So, once again -- I think this question gets asked by various liberals at least ten times a year -- are conservatives nuts?

Serious thinkers on the right have finally gotten around to a full and open debate on the epistemic closure problem that's plaguing the conservative movement. The issue, to put it in terms that even I can understand, because I didn't study philosophy much in college: has the conservative base gone mad?
Fortunately, I did study philosophy a bit. Let's get clear on exactly what "epistemic closure" means.

Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an article here. If you don't want to work through it, though, the easy way to understand the issue is this: let's say you know a thing or two. Doesn't really matter how you know it, for our purposes: epistemology is the study of knowledge. Exactly how you come to know things, and what you can claim to know, are serious, deep subjects we can set aside for the moment. For now, let's say you do know something. What can you do with it?

Well, one thing we'd normally like to say that you can do with it is reason from it to other things you'd like to know about. You can make deductions, which is to say, you can reason down: I know that I have a dollar, so I know that I have some money (as a dollar is a kind of money). You can also make inferences: I know that I have a dollar, so I know that someone is printing money.

Closure is normally related to deduction. It is meant to have limits: there are only so many things I can deduce from a given piece of information. Once I have approached it from all possible sides, I've reached closure. This means that, given what I knew, if I have reached closure, there are some other things I ought to know.

This is the closure principle:
SP: If person S knows p, and p entails q, then S knows q.
Is that right? No; no one thinks it is. The interesting aspect of the question is how you can fail to know q, if you know p and p entails q. Are you making an error, or is it natural that people don't chase everything down logically? Why do people hold beliefs that might not sort logically?

What does all this mean? Well, one thing it means for the current debate is that people are throwing around a philosophical concept very loosely. The idea that is being put forward is that conservatives have accepted a 'closed set' of beliefs, and are not accepting as knowledge anything that is not entailed by that set of beliefs.

That's not what closure really means, though. Refusing to learn new things might be a kind of madness, but the closure principle has nothing to do with that.

I offer this just for the record. Speaking as someone who might be described as a conservative, and who actually does understand these terms that are being so blithely tossed about by people who (sometimes even openly admit that they) don't: you might be a little less cocksure about your claims.

Now, is it the case that conservatives refuse to learn anything new? Well, speaking only for myself -- assuming I qualify -- I find the idea laughable. You can think what you like, but thinking it doesn't make it true. (And how many of you bothered to look up "epistemic closure" this last week or so, before you used the phrase in your articles? Fine time to complain about other people not bothering to learn new ideas.)

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