What is Naturalized Epistemology?

Naturalized epistemology sees human cognitive capacities as an aspect of the natural world.  Naturalism takes for granted that human beings have some knowledge--the evidence for this is our ability to successfully plan and carry out actions in our everyday physical and social environments.  For the naturalist, the question that drives epistemology is an empirical question: "how is human knowledge possible?"  Like any other empirical questions, the questions of epistemology are, therefore, open to scientific investigation

The aims of naturalized epistemology are:

1. to investigate and develop a (hopefully) continually improving picture of the strengths and weaknesses of human cognitive capacities, using results from the cognitive, physical, and biological sciences; and

2. with this information, determine how to improve human cognitive performance; i.e., determine how humans might go about gaining more knowledge.

How is naturalized epistemology different from other epistemological theories?

1. Traditional epistemology  is engaged in the analysis of the concepts of knowledge and justification (i. e., the  JTB view of knowledge).  The conceptual analysis of knowledge as practiced by traditional epistemology is an a priori enterprise which seeks necessary and sufficient conditions which define whether any proposed belief is "justified."  The results of this conceptual analysis of knowledge implies that:

a) the conceptual analysis of knowledge (if found) should be true of any sort of epistemic subject in any sort of circumstances; in other words, the conclusions of epistemology were conceived of as universal and necessary requirements for certifying any claim as genuine "knowledge.".

b) no set of empirical facts about particular believers or particular situations could count as evidence against a traditional epistemological theory because such theories were not thought of as scientific or empirical theories about natural beings, human cognitive subjects.

Naturalized epistemology, on the other hand, tries to understand how human beings form the beliefs they do in the sorts of circumstances humans are likely to encounter.  Naturalism's results will hence be empirical and contingent truths--they might have been otherwise than what they are.

2. Although reliabilism talks about natural epistemic processes as naturalism does, it is not known for testing candidate processes using scientific or empirical evidence.

Approaches to naturalism

1. Cognitive  psychology
2. Behaviorist psychology
3. Evolutionary epistemology
4. Eliminativism


Arguments for Naturalism

Traditional conceptual analysis attempts to develop prescriptive, i.e. normative epistemic ideals based on a conceptual analysis of "knowledge".  Naturalism studies the actual phenomenon of knowledge aquisition by natural human beings, employing methods that have proved successful for learning in everyday life and science.  This approach, naturalists argue, will be more successful that traditional epistemology in meeting the basic goals of traditional epistemology:

1. giving an account of what knowledge and justification are;
2. providing epistemic "advice"; and
3. extending human knowledge.
Naturalists hold that empirical information is essential to the normative function of epistemology (what Hilary Kornblith calls giving "epistemic advice").  A priori ideals of reasoning fail to provide useful epistemic advice to the extent that they ignore constraints on human physical and cognitive capacities (e.g., memory, attention, life span).

To understand this claim, it is necessary to notice that "normative" ideals are (to coin a Kantian phrase) hypothetical imperatives.  What is "justified" or "good" is not absolute (categorical), but good for some purpose.  Our cognitive capacities have been honed (by evolution and environmental factors) to be "good" for the environments in which we evolved and in which we interact on a daily basis.

To give useful epistemic advice, we need information about

1. how human beings actually form their beliefs;
2. what kinds of errors human beings are most liable to make; and
3. what limitations there are to human psychological processes.
The advice that results from this information will not always be what a priori ideals would dictate.

Objections to naturalism

1. Naturalism is circular or "question begging":  Naturalism attempts to evaluate beliefs and claims by means of the very machinery under evaluation.  At best, its claims about knowledge, whether in actuality true or false, are unjustified, because any flaws in our methods will prevent us from uncovering our errors.  At worst, we may simply conclude that our current reasoning practices are paradigms of proper belief formation when in fact they may be deeply flawed.

Naturalist reply: Neurath's boat

logical circularity: the naturalist does not infer from the global premise that scientific practice is justified to the global conclusion that our scientific findings count as knowledge.

epistemic circularity: rather than trying to establish the epistemic status of belief systems such as science all at once, naturalism examines only small portions of the epistemic territory at a time. In order to justify one set of claims, some other set must be taken for granted, at least temporarily.

In this way (baring the skeptical objection we have no reason to think that any of our cognitive machinery is functioning well), the project of evaluating one's own cognitive capacities by means of the capacities under evaluation can reveal problems in the cognitive machinery.

2. Naturalism is descriptive, not prescriptive: Naturalism is a descriptive enterprise; it can give us a descriptive account of our beliefs and/or their causes.  Epistemology, on the other hand, is a normative project; it asks whether people are justified in hold-ing their beliefs and whether those beliefs qualify as knowledge.

Epistemology is logically prior to science.  We must first figure out what makes beliefs justified, and in an a priori manner.  Until we do so, we have no way of judging if our current beliefs are a useful source of information about the beliefs we ought to have to have knowledge.

Naturalist reply (limited naturalism): we cannot infer from the above argument that science has no role to play in epistemology at all.  Prescriptions about knowledge must take into account human cognitive abilities and limitations.

Critic's rejoinder: the epistemological project nevertheless requires a prior account of how we ought to arrive at our beliefs.  Science will tell us how far human beings tend to be from the ideal and what might be required for getting them closer to the ideal.

Naturalist reply (unlimited naturalism): The a posteriori methods of science tell us not only what human beings are capable of, but the correct rules of epistemic justification as well.  We have the cognitive abilities we do because they help us to deal effectively with the world in which we live.  To understand how human beings come to have knowledge, we need to understand not only

a. how human cognitive abilities often and non-accidentally accord with facts about the external world, but
b. when they don't, why they don't.
It is not always going to be the case that when human cognitive capacities do not agree with a priori ideals it's because human beings are irrational; in some cases, the a priori rules themselves must be discarded.  Human cognitive capacities must be judged relative to our other ends as well.

Baergen, Ralph. Contemporary Epistemology, Harcourt Brace and Co, 1995.
Kornblith, Hilary. "Naturalistic Epistemology and its Critics," pp. 385-396. In Pojman, Louis P. (ed.) The Theory of Knowledge, Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1999.