Evolutionary Epistemology

13 Jul 2011 18:12

Like evolutionary psychology, this is really split into two parts. One is the notion that ordinary, organic evolution is important to epistemology, in that it's shaped our senses and our cognitive processes. The other is the contention that knowledge, or at any rate opinion, somehow evolves.

The first branch connects back to all sorts of standard philosophical problems about the reliability of our senses and our reasoning --- "the care and feeding of the Demon", as Gellner used to say. Optimists, like Quine, say that animals which are consistently wrong about the world have a "pathetic but praiseworthy" tendency to die out, so there's no cause for alarm. Pessimists get very worked up about the possibility of adaptive errors; Nietzsche has some classic statements along these lines, though as usual the argumentation behind them is tissue-thin. (This leads into pragmatism.)

The second branch of evolutionary epistemology ties in, not so much to the theory of knowledge as a whole, as to scientific method and philosophy of science. The obvious question it has to answer is why in some fields (e.g. bridge-building, gunnery, mathematics) the quality of our beliefs rise steadily, while in others it does not. Obviously this is going to get tangled up with ideas about ideology in general, and these days probably memes as well.