Demonstration, Theory, and Practice


It would be easy to take my personal intellectual journey from Deirdre McCloskey’s post-modernism to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics to be a slide into relativism, given the reputation of such things. In fact, from the beginning it was a journey out of skepticism and into epistemological optimism, qualified though it may be.

If I have come to believe that knowledge is very political, in the sense of being unable to exist in an an individual vacuum without the context provided by groups, I have nevertheless come to believe that there is genuine knowledge.

In his first post here, Ryan made it clear that he wasn’t satisfied with that picture. He is even more optimistic—he believes that genuinely apolitical knowledge exists.

I am no master of epistemology or philosophy of mind. I’m not going to write a lengthy essay on why he’s wrong and I’m right. Instead, I want to pose a few questions. I have some preliminary answers to some of them, but the questions are more valuable than the answers.


A big part of my transition to relative optimism has been the abandonment of Cartesian foundationalism as the criteria for what knowledge is, and an embrace of classical notions of demonstration.

The most straightforward example is the defense of the principle of non-contradiction. We cannot prove that it is true in a foundationalist way, and it is the basis of the very method of proving things that we are attempting to defend. But we can demonstrate how it is impossible to make any argument without it. As I put it recently:

[I]t’s rather hard to make any assertion at all with teeth if you don’t care about consistency. My argument about inconsistency undermined my argument about the logical connection between God and morality—if consistency doesn’t matter, then there could both be no logical connection between God and morality, and be a completely crucial logical relationship between God and morality—simultaneously. Productive analysis would prove impossible.

Alasdair MacIntyre employed a similar sort of demonstration in critiquing Nietzsche and Foucault. If there is no truth, only positions that people take publicly in order to mask the cynical power relations going on in the background, then what is the status of this very claim? Is it true, or merely a mask for cynical power relations? And if the latter, does that not mean that the claim is false, and therefore some positions can be true and not just cynical power relations? Elliot Michael Milco makes a related set of arguments in his thesis.

One demonstration I came upon recently that I liked concerned the infinite regress argument for skepticism. This is the notion that we gives reasons for believing anything—we believe X because Y. But we have to justify our reasons with yet more reasons—and this chain goes on forever. We believe X because Y, which we believe because Z, and so forth. Because there is no foundational reason that we believe for no other reason, nothing is ever actually justified rationally.

In Joseph Heath’s Following the Rules he points out that this argument would imply we’re incapable of solving crossword puzzles. After all, our justifications for giving a particular answer for a particular part should follow the same logic that skeptics claim leads to an infinite regress. But it’s clear that we do solve crossword puzzles, when we have sufficient familiarity with the subject matter. So unless skeptics are prepared to insist that we somehow solve them irrationally, it would appear that their argument proves too much.

This sort of reasoning was the basis for my piece Science is Persuasion; Cartesian foundationalism has failed, yet still we have modern physics, medicine, and chemistry. Clearly we have knowledge. These sorts of demonstrations are more squishy than many philosophers after Descartes are comfortable with, but I’m convinced they are all we have, and that they are enough.

But What Is It To Know?

To say that a farm boy knows how to milk a cow is to say that we can send him out to the barn with an empty pail and expect him to return with milk. To say that a criminologist understands crime is not to say that we can send him out with a grant or a law and expect him to return with a lower crime rate.

Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions

The part of Ryan’s post that seemed most similar to the demonstrations above was his discussion of consciousness, which he gives as an example of innate knowledge.

For example, we are all aware of the fact that consciousness exists because consciousness is defined to be every aspect of our sense of awareness. We cannot even deny the existence of consciousness without experiencing it. This knowledge was not acquired through any sort of data collection, analysis, or persuasion. We possessed it as soon as we possessed consciousness itself. Knowledge of our own consciousness is, therefore, innate. At this risk of sounding like Hoppe, to deny this kind of knowledge is to demonstrate it; therefore, it can’t sensibly be denied.

This seems to me to get at the tension between theory and practice, a topic at least as old as philosophy itself.

Ryan’s argument boils down to the idea that it is self-defeating to deny the existence of consciousness. Yet there are people who do deny it—they are called eliminative materialists. The defense of the principle of non-contradiction is similar, as Milco’s thesis shows very capably—we can point out that it’s self-defeating to believe in its falseness, but that doesn’t stop someone from believing it is false.

The obvious argument is that in practice, we live as if we believe in consciousness and reality and causation (to name a few items on the skeptics’ list), and we argue as if we believe in the principle of non-contradiction, even if in theory we have explicitly declared that we do not believe in those things.

So here are the questions I promised: if certain ideas are implicit in our practices but we do not believe in them conceptually, is that knowledge? Does our incorrect explicit belief count as ignorance or falsehood or deficiency of knowledge, or error, in some way?

Given that we know of philosophical skeptics throughout history who have professed to disbelieve in just about everything, but clearly did not live as though that were the case, did they really know they were wrong in some meaningful sense?

These were the questions that came to my mind when I read Ryan’s post.

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