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The (Not So) Spooky Philosophy of (Applied) Epistemology

By Nathanael Pierce, President of ASU’s Undergraduate Philosophy Club.

A few weeks ago, many philosophers partook of a long-held tradition. Donning togas, philosophers went to parties, chugged Hemlock like Socrates, and delved into conversations, making eyes roll with uncalled-for philosophical inquiries. But for everyone else, Halloween is a celebration of things not there. At least, things we are pretty sure aren’t there: ghosts, vampires, Maximus Prime, etc. Most would agree that throwing parties for the unreal should be reserved to one day a year, at most. So it can be surprising that a whole field of philosophy brings into doubt the reality of everything from barns, to hands, to the entire external world. Epistemology is what I’m referring to here, A.K.A., the theory of knowledge.

A quick survey of popular mind-experiments in epistemology reads like a horror movie. They include brains in vats, deceiving demons, clairvoyants, and creepy fake barns. How do we know we’re not being deceived by an evil demon – or aren’t just a brain in a vat being stimulated to have experiences by super-duper neuroscientists? How can we trust our perceptions? The critiques badgering and nitpicking common concepts, like justification and knowledge,  with elaborate mind-experiments drive some away from the field.

However, applying the theory of knowledge to contemporary issues is timely and important. Applied epistemology is defined by philosopher Larry Lauden as “the study of whether systems of investigation that purport to be seeking the truth are well engineered to lead to true beliefs about the world.”[1] This study is more relevant than ever in our Digital Age. Philosopher David Coady remarks that “as the sexual revolution and breakthroughs in reproductive technology have changed our moral landscape,” the “information revolution and the knowledge economy have radically changed the way that we acquire knowledge and justify our beliefs.”[2]

Epistemology can be applied to many of today’s most important issues. Beyond “fake news,” it can apply to building online search engines, innovative reforms in healthcare, and to the #MeToo movement. 

Googling “Epistemology” will give you 23,700,000 results (and 23,700,001, when this article is published). That is a massive amount of information! But who decided that Wikipedia would be the first result for me, beating millions of others? Computer programmers and data analysts, programming online search engines, are tasked with the difficult job of building software that filters each website, giving you the personalized best match to your search. For this, epistemology becomes a handy tool. In ciphering search results, programmers have to consider which epistemic values to regard most. Meaning, should websites with the most truth be forwarded? Or the ones most understandable? Those two values, truth and comprehensibility, don’t always go hand-in-hand. Imagine a child looking up “mitochondria,” finding only academic research papers! And even in some cases, such as looking up medical diagnoses, the truth is not as highly valued as merely avoiding falsity. Here having a strong foundation in epistemology can serve mightily in building software.[3]

Epistemology can also help “healthcare reform” in the sense of improving patient care. For example, a 1984 study found that, on average, it took only 14 seconds before a doctor would interrupt a patient just beginning to speak.[4] While the doctor may have had good intentions, like questioning for clarity, epistemologists would categorize this as “epistemic injustice.” First introduced by philosopher Miranda Fricker, an epistemic injustice is “a wrong done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower”.[5] Someone’s capacity as a knower can be weakened by negative stereotypes projected onto them by listeners. So, as a fragile patient sits down to tell what she knows, the physician could believe that her deductions are inherently weak, needing clarity. But this attitude leaves many patients, especially those with chronic health conditions, feeling detached and helpless in their care. 

A third area epistemology can advance are important social movements, such as the #MeToo Movement. Proponents of the movement, recognized by Time Magazine as the 2017 Person of the Year as “The Silence Breakers”, confront personally experienced sexual misconduct. Time Magazine says, “These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal… their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results: nearly every day, CEOs have been fired, moguls toppled, icons disgraced.”[6] Philosopher Kate Abramson elucidates how survivors are hushed into corners of silence.[7] Abramson uses the term “gaslighting” to describe a survivor’s suppressed experiences. Similar to Fricker’s epistemic injustice, gaslighting occurs when a survivor’s testimony is met by “that's crazy,” “it's not a big deal,” “you're overreacting,” and similar phrases. This pulls the epistemic rug out from beneath a testifier, destroying not only others’ belief in her, but her own belief in herself. An all too common occurrence, those who experience gaslighting can reach severe, major, clinical depression. But Abramson expresses hope, as depression is “a fitting evaluative response to what she has been subjected and the first signpost on the road back.” 

Now you know to be careful during next Halloween. Because it isn’t just those draped in togas that are philosophers. Applied epistemology brings philosophical discourse to real-world application. We philosophers could be anywhere. The one costumed as a computer nerd? Philosopher. The one with the stethoscope? That’s a philosopher! And the one holding a sign, dressed as an activist? You guessed it: philosopher.

What is Applied Philosophy? – A Student’s Take

By Nathanael Pierce, ASU Philosophy and History Major

Nathanael Pierce is President of ASU’s Undergraduate Philosophy Club: find us on Facebook.

The superiority complex from STEM friends. The unwanted spotlight in parties. Frantic mothers and disappointed fathers. It seems that all of this and more are common tribulations among philosophy students. At least, as many think, until you secure tenure. Then, high-fives all around.

Philosophy has had a bad rap. Its philosophers have been decried for corrupting the youth (Socrates), naively chasing off demons (Descartes), and creating the bloodlust of the last century (Nietzsche). Its practitioners have been homeless (Diogenes), and lived either long enough to be depressed (Kierkegaard) or long enough to go mad (again, Nietzsche). 

But the heart of antagonism towards philosophy stems from ignorance. Ignorance of this simple fact: philosophy is useful! And this fact deserves far more recognition than the one-time-only-mention-in-your-academic-advising-appointment treatment it often times receives. Thankfully, this is the axiom in the growing field of applied philosophy.

At Arizona State University, now recognized four years in a row as one of the world’s most innovative universities, applied philosophy is the blood in the veins of its Philosophy Ph.D. program. As the ASU Philosophy program defines it,

Applied philosophy includes both the application of theories developed within any of the subdisciplines of philosophy to everyday problems or phenomena and the application of research produced by methods used in other disciplines in order to understand and address philosophical questions.

How is philosophy applicable to “everyday problems or phenomena”? In many and surprising ways!

For example, Dr. Shawn Klein at ASU is general editor of Studies in the Philosophy of Sport and blogger/podcaster at SportsEthicist.com. Klein combines applied philosophy with sport analytics and similar fields. “Philosophy”, Klein says, “is essential here because it helps to get more precision in the concepts or brings out various assumptions or implicit premises.” His research and classes focus on the many ethical questions on and off the field of sport, such as:

- What is a sport, anyway?

- Considering the permanent debilitating physical toll many players receive from concussions, is enjoying American football ok?

- Should American football, if so dangerous, be allowed?

Interestingly, applied philosophy does not only inform sport, but the reverse is true as well. Sport, Klein says, “has become our universal text. The Ancient Greeks had the Iliad; the Early Moderns had Shakespeare, we have football.”

Another example of applied philosophy in action is Joan McGregor, ASU professor and head of the ongoing project, Dinner 2040: The Future of Food . McGregor is interested in exploring “avenues to a future food system which is more sustainable, respects the ecological integrity of the place, preserves cultural traditions, health, and ensures just practices in the production, distribution, and consumption of food.” This is an important project, considering that 700,000 Arizonans reside in areas without fresh and healthy foods available, sometimes traveling up to 100 miles to acquire nutritious food. 

Douglas Portmore, another ASU philosophy professor applies philosophical questions about morality, rationality, and the relationship between them to questions about posthumous harm:

- Is there an obligation to fulfill last wills and testaments?

- Can you wrong a dead person?

Those studying philosophy are equipped with analytical skills, such as logic and reasoning, which help them address such applied topics – and which show in their future careers. For those still skeptical, students who study philosophy are equipped with the skills needed to perform well in multiple functions – applying those skills to other areas. Looking at statistics from GRE scores, philosophy students rank highly in verbal reasoning, analytical writing, and more. Ironically, statistics from the GMAT scores, the test taken for business and management graduate schools, show that philosophy students outperform their peers who studied business-related degrees in their undergraduate years.

A philosophy degree is also a great tool to have for pursuing law. Philosophy students consistently have some of the best LSAT scores around. And, compared to other popular degrees, philosophy students are more likely to be accepted to law school

All this to say: philosophy is useful. So the next time brows are raised at the news of your philosophy degree and the ensuing question of your post-graduation plans arises, you have justifiable and legitimate reasons to reply that you plan on moving into sports analytics, wish to solve world hunger, or go into law. Applied philosophy is providing many academics, professionals, and students with the intellectual skill sets which only come from philosophy to dissect and solve many of the diverse challenges the world is facing today.