Epistemology changes


I’m still reading through the replies to the Edge 2009 question, “what will change everything. What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” (here). Lera Boroditsky feels that the big change will be in epistemology. But first I will share her great joke.

“There is an old joke about a physicist, a biologist, and an epistemologist being asked to name the most impressive invention or scientific advance of modern times. The physicist does not hesitate—”It is quantum theory. It has completely transformed the way we understand matter.” The biologist says “No. It is the discovery of DNA—it has completely transformed the way we understand life.” The epistemologist looks at them both and says “I think it’s the thermos.” The thermos? Why on earth the thermos? “Well,” the epistemologist explains patiently, “If you put something cold in it, it will keep it cold. And if you put something hot in it, it will keep it hot.” Yeah, so what?, everyone asks. “Aha!” the epistemologist raises a triumphant finger “How does it know?”

 

On with the serious stuff – another take on embodiment.

“…modern Cognitive Science has taken the role of empirical epistemology. The empirical approach to the origins of knowledge is bringing about breathtaking breakthroughs and turning what once were age-old philosophical mysteries into mere scientific puzzles.”

“Let me give you an example. One of the great mysteries of the mind is how we are able to think about things we can never see or touch. How do we come to represent and reason about abstract domains like time, justice, or ideas? All of our experience with the world is physical, accomplished through sensory perception and motor action. Our eyes collect photons reflected by surfaces in the world, our ears receive air-vibrations created by physical objects, our noses and tongues collect molecules, and our skin responds to physical pressure. In turn, we are able to exert physical action on the world through motor responses, bending our knees and flexing our toes in just the right amount to defy gravity. And yet our internal mental lives go far beyond those things observable through physical experience; we invent sophisticated notions of number and time, we theorize about atoms and invisible forces, and we worry about love, justice, ideas, goals, and principles. So, how is it possible for the simple building blocks of perception and action to give rise to our ability to reason about domains like mathematics, time, justice, or ideas?”

“…But in the past ten years, research in cognitive science has started uncovering the neural and psychological substrates of abstract thought, tracing the acquisition and consolidation of information from motor movements to abstract notions like mathematics and time. These studies have discovered that human cognition, even in its most abstract and sophisticated form, is deeply embodied, deeply dependent on the processes and representations underlying perception and motor action… it means that the evolutionary adaptations made for basic perception and motor action have inadvertently shaped and constrained even our most sophisticated mental efforts…When we study the mechanics of knowledge building, we are approaching an understanding of what it means to be human—the very nature of the human essence. Understanding the building blocks and the limitations of the normal human knowledge building mechanisms will allow us to get beyond them.”