18 Back to Bacon

We should recall Bacon’s claim that “Knowledge itself is power.” In this chapter we have seen that a second way to answer the skeptic is by changing our view of knowledge from internalism to externalism and from foundationalism to epistemological holism. The result is that we should believe the world pretty much is as we already think it is, and we should make changes in our beliefs only when some tough evidence comes along that forces us to make a change. But consider the effect of such a view for society as a whole. On a great many topics and questions, most people will end up with a dominant view of what is known. There will be some people in the margins who disagree with the dominant view, but those of us holding the dominant view will discount their beliefs as easily as we brushed aside the view of the conspiracy theorist at the end of the previous section. Externalist epistemological holism (such a name!) seems to give us license to reject the claims to knowledge made by those in the margins. And this should worry us.


Of course, we might say that the same view also gives the groups in the margins license to continue to maintain their webs of belief in the same way that those who believe the dominant view are maintaining theirs (for ease of discussion in what follows, let’s simply call these two groups “the Margins” and “the Dominants”). But of course there is a considerable difference in power between the Margins and the Dominants. Who will decide what’s taught in public schools? Whose knowledge will inform policy decisions? Who will get the jobs and grants for research and development? The Dominants, of course. Note also that externalist epistemological holism does not offer any reason for thinking that the Dominant view is better justified or more thoroughly known or more true than the Margin view. The only justification for the Dominants overruling the Margins is the fact that they have the power to do so.


But let us not write off the Margins just yet. If the Margins are able to produce experiments or problems or questions that the Dominants must deal with in some way, there is the possibility for the Margins’ view to prevail. One might think here of the way in which Copernican astronomy (sun-centered solar universe) eventually replaced Ptolemaic astronomy (earth-centered universe). The history of this transition is long and complicated, but overall, when seen from high altitude, the Margin’s view outperformed the Dominant view by criteria the Dominants themselves shared (such as the value of accurate astronomical predictions). Similarly, the Darwinians overcame Aristotelian view in biology, and the Einsteinians overcame the Newtonians in physics.


And with these examples coming up, it is time to turn to science.


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