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Theoretical Groundwork

To lay the theoretical groundwork for my distinction between opaque and translucent dependence, in this section I approach epistemic dependence from two different angles. First, I consider it from a bird’s-eye perspective, describing it as a relation between two collaborating scientists. Then, building upon the work of Hardwig (1985, 1988, 1991), I consider it from the perspective of the dependent scientist, analyzing the reasons an epistemically dependent individual has for relying on others.

Belief-Belief Relations and Beyond

Let me begin by considering epistemic dependence from a bird’s-eye perspective. According to Robert Audi, epistemic dependence is “[...] (roughly) the sort of relation that holds between one belief and another (or between a belief and something else) when the former depends on the latter either for its status of knowledge or for whatever justification it has" (Audi, 1983, p. 119). For Audi, hence, the paradigm of epistemic dependence is a belief-belief relation that concerns the epistemic justification of one belief in relation to another. What Audi offers is an abstract view on the architecture of beliefs and their justification, which may qualify respective beliefs as knowledge. Whether or not these beliefs are held by individuals, and how inter-individual relations of dependence may be facilitated, is of little concern to Audi.

In contrast to Audi, I am interested in the relations between a scientist’s justified belief and another scientist’s expertise, as manifest in his belief and/or the products ofhis labor.[1] When a scientist’s knowing, that is, her believing-that and the reason for her believing to be justified, crucially involves what her colleagues know or the efforts they have undertaken, then we have a case ofinter-individual epistemic dependence. Taking into account the products of labor, I move beyond an exclusively cognitive, internalist notion of epistemic dependence, like the one proposed by Audi. In so doing, I seek to involve the material dimension of scientific practice in epistemological reasoning because experimental evidence is, in fact, mostly conveyed in a material form—that is, as a photograph, a copy of the laboratory notebook, a print, a frozen sample, a concrete model, a diagram or a file.[2]

Let me explain with an example why I consider reliance upon “foreign" labor to be an instance of epistemic dependence, albeit not one that is appropriately characterized as a belief-belief relation alone. An experimental scientist A depends on her colleague B for a couple of measurements. B may hand A a file with all the measurements made and A may access the data in the absence of B. If these measurements show that p, then A can form the belief thatp when she sees those measurements or is informed about them and she can justify her believing thatp by reference to those measurements. As these measurements possess a material quality that make them physically accessible, that is, accessible not only through measuring scientist B’s testimony of his believing, the dependent scientist A may justify her believing in ways other than by direct reference to B’s believing that p.

One may object that B’s role, here, is merely instrumental, that B is acting as the prolonged arm of the measuring device. But taking scientific measurements is a process requiring reflection and discriminatory judgment (parts of which may remain tacit, cf. Soler 2011). When B passes his measurements on, A must assume that B believes them to be good. If B does not believe them to be good but passes them on anyway, he should provide A with an explanation of their weaknesses. Nevertheless, it would be short-sighted to characterize this instance of epistemic dependence as a simple belief-belief relation. Note that the measuring colleague B may interpret the measurements to show that not-p. It is, after all, possible to imagine that B is good at handling a measuring device but bad at interpreting his measurements. But under the condition that A, who has not performed the measurements herself, possesses the required expertise to interpret them, A can take them to indicate, and be justified in doing so, as showing thatp. As I argue, this remains a case of epistemic dependence between two collaborating scientists as scientist A relies on her colleague B to have performed the measurements accurately and to have reported their results truthfully.

But why does it matter about emphasizing the material dimension of scientific practice for an account of epistemic dependence? When A relies upon the results of her colleague B’s labor, she need—even in cases of epistemic dependence—not necessarily rely on his believing thatp or that not-p. She is in a position where she can make her own judgment as to whether B’s epistemic labor is evidence of p or not. In making this judgment, A has the possibility to make use of her own expertise. So, given that A has the necessary expertise on the issue in question, she is able to assess the evidential significance of B’s labor with some degree of intellectual autonomy. This may help to contain A’s dependence upon B. In Sect. 7.3, I will characterize instances of dependence such as this as translucent epistemic dependence.

  • [1] Goldberg (2011) shows that epistemic dependence extends beyond two-person relationships. Infact, he argues, in the formulation of well-founded beliefs a person depends not only on eyewitnessesand experts from whom he might adopt knowledge, but he also depends on his larger epistemiccommunity. This aspect is important, but for the purpose ofinvestigating collaboration in scientificgroups, I limit my analysis to immediate person-to-person relationships.
  • [2] Latour’s observation that scientific practice involves sequences of material “inscriptions" comesto mind (Latour, 1999). The material dimension of science has been explored paradigmatically byRheinberger (1997), and philosophers have developed an increasing interest in the concrete artifactsof scientific practice as well (Bechtel & Abrahamsen, 2012; Carusi, 2012; Knuuttila, 2011). Forthe cognitive value of concrete artifacts more generally, see the literature on distributed cognition(Hutchins, 1995, 2001; Nersessian et al., 2003).
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