course matters are made much worse by the fact that these gestures of philosophical enquiry are tossed out under great pressure of time and in situations where attention is fickle and easily distracted. The enquiry is designed to demolish, not to discover.


Philosophy only escapes destructiveness when it is subordinated to a world view, and functions within that context. There is nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, by asking ‘how we know’ when we lack any context of the purpose and meaning of life – because without a sense of the nature of life then no answer could possibly be reached.

(Yet we are deluded into believing that the purpose and meaning of life might, somehow, be built-up from the results of piecemeal philosophical enquiry – Ha!)

We must beware of general philosophical questions posed without any metaphysical (theological) basis.

If asked more than once and in a secular context, questions of the ‘How do you know that, for sure?’ type are typically used as weapons – not as enquiries. Each putative answer can be repeatedly confronted by exactly the same question. Such interchanges (if followed-up to conclusion, rather than – as usual – cut short with some kind of impatient and scornful gesture of triumph) lead back, in just a few steps, to the ultimate nature of life.

In a secular context, and this includes science and medicine, epistemological questions cannot be answered and answers should not be attempted. These questions are valuable only on the basis of a possessed and shared metaphysic including shared specific as well as general aims.


The rise of epistemology to prominence in the media and daily discourse has been inverse to, and a consequence of, the decline of theology. But the growth of epistemology has been cancerous: once a question of epistemology has seeded a discourse, that discourse is eaten and consumed by it.

Epistemology has grown not because epistemological enquiries were useful (in fact they are parasitic), but because a lack of shared theology means its growth cannot be prevented.

Epistemology currently functions as a weapon which favours the powerful - because only the strong can impose (unanswerable) questions on the weak; and ungrounded and impatient epistemological dicourse is terminated not by reaching an answer - but by enforcing an answer.