Technology and Epistemic Possibility
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My aim in this paper is to give a philosophical analysis of the relationship between contingently available technology and the knowledge that it makes possible. My concern is with what specific subjects can know in practice, given their particular conditions, especially available technology, rather than what can be known “in principle” by a hypothetical entity like Laplace’s Demon. The argument has two parts. In the first, I’ll construct a novel account of epistemic possibility that incorporates two pragmatic conditions: responsibility and practicability. For example, whether subjects can gain knowledge depends in some circumstances on whether they have the capability of gathering relevant evidence. In turn, the possibility of undertaking such investigative activities depends in part on factors like ethical constraints, economical realities, and available technology. In the second part of the paper, I’ll introduce “technological possibility” to analyze the set of actions made possible by available technology. To help motivate the problem and later test my proposal, I’ll focus on a specific historical case, one of the earliest uses of digital electronic computers in a scientific investigation. I conclude that the epistemic possibility of gaining access to scientific knowledge about certain subjects depends (in some cases) on the technological possibility for making responsible investigations.
KeywordsEpistemic possibility Epistemic modality Technological possibility Responsibility Practicability
I would like to thank the audience at the 2011 meeting of the Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice for comments on portions of this paper. I also owe debts to Anjan Chakravartty, Boaz Miller, Eleanor Louson, an anonymous reviewer, and especially Greg Lusk for their comments and suggestions that have substantially improved the paper. This paper was completed while I was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto.
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