Twice now, in the short span of one week, I've been reminded on social media that I should be more humble when arguing — that I lack epistemic humility.
Occasion 1: I was criticizing current practices of scientific peer-review, which systematically marginalize philosophical challenges to the reductionist-mechanistic status quo in biology. My arguments were labeled "one-sided," my philosophical work a mere "opinion piece," and I was accused of "seeing windmills everywhere," unable to reflect on my own delusions.
Occasion 2: I was reacting to the glib statement by a colleague (clearly intended to shut down an ongoing conversation) that "brains are strictly computers, not just metaphorically." This burst of hot air was not backed up by any deeper reasoning or evidence. It never is. When calling out his bullshit, I was reminded to "engage in good faith" and to "consider that I might be wrong."
These two situations are intimately connected: it is a sad fact that the large majority of biologists and neuroscientists today is not properly educated in philosophical thinking, and never ponders the philosophical foundations of their assumptions. The problem is: most of these assumptions are literally bullshit, a term I do not use as an insult, but in its philosophical sense, meaning "speech intended to persuade without regard for truth." These days, it seems to me, we often use bullshit even to persuade ourselves.
I've called the fuzzy conglomeration of ideas that make up the "philosophy" of contemporary reductionist life- and neuroscience naïve realism, and have discussed its problems in detail before (see also this preprint). Let's just say that it is philosophically unsound and totally outdated. Because of that, it has become a real impediment to progress in science.
Yet, despite all this, the zombie carcass of reductionist mechanicism (and its relative: computationalism) is kept standing behind a wall of silence, a lack of questioning ourselves, enforced by the frantic pace of our current academic research environment, which leaves no time for reflection, and a publication system that gives philosophical challenges to the mainstream ideology no chance to be seen or to be discussed in front of a wider audience.
This has been going on, getting increasingly and significantly worse, over the entire 25-year span of my research career. But no worries, I'll keep shouting into the void.
So, what about epistemic humility, then? Why would I think I have a point while everybody else is wrong? Well, the truth is that the accusations hurtled against me are deeply ironic. To understand why, we need to talk about a very common confusion concerning the question of when we ought to be humble. This is an important problem in our crazy times.
It is of utmost importance to be epistemically humble when building your own worldview, when considering your own assumptions. This is why I stick to something called naturalist philosophy of science. You can read up on it in detail here or here, if you are interested. In brief, it is based on the fundamental assumption that we are all limited beings, that our knowledge is always fallible, and that the world is fundamentally beyond or grasp. Still, science can give us the best (most robust) knowledge possible given our idiosyncrasies, biases, and limitations, so we'd better stick to the insights it generates, revising our worldview whenever the evidence changes. Naturalism is the embodied practice of epistemic humility.
At the heart of contemporary naturalist philosophy is scientific perspectivism. There are great books by philosophers Ron Giere, Bill Wimsatt, and Michela Massimi about it that are all very accessible to scientists. The basic point is this: you cannot step out of your head, you cannot get a "view from nowhere," not as an individual and not as a society or scientific community. Our view of the world will always be, well, our view, with all the problems and limitations that entails. Scientific knowledge is constructed, but (and this is the crux of the matter here), it is not arbitrary.
Perspectivism is not "anything goes," or "knowledge is just discourse and power games." It does not mean that everybody is entitled to their own opinion! My philosopher friend Dan calls this kind of pluralism, where anyone's view is as good as anyone else's, group-hug pluralism. Richard Bernstein calls it flabby, contrasting it with a more engaged pluralism: it is very well possible, at least locally and in our given situation, to tell whether some perspective connects to reality, or whether it completely fails to do so.
And this is exactly where we should not be humble. Even though my personal philosophy is fundamentally based on epistemic humility, I can call bullshit when I see it. The prevalent reductionism and computationalism in biology and neuroscience, propped up by an academic and peer-review system designed to avoid criticism, self-reflection, and open discussion, are hollow, vacuous constructs with no deeper philosophical meaning or foundation. That's why its proponents almost always shy away from confrontation. That's how they hide their unfounded assumptions. This is how they propagate their delusional worldview further and further.
And delusional it is. Completely detached from reality. To explain in detail why that is will take an entire book. The main point is: I have carefully elaborated arguments for my worldview. It may be wrong. In fact, I've never claimed it is right or the only way to see the world. I'm a perspectivist after all. It would be absurd for me to do so. But I call out people who do not have any arguments to justify their philosophical assumptions, yet are 100% convinced they are right. These people are trapped in their own model of the world. It is not epistemic humility to refrain from calling them out. It is just group-hug pluralism.
The problem with group-hugs right now is that reductionism and computationalism are very dangerous worldviews. They are not just the manifestation of harmless philosophical ignorance on behalf of some busy scientist. They are world-destroying ideologies. This may sound like hyperbole, but it isn't. Again, it'll take a whole book to lay out this argument in detail. But the core of the problem is simple: these philosophies treat the world as if it were a machine. This is not an accurate view. It is not a healthy view. It is at the heart of our hubris, our illusion that we can control the world. It is used to justify our exploitative self-destructive modern society. It urgently needs to change.
This change will not come from being nice to the man-child, the savant idiot, the narrow-minded fachidiot, who is the one that is not ready or willing to engage the world with humility. The problem is not that I do not understand their views or needs. I understand them all too well: they want to hide from the real world in their feeble little mental models of the world. And they're out to destroy.
Treating the world as a machine helps them pretend the world is their oyster, that they are in control. They loathe unpredictability, mysteries, unintended side-effects, even though all these things undeniably laugh in their faces, all of the time. It is only their bullshit ideology that enables them to pretend these obvious things do not exist. And they are very powerful. They are the majority in our fields of research. They run the tech industry. They influence our politicians and create the AI that is disrupting our lives and societies. We must fight them, and their delusions, if humanity is to survive.
You know what? Screw epistemic humility in this context. Their ideology does not make sense. It's bullshit, and ours is an existential fight. We cannot afford to lose it. It is courage not humility we need right now. Just like the paradox of tolerance, this is one of the great conundrums of our time: we must defend epistemic humility with conviction against those who do not understand it, who do not want it, and who will never have it.
Life beyond dogma!