Hostile Epistemology

Social Philosophy Today 39:9-32 (2023)
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Hostile epistemology is the study of how environmental features exploit our cognitive vulnerabilities. I am particularly interested in those vulnerabilities arise from the basic character of our epistemic lives. We are finite beings with limited cognitive resources, perpetually forced to reasoning a rush. I focus on two sources of unavoidable vulnerability. First, we need to use cognitive shortcuts and heuristics to manage our limited time and attention. But hostile forces can always game the gap between the heuristic and the ideal. Second, we need to trust others, and trust makes us vulnerable. In particular, we need to trust experts whose expertise lies beyond our individual ability to vet. So we must rely on various imperfect signals and proxies, like institutional affiliation, to manage our trust. We are forced to use these imperfect and exploitable forms of reasoning, in order to cope with a cognitively overwhelming world. I present the hostile epistemology framework as a counterbalance to vice epistemology, which tends to locate responsibility for bad beliefs in the character of the believer. I draw two conclusions from my analysis. First: suppose we accept that that only communities and institutions can know about the world. This deeply social approach doesn’t solve the problem of expert identification. The individual still faces a problem: given their incomplete understanding, how should the individual pick which group to trust? Second: we might have hoped to get some kind of static picture of the right principles of reasoning — but hostile epistemology presents a different picture. We have to use risky heuristics and shortcuts, which hostile forces can game and exploit. We can respond by shifting to a different set of heuristics, but this simply shifts the location of our vulnerabilities. These new heuristics are also exploitable. There is no end to this, only a constant struggle to adapt. Limited beings in a hostile epistemic environment are locked in an unending epistemic arms race.

Author's Profile

C. Thi Nguyen
University of Utah


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