POSTSCRIPT ON EPISTEMIC PEERAGE: no bias, no progress

I refuse to accept a “scare list” of cognitive biases as necessarily leading to error. Of course they do, most of the time, and often dramatically so. But the history of science and of technology and of geographical discovery is replete with bias leading to discovery. Just as peerage is not synonymous with agreement, bias is not synonymous with error. Galileo was “biased” in favour of heliocentrism, before obtaining his observational results, which in turn he was biased in favour of accepting, despite his lack of a developped theory of optics. No bias, no diversity, and no progress. Epistemic parity in the history of science is shown after paradigm changes to have been based on epistemic peers agreeing on what turns out to have been a shared bias.

This scare-list, which doesn’t scare me, is what R.Scott Bakker repeatedly cites in a futile attempt to substantiate his dogmatic simplification of cognitive science under the “scary” slogan that we are “theoretically incompetent”. These cognitive biases are well-known, for example in science studies, without leading to such self-refuting pessimistic conclusions. The non-cohesive nature of research is precisely what I am pointing out here in my critique of the assumption of convergence, which is responsible for the unthinking equation of bias and error. If research is “non-convergent” (i.e. not necessarily convergent) then epistemic peerage is a local, provisional, negotiated status, and not some de-contextualised state.

A huge amount of philosophy, of all sorts, involves a close consideration of slips, fallacies, infelicities, mistakes in logical grammar, confusions and conflations, whether that goes under the name of cognitive biases or not. My argument is that this is a little one-sided if it does not take into account the occasional heuristic fecundity of such transgressions. Many discussions of the phenomena of cognitive bias do not take into account the sometimes positive contribution of such biases, but  remain in the negative schema of “bias=bad”, which for me is only a rule of thumb, and not a general principle. I only mention Bakker as a paradigm case of illicit generalisation of this negative schema. I also mention “science studies” because I feel it is a far wider research-programme that takes into account cognitive biases, the struggle against their pernicious consequences, their occasional heuristic value as augmenting our theoretical competence and not just undermining it. This is the whole point of Latour’s idea of knowledge as equipped and rectified, and of John Law’s critique of the “assumption of coherence”, as he calls it. I think the cognitivist study of religion needs to beware of reductionist interpretative strategies, and that a form of modal pluralism is far more promising than scientistic monism. So my argument is straightforwardly pluralist: human existence is not limited to the epistemic, religion is not necessarily an epistemic affair (and certainly not limited to the belief or not in the existence of God, inside the epistemic domain science is not an exclusively convergent discipline, nor does it have the monopoly of the study of the epistemic contributions of subjectivity (that it tends to denigrate as bias and prejudice, negative phenomena to be overcome if epistemic progress is to be achieved).

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