Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Is It All Just Epistemology?

Warning: rambling, semi-coherent brain-dump follows. I forget what even spurred this particular train of thought; probably all the recent press about Creation(ists)/(ism) in relation to Dover and elsewhere. For the most part its scientists on one side and the powers of darkness a collection of religious dogmatists on the other. This thought leads, in turn, to thoughts about why scientists and engineers tend to skew "to the left" (for whatever that phrase is worth). A common explanation seems to be that education liberalizes people; this seems a reasonable enough explanation. But it got me to wondering about whether we're confusing cause and effect. Could people start off with a "liberal" worldview which, in turn, draws them to the hard sciences? The basis of these musings is a book I read awhile ago called Truth by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, the basic thesis of which is that there have historically been four different ways of arriving at the (little "t") truth:
  • intuition
  • As revealed by authority
  • Deduction via pure reason
  • Observation of external reality
This may be my personal biases showing, but on reading this I was struck by how (at least some of) these categories seemed to line up with widely recognized factions in contemporary politics. I wonder if this is at all predictive? If I set up a survey to categorize a person's "truth category" and political affiliation would I find I high correlation between the two? Crap, I kinda wish I was still in college; this would make a killer paper for any one of a number of classes. Let's just run with the assumption that there is a correlation; what sort of practical implications would follow from this fact? It would certainly call for more study about how people come to favor one truth model over others. And we'd want to know whether this selection of model precedes political identification; I'm pretty sure that it does, since we're traditionally required to differentiate between "true" and "false" long before we become involved in politics. Assume that personal epistemology precedes political affiliation. Taken in combination with the assumption above regarding correlation this would indicate that political affiliation is a derived product, in which case you're unlikely to change a person's party affiliation if you haven't caused them to re-examine their personal epistemology. This might go a long way to explain why political affiliation is so "sticky"; how do you get someone to change their epistemological worldview? Its axiomatic, so by definition you can't reason about it in any formal sense. About the only thing you can do is demonstrate to people (informally, for the most part) that they're being inconsistent in their choices. It sort of reminds me of philosophy 101 (yeah, I actually took Philosophy 101 in college) and the people wankers who kept talking about how there's no way we can know whether we're just brains floating in jars: "Yes, be that as it may, but on a daily basis you behave like you're accurately perceiving the world. Doesn't it make more sense to match your epistemology to your behavior, or vice versa?". Granted, this is analogy isn't a 100% fit, but you get the drift. If you make choices on a day to day basis using one model, why defer to another model on "big questions"? That is all, carry on.

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