Thursday, December 13, 2012

Interlude: Is Quine a virtue epistemologist?

In W.V.O. Quine's Web of Belief is he tells some ways in which you might revise your beliefs in light of new evidence or confirm or disconfirm beliefs in general. He gives what he thinks are basic scientific 'virtues' for change of beliefs, and they are, by his estimate:
(1) conservatism: the fewer existing beliefs the new belief would interfere with, the better;
(2) modesty: one hypothesis is more modest than another if it logically implies fewer other beliefs;
(3) simplicity: keep a single belief as simple as possible in its relation to other beliefs, but "[w]e cheerfully sacrifice simplicity of a part for greater simplicity of the whole when we see a way of doing so";
(4) generality: "[t]he wider the range of application of a hypothesis, the more general it is";
(5) refutability: "some imaginable event, recognizable if it occurs, must suffice to refute the hypothesis"; and
(6) precision: if a hypothesis states precisely its principles and parameters for measuring the occurrence of some event, then it is not easy to dismiss as coincidence.
The book is in some sense excellent, but it suffers from being a product of its time. A structuralist view of language, a behaviorist view of psychology, and a logicist understanding of science hangs over the work, all positions which I will not attempt to refute here, but which I think there are good reasons not to believe.

Anyway, Quine has long been considered an advocate of 'naturalized epistemology,' whose maxim is "Make epistemology a matter of cognitive psychology that we can study as natural phenomena and empirically." Here's Quine's quote:
Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science. It studies a natural phenomenon, viz., a physical human subject. This human subject is accorded a certain experimentally controlled input — certain patterns of irradiation in assorted frequencies, for instance — and in the fullness of time the subject delivers as output a description of the three-dimensional external world and its history. The relation between the meager input and the torrential output is a relation that we are prompted to study for somewhat the same reasons that always prompted epistemology: namely, in order to see how evidence relates to theory, and in what ways one's theory of nature transcends any available evidence...But a conspicuous difference between old epistemology and the epistemological enterprise in this new psychological setting is that we can now make free use of empirical psychology.
But check that info against both his scientific virtues and also the meaning of virtue epistemology. I'll just use the definition from Stanford Encyclopedia for "virtue epistemology":
Two commitments unify them. First, epistemology is a normative discipline. Second, intellectual agents and communities are the primary source of epistemic value and the primary focus of epistemic evaluation.
So at least explicitly Quine doesn't think that epistemology is a normative discipline, that is, that it should be concerned with concepts about what it's reasonable to believe and also about norms and value and evaluation related to how we know what we know. But look at Quine's scientific virtues. Surely he would say that to have correct beliefs, and to aspire to knowledge, it is only reasonable to have beliefs according to these virtues. And these virtues would be kinds of norms toward good scientific thoughts.

Now, let's look at the second commitment of virtue epistemology. It's that people and their communities make for the source of how we can be confident we know what we know. For Quine, the focus is on scientific or proto-scientific thinking in the form of the virtues above. And the community would be us as scientific or proto-scientific inquirers.

So the question is can't you really have both? Can't you study epistemology as a series of natural phenomena as part of cognitive psychology or cognitive science and at the same time develop concepts and means to study the way we think or how it would be reasonable to think? Can't these be complementary enterprises?

Okay, now for realsies, Donald Davidson is next.

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