All Epistemologies Are Not Created Equal

Recently, a couple in Australia allowed their nine-month old daughter to die by shunning standard, science-based medical treatment in favor of a treatment based upon homeopathy and so-called “natural” medicine.  The father, a seemingly reasonable college graduate who made a living by lecturing about homeopathy at colleges, refused to take his daughter to a dermatologist even after being told that she suffered from an unusually bad case of eczema, a skin disorder that is manageable with medication and which never need be the cause of death for anyone.  By relying on homeopathy, a pseudoscience based upon woo and superstition, the parents of young Gloria Sam allowed their daughter to needlessly suffer and eventually perish, because they believed their position was just as legitimate as that coming out of science-based medicine.

This is relevant as there has been a good deal of discussion on the justification and rationale of science as opposed to other frameworks used to explain and understand the world on this very blog.  The fact is that, contrary to Stanley Fish, all epistemologies are not created equal, and the case above is a prime example of this.

In a recent article, Fish again attempts to demonstrate that there is little reason for choosing a scientific explanation over a religious one.  There he uses an analogy to hammer home his position that religious and scientific are, epistemologically, equal.  In his article Fish talks about the distinction between those who believe that there is genuine authorship for particular pieces of writing and those of a post-modern bent who think that authorship is a mere fiction, that there is no genuine author of any piece of writing.  Without getting into the details of why someone might hold the latter position, the take-home message that Fish wants to convey is clear enough:  unless someone buys into a framework that actually allows for authorship to be a genuine feature of writing, any debate over the author of any particular piece is moot.  It just turns out that if you are talking to someone who doesn’t believe that authorship makes sense, then there is no way to debate about who the author of a piece of writing might be.  Fish goes on to generalize this as a point about the distinction between science and religious-based beliefs (I want to use “faith-based” here, but, as Fish thinks both positions are, at bottom, faith-based, doing so could be seen as begging the question).  Fish writes, “Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions…”  Fish’s point is that one can’t claim that evidence is the sort of thing that is brute, that is an independent feature of the world that doesn’t require some conceptual framework to be apprehended.  As this is the case, any attempt to distinguish between science and religious-based beliefs on the basis of the evidence presented is wrong-headed as what counts as evidence will vary depending on what framework is used.

And Fish’s point about authorship is right (assuming, of course, you don’t value writing style, content, use of a particular kind of evidence, or any of the other things that relying on authorship to determine what you want to read delivers). 

So, what’s the problem with Fish’s position, then?  The problem is this:  this isn’t a case where the two positions in question are relying on radically different conceptions as to what counts as evidence.  Evidence isn’t the problem here.  We can see this as apologists for virtually all non-scientific positions are constantly trying to win over converts by offering up as evidence exactly the kind of thing that science considers relevant, namely explanatory and predictive power that allow for successful navigation of the world.  It just isn’t the case that Christians, Muslims, the anti-vaccination movement, proponents of homeopathy, or anyone else is attempting to suggest that such things aren’t relevant.  In fact, they use such things as the basis for their arguments as to why they’re right.  Cosmological (first cause) and teleological (design) arguments are by far the most popular arguments used as evidence for God’s existence, and both types of arguments rely on the uniformity of nature, causality, and everything else that science uses as its basis.  Anti-vaccination proponents are constantly attempting to refute their opponents by referencing scientific studies, as are those pushing homeopathy, ear-candling, and a host of other woo-based nonsense.  The issue isn’t that they are relying on some different notion of “evidence.”  It’s that the evidence for their positions simply isn’t there.  Why, then, they continue to believe such garbage is beyond me, but it isn’t the result of some radically different notion of what counts as evidence.*  Rather, the issue is that even though they use the same criteria for what counts as evidence, they still believe things that are unjustified given their own notion of that very thing.  That is why the charge of their beliefs being faith-based is levied against them.  Even within the bounds of their own system they hold positions which are unjustified given the standard of evidence they accept.  As such, they believe things without good reason, and that is the core of believing by faith.

Getting back to the story of Gloria Sam, we can now examine why it is that her parents have done something wrong.  They believed that treating their daughter’s illness through homeopathy would bring about the result of healing her.  They valued navigating the world successfully, here cashed out as their daughter continuing to live, but, rather than relying upon science-based medicine, they chose a method for which they had no justification.  The result is that a nine-month old girl is dead.  And that is why relying on these religious-based beliefs is something we should not do.  We should not do so because such beliefs do not give us the results we hope to achieve, thus there is evidence that they are wrong, and thus we are unjustified in using such methods.

Fish is wrong:  all epistemologies are not created equal.


*This isn’t to suggest that there isn’t someone who does just that.  The point here is that such isn’t the typical position taken by those defending religious-based beliefs.

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4 Responses to “All Epistemologies Are Not Created Equal”

  1. Tim Says:

    As the father of a child with eczema, this story makes me sick. Non-septic eczema can be treated with simple skin lotion. If an infection develops however, treating the eczema becomes moot, as there is an actual wound to heal. These parents should be jailed, permanently.
    Another example of this: I saw on the news last night that there are 3-year-olds in Africa being tortured to punish them for practicing witchcraft.

    Now I’m a programmer, not a philosopher or a religious scholar, but if someone wants to compare believing in fairies to trusting my watch to display the correct time, then they are nothing more than liars trying to justify nonsense. Humans are functional creatures. Our brains tend to ‘fill in the gaps’ when we do not understand how something works, that is how we have managed to function in the world up to this point. But that fact does not imply that science is faith-based, because science does not accept any hypothesis that cannot be corroborated with repeatable data, even if we, as humans, do.

    I would readily accept that some humans accept scientific explanations ‘on faith’, but that does not mean that the explanation itself is ‘faith-based’. A particular human’s belief does not change the results of science, unlike religion, which has cults and denominations galore.

    Sorry for the interruption… please ignore the non-logical ramblings.

    • Liza Says:

      I don’t think these are non-logical ramblings.

      You raise a very good point: there is a distinction between accepting scientific explanations “on faith” and scientific explanation being “faith-based.” When I say a person has an unjustified, “faith-based,” belief, I am making two distinct claims: ‘He believes X’ and ‘X is unjustified.’ It may be relevant (especially in terms of moral responsibility) to ask why a person believes things which are are unjustified, but that question is distinct from the question of what makes a belief justifed. Justification can’t be contingent upon another person’s actual beliefs for two reasons: we don’t have access to other minds, and we think that the justification of a belief corresponds to some fact about the world. So, what we really mean when we say that beliefs are unjustified is that they are beliefs for which no good justification (e.g. logical proof or empirical evidence) is available. By contrast, justified beliefs do not lose their status as “justified” simply because some people who hold such beliefs do so on faith. A belief is justified when there are good reasons to believe it. Of course, some people will hold a justified belief for bad reasons (and they will be as morally culpable for this as those who hold unjustified beliefs for bad reasons). And, of course, most of us spend most of our time successfully navigating the world as instinctual, arational beings without ever puzzling over the question of epistemic justification. (I wouldn’t call that “faith,” but surely instinct is closer to faith than it is to rational deliberation.) But, this says nothing about whether we hold beliefs that are justified or not. As you have pointed out, the issue is not whether people accept scientific explanations on faith, it’s whether science itself is a type of faith or a legitimate justification for belief. Clearly, we believe the latter.

  2. James Gray Says:

    You said: The issue isn’t that they are relying on some different notion of “evidence.” It’s that the evidence for their positions simply isn’t there.

    So, what two epistemologies aren’t equal? Sounds like some people simply lack epistemological understanding entirely.

  3. If You’re a Homeopath, Why Do You Sell Anything? « Apple Eaters Says:

    […] on by homeopaths for the purpose of telling everyone about homeopathy.  Check the link.)  I’ve written on here before about the terrible consequences of trusting your and your loved-ones’ health to this […]

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