Epistemic Imperatives in Scientific Civilization

Friday 24 May 2024

Nick Nielsen
8 min readMay 26, 2024

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that, “Plato maintains a virtue-based eudaemonistic conception of ethics,” but it seems to me that the real take-away of Plato’s ethics is his unlikely intellectualist claim that knowledge is the good. This is especially associated with his dialogue Protagoras, but we find hints of it throughout Plato’s work. Unlike Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which is explicitly a virtue ethics, and which could be fairly called the foundation of all subsequent philosophical ethics, Plato’s ethics has always been a kind of philosophical sideshow, as no one really knows what to do with it, though we have all heard that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and that “no man sins knowingly,” and some among us find these to be edifying sentiments. Few among us, however, act upon epistemic imperatives, or are prepared to accept the implications of knowledge as the good. Ten years ago, in a blog post on 28 July 2014, I invoked this Platonic conception of the good as it relates to the vita contemplativa:

Platonic Confession. — Like all western philosophers, I am, at bottom, a Platonist, and as a Platonist I believe that knowledge is The Good, and furthermore that it is the responsibility of the philosopher who has seen with his own eyes the blinding light of The Good, which is knowledge, to return to the cave of shadows and to attempt to enlighten those still trapped below, however unwelcome this intervention may be.

If we take seriously the idea that knowledge is the good, it presents us with a number of problems, but it is also a highly suggestive ethic with potential applications, one of which is its applicability to a scientific civilization. I have argued that ours is not a scientific civilization, that a scientific civilization would take science as its central project, but many have claimed that ours is a scientific civilization. Certainly science plays a larger role in contemporary civilization than in any earlier civilization, and this role is crucial in the growth and maintenance of the economic infrastructure of industrial civilization.

Civilization today: Platonic? Scientific? Technological? Industrial?

We can’t do without science and keep everything going as it is today, but science is a subordinate institution that is forced into many compromises by its subordinate role. However, we can speculate on what a scientific civilization would look like, and we could even argue that our civilization is converging teleologically upon becoming a properly scientific civilization. I would not myself make this argument — I might make the argument that a scientific civilization is one possible future pathway of our civilization today, which is a different claim from the argument that we are now converging on being properly scientific — but a plausible argument could be made.

A peculiarly Platonic ethic, by which I mean its intellectualist character, and not its eudaemonistic virtue ethic character, would be uniquely suited to a properly scientific civilization. A scientific civilization would prioritize the growth of scientific knowledge over other ends. One can even imagine individuals giving their lives in an heroic endeavor to increase scientific knowledge. In fact, instances of this can be found throughout Western history, especially after the scientific revolution, but this has been the sacrifice of a small number of rare individuals who have themselves fully accepted that knowledge is the good, and a good worth risk and sacrifice. A hundred years ago, in the context of the race of the poles and the growth of logical empiricism, we might have been closer to being a properly scientific civilization than we are today, and in the subsequent century this intensity of commitment to knowledge has been lost. Perhaps Western civilization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was converging on a scientific civilization, but this proved to be a fragile teleology that was disrupted and derailed by the violence of the twentieth century.

Many men have risked their lives, and some have lost their lives, in the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

We also could argue that if science itself does not possess the gravity and substance to take its place as the central project of a civilization, a Platonic ethic could have this gravity and substance and, appropriately elaborated, could take its place as the central project of a civilization, and moreover that such a civilization, based on the principle that knowledge is the good (the epistemic imperative), would prioritize the growth of scientific knowledge (as well as other forms of knowledge) and would thus constitute a kind of de facto scientific civilization. Perhaps we could call this a Platonic civilization. However, as conceptions of knowledge change, the epistemic imperative would change, or it would be expressed differently. A civilization with the epistemic imperative as its central project might realize different forms of knowledge by turns, as conceptions of knowledge change, and scientific knowledge might be but one of these epistemic permutations that has its day and then is replaced by another epistemic permutation. (This invites a Kuhnian formulation.)

When Plato claimed that knowledge is the good, knowledge had a somewhat different meaning from what it has today, and science as we know it today did not yet exist, or, if you prefer, you could say that ancient science (and scientific knowledge) is distinct from contemporary science. Therefore Plato’s idea that knowledge is the good could not have been intended as a radical scientific ethic, exception in the most tenuous way — the way in which we today connect the thought of ancient Greece to contemporary scientific thought.

Plato’s divided line in the Republic, which subdivides and ranks the mind’s engagement with the world from the most insubstantial opinion to cognition that focuses exclusively upon the intelligible, does not map well onto scientific knowledge as we know it today. Plato’s careful epistemic taxonomy superficially resembles our contemporary effort to parse the reliability of scientific knowledge, but the interest is entirely different. Today we concern ourselves with degrees of probably, but Plato’s interest was in a metaphysical distinction between appearance and reality. His is an essentially metaphysical conception of knowledge that distinguishes the reality of knowledge from opinion, which is merely the appearance of knowledge. Plato would have emphatically rejected the contemporary claim that knowledge is justified true belief.

Contemporary scientific knowledge of the visible world remains, for Plato, mere opinion, at most only a step above the shadows on the wall of the cave in the allegory of the cave, and far short of emerging from the cave and seeing the forms as they truly are, in the light of the Good. We could even liken science to the part of the allegory when someone in the cave initially casts off their chains, turns around, and sees the figures being paraded between the fire and the wall of the cave, which have been casting the shadows which have previously been taken to be the only reality — thus the entire emancipation from the cave of shadows has yet to take place. (I also can imagine a Lovecraftian rewrite of the allegory of the cave in which the philosopher is driven mad by his quest to reach the Good, and he returns to the cave with a sense of relief and gratitude.)

It is sometimes said that Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics presents us with the first philosophical account of scientific thought, but the Posterior Analytics is all about deductive reasoning and never stoops to consider inductive reasoning. In other words, it is in the same vein as Plato’s conception of knowledge — true knowledge, genuine knowledge, is deductive, necessary, certain, and apodictic. One of Popper’s claims is that induction is bogus and that all science actually proceeds by deductive inference, and if we take this claim as valid, we could continue to claim that the Posterior Analytics is the foundation of scientific thought. This is not, however, the orthodox view of scientific knowledge. Carnap famously countered Popper’s arguments with what has been called a magisterial defense of induction. The debate continues.

If one maintains that knowledge is the good after the shift from the ancient conception of scientific knowledge to the modern conception of scientific knowledge, one has radically changed the meaning of this Platonic claim, and one can rightly ask if scientific knowledge understood as the good has any resemblance to Plato’s conception of knowledge as the good. One could argue that the Platonic paradigm still holds true for deductive knowledge, and has held good from Plato’s time to today, and we could even allow for developments in deductive knowledge since Plato, so that the scope of deductive knowledge is greatly expanded, and, with it, the scope of the good is greatly expanded. This would give us not merely an intellectualistic ethic, but a truly formal ethic, though formal in a different sense from the claim that Kant’s ethic is formal. While I find this to be an inspiring idea, it is much too narrow as an epistemic imperative for a scientific civilization. However, it might be one of the epistemic permutations of a Platonic civilization that takes on and puts off different forms knowledge over historical time.

As my conception of scientific knowledge has moved ever farther from a universalist paradigm, and I see scientific knowledge as constructed by human beings — not arbitrarily, to be sure, but constructed nevertheless in accordance with our human, all-too-human nature — I see the epistemic imperative associated with science differently. Indeed, from this perspective it appears all the more clearly how Enlightenment ideology managed to preempt if not displace the scientific imperative, as the human, all-too-human motivations present in the development of science reflect the ethos of wider society. In different societies, science develops differently if it develops at all. And if we were to encounter an extraterrestrial civilization, presumably both ours and their civilization equipped with an advanced technology, the technological emphasis would be different and the underlying science would be more different that we would expect on the basis of our universalist presuppositions.

We could construct any number of scientific civilizations, all of which observe the epistemic imperative, but with the epistemic imperative exercised upon different objects of knowledge employing different methods of inquiry. Again, this wouldn’t be arbitrary, any more than the science that serves human interests is arbitrary. The science and epistemic imperatives serving an exocivilization would follow from the alien, all-too-alien nature of the intelligent progenitor species. This would emphatically be the case in regard to alternative forms of emergent complexity, which the more they diverged from the familiar suite of emergent complexities of Earth, their imperatives and their sciences would diverge from the human construction of knowledge around our distinctive emergent complexities.

Alien science may be strange indeed, but on this cover it seems to be a pretext for tentacle porn.