Home > Philosophy, Science, Skepticism > Epistemology -Philosophy and Exercise Pt. 1

Epistemology -Philosophy and Exercise Pt. 1

This is a post from my personal training blog – on health and fitness – I decided it covered enough of the same ground as this blog to include it. Enjoy!

When reading Venuto’s book, The Bodyfat Solution I was struck by how well he promoted a robust epistemology, for those of you who don’t know what that word means, please allow me to define it for you:

Epistemology (Greek, epistèmè, knowledge) The theory of knowledge. Its central questions include the origin of knowledge; the place of experience in generating knowledge, and the place of reason in doing so; the relationship between knowledge and certainty, and between knowledge and the possibility of error; the possibility of universal skepticism; and the changing forms of knowledge that arise from the conceptualization of the world. (Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 118, 2008)

Basically it is how we come to know things, how we come about knowledge – what structures, tools and methods we use – for example, science and philosophy are tools of epistemology. Belief is a part of this too as it is a subset of knowledge – our beliefs about the world, generally, reflect how robust our theory of knowledge is. As Sam Harris states in his book The Moral Landscape:

The human brain is an engine of belief. Our minds continually consume, produce, and attempt to integrate ideas about ourselves and the world that purport to be true: Iran is developing nuclear weapons; the seasonal flu can be spread through casual contact; I actually look better with grey hair. What must we do to believe such statements? What, in other words, must a brain do to accept propositions as true? This question marks the intersection of many fields: psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, economics, political science and even jurisprudence… We form beliefs about facts: belief in this sense constitutes most of what we know about the world – through science, history, journalism etc. (Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 14, 2010)

Venuto has a great, succinct list of “eight reasons we are susceptible to weight-loss myths” that I want to cover in a pt. 2 of this series, but for today let us turn to historian and philosopher Richard C. Carrier, from his book Sense and Goodness Without God for a little look at just why we would need a method to evaluate claims:

Why? Because anything you intend to investigate, or assert, first requires that you have some criteria on hand to distinguish the true from the false – or in the most basic sense, what can reasonably be asserted and believed, and what cannot. In other words, if you ever assert something (“My wife is a brunette” or “Truth is good”), are you being reasonable? Do you have reasons to trust you are right about that? (Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God, p. 23, 2005)

Carrier continues stating that before we even begin to believe, or assert anything there are 3 steps we need to take: firstly we need to have some sound and clear idea of what we are investigating or asserting, for example “What is a ‘wife’ or a ‘brunette’? What is ‘truth’? What does ‘good’ mean?” Secondly Carrier states that we must have a sound and good idea of how we would go about discovering whether it can be asserted or believed, for example: “How do I prove my wife is a brunette or that truth is good?” Lastly, and perhaps most importantly – you must actually follow through with that procedure, before asserting anything.  (Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God, p. 23, 2005)

Why is all this important? As Venuto will demonstrate in our next post, science is a complex method of knowledge – there are many people, institutes and authoritarians in the exercise science field (just as an example) who are promoting supplements, exercise programs, life choices, health choices etc that are not backed by reputable, reliable, peer-reviewed scientific literature. It is important, as consumers to distinguish between something we have a good basis to purchase, in reality – and something that we think has a good basis for purchase, but is actually based on fallacious reasoning – both on our part, and of the part of the person selling us a product. You may still be asking why that’s bad? Allow philosopher Michael Martin from his book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification to answer that for me:

… it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe in anything on insufficient evidence… believing on insufficient evidence has a variety of harmful consequences. It corrupts our character, undermines public confidence, leads to irresponsible action and fosters self-deception.” (Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, p. 33, 1990)

If , for example, you buy a supplement from someone you think to be reputable, but have spent no time researching or even coming to understand what it is you’re looking for – you leave yourself open to be taken advantage of, to be sold an invariably expensive placebo, or worst case scenario? Something harmful and ineffective. Moreover you’re buying the supplement based on the person selling you somethings authority – this is a fallacy known as an appeal to authority, and Venuto will discuss it a little in the next post.

Now, to the discerning reader, it may seem as if I’m making a distinction between believing for beneficial reasons (as in buying a supplement that is a placebo) versus believing for epistemic reasons (as in buying a supplement because it is backed by reliable, peer-reviewed literature). Martin argues that epistemic reasons for belief are superior to beneficial reasons in most circumstances. I shall paraphrase his argument in light of a sports science focus.

Whatever benefits are given to us by positive belief in the placebo effect of an ineffective supplement are mitigated by the negative effects on one’s entire belief system – re: how we operate in the world when we form beliefs based on what is beneficial to us in the face of negative evidence demonstrating the falsity of, say, the supplement mentioned (i.e the fact that it is a placebo). This is why we have a strong moral obligation to base our beliefs on epistemic reasons, rather than beneficial ones – not simply because we may be duped, but moreover because we leave ourselves open to harm (as in the case of a harmful supplement).

Just before we finish up today it is worth noting that when we talk of epistemic reasons for belief, for having a robust epistemology – certainly no one is saying that you will be right 100% of the time, or that if you apply the principles described herein that you will never get duped – or more importantly that we, as humans have access to absolute and inviolable truth. I tend to side with Kai Nielsen when he states in his book Atheism and Philosophy:

There is nothing that can be established to be absolutely true or that can have an unconditional warrant. What is justifiable and what is not is time and place dependent… truth is time dependent and confirmation (justification or warrant more generally) is time dependent. (Nielsen, Atheism and Philosophy, p. 21, 2005)

Now – allow me to qualify – it is generally considered true that we can have some certain answers in mathematics and logic (errors in reasoning and logic will be covered in the next post) – there are established practices in mathematics whereby we can show a claim (10 + 10 = 20 is Nielsen’s example) is warranted. But anything less than that and we are always open to some uncertainty, hence we don’t, generally accept absolute truth.

Stick with me for part 2 of our look at discerning truth from falsity.


Blackburn S. (2008).  The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition).  New York. Oxford University Press. P. 118.

Carrier R. C.  (2005).  Sense and Goodness without God. Bloomington, Indiana. Arthur House. Pp. 23.

Harris S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, New York.  Free Press. Pp. 14.

Martin M. (1990). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia. Temple University Press. P. 33.

Nielsen K. (2005). Atheism and Philosophy. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. P. 21.

Categories: Philosophy, Science, Skepticism
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