Friday, December 05, 2008

Teaching the Metaphysics-Epistemology distinction

Much philosophical thinking requires a solid grasp of the difference between what's true and what's demonstrable. This doesn't always come naturally to students. (For example, many seem to confuse the questions of whether an argument is sound, and whether it can be shown to be sound.) In such cases, what are the best pedagogical methods an instructor could use to help struggling students acquire the skill of working with this distinction in a philosophically mature way?

I guess that will depend on the nature of their resistance. It could stem from either:
(i) difficulty grasping the objective metaphysical concepts (truth, facts, etc.) as distinct from the more subjective epistemic ones (proof, demonstration, etc.); or
(ii) skepticism as to whether the former could ever matter without the latter.

The first problem seems like it should be easy enough to overcome with a few examples: we can't tell whether there are an odd number of stars in the sky, but there's presumably some fact of the matter nonetheless.

The second is trickier. I guess one way to bring out the importance is to note the important difference between "not certain" and "certainly not". That is, it's one thing to be unsure whether an argument is sound or not (because you can't decisively determine the truth or falsity of the premises), but it's quite another to claim that it is definitely unsound. But we need the metaphysics-epistemology distinction to make sense of this difference. If there's no difference between truth and proof, then one's inability to prove a premise would allow one, absurdly, to infer that it must be false.

A more complicated example is the epistemic externalist's response to radical skepticism. More generally: everyone agrees that if I'm actually deceived by an evil demon then I thereby lack knowledge. So the controversy instead concerns the epistemic status of my beliefs in those cases in which they are true. That is, to properly assess radical skepticism, one must consider a scenario in which the subject's beliefs are true, but where this fact is not absolutely transparent to the subject (since, from her perspective, she can't rule out the possibility of the evil demon). We may find -- especially if we accept an externalist theory of knowledge -- that the subject can count as having knowledge in this scenario after all. That suffices to refute the radical skeptic's claim that knowledge is impossible -- that we lack knowledge even if our beliefs happen to be true. But note that we never could have gotten this far if we didn't take care to distinguish the epistemic and metaphysical aspects of the problem, i.e. the difference between what's "not certain" and what's simply "not".

So that's one example of how it can be philosophically valuable to abstract away to a kind of "God's eye view" whereby we can consider what's true in a scenario independently from the question of what anybody in the scenario can conclusively demonstrate to be true. Can anyone suggest some other (perhaps better) examples of this philosophical method?


  1. OK, this is less related to the prior discussion than I thought.

    I think the problem is that epistemology is seen as tied to knowledge which is normally (although not universally) seen as justified true belief. Clearly there are metaphysical issues therein. Even if one ignores truth and looks to what is demonstrable. Heck, even if one adopts the neoKantian view to even hold such a view one is stuck with metaphysics.

    Even if we distinguish between what's demonstrable and what is true it seems we're stuck with some metaphysics. (Consider questions about what is unspeakable in quantum mechanics)

    It's not that I'm disagreeing with you as such. And I think such complexities are best kept from students early on. It's just that I think even logic has metaphysics behind it. It's inescapable.

    But maybe that view just comes from too much Continental Philosophy. (grin)

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  3. Much philosophical thinking requires a solid grasp of the difference between what's true and what's demonstrable.

    No big deal, but few propositions are demonstrable, since demonstrations are, strictly, valid arguments from necessarily true premises. Spinoza was offering demonstrations. You have in mind 'provable', I think. Just a small point.

  4. I'm using 'demonstrate' in its ordinary English sense, not as a piece of jargon.

    Adriano - I'm not sure what you mean. (If something follows logically from true premises then indeed it must also be true. Do you mean to emphasize the 'because'? E.g. the difference between logical consequence and causal consequence.)

  5. everyone agrees that if I'm actually deceived by an evil demon then I thereby lack knowledge.

    Not everyone: I would say that you have knowledge about the evil demon.

  6. Update: here's a nice example of the confusion.


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