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Roy Bhaskar [1] is credited with developing a version of Critical Realism [2] with applications in the social sciences.

What is the meaning of Roy Bhaskar's notion of epistemic fallacy (as distinct from [3]), briefly described in:

https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ces/research/current/socialtheory/maps/criticalrealism/

... where, according to Roy Bhaskar's thinking, it is stated that:

"The scientist's understanding is through epistemological constructivism and relativism. This is where the phrase Critical Realism originates from- the 'epistemic fallacy' that is reducing what we say is 'real' or exists (ontological statements) to what we can know or understand about the 'real' (epistemological statements). The real are the unobservable mechanisms that cause events. Epistemology and ontology are separate." [my bold]

While epistemology and ontology can be described as separate, I'm not convinced that they are separate: i.e. that what we can consider as real is necessarily independent of, or uninfluenced by, the ways we obtain knowledge of what it real. (I'm not a philosopher, but an interested physical/theoretical chemist.)

Thoughts on the question, from those more qualified. will be appreciated.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Bhaskar [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_realism_(philosophy_of_the_social_sciences) [3] ...as distinct from the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masked-man_fallacy

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    You would have done better to formulate a specific question about whether Bhaskar's argument that epistemology and ontology are separate is correct or what it means. Asking for thoughts is completely open-ended and so doesn't have an answer.
    – Ludwig V
    Nov 18, 2023 at 20:14
  • Thanks for the suggestions, Ludvig V. Edited to match.
    – iSeeker
    Nov 18, 2023 at 20:30
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    Wikipedia has an article on it under the name masked-man fallacy, and so does philosophy dictionary, although uses they have in mind are different from Bhaskar's. Bhaskar is essentially reformulating Kant's critique of identifying appearances with things in themselves in old metaphysics, which is pretty broadly accepted these days. But the point is not about what we consider real, that is obviously influenced by us, it is about uncritically identifying it with what is real.
    – Conifold
    Nov 18, 2023 at 20:32
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    We do not discuss personal views here, but many modern philosophers do agree with Kant and Bhaskar on this much: there is a distinction between our representations and what they represent, and they should not be conflated in reasoning. "Separate" is probably not the right word, epistemology and ontology are obviously interconnected. What is disputed is whether even our scientific representations capture the "real", if any, to a significant degree. Cultural relativists deny it, for example.
    – Conifold
    Nov 18, 2023 at 21:14
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    That's much better. I hope you are finding the answers helpful.
    – Ludwig V
    Nov 19, 2023 at 10:10

3 Answers 3

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They can be composed into a greater concept, regardless of how far from each other they are (and they're not as far as polar opposites!). That is, we can ask about what we know, what knowledge is, what is knowable, etc. Or we can ask about how we know whichever ontological theory is justified or true or at least adequate, etc.

The above situation is a manifestation of coherentism in epistemology, even. And similar loops of concepts show up when we try to situate, say, epistemology and normativity, or psychology and logic, or mathematics and physics, or many other pairs of things besides.

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    Thank you for this. I need to review my ideas in the light of the Coherentism/Foundationalism debate before replying further.
    – iSeeker
    Nov 21, 2023 at 11:55
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I will answer with an example.

There exist some interpretations of quantum mechanics. One of them is the many-worlds interpretation :

It is a philosophical position about how the mathematics used in quantum mechanics relates to physical reality. It asserts that the universal wave function is objectively real, and that ...

Whether you know quantum mechanics or not, is irrelevant here, the key point is that a mathematical construct (wave function) is considered as a "real" object by this position.

This is the epistemic fallacy that he is referring to: because a wave function does not exist, it's not "real", it's a construct; it's only what we can know or understand about the "real".

And you may now ask: Well what is the real thing, behind this wave function, behind this way that reality appears to us? So here comes ontology.

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  • (1 of 2) You say “This is the epistemic fallacy that he is referring to: because a wave function does not exist, it's not "real", it's a construct; it's only what we can know or understand about the "real".” If we can be certain that the w.f. is not real, then your example represents and epistemic fallacy in Bhaskar’s sense. Although the w.f. has a mathematical description, so also do objects that are generally recognised as ‘real’, such as Samuel Johnson’s stone in reply to Berkeley's immaterialism.
    – iSeeker
    Nov 19, 2023 at 14:20
  • (2 of 2) As you may know, there are other QM interpretations asserting that the w.f. is ontologically real – e.g. some proponents of Objective Collapse, and Bohm’s Pilot-wave. The ongoing debate about the reality of the w.f. illustrates my question as it seems to me that we only obtain knowledge of the (possibly real) w.f. by applying QM. As far as I can see there’s an interplay between epistemology and ontology – they’re not completely separable…(?)
    – iSeeker
    Nov 19, 2023 at 14:20
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    @iSeeker, I get your point. Ontology ask what exists. Epistemology asks how do we know. If from the answer of how do we know, we define the "what", then comes the fallacy. I agree though that both of them are somehow related. But ontology is not limited inside the strict context of the question. You can approach it from many different angles. Nov 19, 2023 at 17:01
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The point is that we necessarily experience, understand and know the world from a human perspective. There is a difference in principle between how things are and how we suppose they are, since our understanding of reality is a model created by our minds. In that sense there is an unbridgeable gulf between reality and our knowledge of it.

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  • I agree completely with your answer “In that sense”. But I think “that sense”, enabling us to make and appreciate that statement, comes ultimately from the epistemological approach to making sense of our collective experience. That, in turn, leads us to create the concept, subject to “the difference in principle”, of an ultimately unknowable reality. IMO, we realists generally (Bhaskar included) conveniently cut this ontological/epistemological Gordian knot by examining the problem from an imagined “God's eye view” while ignoring how we reached it.
    – iSeeker
    Nov 20, 2023 at 21:20
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    The problem is that your imagined God's eye view is an 'imagined by a human' one, so while you might hope it is neutral and objective, you can't be sure that it is not tainted, distorted or constrained by some inherent degree of human subjectivity. Nov 21, 2023 at 6:17
  • Again, I quite agree with you on this point. The imagined G.e.v. is hazy and lazy subjective thinking, and not to be taken seriously or trusted (though I think it's a trap that many of us easily fall into), which is why I doubt Bhaskar's separation of ontology and epistemology.
    – iSeeker
    Nov 21, 2023 at 10:54

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