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Moral Moments

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Real Epistemology, or On Being Your Own Scientist

by Joel Marks

The words “and other” are a part of the name of this column because occasionally I like to discuss topics other than morality and ethics. Philosophy is generally thought to consist of three main areas of inquiry: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Ethics has to do, of course, with right and wrong and good and bad; metaphysics considers the nature of being, while epistemology tackles the problem of knowledge. A metaphysical question I have dealt with in this column is whether the ‘light’ of consciousness plays an important role in human existence, or could we get along just as well “in the dark”? (see Issue 44).

But what is this ‘problem’ of knowledge? The classic epistemic question was posed by René Descartes: How do I know that I am not now dreaming? He thought he had an answer to that question, and his Meditations do make for a mesmerizing read in this regard. I don’t think he succeeded, however. To me the question itself remains the philosophical nugget of his inquiry, for it leads us to consider our lives and the world in a whole new way.

As fascinating as such posers are, I believe that we encounter epistemological problems in our daily life that have practical significance, yet still partake of the insoluble nature of a perennial problem of philosophy. I call them ‘real epistemology.’ Let me now relate an extended example.

I suffer from a chronic health condition which causes me some pain on an ongoing basis, with occasional bouts of acute pain. I have seen many specialists about it, none of whom has a clue about its etiology. However, one doctor – a so-called pain specialist – suggested that I try a little brown pill that might anesthetize me to the pain. Lo and behold, it worked. He then suggested that this could be an important clue about the nature of the pain and advised me to consult another doctor in the most likely specialty.

I did so. Unfortunately, that specialist could only shrug his shoulders. He had no idea what the efficacy of the little brown pill could mean about my condition. I left it at that, since at least I had a ‘fix’ for the symptom if not for the disease itself.

Then one day I missed one of my thrice-daily doses. The pain did not return. So, on the principle that fewer pills are better than more, I decided to experiment with a reduced dosage. Things went along fine for awhile, but then some pain returned. I had really hoped that the condition might have corrected itself in the interim, but I was disappointed. Since the previous specialist could not help me, I sought out yet another specialist to try again to root out the underlying cause of the pain.

The first thing I asked this new doctor was whether I should return to the higher dosage of the little brown pills. His response came as a complete surprise: He instructed me to stop taking them altogether since they could not possibly be addressing my condition. When I spluttered my amazement at this denial of the plain facts, he dismissed my evidence as coincidental. My pain just happened to subside when I had started to take those pills. His scientifically grounded knowledge trumped my personal experience.

Well, I decided to follow his advice, and, lo and behold, my pain remained constant. This was hardly encouraging, but at least I wasn’t taking unnecessary pills. Meanwhile he was trying a new regime on me based on his hunch about my real problem.

More time went by. Nothing at all changed in my condition. Then I experienced another acute episode. I returned to the latest specialist. He dismissed this relapse as having no significance, said the pain would go away, and told me to return in thirty days. He thereby joined a long line of doctors who have ejected me from their offices when they had nothing more to offer me. (You can be sure that this will be the topic of a future ‘moral moment’.)

What now? I was in severe pain with nowhere to turn. I considered ‘alternative’ medicine, and am indeed now pursuing it. But I still wondered about that little brown pill, which had seemed to me to be so helpful in the past. So I took it upon myself to resume using it, and at the original dosage. Lo and behold, the pain went away in a day.

Now, here is the epistemological problem: Do I know that this pill works? On the one hand there is a medical doctor who denies that this is possible. On the other hand there is my experience. However, my experience is not scientific. For knowledge to be scientific it must be based on controlled observation, which in this case would mean having a ‘control condition’ as well as an ‘experimental condition’. That is, I would need to test whether my pain would have gone away even if I had not resumed taking the pills. But I cannot do that.

What one is trying to control for is the influence of other possible causes on the turn of events. Thus, a truly scientific trial tries to isolate a single ‘independent variable,’ but in real life that is seldom if ever possible. Thus, maybe my flare-up was dying out of its own accord at the very time I started to take the pills again. Also, there was a decided change of temperature (as summer finally took hold), that could well have affected my condition, which I have noticed in the past (or think I have noticed!) to be cold-sensitive. Also, various other of my mental and physical circumstances had been changing significantly during that same time period.

The moral of this epistemic moment: It is very hard to be your own scientist (not to mention, your own doctor). But I now swear by the little brown pill (and I’m ready to swear at that last doctor!).

© Joel Marks 2006

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. www.moralmoments.com

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