Friday, November 26, 2010

Evolutionary Epistemology

Let's talk metaphysics. There are two longstanding strands of metaphysical inquiry: ontology (inquiry into the basic elements and forces that constitute the universe); and epistemology (inquiry into what we can know about the universe and how we can know it.) Materialism attempts to reduce epistemology to "material things" such as brains, neurons, molecules, or atoms. Idealism atempts to reduce epistemology to "mental things" such as feelings, thoughts, memes, beliefs, theories or in more recent parlance "information." Hence, contemporary ontologists that embrace complex adaptive systems theory as a monistic theory, and thereby avoid Cartesian dualism (and the mind body problem) reduce reality to either matter (and/or energy) or information. Now the most fundamental question of metaphysical inquiry is whether scientists can develop a freestanding ontology that explains the nature of information; or whether ontology presupposes epistemology. Evolutionary epistemologists like Peirce and Popper argue that knowledge of Truth and Value (the primary targets of epistemology inquiry) evolve based on variation and selection. What is the evidence? The history of individual and collective belief systems.

Individual minds and collective minds accumulate beliefs over time whereby old beliefs compete with new beliefs. Hence, the metaphysical beliefs that currently occupy my individual mind have survived 60 years of variation and selection. Many of those beliefs are collective beliefs that I've replicated from previous cultures, I've also replicated other cultural beliefs that have emerged more recently, such as systems theory. I hope that some of my individual metaphysical beliefs get replicated by the larger community of scholars that study evolution. Of course, Darwins' beliefs have been replicated across many different scholarly disciplines: evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary ethics, and evolutionary politics. Before Darwin, Aristotle ruled the roost! All of those scholarly disciplines are comprised of individual minds that share new beliefs and old beliefs (information) within networked groups. Beliefs that survive competition between old and new beliefs are deemed True.

Peirce argued that the basic elements of "The Fixation of Belief" are the feelings of belief and doubt. Of course, today social psychologists and neuropsychologists generate theories that identify the various mechanisms that underlie those processes. They write scholarly papers and books hoping to "sell" those beliefs (literally and figuratively) to scholarly communities and/or the community at large. But all human communities are generally hostile to new ideas, just like Nature is hostile to most genetic mutations. Peirce argued that humans (individually and collectively) literally "love" their beliefs and want to share them with others. But fast-paced, full-blown, sustained intellectual revolutions within large communities of networked minds are pretty rare. Most intellectual revolutions (individual and collective) are slow, incremental, and temporary. After all, we all prefer to bask in the truth of our beliefs and seek to avoid the unpleasant feelings of doubt. In fact, most full-blown scientific (intellectual) revolutions take place only after the minds (and bodies) of the defenders of the previous theories die off. Inexplicably, there are still a few members of the Flat Earth Society, Klu Klux Klan, and Nazi Party. As long as they don't force the rest of us to join their groups, or harbor their beliefs they will eventually suffer extinction.

I "love" the theory of libertarianism. I belong to to several groups that share those beliefs, including: the Independent Institute, Institute for Humane Studies, and the Reason Foundation. We don't all agree on everything. Some libertarians are anarcho-capitalists (reject all government) and some are minarchists (reject big governmment). Because we all tend to hang out together, especially on the Internet, we do not always subject ourselves to other new beliefs that might raise doubts about our old beliefs. A real libertarian deliberately embraces variation of belief and is even willing to defend the rights of welfare liberals and Marxists in an "Open Society." Evolutionary epistemology requires a free market of beliefs, and therefore defends free inquiry more than any one set of beliefs. The ultimate Truth emerges out of what Peirce called the evolutionary process of "Human Inquiry," what Popper called "Conjecture and Refutation," and what Hayek called the "Extended Order."

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