David Benfell

Epistemology as inquiry

Not Housebroken -

One of the things we need to remember about philosophy—this was in the introductory class I had at American River College back in the late 1970s— is that philosophy does not answer questions but rather poses and explores them.

This is a crucial point: When you have decided you know the answer, you cease to question it. And then it ceases to be a topic of inquiry or even a philosophical topic.

I recently changed doctors to the one my mother uses. This was a mistake. He thinks that any deviation from a sunset-to-sunrise sleep pattern is evidence of a sleep disorder and he points to a volume of research that confuses correlation with causation, has been performed principally on adolescents (and therefore cannot generalize to older adults, including myself), and through a focus on correlating middle and evening chronotypes with various undesirable conditions, seeks to condemn those chronotypes by association. This subset of the research on chronotypes never steps back and actually asks about the experience of people with non-morning chronotypes.

All this is glaringly obvious to me because I’m a human scientist. And that last question is precisely the question I would ask as a human scientist.

But this doctor, with his undergraduate degree in philosophy, proudly proclaims that the question of “how you know” is very important and goes on to say, mustering his full authority as a medical doctor, “We have science!”

Needless to say, I’m somewhat less than impressed. And yes, I intend to change doctors. Again.

One of the problems with positivism (scientific method) is that it appoints itself as the sole arbiter of what methods of inquiry will be acceptable and what ways of knowing will be acceptable. In doing so, it deprives itself of any independent validity. It becomes a tautology through circular reasoning: We believe in science, and only in science, because it is scientific.

We may rationalize that belief with technological advance, but even this rationalization fails the experimental model: It is not a scientific belief. Our experience of technological advance is subjective, therefore not objective, and therefore to be disdained.

I’m a human scientist. I’m well aware of all this. At least while there was a human science program that I could attend, this was taught in the introductory classes.

And our definition of epistemology steps back from the traditional formulation: We don’t just say it is “how you know” but rather “how you know what you claim to know.” Epistemology is inquiry and it is with this formulation that we hope to be able to learn from groups of people who are suspicious of or who have been exploited by a traditional scientific approach.

There are many such people. One—only one—of the crucial questions in inquiry with indigenous people is precisely about epistemology. (Another is about who benefits from this inquiry.)[1] One reason Black life expectancies are often shorter than white life expectancies is a legacy of medical experimentation on slaves and Blacks that makes Josef Mengele seem tame and leads many Blacks to distrust western medicine.[2] I caught the tail end of a presentation by Milton Reynolds last Friday night (September 14) at the Human Science Institute retreat in which he suggested that the reason so many white people, particularly in the Appalachians and old Confederacy, distrust academics is that they were involuntarily subject to eugenics sterilization in the 20th century.

To catalog the horrors scientists have committed in the name of science would take more space and time than I have here but the fundamental sin that lies at the root of all these crimes is arrogance. It is the same conceit that lies behind positivism’s self-appointment as the sole arbiter of epistemology: Not only do we know, more reliably (we think), better than you, but we know better than you about your own experiences and we have some right (increasingly, thankfully, but inadequately subject to ethical constraints) to trample upon your rights in the pursuit of what we call knowledge.

To be a human scientist, truly a human scientist, is to adopt a profound humility about knowledge, about epistemology. Which is a long ways away from where that doctor is and a long ways away from where far too many science fans are.

  1. [1]Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008).
  2. [2]Harriet A. Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Doubleday, 2006).

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