Monday, March 02, 2009

Words worth espousing - "epistemological modesty"

From David Brookes - The Propeller Heads’ Dilemma:
The correct position is the one held by self-loathing intellectuals, like Isaiah Berlin, Edmund Burke, James Madison, Michael Oakeshott and others. These were pointy heads who understood the limits of what pointy heads can know. The phrase for this outlook is epistemological modesty, which would make a fine vanity license plate.

The idea is that the world is too complex for us to know, and therefore policies should be designed that take account of our ignorance...

There’s nothing more dangerous than a propeller head who doesn’t know his limitations.
And from an interview with sociologist Peter Berger, a writer on religion and modern society:
Another way of putting it is to say that the modern challenge is how to live with uncertainty. The basic fault lines today are not between people with different beliefs but between people who hold these beliefs with an element of uncertainty and people who hold these beliefs with a pretense of certitude. There is a middle ground between fanaticism and relativism. I can convey values to my children without pretending a fanatical certitude about them. And you can build a community with people who are neither fanatics nor relativists.

My colleague Adam Seligman uses the term "epistemological modesty." Epistemological modesty means that you believe certain things, but you're modest about these claims. You can be a believer and yet say, I'm not really sure. I think that is a fundamental fault line. I'm inclined to define theological liberalism in terms of being on one side of this fault line rather than in terms of any specific beliefs.
The first was to do with economic policy - and to it I'd include everyone, not just the pointy heads - even if they can sometimes be more dogmatic. The second is to do with religious and other metaphysical claims. I'd say this outlook should apply to all claims. That is, "epistemological modesty" ought to be synonymous with skepticism methinks?

Hat Tip Maggie's Farm