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Evolutionary Epistemology: Evolution as a Knowledge Acquisition Process

Evolutionary or natural selection epistemologists have a point of view almost directly opposite to that of the closed-circle theorists (e.g., see Callebaut & Pinxten, 1987; Radnitzky & Bartley, 1987). Whereas closed-circle theorists such as Wittgenstein and Kuhn are arch anti evolutionists, evolutionary epistemologists hold that knowledge is the product of evolution, and that evolution at its core is a progressive and continuous knowledge acquisition process, in Popper's words, "from amoeba to man" following from natural selection. Every living thing has knowledge in the expectations on which its intentional behavior depends, and this knowledge as the consequence of natural selection is true (hypothetically) since if it were not the living thing in question would be dead. Thus while true knowledge to the closed-circle theorist follows from cultural authority under a particular paradigm, to the evolutionary epistemologist it is determined with respect to the performance of an epistemic agent in the world. Scientific knowledge is seen to be continuous with evolution by natural selection since it too involves a trial and error process of selection through the proposal and refutation of falsifiable hypotheses (Campbell, 1987).

Both Approaches are Cartesian at Their Cores

Closed-Circle Theory is the Cartesian Circle Regressed

Although closed-circle theory is often given as a kind of enlightened alternative to modernism, it is itself modernism carried to a certain post-Humean, post-Kantian, extremized conclusion-the Cartesian core is still there only wrapped in sociological packaging. More precisely, it is the Cartesian circle regressed from the individual to the cultural level. Regressed because the original epistemic problem of the Cartesian circle still remains, and by extending the idea to culture, a second one is added. Regressive moves of this kind are defining symptoms of what Lakatos (1970) has called "degenerative problem shifts", and they are inherent to dualist schemes. The various problems of closed-circle theory are of four main kinds which are all related.
1) The premises of closed-circle theory make it anti-evolutionary by definition, and it thus offers no account (nor cares to) of evolutionary dynamics, in particular, the directed and expansive nature of the epistemic or psychological dimension in evolution. Closed-circle theory is anti-evolutionary in two ways. The first is that because closed circles are incommensurable with each other there is no way to assert that they are part of any evolutionary process-no continuity over the discontinuity, and thus no ground to assert an ordinal measure with respect to the direction of time. From this perspective there is a deep incoherence in closed-circle theory as a history of science because it must rely implicitly on principles to state its position that it theoretically denies. Kuhn, for example, relies on a historical comparison of paradigms to claim that such paradigms are incomparable. In addition, while the history of science for Kuhn is taken to be constituted by paradigm shifts there is no principled way to address when or why such transformations should occur, or that they should appear in any particular order, e.g., Einstein's theory could just as well have preceded Newton's, the theory of oxygen that of phlogistan, or of heat that of the caloric.
The second way that closed-circle theory is anti-evolutionary is by grounding meaning in the intersubjective relation of humans. The consequence is similar to the consequence of Descartes' view of perception as a rational process which, when coupled with the further claim that only humans are capable of rational processes, took the entire psychological dimension away from the rest of life. Closed circle theory, while abandoning "the thing in itself", is a further extremization of the anthropocentric "revolution" of Kant which has the epistemic acts of humans, in effect, dictating reality to the rest of the world, which in the case of closed-circle theory is ideally created anew, and entirely at random, without rhyme or reason, with each new paradigm.
2) The formal causality postulated at the core of closed-circle ontology constitutes an illegitimate teleological principle with respect to accepted physical and biological principles. By making the fundamental reality the circularly defined cultural system, closed-circle theory substitutes "formal cause" (the form or shape of a thing, in this case the circular relations) for the usual efficient cause that constitutes the notion of causality in modern science. The components are determined by the dynamic functional ordering of the whole rather than the other way around.
But here arises the problem that has discredited virtually every one of closed-circle theory's functionalist ancestor's before it (see Turner and Maryanski, 1979)-by the most widely accepted principles of physics and biology, the end-directed behavior it invokes entails an illegitimate teleological principle. Downward causality, or formal cause, was removed from modern science, along with final cause, at its origins. Biology, one the one hand, rejects such causality because functional behavior is taken to follow from natural selection, and the functional ordering of closed circle systems, which are populations of one cannot follow from natural selection. Physics, on the other, has traditionally rejected such spontaneous ordering because the world, on the received view of the second law, has been taken to be collapsing to disorder.
3) The intersubjectivity at the core of closed-circle theory begs the old Cartesian questions and doubles the problem. The Cartesian circle follows logically from the first postulate of incommensurability and the claim that perception is by the mind of the mind. What I know indubitably, said Descartes, in his famous cogito ergo sum, is my own active self reflective mind. Claims about knowledge of an outside or objective world, on this view, are impossible, and claims for the existence of such a world, therefore, effectively irrelevant (since two incommensurable things have no causal efficacy with respect to one another), and on parsimony simply unenlightened superstition. By taking the idea of the self-reflective Cartesian circle and invoking it at the cultural level instantiated by the intersubjective relations of individual humans, closed-circle theory begs the original Cartesian questions and doubles the problem.
Briefly put, meanings for the closed circle theorist exist in the persistent and invariant relations constituted by the intersubjective relations that define the closed circle. To each individual, however, this requires persistent and invariant relations with an outside world, and this requires a non-Cartesian theory of perception. In short, intersubjectivity requires breaking the Cartesian circle since the individual mind is no longer simply perceiving itself, but something external in relation to which it comes to be determined or defined, and this requires the commensurability between knower and known which undercuts the ground of closed-circle theory-once the Cartesian circle is thus broken there is no longer any principled basis for it.
4) Closed-circle theory simply supports the status quo, a dubious distinction in a rapidly changing world. Closed-circle theory is sometimes taken to be enlightened because in its denial of a measure for the ordinal comparison of cultures it fosters an egalitarian view, but the idea of closed-system theory that truth is determined by the authority of a community carries a severe ideological price tag of its own since it makes no distinction between ways this epistemic authority is established. When taken to its logical conclusion there is no way to discriminate between truth obtained by scientific methods, by religious revelation, or authority achieved at gun point. Meaning and truth are simply determined by those in power, and given the incommensurability of various power structures operating under particular paradigms there is no way to compare or make a judgement about one with respect to another-pragmatism, conventionalism, instrumentalism, and so on, under this view can only serve, by definition, to reinforce hegemony, or the status quo, whatever it is.

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