Replacement Epistemology

I take it that I know that there is a tree over there. It is true, I believe it, and I have good reason to believe it (I am perceiving it right now and my perceptual faculties are functioning properly).

Working out what it is for a belief to be true and warranted is traditionally a task for philosophy. It is a normative domain – what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for warrant? In addition, one needs an account of warrant. Are those conditions internal mental states or external causal relations of some sort?

The replacement epistemologist argues that those questions have no normative answer. There is no ‘ought’ to accompany reasons and no ‘proper’ to go with functions. Instead, the answers are factive and reduced either to the domain of psychology or sociology. Perhaps another domain will join them, but these two have been contending for the job ever since Quine started the ‘naturalization’ project over fifty years ago.

Although psychology started out strong, its strength waned fairly quickly. Just explaining the processes by which I obtain beliefs doesn’t say anything that amounts to an answer to the questions about warrant. Nonetheless, with the demise of the psychological came the rise of the sociological.

Now, it might seem that a sociological project is similarly lacking in normativity. However, the kind of normative notion involved in this replacement attempt is not related to questions of epistemic justification directly. Rather, sociology’s normative component comes down to a moral judgment about the rights of people. Thus, although sociology can’t answer a normative question about warrant directly, it does begin with a moral notion. Hence, its power lies in a moral intuition quite separate to an epistemic one.

Consider a prominent replacementist argument: People group A have dominated the scene. They have written the most books and have had their views advanced by the wider elite. People group B have not dominated the scene. In fact, their voices have been marginalized over the years perhaps through a social injustice or because they are few in number or limited in access to resources.

Crucially, the sociologist contends that people know from a ‘lived personal and communal experience.’ Thus, groups see the world differently depending on such experiences. Some replacement theorists emphasize the oppressed/oppressor distinction, but this is not necessary for the project. What counts is that lived experience gives a person a distinctive take on matters.

To replace the normative notions involved in the traditional project, the replacement theorist suggests that the lived experience determines the beliefs obtained by people. What follows is the suggestion that rather than supplying an analysis of the conditions for warrant for beliefs, we should be focusing our attention on the sociological perspectives of various groups.

The project includes a normative social component while it lacks a normative epistemic component. By a genuine equity being granted between groups, we can attain a better set of beliefs. Surely, by giving greater weight to those who are not dominant, we are better off than we would be otherwise. Thus, the project tries not only to replace the traditional epistemological project ordinarily performed by philosophers, it also attempts to provide a means of righting a historic wrong.

Before I say something critical about replacement theory, I should say that I am thoroughly in favor of trying to right historic wrongdoing as far as we can and without causing more evil than good. Thus, what I want to say is that the two projects are distinct.

The problem with the naturalist replacement theories is that they illegitimately seek to replace a domain of inquiry. Let me explain why.

First, social histories for a belief are not going to say what makes that belief more likely to be true unless combined with some normative notion of warrant. Telling you how I acquired the belief that God exists from a social immersion can’t by itself provide justification for its truth. That’s not to say that what people do believe cannot be influenced by a social history. Rather, appealing to social history doesn’t alone provide anything that bears on the truth of what is believed.

At this point the replacement theorist will suggest that there is an increased likelihood of coming to believe the truth if there is greater weight given to otherwise marginalized social groups. It is this additional feature that we are looking for. The suggestion is that homogeneous groups tend to miss things and see in only one way. The introduction of differing voices reduces bias as long as the dominant groups are prepared to accept the conclusions of those voices.

The crucial component of this view is that groups can have skewed perspectives and require correction. This is eminently plausible. We’ve all suffered from thinking in a bubble devoid of exposure to other perspectives.

However, what makes those other perspectives valuable cannot be reduced to a sociological fact about the origins of those perspectives. Rather, the value must include the epistemic justification members of different groups possess for their views. Thus, even if we concede that homogenous groups benefit from differing perspectives, the value lies not merely the difference but the relevant justifications for the different beliefs. The two considerations are independent from one another.

Say we accept the replacementist view. What would follow? Consider group A and B again. Suppose A believe p and B believe not p. Since B are an otherwise marginalized group, group A have an obligation to weight the likelihood of not p such that they come to believe that not p. What we possess at this point is a management of beliefs. What we do not possess, in any meaningful sense of the word, is any rational management of beliefs.

Thus, though including different perspectives is of high value, it is so only if the value is derived from a more basic epistemic (and traditional) conception of what makes beliefs rational or what increases the likelihood of their truth.

It is curious that replacementists remain committed to seeking epistemic conditions in social and psychological factors. It is partly because when one is actually trying to figure out whether something is true, one is aware that all sorts of social conditioning will play a role. One need not deny this fact about our psychology to go on to say that there are epistemic reasons to believe something or not.

Some might argue that the fact that social conditions play a role implies that what we count as epistemic reasons amount to whatever is produced by those conditions. This is a form of relativism. What the traditional epistemologist call epistemic reasons are relative to social groups. Though this has been a tempting line of thought for many, it is self-refuting. The belief that epistemic reasons are relative to social groups is itself a belief relative only to social groups. Am I supposed to accept it? On relativism of this stripe, I can’t see how I could be supposed to accept anything. There couldn’t be any reason for doing so beyond my own sociology.

In other words, what I’d like to suggest is that nothing has really been replaced. Ignored, maybe, but not replaced. The question remains the traditional one. Ultimately, one must say what makes a set of beliefs rational not merely how we socially arrived at them, even if the sociological process is impeccably equitable.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.