Epistemic Agents

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Who can be a bearer of a mosaic? Can a community be a bearer of a mosaic? Can an individual be a bearer of a mosaic? Can an instrument be a bearer of a mosaic?

An agent is defined as an entity with a capacity to act.1 The actions in question for an epistemic agent are epistemic actions such as taking stances towards epistemic elements or being the bearer of a scientific mosaic. The question at issue is who or what can be an epistemic agent. Can individuals be epistemic agents, or communities, or perhaps artificial systems such as databases or instruments? For example, consider a community that delegates authority over a certain topic to its sub-community. Then this sub-community delegates authority over a sub-topic of this topic to its sub-sub-community. Finally, this sub-sub-community delegates one very specific question to a single expert. Does this mean that an individual scientist can be an epistemic agent?

In the scientonomic context, this question was first formulated by Hakob Barseghyan and Kevin Zheng in 2016. The question is currently accepted as a legitimate topic for discussion by Scientonomy community. Epistemic Agents - Communities (Barseghyan-2015) is currently accepted by Scientonomy community as the best available answer to the question. It is formulated as: "Only a community can be the bearer of a scientific mosaic."

Broader History

Individual human beings

For most of the history of western science and philosophy, human individuals were treated as the sole or primary epistemic agents. The question of how to explain and justify the capacities of human individuals as epistemic agents has long been of interest. In the early modern period, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) 23 and John Locke (1711-1776) 4 produced classic works on these matters. Their theory of ideas maintained that all of our experiences were of ideas in our own minds, some of these ideas being caused by our senses. Descartes maintained that he could show through reason alone that our senses, being the gifts of an omnibenevolent God, were reliable sources of knowledge about an external world of material objects.

Descartes maintained that he could show through reason alone that our senses were reliable sources of know seeking to explain and justify the capacities of human individuals as epistemic agents. Discussion of the role of social interaction in the production of knowledge was confined largely to discussion of when one should accept the testimony of others. This took place, for example, in the works of David Hume (1711-1776) and Thomas Reid (1710-1796).5 Beginning in the nineteenth century, the concept that groups of interacting human individuals can function collectively as epistemic agents with a role distinct from their individual parts began to receive increasing attention.

Human groups

In the eighteenth century David Hume argued that certain knowledge was impossible, and that we could only assess the probability of our beliefs. He argued for the role of acceptance by a social community in assessing these probabilities. He wrote that: "No algebraist or mathematician is so expert in his science that he places complete confidence in any truth immediately on discovering it, or regards it ·initially· as more than merely probable. Every time he runs over his proofs, his confidence increases; but still more by the approval of his friends; and it is brought to full perfection by the universal assent and applause of the learned world."6p. 93

The nineteenth century British philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) argued, in a political essay called On Liberty (1859),7 that because individual human knowers are fallible, critical discussion of ideas between persons with differing views is necessary to help individuals avoid the falsity or partiality of beliefs framed in the context of only one point of view. For Mill, then, the achievement of knowledge is thus a social rather than an individual matter, and human groups can function as epistemic agents.8 The American philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) emphasized the instigation of doubt and critical interaction within a community as means to knowledge. He formulated a consensual theory of truth, in which the acceptance of the truth of a proposition depends on the agreement of a community of inquirers, and that only reality can typically produce such agreement. For Peirce then, communities are epistemic agents that can take stances towards propositions.98

The epidemiologist Ludwik Fleck (1896-1961) made one of the first attempts to apply the concept of communities as epistemic agents specifically to the process of scientific change. In Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (1935)10, he argued that cognition was necessarily a collective social activity, since it depends on prior knowledge obtained from other people. New ideas arise within collective epistemic agents which he called thought collectives; groups of people who participate in the mutual exchange of ideas. As an emergent consequence of mutual understandings and misunderstandings within such a group, a particular thought style arises, which determines how individual members of the thought collective think and perceive within the relevant domain. Scientific facts are socially constructed by thought collectives interacting with the world through observation and experiment, and can be revised or abandoned based on these interactions.1011

Karl Popper (1902-1994)1213 advocated a falsificationist view of theory assessment, and, like Pierce, stressed the importance of criticism in the production of knowledge. For Popper, members of a scientific community attempt to demonstrate the inadequacies of one another's theories by finding observational shortcomings or conceptual flaws. This is, necessarily, a community activity in which the community acts as an epistemic agent either accepting or rejecting a theory based on the outcome of such attempts. The outcome is that only the most empirically adequate and conceptually sound theories survive such community scrutiny. Since this process resembles that of biological evolution by natural selection, it is called evolutionary epistemology.8

The role of social communities as epistemic agents was also stressed by Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.14 Kuhn maintained that the work of a scientific community was united by adherence to a paradigm of shared beliefs, practices, and exemplars. The paradigm guided puzzle solving research to explain more phenomena in its terms. In the course of such research, anomalies may arise. Anomalies were phenomena that resisted explanation in terms of the theories, methods, and epistemic values that constituted the paradigm. Persistent anomalies could sometimes lead to a scientific revolution, in which the paradigm was displaced by a rival framework. 815 For individual scientists, Kuhn emphasized the non-rational aspects of paradigm choice, comparing it to a religious conversion experience or a gestalt shift. 14 However, he later discussed the role of shared epistemic values in paradigm choice by communities. 16 Imre Lakatos (1922-1974) and Larry Laudan (1941-) did not share Kuhn's holism with respect to paradigms. They instead wrote of communities of scientists united by research programs consisting of groups of related theories. Individual scientists chose to adopt or abandon such programs, which could co-exist. 17

Interest in communities as epistemic agents was also spurred by the increasing prevalence of large scientific research groups during the second half of the twentieth century. During World War II, the Manhattan Project involved large numbers of theoretical and experimental physicists working at several sites to produce the atomic bomb for the United States. 8

Sociologists of science placed a greater emphasis on the role of non-rational social factors, such as political and professional power structures, in the production of scientific knowledge than did Kuhn. 181920

Non-human animals

Scientific Instruments

Scientonomic History

Acceptance Record

Here is the complete acceptance record of this question (it includes all the instances when the question was accepted as a legitimate topic for discussion by a community):
CommunityAccepted FromAcceptance IndicatorsStill AcceptedAccepted UntilRejection Indicators
Scientonomy1 March 2016It was acknowledged as an open question by the Scientonomy Seminar 2016.Yes

All Theories

The following theories have attempted to answer this question:
TheoryFormulationFormulated In
Epistemic Agents - Communities (Barseghyan-2015)Only a community can be the bearer of a scientific mosaic.2015
Epistemic Agents - Communities and Individuals (Patton-2019)There are two types of epistemic agents – individual and communal.2019

If an answer to this question is missing, please click here to add it.

Accepted Theories

The following theories have been accepted as answers to this question:
CommunityTheoryAccepted FromAccepted Until
ScientonomyEpistemic Agents - Communities (Barseghyan-2015)1 January 2016

Suggested Modifications

Here is a list of modifications concerning this topic:
ModificationCommunityDate SuggestedSummaryVerdictVerdict RationaleDate Assessed
Sciento-2019-0015Scientonomy26 December 2019Accept that there are two types of epistemic agents – individual and communal. Also accept the question of applicability of the laws of scientific change to individuals as a legitimate topic of scientonomic inquiry.Open

Current View

In Scientonomy, the accepted answer to the question is Epistemic Agents - Communities (Barseghyan-2015).

Epistemic Agents - Communities (Barseghyan-2015) states: "Only a community can be the bearer of a scientific mosaic." There is only one type of epistemic agents that can bear a mosaic - community.21pp. 43-52 As for individual epistemic agents, their status and role in the process of scientific change is unclear; thus, individuals are left out of the ontology of epistemic agents.

Related Topics

This question is a subquestion of Ontology of Scientific Change. It has the following sub-topic(s):

This topic is also related to the following topic(s):


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