A Brief Examination of Epistemic Clones

The subject of epistemic peers centers on a discussion of the criteria necessary for two individuals to be considered on equal epistemic footing—criteria including variables such as memory, intelligence, quality of evidence, depth of perception, sensory acuity, and communication skills (Gutting 83, and Kelly 170). A particularly interesting version of epistemic peerhood can be described as the “strict” account of epistemic peerhood, or the idea that two individuals can only truly be on the same epistemic plane if they have absolutely equivalent levels of the aforementioned variables; the purpose of this blog post is to provide several reasons for why a strict account of epistemic peerhood that is conceived in this way is not only infeasible, but unnecessary.

First, we must have our epistemic peers. Following this strict definition, it seems plausible that all relevant epistemic features will be equivalent only if they are quite literally identical. Thus, I take discussion of epistemic peers in this context to be talk of epistemic clones: for the sake of the argument, imagine that there is a device that is capable of instantaneously making a perfect biological copy of whatever object passes through it, and that a certain individual named Tom enters the machine, generating Thom, an epistemic clone that shares the mental and sensory faculties of the original, in addition to all experiential and propositional information.

Even at the outset of the thought experiment, an immediate objection might be raised: “what purpose does discussion of epistemic clones have in the weighing of factors that comprise knowing? Do epistemic clones provide any explanatory power or value?” Under a strict account of epistemic peerhood, this objection appears formidable. After all, by definition, Tom and Thom will be essentially identical, implying that examination of the former will encompass examination of the latter. If there is no way of meaningfully contrasting the epistemic status of each individual—by dint of their shared identity—it is difficult to pinpoint how an analysis of epistemic clones can do any work in determining what criteria are particularly important in establishing a certain level of epistemic credibility. In other words, by presupposing that two individuals are essentially interchangeable, a strict account of epistemic peers loses any ability to make meaningful assessments based upon divergent epistemological characteristics.

Another limitation with this strict account of epistemic peerhood is the evanescence of its salience, even within the thought experiment: Tom and Thom are epistemically and ontologically identical only at the moment of Thom’s generation—immediately afterwards, variations in sensory input, in addition to the mental processing of that sense data, will ensure nonanalogous internal states and external behavior for both Tom and Thom. Importantly, there are several reasons to be skeptical of the extent to which Tom and Thom differ. Given their status as ontological clones, it might be argued that any minute experiential differences will be negligible, as the commonalities between the two are already quite extensive. One might even postulate that regression to a state of homeostasis for both individuals prevents any great future divergence. There is reason to think that broadly differential outcomes are attributable exclusively to nature, even if based upon an accumulation of infinitesimal divergences over time; however, given the stringent conditions of a strict account of epistemic peerhood, any difference in shared experiences—not to mention the presumable variance in other mental faculties over time—is sufficient to violate the criteria necessary for Tom and Thom to remain epistemic peers.

There is undoubtedly a niche for the examination of epistemic clones, provided that some epistemically relevant variable is not held constant—take, for example, a modification of the thought experiment that holds everything ceteris paribus save shared experience—however, I believe that the aforementioned objections provide adequate justification for doubting the practical and necessary status of this strict account of epistemic peerhood. Much more work remains to be done concerning the criteria necessary for epistemic peerhood, and I hope that the points raised in this blog post have made some small contribution to that end.


Works Cited

Gutting, Gary. Religious Belief and Religious Skepticism. University of Notre Dame Pr., 1983. 2. Kelly, Thomas. “The Epistemic Significance of Disagreement.” Oxford Studies in Epistemology, vol. 1, pp. 167–196.

January 7, 2019
Connor Sullivan