I recently came across the following claim in a philosophy PhD dissertation I’m an examiner for:

what is epistemically inaccessible to scientists cannot be part of science.

The claim was stated without argument, and it appears that the reader is supposed to take the claim as clearly true. But the claim strikes me as questionable. I don’t have a substitute claim to put in its place, and I don’t have any really definite opinions here, but I thought I’d record some thoughts. 

Are quarks epistemically accessible? Are events in the distant future epstemically accessible? Is the beginning of the universe (if there was one) epistemically accessible? Scientists make claims about such things, though it is clear that the epistemic accessibility we have to such things is (at best) more limited then the epistemic accessibility we have to everyday aspects in our lives.

What about modal claims? Arguably, modal claims are part of the everyday aspects of our lives – for example, when we say something like “if you were to touch that hot stove, it would hurt”. But it’s not clear how we have epistemic access to such modal claims. We can look at the world and see what does happen, but how can we look at the world and see what would happen, were such-and-such to be the case? 

Some who think that God exists think that God is directly epistemically accessible, through for example revelation, or some spiritual experience. But others who think that God exists think that God is only epistemically accessible via more tangential means. For example, they hold that the way to get evidence for the existence of God is by for example learning about the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants of physics, or investigating the structure of a biological system and learning that it is irreducibly complex. How does that sort of limited epistemic accessibility compare to the epistemic accessibility we have to for example modal claims?

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