Epistemic failures

The branch of philosophy concerned with what we know, and how we know that we know it, is called epistemology — and the grotesque failure of the Republican Party into madness is at last causing some public discussion of it.

Political scientist Lee Drutman argues in a Vox essay that American politics is descending into what he calls “doom-loop partisanship.” Drutman notes that Americans have been “retreating into our separate tribal epistemologies, each with their own increasingly incompatible set of facts and first premises,” each heavily racialized, in which “[t]here’s no possibility for rational debate or middle-ground compromise. Just two sorted teams, with no overlap, no cross-cutting identities, and with everyone’s personal sense of status constantly on the line.”

Here’s an example of it that I’ve given in the past, but it bears repeating: When an engineer sits down to analyze a problem, or a design, every single line of the analysis has a pedigree. The Pythagorean theorem can be traced back to ~ 600 B.C., and the rest of the geometry can be traced back to Euclid’s Elements. The physics can be traced back to Isaac Newton, and so can the calculus. My specialty is soil mechanics, and every equation can be traced back to an observation made by a specific individual on a specific date, and then through a long series of follow-up experiments conducted by specific individuals on specific dates with specific observations; and then challenges, and more experiments conducted by particular individuals who have names, and with particular results.

For every single line of the analysis, there is a long, well-documented and debated continuum of observations, tests, refinements, more tests, more refinements.

But Holy Men, who can’t even prove that god exists, or that the Bible enjoys the authorization of the god they can’t prove exists, don’t think twice about going around claiming “God wants this” or “God condemns that.” Religion has no epistemic standards. None. That’s why they teach that faith — belief without evidence — is a virtue, and why religion kills people every single day even as the list of marvels created by scientists and engineers grows longer every single day.

With Jerry Falwell’s founding of the Moral Majority in 1979, conservative Christianity united behind a movement that had no epistemology, no way of knowing — and the Republican Party promptly whored itself to the movement. The political party that was once the home of education and achievement and forward-looking pragmatism became the party of mindless shibboleths. Indeed, the Republicans have become the political arm of, basically, a regional religious and racist movement — the old Moral Majority and the southern Dixiecrats.

I love the expression “tribal epistemologies,” but it isn’t actually accurate; the Republicans have abandoned epistemology, with the result that they have no intellectual standards whatever.

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