There’s a terrific post up at In Harmonium on “Epistemological Battlespaces.” Bouncing off a variety of sources, including an earlier post of mine, and drawing on years of research, Marc considers a series of ideal-typical “meta-epistemologies” that often underlie (or rationalize) conflicts. It’s a banquet for thought.
Marc’s work made me think of a discussion I often have with students when I’m introducing them to formal theory of whatever kind. As you may know, college teachers of theory are often met with wrinkled noses and squinted eyes when theory comes up; theory is something eggheads do far from the ‘real world’, at best sort of a cultural boiled spinach. So the first task is to yummy up theory by showing that it’s something we all do, for good reasons, and may want to do better. I do this by talking about what I call default theories.
Theories are basically ways of explaining or making sense of things. Like the C: drive on a computer, a default theory is the first place you go when you’d like to know why something happened or what it meant. Everybody’s got one. If your default theory promises explanation or understanding, you stop there, boot up the operating system, and don’t look any farther. This is obviously just a different metaphor for the ‘boxes’ we’re sometimes told it’s good to think outside of.
Default theories are also where you go back to if you try some other theories and they don’t work out. Usually our tolerance for failure is much higher for default theories than for the ones we learn later. Default theories get built into our basic input-output system, so they’re pretty rough-and-ready. We then build a whole worldview onto their kernel, and this can become quite elaborate.
Here are some default theories about how and why stuff happens, corresponding to several overlapping worldviews:
It was Fate
It was God’s will
It was me, I did it
It was them, they did it
It was the government/Trilateral Commission/international Jewish conspiracy
It was human nature
It was hormones
It was the Devil
I’d be tempted to call all of these species of theodicy except that they are accounts of good as well as evil.
From the standpoint of people living inside them, default theories are effective and comforting orientations toward a big, confusing, sometimes scary world. From the standpoint of egghead theories the defaults are delusional, incoherent garbage that needs to be thrown out, or at best accepted as raw data about the perhaps exotically beautiful ignence of the masses. In his post, Marc starts with an illuminating contrast between “civilized discourse” based on open-minded reasoning from facts and its opposite, a narrow “totalitarian way of thinking.” He declines to choose up sides about which is better, and I agree in this undecision; but it also seems to me that this is a choice that is already made for each of us, by default.