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Epistemology and Its Consequences

If you are a consumer of media and don’t think about epistemology, you might as well not be thinking at all. Epistemology is the philosophy of how we determine what is true and what isn’t. Or perhaps it is about how we can gain sufficient confidence to believe that something is true. The study of knowledge is, after all, a complicated subject.

The epistemology I am most interested in right now is the epistemology of our virtual experiences. Transhumanists like to consider whether we live inside a simulation. A simpler and more informative query is: how do we know what we experience through media isn’t a simulation? Media, be it video, audio, pictorial, live performance, or written content, creates a virtual world in our minds. That world isn’t real, but is it sufficiently in concordance with reality that it is helpful for understanding the broader world?

To ask these types of questions is to cast doubt on fundamental pillars of modern society. But even when not taken to extremes, asking about the basis of knowledge helps us to critically analyze the media. After all, the same news media that spent weeks telling the public that “masks don’t work” to prevent the spread of coronavirus because you can’t figure out how to fit an N95 mask perfectly are now bringing on lifestyle vloggers to show you how to make a mask out of hair ties and a bandana. The efficacy of masks didn’t change; so what changed that caused the media to flip its script with no explanation?

Continually ask questions about what you believe and what you are asked to believe, and what standards of evidence are used, and you will peer through the veil and see much more clearly than you did before. That doesn’t mean you have to start disbelieving every mainstream source, and it certainly doesn’t mean you need to embrace fringe sources; but it does mean you should examine why you believe the things that you believe, and you should especially examine what other people want you to believe, and what justification they provide for you to believe it. You should also be very cognizant of how those standards change.

Now, epistemology isn’t just important for yourself. The epistemology that others utilize is of utmost importance for understanding why people believe the things they do, and what means might exist to persuade them. During the Kavanaugh hearings, there was a chorus of “believe all women”. Now that Biden is being accused of something worse (groping an employee vs. groping a peer) by a more credible source (a former employee vs. someone the same age in the same town), the chorus is silent. Given these data points, how does feminist epistemology function? Of course, what you’ll find is that most of the epistemology in public discourse boils down to “who?, whom?”. Minimize evidence that contradicts your world view, maximize evidence that supports it.

So far I’ve raised lots of questions and not provided many answers. Having read lots of philosophy, thought hard about these types of questions, and carefully examined myself, I feel that I’m left with the conclusion that Socrates concisely gives in The Apology, that knowing the limits of your knowledge is far better than having vast knowledge which is unexamined.

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