If there is a logical or epistemic barrier between the mind and nature, it not only prevents us from seeing out, it also blocks a view from the outside in.
– Donald Davidson

I worry that the closest I come to staying in touch with the real world is eating bits of it: the epistemology of food, so to speak.
David Pearce

The ‘epistemic barrier’ is a thing between the mind and the external world: the thing that makes it possible to say that we do not have any knowledge.2 It’s not very popular: there are dozens of arguments for why it isn’t there. (You can tell they didn’t work, because there are dozens of them and not one.)

Still, I (and the whole field) learned a lot about epistemology arguing about this stuff, and the thought still tickles me.3 So here’s what I think Pearce was getting at:

  1. The brain is made of food, ingested matter.
  2. Knowledge inheres in the brain.1
  3. So knowledge inheres in (metabolised) food.
  4. Food, like all matter, is of the external world.
  5. So the mind inheres in the external world.
  6. So there is no metaphysical barrier between mind and world.
  7. So there is no puzzle about the possibility of knowledge.

Clearly this does not defeat the radical sceptic in her original, Cartesian internalist problematic (“it’s an epistemic barrier, not a metaphysical one - I don’t grant (1) or (2) or (4)”). But one good candidate for a philosophical fact is: nothing can. The only way to win is not to play.

  1. Maybe not just in the brain, but that doesn't hurt the argument.
  2. In the sophisticated Pyrrhonian form, "...not even of this sceptical proposition".
  3. I don’t think I’m a brain in a vat. But I’m vaguely annoyed by knowing that an actual brain in a vat would think exactly the same thing for the same reason.

    ― Scott Alexander


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Tags: philosophy, epistemology, naturalism, argument, scepticism


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