The Limits of Reason: Cognitive Psychology, The Epistemological Crisis, and Epistemic Humility, #5.

Mr Nemo
13 min readJan 29, 2024

By Joseph Wayne Smith

(Palazzi, 2023)

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

1. Introduction

2. Background: The Cognitive Limits of Rationality

3. Cognitive Blindspots

4. The Myth of the All-Seeing Eye: The Limits of Perception

5. The Epistemological Crises

6. Conclusion

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The essay that follows is being published in six installments, one per section; this is the fifth installment.

But you can also download and read or share a .pdf of the complete text of the essay, including the REFERENCES, by scrolling to the bottom of this post and clicking on the Download tab.

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The Limits of Reason: Cognitive Psychology, The Epistemological Crisis, and Epistemic Humility, #5

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in. (Cohen, 1992)

How would we feel if science came up against experimental and intellectual brick walls, so that after centuries of trying, man finally concluded that the world was constructed — if upon intelligible principles at all — upon principles so bizarre as to be perfectly undiscoverable or unfathomable by the human mind? What if [humankind] became totally convinced that the world simply could not be understood, that the world is and always must remain an intellectual surd? Science might then continue at it pertains to technology, but not as it pertains to theory. What if all hope of theoretical understanding were permanently lost? (Davis, 1987: p. 293)

Only those who stop at the right moment prosper in philosophy, those who accept the limit and the comfort of a reasonable level of worry. Every problem, if one touches the bottom, leads to bankruptcy and leaves the intellect naked: No more questions and no more answers in a space without horizons. The questions turn against the mind which conceived them: It becomes their victim. Everything becomes hostile: [their] own solitude, [their] own audacity, absolute opacity, and the manifest nothingness. Woe to [that person] who, having reached a certain point of the essential, has not stopped! History shows that the thinkers who climbed to the limit of the ladder of questions, who laid their foot on the last rung, on that of the absurd, have given to posterity an example of sterility, whereas their peers, who stopped half-way, have fertilized the mind’s flow; they have been useful to their fellows, they have passed down some well-crafted idol, a few polished superstitions, a few errors dressed up as principles, and a system of hopes. (Cioran, 1949: pp. 115–116)

5. The Epistemological Crises

The concerns of this essay go beyond the above considerations about the scope and limits of human perception to look at a deeper, more challenging area of cognitive blind spots (Sorensen, 1988), if not blackholes, in our conceptual framework, and science, however fundamental (Smith, 1988b).

There is literature in most fields of study expressing concerns about the epistemological foundations of the respective disciplines. For example, psychology, has been said to have a crisis of reproducibility, with the frequent failure of replication of key research results (Ioannidis, 2008a; Simmons, 2011; Hartshorne et al., 2012; Everett & Earp, 2015; Freedman et al., 2015; Yong, 2015; Open Science Collaboration, 2015; Gilbert et al., 2016; Higginson & Munafò, 2016). As Pashler and Wagenmakers put it, there is

currently a crisis of confidence in psychological science reflecting an unprecedented level of doubt among practitioners about the reliability of research findings in the field. (Pashler & Wagenmakers, 2012: p. 528)

This problem, it has been argued, also exists in various areas of biological/biochemical research (Ioannidis & Trikalinos, 2005; Ioannidis, 2008b; Begley & Ellis, 2012; Button et al., 2013), including cancer science, where one research team was unable to replicate 47 of 53 “landmark” cancer publications (Begley & Ellis, 2012). Much of biomedical and other scientific research cannot be replicated (Baker, 2016).

The replication crisis has generated an enormous literature discussing the causes of the problem, and what can be done for improvements in scientific practice, so the issue cannot be lightly dismissed as being merely of technical academic interest, as argued by (Amrhein et al., 2019). However, while understanding the failure of replication is an important area of research for psychology and other sciences, behind this problem lies the issue of the justification of psychological methodology, especially statistical method, and misapplication, as well as the epistemological problem that:

a replicated phenomenon may not serve as a rigorous test of a theoretical hypothesis because identical operationalizations of variables in studies conducted at different times and with different subject populations might test different theoretical constructs. (Stroebe & Strack, 2014: p. 59)

It is a theoretical challenge to rescue such reference from indeterminacy. One recent proposal, already mentioned, has been made by Hanna, which is that what the reproducibility crisis has shown is that mainstream scientists and philosophers are mistaken in taking the idea of reproducibility as either a necessary or sufficient condition for the truth of empirical science (Hanna, 2023). Hanna argues that the large literature on irreproducibility is actually indicating that some type of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is at work, the Hanna Uncertainty Principle, whereby

the more precisely you measure an empirical scientific study’s original set-up conditions, the less you’re able to reproduce its original results, and conversely. (Hanna, 2023)

This is a novel idea well worthy of debate by all concerned about the reproducibility issue across the empirical sciences, but given the methodological conservativism, if not prejudice, of this community, I expect that ideas like this, however brilliant, will be unlikely to be seriously considered or even widely noticed.

John Ioannidis published a now iconic paper, “Why Most Published Research Findings are False” (Ioannidis, 2005a, 2005b), in which he argued that there is a high rate of non-replication, and failure of confirmation in many sciences, due to methodological limitations, such as doing one study based upon the methodology of statistical significance, with a p-value less than 0.05, if the significance tests are interpreted correctly mathematically at all (Selvin, 1957; Nunnally, 1960; Rozeboom, 1960; Lykken, 1968; Bakan, 1966; Morrison & Henkel eds., 1970; Carver, 1978; Glass et al., 1981; Guttman, 1985). Other researchers have agreed that Ioannidis is correct in saying that most published research is false (Tabarrok, 2005; Moonesinghe et al., 2007; Diekmann, 2011; Freedman, 2010). Similar concerns were raised before Ioannidis by J.B. de Long and K. Lang regarding economic propositions (de Long & Lang, 1992). In any case, in view of these results, this situation shows us what an epistemological crisis actually is: namely, a discipline-wide basic concern about the reliability of knowledge of that discipline (MacIntyre, 1977, 2006; Strohman, 1997; Wong, 1998; Rediehs, 2016; Balcomb, 2014; Sorti & Kaufman, 2018).

The important issue regarding epistemological crises in various disciplines is to explain how and why this situation exists. It is not the principal role of this present work to discuss the replication crisis in all its needed detail, but it will be noted that if there is no satisfactory unified account of why this crisis exists across a number of disciplines, then it is reasonable to take the fact of continuous epistemological crisis to show, as Dietrich and Fields have suggested in the context of limit paradoxes, intrinsic limitations of our capacity to understand reality. Either thesis plays havoc with spirited defences of the Enlightenment project, such as that given by Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now, (Pinker, 2018), whereby this literature is essentially a counter to the humanistic optimism of Pinker. Not only do we not know what we believe we know, but also we may well be heading towards the destruction of our species, or at least, of our civilization (McPherson & Schneider, 2019).

Perhaps the best illustration of a cognitive enterprise in a continuous state of epistemological crisis is supplied by philosophy, although at the same time there is a wealth of literature indicating that there is also intense theoretical anxiety about the rational justification of foundations in other fields (Denzin, 1996; Schwartz et al., 1999; Dougherty, 2008; Silva & Wyer, 2009), such as sociology (Sztompka, 2013; Smith, 2014), and even theoretical physics, where there is a logical incompatibility between the special and general theories of relativity, and quantum mechanics, so that physics as a discipline is logically inconsistent (Sorli & Kaufmann, 2018). The attempt to escape the inconsistency via string theory has produced an even deeper crisis, whereby it might not be possible, even in principle, to test a theory of such mathematical complexity. Empirical tests of a 26-dimensional reality might not be possible in our 3-D (or counting time, 4-D) world (Smolin, 2006).

For philosophy, the problem relates to the lack of consensus about virtually everything in the discipline, and the extreme level of theoretical pluralism and lack of justification of fundamental principles. This problem is of the conflict of the schools of thought of philosophy, and the seeming inability to make any progress at all, and was well presented by David Hume (1711–1776):

For I have already shown that the understanding, when it acts alone, and according to its most general principles, entirely subverts itself, and leaves not the lowest degree of evidence in any proposition, either in philosophy or common life. . .. The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? And on whom have I any influence? I am confronted with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron’d with the deepest darkness and utterly depriv’d of the use of every member and faculty. (Hume, 1978: pp. 267–269)

A contemporary view of the theoretical bankruptcy of philosophy has been put by Brennan:

[The Argument against Philosophy.] The goal of philosophy is to uncover certain truths. Radical dissensus shows that philosophical methods are imprecise and inaccurate. Philosophy continually leads experts with the highest degree of epistemic virtue, doing the very best they can, to accept a wide array of incompatible doctrines. Therefore, philosophy is an unreliable instrument for finding truth. A person who enters the field is highly unlikely to arrive at true answers to philosophical questions. (Brennan, 2010: p. 3)

This is well recognized as a problem for the entire discipline of philosophy that has not been solved, at least within the hyper-rational framework of Analytic philosophy (Chalmers, 2015). For example, in a way that’s also directly relevant to cognitive psychology, Dietrich and Hardcastle argue that the problem of consciousness is intractable, given the arguable failure of naturalistic, and dualist attempts to explain consciousness, and that since many metaphysical and epistemological problems are necessarily connected with consciousness, these problems are not solvable either, due to the limits of our understanding of conscious cognizing (Dietrich & Hardcastle, 2005).

Indeed, Eric Dietrich has argued that apart from developments in formal/mathematical logic and linguistic philosophy, philosophy has made no progress since the time of ancient Greece (Dietrich, 2011). Philosophy as a discipline remains current, and up-to-date, and some terminological changes occur, or becomes more precise, but the classical problems all remain in one form or another. Philosophy does not approximate “truth,” because perennial disagreements preclude any sort of consensus as allegedly found in the sciences such a physics (Smith, 1988a). What philosophical arguments do achieve, however, is the critical demolition of various positions, as philosophical arguments are primarily destructive, hence philosophers are the “Vandals and Visigoths of the intellectual world … the in-coming, Everest-sized asteroid streaking toward all that descent people hold dear,” so that

whatever you believe, no matter how obvious or fundamental, no matter who you are, or where, or when, there’s a good philosophical argument that your belief is false. (Dietrich, 2011: p. 337)

And perhaps even that principle is subject to the same skepticism, thereby creating a situation of epistemological indeterminacy.

This situation calls for a fundamental reworking of mainstream Western philosophy, as exemplified by Anglo-American Analytic philosophy, which has abandoned the ancient quest of providing wisdom for life, dealing with the problems of the human condition, in favor of being a poor, second-best Lockean “under-labourer” to the sciences, usually with physics worship and a religious faith in mechanism (Hanna, 2021). An alternative paradigm for philosophy has been proposed by Hanna, “life-shaping philosophy,” which embraces neo-organicism and anti-reductionism, and is also pluralistic in the sense of not seeing one big philosophical system as answering all questions about reality (Hanna, 2022b). From this perspective, disagreements, even fundamental ones, are no longer the bane of reason, but indications of the complexity of all that is, and perhaps, mysteries beyond the limits of thought (Smith, 1988b). But, more on this in another essay.

The epistemological crisis problem spills out into foundational disciplines such as mathematical logic, where there is contemporary debate about not only the proper philosophy of logic and mathematics, but whether ultimate principles such as the law of non-contradiction hold universally. In another essay, I’ve shown that one attempted consistency proof for Peano arithmetic, generates a proof theoretical paradox (Smith et al., 2023). It should also be mentioned that strengthened paradoxes, involving versions of Curry’s paradox, where any arbitrary proposition can be proven, remain unsolved, hence challenging the coherence of mathematical logic and mathematics (Carrara & Martino, 2011). This, and more, will be dealt with in another essay.

Another interesting illustration of concern about an epistemological crisis in a discipline is the present crisis of medicine, a concern that’s expressed both intellectually and in widespread practical terms, with the rise of alternative medicine and health approaches, exhibiting a general skepticism about pharmaceutical drugs. Thus, one recent critique has it that there have only been a few important drugs brought to market in recent times, and most others have been of questionable benefit (Angell, 2005; Le Fanu, 2018). Worse, according to even some mainstream respectable critics — there are many radical critics who say the same thing but are banished into the shadows, beyond the pale — the medical profession is “bought by the pharmaceutical industry,” and journal editors are often bribed to the tune of thousands of dollars (Relman & Angell, 2002; Liu et al., 2017). If that does not generate crisis anxiety, then nothing would.

Jacob Stegenga, in Medical Nihilism, (Stegenga, 2018), argues that most medical interventions are largely ineffective (outside of placebo effects). The argument is not that every medical treatment is ineffective — for example, setting broken bones (Harris, 2016) — but that numerous important expensive ones are indeed ineffective, such as antipsychotics, many antidepressants, and some blood pressure lowering drugs (Harris, 2016). While there is a large critical literature describing various limitations of many pharmaceuticals, Stegenga’s arguments are primarily methodological, criticizing the “malleability” of medical methods, whereby methodological choices are made about which constructs count as medical evidence, such that viewed with different methods, the same “data” can yield contradictory conclusions (Stegenga, 2018: p. 13). This medical nihilism, or more appropriately, named, medical skepticism, has been held by Ivan Illich (Illich, 1975) and Thomas McKeown (McKeown, 1976), who both held that the increase in human lifespan has not been primarily due to medical technology, but to better nutrition and public health measures. And then there is also Richard Horton, who wrote this lamentation of a scientific Job:

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results.” The Academy of Medical Sciences, Medical Research Council, and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have now put their reputational weight behind an investigation into these questionable research practices. The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few journals. Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations. Journals are not the only miscreants. Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication. National assessment procedures, such as the Research Excellence Framework, incentivise bad practices. And individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct. (Horton, 2015: p. 1380).

Richard Smith has given a sympathetic review of Medical Nihilism (Smith, 2018a), as has Jeremy Howick, who is critical of some aspects of the Stegenga critique (namely, that meta-analyses are ranked at the top of the evidence hierarchy), but accepts the main point that the prior probability of medical treatments being effective is low (Howick, 2018). Howick adds his own twist of skepticism, that it may not necessarily be medical methodology which is at fault, but rather that many contemporary treatments simply do not work, noting that a Cochrane Review found that even a rather common sense observation to the effect that that aspirin effectively dealt with tension headaches, was questionable (Derry et al., 2017), and that “it is legitimate to ask how we can know anything about medical interventions?” (Howick, 2018).

Other “establishment” critics (i.e. critics who are medically qualified professional academics) of modern medicine, see medicine “destroying” itself (Callahan & Nuland, 2011; Smith, 2018b), with a particularly telling critique by Seamus O’Mahony, Can Medicine be Cured? The Corruption of a Profession (O’Mahony, 2019), leading the way. This literature indicates a challenging level of skepticism about a vitally important institution of modern society, and that is but scratching the surface (Foss, 1989; Djulbegovic, et al., 2009). While it is not the purpose of this essay to endorse say, the medical nihilist thesis, or any wide-ranging skepticism about the foundations of medicine, the point to be made is that these problems do exist, that this extensive literature does exist, and that these problems and this literature do illustrate the type of foundational problems that can call a discipline or field of research into question through an epistemological crisis. Further, the examples of these sorts of foundational debates in an area of fundamental social importance such as medicine shows that the epistemological crises can be directly relevant to issues of human welfare, rather than mere matters of academic speculation and debate.

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.