Below I start to work through some ideas. I’ll try to finish this up soon in part 2: Method, Goal. Work in progress. When working things through, I tend to write in a stiff, quasi-academic style which even I don’t like to read. Sorry about that.
Here I will be using a simplified, practical definition of epistemic closure, similar to the way I define metaphysics as ‘what must be true if anything is true.’ Epistemic closure is that state in which all allowable questions and answers are defined to the complete and summary exclusion of any other questions and answers. Just as in the case of metaphysics, there’s a ton of stuff easily available on the web to give you a perhaps deeper but certainly more complicated (and less useful) understanding. But here we’ll stick to the practical.
Simple hypothetical example: Say I believe the tribal gods are responsible for all good and bad fortune. These gods dole out their blessings and curses based on how pious an individual or tribe is. Piousness is a measure of how strictly prescribed rituals and sacrifices are executed. The sole authority on issues of piousness – on ritual and sacrifice – is the medicine man.
Something bad happens, say the watering hole dries up. Under epistemic closure, the tribesman will only consider questions around how the tribe or he himself have failed to be pius, and consider only answers that involve some sort of ritual or sacrifice, as determined by the medicine man.
Questions that have to do with lack of rain, overuse, events that may have transpired upstream – these will only be considered, in the unlikely event they ever arise, in the context of impiety. Answers other than performing some ritual or sacrifice or other pious acts as determined by the medicine man will be ruled out, if by some odd chance they ever are allowed to arise in the first place.
The key point here: other questions to ask or solutions to consider will never arise in the normal course of things. The epistemological world of our hypothetical tribesman is closed. (1)
Further, there is a risk to reaching outside the closure. For anyone to ask such questions or seek such alternatives is to declare himself not of the tribe, since not only our tribesman, but everyone he knows agrees with his understanding and all the unspoken limits that understanding requires.
Competing epistemologies: what is and can be known
We don’t live in a simple world of a single tribe. People are tribal (or pack, or herd) animals whose survival, naturally speaking, depends on tribal membership. Therefore, even though tribal membership in the evolutionary sense is no longer needed for basic physical survival in an industrial society, defining your tribe, which necessarily entails defining out other tribes, remains an automatic instinctual behavior. (2)
Some people, aware of the downside of tribalism, consciously work against it, asserting that we’re all people, all in this together, and need to look at what we have in common in order to get through life with as little unnecessary conflict and bloodshed as possible. Such people – and I count myself among them – cannot be understood by members of epistemically closed tribes as anything other than the member of some competing and hostile tribe, about which all valid questions and answers are already known.
My thesis here is that today, in America, the Left is an epistemically closed tribe with dogmas about what can be known, about what questions are allowed and what answers can be considered, and this closure is not an accident emerging from our innate tribalism. Rather, our instinctual need to belong to a tribe has been consciously commandeered to reinforce a certain tribalism and lay out conditions for membership.
A ‘scientific’ epistemology
The most open epistemology ever developed I’m here calling ‘scientific,’ although science is more a product than a source of this theory of knowledge. It runs as follows, as readers of this blog know:
- There is an objective universe, independent of any subjective understanding or feelings anyone may have about it.
- The human mind can know things about this objective universe, however imperfectly.
- Such knowledge is obtained when information about the universe is provided to our minds by our senses and rationally processed by our minds. The more, and more carefully, we look at the world, the more and more clearly we think about it, the more and better our ideas about it will tend to be.
- Given the above, it is understood that any of our beliefs about the world may be overturned by further information and thought. The objective universe may prove us wrong, in other words.
There are of course all sorts of distinctions, details and even mysteries involved in this epistemology, which I’ve sketched at a very high level.
(3) Be that as it may, it is this way of looking at the world that has given us all technological and scientific progress. I’m typing this on a computer and sending it to be posted on the internet – actions only possible in a world that is truly reflected in the principles listed above. Whether on not scientists recognize that they require and have embraced this aspect of Aristotelian epistemology – and they usually don’t – they could make no progress if they had not.
I call this an open epistemology because, at it roots, it acknowledges that it does not know all the questions and certainly doesn’t know all the answers. In practice, even the possibility that no answer will ever be available to certain questions is accepted. While any individual operating under this theory of knowledge is as likely as not to fail in implementing it in particular cases, at least in principle they know they could be wrong, the real world can prove them wrong, and they don’t know all the answers or even all the good questions. (4)
This scientific epistemology also provides a framework within which honest people can disagree and argue without the risk of being expelled from the tribe. Two people can look at the objective universe, think about it, and simply reach different conclusions, since what can be experienced by any one person at any one time may differ, as can the particular logical path followed. The appeal in such cases can only be to logic and objective reality; in the best case, experience and logic can be harmonized and tentative agreement reached; but it is also perfectly possible that appeals to logic and experience harbor too many unknowns for a question to be settled. Such disagreements are not fatal to this theory of knowledge.
The closed epistemology of the Left
The current reigning epistemology of the colleges, and therefore of the the fields fed by recent college graduates, as well as the social circles peopled by such folks, is completely closed. (5) Its epistemology is as follows:
- Everything is a social construct. There is no such thing as an objective universe, at least not in any way we could know it. Key corollary: any world we like can be created simply by creating the proper society needed to construct it.
- The only source of unhappiness in the world is oppression.
- The only answer to unhappiness is to change society so that it can construct a new reality that ends oppression.
- The only valid intellectual exercise consists of identifying an oppressed group, identifying how they are oppressed and by whom, and agitating for the overthrow of the oppressors and the society that constructed them.
- Feelings trump knowledge. Since the idea of an objective reality accessible to all, as well as logic itself, are social constructs, knowledge is replaced by feelings, only available through insight, enlightenment, raised consciousness – being woke, in other words. One is either woke, a member of the tribe and among the good people, or unwoke, an outsider and a reactionary to be reeducated or otherwise disposed of. Corollary: No claim of wokeness can be attacked with evidence or logic: the simple act of trying to use logic and evidence conclusively labels one as unenlightened, lacking insight, laboring under false consciousness – unwoke, in other words.
Readers here all know about Johann Gottlieb Fichte and his seminal role in establishing compulsory graded classroom schooling to create an obedient, compliant population more easily and successfully managed by the better people. Here is, as Paul Harvey might say, the rest of the story:
After delivering his Addresses to the German Nation as a series of lectures in French occupied Berlin in 1808 and 1809, Fichte was appointed rector to the newly-established Berlin University. Von Humboldt – Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand von Humboldt, not his kid brother Alexander the naturalist – was a huge fan, and, once the king had von Humboldt appointed to the directorate of education under the Minister of the Interior, he put Fichte in a position wherein he could best further his aims.
The context here is everything: educational reform was all the rage at the time. The better class of Germans, the kind of people who would, while under French occupation, pay to hear a 2nd rate philosopher give lectures on how wonderful and obviously superior Germans are, needed answers: how had the loathsome French managed to route their crack Prussian troops? How was it that clearly inferior French ruled them?
Because those troops were not as disciplined and obedient as they should be, Fichte assured them. Our troops were thinking for themselves, thinking of their homes and families and villages when they should have been thinking only of the glory of the fatherland! If only we could establish schools to remove all our children from the obviously baleful influences of village, home and family, and train them up to think only what we tell them to think and do what we tell them to do, why, then we could have the troops we deserve! We could resume our rightful place as the rulers of Europe and the world.
Thus, compulsory state-run schools which, by design, contradict and defeat family, church and village in favor of the state (or the Revolution, a meaningless distinction in practice). The success of Fichte and his acolytes – e.g., Mann, Barnard, Harris, Dewey, Freire, all those who see the schools as a means of using children to achieve the state’s goal (however thinly disguised) – is obvious upon inspection.
Berlin University was merely the prototype of phase II. K-12 will create the good soldiers and shopkeepers, mothers and cube dwellers, but we’re going to need a bunch of mid-level managers to keep it all humming. Thus, the research, or Prussian Model, university. Here was schooling for the brighter 6% or so of the population, already prepared by their primary and secondary educations to think what we want them to think, to prepare them to be “leaders.” We will pat them on the head, tell them how smart they are, give them degrees, then send them out to execute our plans: the plans of the that fraction of a percent who get to run things. (The von Humboldt brothers were homeschooled. Friedrich never got a college degree.) Many become teachers and professors, others managers and professionals, others bureaucrats. All, if successfully ‘educated,’ believe they are the most intelligent, open-minded, and moral people ever to walk the face of the earth. How could it be otherwise?
The epistemic closure of the Left traces back to this attempt by the self-appointed elites and the powerful to whom they are almost always courtesans to enforce uniformity of thought upon the little people. The mechanism is the schools. K-12 razes the family, village and church, to replace them with the state. Teachers, certified, employed and managed by the state, act in persona parenti, indeed, but more to the point, they act in the person of the state. This replacement of parent and preacher by teacher was specifically the method Fichte described. College has been remade into the mechanism by which a management class is created, to manage the process of homogenization and control. They are given to believe they are the leaders; in reality, they are merely tools.
One problem, perhaps not anticipated by Fichte or Mann, was that this mechanism, once in place, can be used by whoever controls its bureaucracy, for whatever end they desire. We’ll look into this aspect in part II.
Notes, pt 1
- For a related real world example, the ever-popular Yanomami tribesmen – and I’m sure they are not alone in this – measure how human one is by how closely one’s language matches theirs: the same equals human; understandable but not the same equals somewhat human; unintelligible equals animal. Therefore, only some sort of trauma, such as explorers with guns, will ever threaten their epistemology (whatever it may be) – they have preemptively assigned anyone different enough to pose a challenge into a category from which no challenge is brooked.
- Over the last 5,000 years, a few people, here and there, have worked to expand the definition of tribe, up to the point where some people refer to a brotherhood of man, or imagine themselves global citizens or other such inclusive-sounding phrases. Christianity took this as far as it can go by declaring all people children of God, which has the advantage of making tribal membership hereditary, prior to conformity to tribal rules. In theory, there is no out tribe of animals that may be killed – people who don’t speak Yanomami, reactionaries, Jews, people who could read. This ideal sits atop our hardwired instincts; general success is not to be expected. Most often, very tribal people functionally expand the definition of their tribe to include “everyone who does now or can be made to agree with me.” This is called “promoting diversity.”
- I think this simple formulation captures the gist, but Moderate Realism is not quite that simple. Moderate Realism holds that things like species do exist, not as immortal, immutable ideas a la Plato, but as that which characterizes all individuals in the species. Thus, the idea of horse results from having seen what is common to all horses, based, of course, on the individual horses we have experienced. Like most of Aristotle, Moderate Realism turns out to be common sense, once understood: what else, really, could we mean by species?
- Note that this practical, scientific epistemology does not exclude visions or miracles, nor any other way, known or unknown, one might experience the world. It simply makes no claims about such experiences, except noting that such knowledge, insofar as it exists, is personal, and can make no very strong claims on those who have not had that experience.
- I am not claiming that everybody from every department in every college falls into this trap, but merely that, in colleges and all social circles dominated by college grads, this will by far be the dominant ideology. To fail to comply gets you excluded from the Kool Kids Klub.