Epistemological Modesty… What?

I was listening to an interview with David Brooks the other day. The interview was conducted by, of all people, Alec Baldwin on “Here’s the Thing”, a show I discovered on public radio.

Alec Baldwin is a good actor for a certain kind of role, and can be quite funny, but we have learned things about him which are not very likable at all, right? But who knew that he was very intelligent and quite a good interviewer?

The David Brooks interview is very interesting and enlightening and I recommend it. But this post is mostly to point you to a highfalutin term for something that makes a lot of sense to me:

“The correct position is the one held by self-loathing intellectuals, like Isaiah Berlin, Edmund Burke, James Madison, Michael Oakeshott and others. These were pointy heads who understood the limits of what pointy heads can know. The phrase for this outlook is epistemological modesty, which would make a fine vanity license plate.

The idea is that the world is too complex for us to know, and therefore policies should be designed that take account of our ignorance.” (fromThe American Scene”, a blog I stumbled across when googling the phrase “Epistemological Modesty”)

Here is the David Brooks quote where I first encountered the phrase:

David Brooks: Yeah, so I was a lefty and I was assigned a book called “The Reflections of the Revolution in France” by Edmund Burke. And here is a guy saying you really shouldn’t think for yourself. The power of reason is weak. What you should do is rely on the just prejudices that have survived the test of time. And I just loathed that book, that idea — because I thought ‘I want to think for myself. I want to come up with my own ideas.’

But as I got older, and especially I became a police reporter covering crime, murders and rapes in the south side of Chicago, I began to see that he’s right. Our power of reason is weak. And part of the core of my conservatism is the phrase ‘epistemological modesty;’ the world is incredibly complicated; we can’t know much about it. We should be very suspicious that we can plan.” (from Here’s the Thing: David Brooks Transcript)

 Anyway, it’s kind of dangerous to be linking to blogs I never heard of or references to books that I might loathe, references to intellectuals like Isaiah Berlin, and so on: but who has the time to check all this stuff? I think the underlying concept of Epistemological Modesty is right on. (Now I got to go to look of the definition of epistemological. See u!)

A philosopher defends religion

I recently subscribed to the New York Review of Books. Not sure this was a good decision as the last thing I need is more stuff to read. I came to it because I kept seeing interesting articles from the NYRB come up on various blogs and searches. 

Here’s quite an interesting book review of “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism “. This sets the tone:

“One of the things atheists tend to believe is that modern science is on their side, whereas theism is in conflict with science: that, for example, belief in miracles is inconsistent with the scientific conception of natural law; faith as a basis of belief is inconsistent with the scientific conception of knowledge; belief that God created man in his own image is inconsistent with scientific explanations provided by the theory of evolution. In his absorbing new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism a distinguished analytic philosopher known for his contributions to metaphysics and theory of knowledge as well as to the philosophy of religion, turns this alleged opposition on its head. His overall claim is that “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” By naturalism he means the view that the world describable by the natural sciences is all that exists, and that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.” (from New York Review of Books)


This is actually a keynote to a conference, but it had some very interesting ideas in it. The article is called “The New Science of Morality” and it’s by Jonathan Haidt.

I don’t know if it makes full sense out of context, but read this section. It makes an important point and it might draw you into reading the whole thing.

“[…snip]Morality is like The Matrix, from the movie “The Matrix.” Morality is a consensual hallucination, and when you read the WEIRD people article, it’s like taking the red pill. You see, oh my God, I am in one particular matrix. But there are lots and lots of other matrices out there.

We happen to live in a matrix that places extraordinary value on reason and logic. So, the question arises, is our faith justified? Maybe ours is right and the others are wrong. What if reasoning really is the royal road to truth? If so, then maybe the situation is like chemistry after all. Maybe WEIRD morality, with this emphasis on individual rights and welfare, maybe it’s right, because we are the better reasoners. We had The Enlightenment. We are the heirs of The Enlightenment. Everyone else is sitting in darkness, giving credence to religion, superstition and tradition. So maybe our matrix is the right one.[…snip]” (from “The New Science of Morality” and it’s by Jonathan Haidt.)

If you liked that one, there are two referenced articles, also worth looking at:

Free Will

“That journey will provide reasons for resisting the claim that a deterministic view of the material universe is incompatible with free will. Much of the apparent power of deterministic arguments comes from their focusing on isolated actions, or even components of actions, that have been excised from their context in the world of the self, so that they are more easily caught in the net of material causation.” (from How Can I Possibly Be Free?)

This is from a really difficult article called “How Can I Possibly Be Free?” in the New Atlantis. At least it was really difficult for me to really appreciate the nuance of the argument. So it’s not a matter of agreeing or not, but it is a fascinating read. I recommend it (if you are into that kind of thing 🙂

p.s. The New Atlantis is an online magazine that I recently stumbled across. I have learned a lot from some of the articles (like this one “Getting Over the Code Delusion”)