My take on Street Epistomology

HI Anthony,

Thanks for your invites to the FB groups…most certainly will join. Just in case you don’t remember this is Steve McRae the owner of the Great Debate Community on G+ and friends with Ozy. For full disclosure I am a temporal agnostic (not an atheist, yes it is possible!), but tend to side with the atheist/secular/skeptics on a vast majority of things…basically a temporal agnostic is like a soft atheist, but with IMHO better epistemic justification. 🙂

Myself and 2 others including Ozy had an off air on this topic (Part I?) to discuss SE. It really was a great discussion. I most certainly can see the merit of this type of approach, by getting people to see if their beliefs are justified. I use similar approaches as well, but ironically I find that it often atheists who have very little justification (if any or any proper justification) for holding their positions, or suspension of judgement on the theist claim. (Which would love to discuss further with you as I want atheist to have better arguments!)

This is the “critique” I wrote that we all discussed:

Street epistemology is the non-combative approach of fostering organic conversations between two interlocutors by use of the Socratic method in an attempt to have someone evaluate their beliefs and knowledge claims to determine if they comport with reality. The method is a free-form, non-scripted dialog where the street epistemologist (usually an atheist) solicits a claim from the person being interviewed which is then discussed to see if there is sufficient warrant to justify the belief that the claim is true and how it relates ontologically to the universe. In other words, if someone holds that a particular proposition is true, there is a tacit relationship between the truth of the proposition to a fact what holds true as a existential condition of the universe. By directed questioning the person having their beliefs examined is guided to have their beliefs looked at from an epistemic justification perspective of an evidentialist focusing heavily upon empiricism. The hope being to foster critical thinking and a bit of skepticism for beliefs that do not have sufficient justificatory reason to be believed. In addition the process by which a person comes to holding a particular belief or position of a claim is looked at to see if the method they use is reliable enough to justify holding the belief.

I have mix feelings about the process of street epistemology, not saying at all that I don’t see the value of it, nor that it doesn’t or can not produce effective results if the goal is to have a person self-reflect upon their personal beliefs to question why they hold those beliefs. If one assumes that someone wants their beliefs to be true, and if that is something that is important to them, then it seemingly can be an effective tool to get people to question their beliefs…however, being that it is clearly agenda driven aside (to have theist question the existence of God), there does seem to to be some questionable as to not just the method, but the effectiveness of the results. I am in no way am implying there is any type of deception or street epistemology is mendacious in any way, but I am just applying the same critical eye focused on the street epistemological approach as a whole.

One thing that stands out to me is the clear message that evidence and the scientific method should be the standard by which someone can judge if they have a proper epistemological framework and that their thought processes are rational, leading to a veridical belief that comports with with reality. This of course raises the question of what one accepts as having knowledge of reality? Empiricism in able to derive knowledge from experience must still be predicated upon some type of theory of justification…which seems to just be completely sidestepped in street epistemology. Of course, it is far more likely that this is due to the subject being a bit beyond the after person being stopped on the street, but if one is talking about epistemics then to ignore the very foundation of how one comes about justifying if their beliefs are true as a theory of justification seems to me counterproductive. If I want to know what is true, I have to have some reference from which I can build an epistemic framework…personally I subscribe to foundationalism, meaning I take reality to be an axiomatic true, a brute fact or properly basic belief. There is no possible way I can use empiricism to determine if my belief that reality is correct or not, and it would be circular reasoning to even try to use empiricism as such…but according to the reasoning of street epistemology, this would mean my belief that reality is real is unjustified. But according to the theory of justification I prefer, it is fully justified. This presents to me as quite an internal problem with the methodology when one of the interlocutors is someone like myself holding to foundationalism, and I would suspect would be just as applicable to other theories of justification such as coherentism and foundherentism.

Another problem I seem to see is the approach being from an evidentialism position, effectively eliminated theories of knowledge like pragmatism and prudentialism. In a non-evidentialist view, or perhaps even a moderate evidentialist viewpoint…one can be justified to hold a particular belief with out having empirical evidence to support it, or in some cases even having physical evidence to the contrary. To limit oneself to strictly to empiricism neglects so many other positions, including rationalism, that can justify one holding a particular belief…and of course, the average person on the street is not going be aware of these types of justificatory theories, meaning that they kinda being boxed into a corner, not aware of rational paths that exist that lead to doors that can be opened to keep their belief justified.

Now, this doesn’t mean I don’t see merit in street epistemology. I am not even saying I would mind dabbling it in it a bit myself if I could, but perhaps in more of a expansive way to not just to get people to think about their beliefs…but also an educational tool to explain a bit about epistemics with in the same amount of time constraints. How can someone truly be a critical thinker if they don’t start at the very foundations from which they build their belief system from? Jumping into just a simple analysis of a specific belief to me is akin to attacking a symptom, but not treating the disease. However, I would be interested in seeing what effectiveness street epistemology has as far as the data regarding people changing their position, not just temporary, as well as the data if any of having detrimental effects due to the “backfire” effect, which is always in play even with the most innocuous of approaches to having a discourse about someones beliefs.

What would be even more interesting to see, would be seeing a street epistemological asking a atheist who believes God does not exist, that ontologically the universe is devoid of God using the same methodology? What is the empirical evidence they would use to justify their belief that God does not exist if that is what as being touted as the most reliable way to determine if ones beliefs are true. If anyone knows of a video of this happening, I would be appreciative if the could forward it to me.

Again, I do not wish to seem like I am negatively criticizing street epistemology as a whole…as I am actually quite entertained by it and have been binge watching many street epistemology videos. This is just my personal skepticism being applied to the method and belief that street epistemology is effective as exactly street epistemological does with those they have interactions with.


Steve McRae

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