Getting Licit Biases from Nature’s Proclivities

Many take it to be a truism that bias undermines the possibility of objective knowledge. Being biased requires taking on unfounded substantive assumptions about the way the world is. In contrast, objectivity is typically taken to require freeing ourselves from those assumptions and seeing the world from a neutral point of view. Contrary to this, in my dissertation, I argue that not only is it false that bias prevents objective knowledge, but, instead, is necessary for obtaining it. Moreover, once we fully appreciate the lessons to be learned from the previous claim, what emerges is an approach to philosophy that is both distinctively human and distinctively realist. Throughout my dissertation, I explore the consequences of seeing bias as a guarantor of, rather than an obstacle to, objectivity in central debates in epistemology, philosophy of science, and metaphysics.

The first chapters of my dissertation examine how biased ways of accessing the world require adopting particular views about the nature of justified belief and the norms of rationality. In the first chapter, Surcharges at the Epistemological Buffet I argue that biases play an ineliminable role in our inferential practices. This result demands an explanation of how it’s possible for our inferential practices to produce objective knowledge. I argue that what is needed is a way of distinguishing the biases which are conducive to knowledge from those that aren’t. Doing this requires adopting a radically externalist understanding of justified belief. This is because we can’t offer any particular prior justifying reasons for why the biases we make use of are knowledge-conducive. Thus, what must make some biases knowledge-conducive to deploy has to be the structure of the world. Further, I argue that the matching required between deployed biases and worldly structure is deeply contingent, in the sense that it can vary within a world through changes in how the environment is set up. I extend this argument in the second chapter, Ideal Suboptimality, to illuminate why trying to approximate ideal reasoners can be catastrophic in our intellectual progress. When we consider the advice “approximate the ideal!” this could mean that we should approximate the ideal procedures or should approximate the ideal results. Often it’s presupposed that approximating the procedural ideal is either the right advice to follow or it’s nearly equivalent to advising someone to approximate the ideal results. In contrast, I argue that it can often be the case that approximating ideal results requires departing from approximating the ideal procedure. Thus, when we see that the two can separate, we should adopt approaches which favor ideal results over ideal procedure.

The first two chapters lay the epistemic groundwork for my positive philosophical project. Importantly, I explain what differentiates the knowledge-conducive biases from the others. However, this leaves open how we should identify the knowledge-conducive biases. In the third chapter, Serendipitous Shortcomings or Auspicious Biases?, I provide a method to fulfill this later task. The method instructs us to (1) identify biased practices which lack a priori justification and then contextualize them in terms of whether they are (2) receptive to revision and (3) result in progress. Satisfying all three features is surprising enough to demand an explanation. Specifically, it demands that we posit an external explanation for why the biased practices result in successfully navigating the world. In particular, since what distinguishes knowledge-conducive biases is their match with the world, such explanations must account for how the world is such that our biases successfully its objective features. 

The discussion in the third chapter has important upshots for how we approach metaphysics. Namely, when one is interested in finding the joints of reality, one should focus on what our methods presuppose. In the fourth chapter, What in the World Makes that Work?, I develop an approach for testing ontological posits against successful biased methods. This is developed in both a positive and a negative approach. On the positive end, one looks at what ontological features are assumed by successful biased methods and posits that those are carving out distinctive features of reality. In contrast, the negative approaches consider a proposed ontology and see whether such ontologies either license unreliable methods or prescribe applying methods unreliably (i.e. in situations where they won’t achieve good results). I conclude with a discussion of how the positive approach can be used to motivate the existence of natural kinds. The fifth, and final, chapter, Extremely Unnatural: On the Incompatibility of Naturalist Methodology and Radical Ontology, applies the negative approach specified in the previous chapter to a range of eliminativist and permissivist approaches to material object ontology. The issue is that both radical eliminativism and radical permissivism is at odds with the methodology outlined in chapter three in different ways. In particular, Eliminativist metaphysics conflicts with the justification we have for making use of our best methods (because they make past posits irrelevant) while permissivist approaches fail by licensing illicit methods (because they make scientifically irrelevant posits relevant). Accordingly, we should adopt a more moderate and scientifically sensitive approach to material object ontology.