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Epistemic Relativism Denied

Galileo, Revelation, and Absolute Facts About Justification

Introduction

In his book "Fear of Knowledge," Paul Boghossian argues that epistemic relativists are incorrect to treat disagreements like that between Galileo and Cardinal Bellarmine as a dispute between epistemic systems that embody distinct epistemic principles. Boghossian reasons that the argument from norm-circularity (self-certification) does not support epistemic relativism, which is the idea that justification is always relative to some system. Specifically, Boghossian argues that norm-circular justification does not support epistemic non-absolutism, which is the claim that there are no absolute facts about justification.

Boghossian develops his argument beginning with the relativist's central claim, (Justification), that "[i]t is not possible to arrive at justified beliefs about what absolute epistemic facts there are." Boghossian then reformulates (Justification) into (Encounter), which is the claim that if we were to encounter a genuine alternative to our system we would not be able to justify our system even by our own lights. (Encounter) is refined in stages, in particular by integrating the notion of (Coherence), until it becomes evident that Boghossian's refined version of the relativist's claim is compatible with the falsehood of the initial version of the relativist's claim. Hence, claims Boghossian, the relativist's initial claim is rendered unable to support epistemic relativism, and instead, it is indeed possible for us to arrive at justified beliefs about absolute epistemic facts.

Is Boghossian correct? Is it really the case that humans have access to absolute epistemic facts? Or does the relativist's assertion that Cardinal Bellarmine and Galileo employed distinct epistemic systems, founded on distinct epistemic principles, possess more force?

This paper takes the position that Boghossian is in fact correct, and will begin with an explanation and assessment of his argument. Discussion will focus on (Encounter) and (Coherence), and demonstrate why (Justification) fails to support epistemic relativism and non-absolutism, and in reality supports a conclusion substantively different from the one originally aimed at by the relativist. The result of the (Encounter) and (Coherence) discussion will be applied to the disagreement between Galileo and Cardinal Bellarmine, and it will be shown that there is no compelling reason to believe that Bellarmine and Galileo possessed incommensurable epistemic systems.

Defining Relativism : (Possible) and (Justification)

Epistemic relativism investigates the means by which humans accrue knowledge, and asks if absolute facts about justification exist. The epistemic relativist's main claim is that justification, and not just knowledge, is always relative to some system, and that many equally valid systems exist. More formally, the epistemic relativist asserts that claims such as "E justifies B" must always be qualified in the following way:

"E justifies B, according to the epistemic system S, which I endorse."

Boghossian raises a number of questions about this assertion, and sets about the task of showing that such "relativism is riddled with ... insuperable problems." His argument begins with a statement of the relativist's central claims:

"(Possible): If there are absolute epistemic facts it is possible to arrive at justified beliefs about what they are."

"(Justification): It is not possible to arrive at justified beliefs about what absolute epistemic facts there are."

As a direct consequence of these premises, the relativist concludes there are no absolute epistemic facts, and hence it must be the case that "[t]here are many fundamentally different, genuine alternative epistemic systems." If, as Boghossian insists, the relativist's conclusion is false, then at least one of the propositions above must be false, and further exploration is required. Enter (Encounter).

Refining Relativism : (Encounter) + (Coherence) = (Encounter*)

To advance his analysis, Boghossian rephrases (Justification) in a manner congruent with its initial formulation, yielding:

"(Encounter): If we were to encounter a fundamental, genuine alternative to our epistemic system, C2, we would not be able to justify C1 over C2, even by our own lights."

This reformulation precipitates two questions: 1) how strong is the case for Encounter, and 2) if Encounter is true, how well does it support Justification? In order to answer the all-important second question, Boghossian starts by developing an answer to the first question.

With regard to the strength of (Encounter), it would not be reasonable to make the general claim that all genuine alternatives to our epistemic system impair our ability to justify our system. Instead, any competing system must be coherent. This constraint rules out inconsistent systems that remit or permit discordant beliefs and/or conclusions, as well as systems that are self-undermining. Furthermore, coherence requires the principle of "no arbitrary distinctions":

"If an epistemic system ... proposes to treat two propositions p and q according to distinct epistemic principles, it must recognize some epistemically relevant difference between p and q."

"If an epistemic system ... proposes to treat two propositions p and q according to the same epistemic principles, it must not recognize any epistemically relevant difference between p and q."

This enforces uniformity in the rules and procedures that govern the way in which premises in an argument are handled. Coherence then, may be stated as follows:

"(Coherence): A coherent system is not self-undermining, does not remit or permit discordant beliefs and/or conclusions, and respects the principle of no arbitrary distinctions."

The value and necessity of coherence is that it explicates what we should reasonably expect from any system whose task is the production of useful beliefs. Applying (Coherence) to (Encounter) yields:

"(Encounter*): If we were to encounter a coherent, fundamental, genuine alternative to our epistemic system, C2, we would not be able to justify C1 over C2, even by our own lights."

Hence, we need not reconsider our system if we encounter a system that is of equal standing to ours, but it might be reasonable for us to consider doing so if we encountered some other consistent and intelligible system. However, the fact that "it might be reasonable for us to consider" some other system does not defeat the relativist's claim. More work is required.

Rejecting Relativism : (Encounter**) and (Justification*)

(Encounter*) can not refute relativism, because "[a]ll parties to this dispute should agree that each thinker is blindly entitled to his own epistemic system ... without first having to supply an antecedent justification for the claim that it is the correct system," else "no one could be entitled to use [any] epistemic system" at all. This provokes the question: if (Encounter*) does not require us to reconsider our epistemic system, then just what type of system would? What if we encountered a coherent alternative with a proven history of actual achievements that were more impressive than the achievements of our system? Let us label this feature (Actual and Impressive). It is plausible that in the face of (Actual and Impressive) we would be forced -- rather than merely permitted -- not only to reconsider our system, but even reject it. Applying (Actual and Impressive) to (Encounter*) yields:

"(Encounter**): If we were to encounter an actual, coherent, fundamental, genuine alternative to our epistemic system, C2, whose track record was impressive enough to make us doubt the correctness of our own system, C1, we would not be able to justify C1 over C2, even by our own lights."

Here we have arrived at Boghossian's counterpoint to relativism. Boghossian has produced (Encounter**) through a series of unobjectionable refinements to (Justification), and the question now stands: how does the relativist's main claim stand against (Encounter**)? Does (Encounter**) support (Justification)? Comparing the relativist's initial claim with Boghossian's refinement, the answer is plain: no, (Encounter**) does not support (Justification). Rather, (Encounter**) supports:

"(Justification*): If a legitimate doubt were to arise about the correctness of our ordinary epistemic principles, we would not be able to arrive at justified beliefs about their correctness."

Whereas (Justification) asserted it was not possible under any conditions to arrive at justified beliefs about what absolute epistemic facts there are, (Justification*) supports the claim that when presented with a competing epistemic system there are conditions under which we may rightly believe that the competing system requires us to accept the fact that we would not be justified in maintaining our own system. Accordingly, because (Encounter**) is a logical reformulation of (Justification), it illustrates the fact that (Justification) is not merely paradoxical, but fallacious. Hence, epistemic relativism is incorrect.

Boghossian briefly undertakes the project of forming a relativist response to (Encounter**) and (Justification*), however the relativist has been left little room to maneuver, and for the purpose of this discussion it suffices to say that Boghossian's attempt is unproductive.

One System, Many Beliefs : Galileo, Bellarmine, and Divine Revelation

Having dealt with (Justification), we are now left to examine the disagreement between Galileo and Cardinal Bellarmine. For a constructivist exposition of this disagreement, Boghossian turns to Richard Rorty, who waxes relativistic as follows:

"[T]he question about whether Bellarmine ... was bringing in extraneous 'unscientific' considerations seems to me to be a question about whether there is some antecedent way of determining the relevance of one statement to another ... [and] [i]f one endorses the values ... common to Galileo ... then indeed Bellarmine was being 'unscientific' ... [b]ut to proclaim our loyalty to these distinctions is not to say that there are 'objective' and 'rational' standards for adopting them."

In this passage Rorty is claiming that Bellarmine employed an epistemic system distinct from Galileo's, and that there are no absolute or objective mind-independent facts about justification. Because the crux of this disagreement is the nature of the heavens, Rorty's claim would mean that Bellarmine's epistemic system would have actuated scriptural revelation as a fundamental epistemic principle in heavenly matters, thus providing the Cardinal with access to a type of information that Galileo was not privy to. Presumably then, revelation would have operated in addition to the fundamental epistemic principles that Galileo's system applied, principles such as (but not limited to) observation, induction, and deduction.

There is however a pressing difficulty with this line of reasoning. The relativist claim is that Bellarmine had access to an epistemic principle that Galileo did not, namely that when forming beliefs Bellarmine was able to make inferences that incorporated information from revelation. But what is the distinction intended here? How is it that revelation could be seen as a fundamental epistemic principle? How is it that revelation would function on the same level as other fundamental principles? There is no reason here to think that Bellarmine's epistemic system included any epistemic principles other than principles such as observation, deduction, and induction when developing beliefs in any sphere of knowledge, including his beliefs concerning scriptural revelation. Beliefs that consider scripture closely and allocate a high degree of confidence to sacred writ are unique only in that they accept the Bible as a reliable data source, and there is nothing epistemically unique about using one data source rather than another; in all cases data is processed by the human epistemic system. Accordingly, there is no reason to believe revelation is a fundamental epistemic principle rather than a result of the application of fundamental epistemic principles -- principles that Bellarmine shared in common with Galileo.

Though there may have been disagreement between Bellarmine and Galileo regarding a fundamental tenet of their belief systems, namely the authority of Biblical scripture, it is by no means evident that this is a dispute between epistemic systems, rather than a dispute regarding the criteria we use to assess another person's claims and beliefs when forming our own claims and beliefs. There is simply no appealing reason to believe that the two men possessed separate and incommensurable epistemic systems.

Tying this back to the primary discussion of relativism, and (Encounter**), we may now say that in the case of Cardinal Bellarmine's beliefs regarding astronomy, we have not encountered an actual, coherent, fundamental, genuine alternative to our epistemic system whose track record was impressive enough to make us doubt the correctness of our own system. The dispute between Galileo and Bellarmine provides no compelling reason for anyone to abandon their system in exchange for a system that postulates revelation as a fundamental epistemic principle.

Conclusion

Boghossian succeeds in confuting epistemic relativism using the relativist's own argumentation. Refinements to the epistemic relativist's argument are encapsulated in the claim (Encounter**), and with this claim Boghossian explicates the fact that there are real situations in which we might have legitimate reasons to doubt and even abandon our epistemic system. The consequence of (Encounter**), (Justification*), is not consistent with the relativist's claim that it would be impossible that there are absolute epistemic facts, and hence the initial defense of relativism, (Justification), fails, and epistemic relativism is proven false.

Though nature dictates that we must have congruent epistemic foundations, this does not dictate that we must have congruent belief systems. The human epistemic system permits the construction of internal representations of reality that allow for an endless number of permutations that are consistent -- if not always impressive -- at the higher levels of conceptualization. Beliefs are shaped by experience, and this gives rise to differing and even opposing belief systems. The fact that our epistemic foundations permit the construction of antipodal belief systems must not however be misconstrued as an encumbrance to the procurement of knowledge; far from it. Herein lies our epistemic system's strength. Rather than rendering us incapable of approaching absolute facts about justification, the human epistemic system supports it by enabling humans to recognize encounters with genuine, coherent, and impressive alternative epistemic systems, and permitting us to update our systems accordingly.

Though Bellarmine and Galileo disagreed about the nature of the heavens, as humans, they had no choice but to agree on a significant number of other issues, and though both men may not have known it, they operated using the same fundamental epistemic principles that all humanity uses. The paths of knowledge are many, however all paths proceed from the same origin, and it is possible for us to arrive at justified beliefs about what absolute epistemic facts there are.


Part of the series: UWO

[ essay :: philosophy, reason, the human condition ]

Last updated December 30, 2009