Epistemic Virtues?

In this essay I explore how I conceptualise of how to go about knowing, and the strange interactions between attempts to gain knowledge and their impacts on ourselves and others. I frame this in term of epistemic virtues, since these are a helpful frame to designate something that is desirable.

Inter-community communication

I’ve mentioned this quote before:

“Ok, my question might’ve been easy to misunderstand. My point was that it seems to me that you’re not familiar with the general culture in which MacIntyre writes, and so you don’t even get what he’s saying and what narratives he’s responding to. It’s like reading Nietzsche when you don’t know what Christianity is.

So your confusions aren’t about what MacIntyre is in fact saying (some of which I think has merit, some doesn’t), but it just fails to connect at all.

And while I overall like MacIntyre, I’m not enough of a fan to try to bridge that gap for him, and unless I did this full-time for a year or so, I don’t think I could come up with something better than “well, read these dozens of old books that might not seem relevant to you now, and some of which are bad but you won’t understand the later reactions otherwise, and also learn these languages because you can’t translate this stuff”. Which is a horrible answer.

Worse, it doesn’t even tell you why you should care to begin with. I think part of that is that, besides the meta-point that MacIntyre makes about narratives in general, it seems to me that the concrete construction and discourse he uses is deeply *European* and unless you are reasonably familiar with that, it will seem like one theologian advocating Calvinism instead of Lutherism when you’re Shinto and wonder why you should care about Jesus at all. (This is a general problem for non-continental readings of continental philosophy, I think – it’s deeply rooted in European drama.One reason Aristotle is so attractive is that all European drama theory derives from him and even someone as clever as Brecht couldn’t break it, so he’s an obvious attractor. I, and I suspect many continentals, came to philosophy essentially through drama, and that makes communication with outsiders difficult. Not enough shared language and sometimes very different goals.)

So I’ll save that goodwill for some later (and more fruitful) topic, if you don’t mind.

As to MacIntyre’s meta-point of “use the community-negotiated tools and narratives you already have” instead of “look for elegant theories no one actually uses anyway”, well, I *wanted* to write a different explanation of that, but then Vladimir did it already in his comment below, and I couldn’t do a *better* job right now, but he still failed, so…”

I love it all the way to hell and want to talk more about it.

Another way in which I love it is because it’s about the principle of charity and epistemic humility.


Epistemic arrogance

It seems that the main way that the educated people I know form opinions, when in doubt, is to do a literature search, discover the existing positions, read them up, and decide for one or another. What the actual hell?

This behaviour entails that these people alief something like this “My reasoning methods are such that I can go into a field, understand the positions held by experts, understand their disagreements, and how to resolve them, and execute this solution. Also, I can do it, in the fraction of the time it took the experts.” (Since they’ve been going back and forth about this for years.)

This strikes me as a most interesting form of insanity. (Now, if what was happening was “I have no reason to, but I’m gonna take this particular expert’s word for it, and hold the meta-belief that I’m probably wrong and keep on the lookout for evidence for me being wrong” then that is fine and in fact the whole blog is something of the sort because I believe you need some opinion to update on, else your brain will just rationalize whatever happens into I-knew-it-all-along and no model will ever be developed.)

If you have a strong opinion on any issue that the experts are divided on (like all of the PhilPapers survey questions) then you need really strong argument as to why you are not just extremely overconfident, but actually have considerably better reasoning mechanisms, or access to evidence or reasons not being taken into account by the experts.

One big offender is Less Wrong. A philosophical community that takes all its positions to be factual since it thinks that philosophy is useless and lacks the historical and philosophical awareness to recognise itself a philosophical community.

Another offender is everyone ever, pretty much. We are all born into naive realism and into using our reasoning mechanisms and taking their outputs for the truth. It takes a lot to get to the point where you consider that they might be wrong (9 Elizer-essays, roughly.). This leads to all kinds of weird effects (Some of which I described in the context of  Social Descriptive Epistemology.)

I’ve met exactly one person that has a claim to be reasoning from first principles. His reasoning processes are really different from what I see others doing.

Epistemic humility

Know who else was all about questioning his beliefs, and rebuilding them bottom-up from first principles? Descartes.

Hear me out a second. Maybe Descartes screwed up in some areas, sure. But I respect him:

Meditation I. Of the things which may be brought within the sphere of the doubtful.
It is now some years since I detected how many were the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had since constructed on this basis; and from that time I was convinced that I must once for all seriously undertake to rid myself of all the opinions which I had formerly accepted, and commence to build anew from the foundation, if I wanted to establish any firm and permanent structure in the sciences.” (1)

This is a very radical goal. This is the goal of someone that has been proven terribly wrong, someone that had to deal with real lovecraftian monsters, and at that level I get him and his desire for certainty.

And yes, maybe building a philosophical system up from pieces that you can be absolutely certain of was not the best option, but it was a brilliant option at the time. (2)

The thrust was coming from the right place, a deep felt understanding of what it is like to be horribly wrong.

A modern piece of thinking that I assess as coming from the same place-of-thinking is that of moral uncertainty. Moral uncertainty admits that you are uncertain between moral theories, “about which moral theory is right”, and from that point on provides questions about what to do. If you assess most probability to one theory and it weakly suggests one action, and all other theories strongly suggest other actions, what to do? How do you compare value between theories? Are there actions that all theories recommend?

I don’t care particularly about the details, but I do care that it takes as a starting point a state of uncertainty, of lack of knowledge. I find this to be epistemically responsible.

Epistemic responsibility

So, I’ve talked before about how definitions matter. Given that frame it is not surprising to me that you can get amazing life transformations through acceptance and mindfulness. (That is, through observing without judgement.)

Judgement needs a normative frame from which to judge. In psychotherapy, when this normative frame is given by society and the approach focus on this normative aspect, it is called a superego-based approach: “Ego analysis, although itself emerging out of psychoanalytic thinking, is practically unrecognizable as such. Apfelbaum describes it as “analyzing without psychoanalyzing.” He has made what seems on the face of it a simple shift – replacing the id with the superego as the major pathological force – but the result has been the total transformation of the nature of therapy.

The replacement of the id with the superego as the principal pathological force shifts the client-therapist relationship from one that is intrinsically adversarial (i.e., therapists’ seeing themselves as dealing with resistant clients) to one that is intrinsically collaborative. The core of the problem is now seen as punitive superego injunctions – the feeling of unentitlement to what clients are experiencing (their sense of shame or self-blame) that prevents them from getting sufficiently on their own sides to think and talk effectively about it. Therapists become advocates for clients, in order to get the clients on their own sides.”  (3)

Superego therapies, in the language of the former post, get back to seeing that the mountains are mountains, or that X was never about Y. You don’t need to be violent to yourself because you are lazy, because you were never lazy to start with. “Lazy” doesn’t obtain, it is (a) folk psychology, (b) not a good category, and (c) it is a thin story that damages the one accepting it.

I think people going normative over themselves is a huge source of self-violence. I think this is precisely what Marshall Rosenberg got to with NVC and jackal language: the language of “should”, “ought”, “must”, “have to.”

Epistemic responsibility is thus a shift from judging (which can only be done according to your normative system) to distrust about your normative systems and acceptance and observation. You really don’t want to kill yourself trying to attain whatever inconsistent, not-actualizable, wrong normative system you currently hold. (Like, RCT for example.)

Mark described a very similar effect (you can easily substitute S1 and S2 for Id and Superego and it applies):

“System one is extremely smart in some ways and extremely stupid in other ways. System 2 is extremely smart in some ways and extremely stupid in other ways.

It’s usually much smarter to use System 2 to prevent these sorts of System 1 override situations from even coming up. (Like, don’t even buy the cookies.) You only get like one or two big System 1 overrides per day, though you can build up this muscle.

And, geez, I say this all the time, but with great power comes great responsibility. You should be really, really, really, really sure that this isn’t one of those times that System 1 is being brilliant, not stupid. Otherwise, you hurt yourself if you override repeatedly. (Like, maybe you should eat those mixed nuts, because maybe you need that selenium–and people typically lose weight eating nuts, anyway–but, yeah, that selenium. System 1 is brilliant, in its own way.)

And there are certain games where System 1 always wins in the end, like with sexuality. You use System 2 to constructively engage with System 1. Otherwise, System 1 will eat you alive. It’s like the alcoholic who somehow convinces themselves that walking into the bar is precisely what they need to do to keep from having a drink.

For some things, System 1 always wins in the end, if you fight it head on–a very dangerous long-term game to play.”

And, of course, observation is way difficult. Good luck telling a passerby to sit down and meditate, and not get involved in their thoughts.

Observing is a skill, and it is not easy to acquire. Chapman talks about observation in a great essay here of which two points relate to this emphasis on epistemic responsibility:

  • Selecting and formulating problems is as important as solving them; these each require different cognitive skills.
  • Problem formulation (vocabulary selection) requires careful, non-formal observation of the real world.

Sensitivity to other perspectives

A virtue that follows from epistemic responsibility is sensitivity to other perspectives. Normativity blocks this. If you have your normative system in place you are seeing through its eyes and judging stuff as “correct” “bad” and so on. If you remove it, you can actually see what is happening.

A beautiful essay to gain part of this skill is the one on the typical mind fallacy. (BTW, amazing party trick: ask people to describe in which modality they think. Most of the time one person will say images and most will say voice and wonder ensues).

Another useful concept is that of inferential distance.

But there is more to people than minds; and you can have emotional empathy, besides mental empathy, or perspective-taking.

  1. – Descartes, R. (2013). Meditations on First Philosophy. Broadview Press.
  2. – Descartes is the first modern philosopher. He breaks away with the tradition of scholasticism of merely analysing and commenting on other works (for the most part), and goes “Screw you guys, I’m figuring it out all alone.” He defined the course of philosophy after him, to this day, becoming an axis: you either side, or don’t side; but you are always defined in relation to his positions. The whole discourse after him is defined by him, for or against, but no third option.
  3. Collaborative couple therapy. Good Ideas, 2007.


  • knightian uncertainty
  • signalling is a problem: of course i (at some level) want to signal being humble and honest. I speculate about stuff all the time. Only because I think some model + the meta-belief that the model is wrong look out for errors is better than no model since no model does nothing (because data/frame theory) -> coherence theory, neurath ship.
  • Why I like Taleb. Taleb is obsessed with the invisible, the unseen, what he does not know, and what he does not know he doesn’t know. I am too. I’ve been painfully wrong a hundred too many times.
  • Epistemic responsibility places a really high barrier to act on something that is major and vibes really well with cluster thinking
  • Of course I’m framing all of these as desirable things
    • This might be the wrong framing. This is not about knowledge and not about morality, but how to go about knowing being a situated agent, without destroying yourself or others.
  • Of course that I need to go reflective and see how my arguments about certainty in morality applies here, to epistemic virtues
  • ernst von glaserfeld on epistemology and knowing
  • http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429973.000-most-violence-arises-from-morality-not-the-lack-of-it.html