Adrift On The Epistemic Ocean

Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg review the philosopher Thomas Nagel's new book, Mind and Cosmos, a critique of Darwinian naturalism. They find his arguments unconvincing, and offer an analogy for what and how we know about the world around us:

Philosophical naturalists often appeal to the metaphor of “Neurath’s Boat,” named after the philosopher who developed it. Our situation as inquirers trying to understand the world around us, according to Neurath, is like that of sailors who must rebuild their ship while at sea. These sailors do not have the option of abandoning the ship and rebuilding a new one from scratch. They must, instead, try to rebuild it piecemeal, all the time staying afloat on other parts of the ship on which they continue to depend. In epistemological terms, we are also “at sea”: we cannot abandon all the knowledge about the world we have acquired from the sciences and then ask what we really know or what is really rational. The sciences that have worked so well for us are precisely our benchmark for what we know and what is rational; they’re the things that are keeping us “afloat.” Extending this metaphor, we can say that Nagel is the sailor who says, “I know the ideal form a ship should take—it is intuitively obvious, I am confident in it—so let us jump into the ocean and start building it from scratch.”