The ‘extendedness’ of scientific evidence

Philosophical Issues 24 (1):253-281 (2014)
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In recent years, the idea has been gaining ground that our traditional conceptions of knowledge and cognition are unduly limiting, in that they privilege what goes on inside the ‘skin and skull’ of an individual reasoner. Instead, it has been argued, knowledge and cognition need to be understood as embodied, situated, and extended. Whether these various interrelations and dependencies are ‘merely’ causal, or are in a more fundamental sense constitutive of knowledge and cognition, is as much a matter of controversy as the degree to which they pose a challenge to ‘traditional’ conceptions of cognition, knowledge and the mind. In this paper we argue that when the idea of ‘extendedness’ is applied to a core concept in epistemology and the philosophy of science—namely, scientific evidence—things appear to be on a much surer footing. The evidential status of data gathered through extended processes—including its utility as justification or warrant—do not seem to be weakened by virtue of being extended, but instead are often strengthened because of it. Indeed, it is often precisely by virtue of this extendedness that scientific evidence grounds knowledge claims, which individuals may subsequently ascribe to themselves. The functional equivalence between machine-based gathering, filtering, and processing of data and human interpretation and assessment is the crucial factor in deciding whether evidence has been gathered, rather than the distinction between intra- and extracranial processes or individual and social processes. To prioritize biological processes here, and to assert the superiority of human cognitive capacities seems both arbitrary and unwarranted with respect to gathering evidence, and ultimately would lead to an unattractive skepticism about many of the methods used in science to gather evidence. In other words, conceiving of scientific evidence as ‘impersonal’ not only better captures the character of evidence-gathering in practice, but also makes sense of a large amount of evidence-gathering that ‘personal’ accounts fail to either acknowledge or accurately describe. Whilst we suggest it is likely that all internally-distributed evidence-gathering processes are merely contingently internal processes, a significant number of externally-distributed evidence-gathering processes are necessarily externally-distributed. Some evidence can only be gathered by extended epistemic agents

Author Profiles

Axel Gelfert
Technische Universität Berlin
Eric T. Kerr
National University of Singapore


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