Posts Tagged ‘epistemology’

The Content of Evidence

In experiments, skepticism on 16/10/2011 at 1:03 pm

As one begins most murder mysteries, a victim is found dead in a room. A detective finds a security camera that shows only John Doe entering and leaving the room at the time of the murder. The forensics lab then calls to tell the detective that John Doe’s DNA was found on the rim of a glass in the room.

Q: In light of the DNA on the glass, should the detective now give more credence to the hypothesis that John Doe is the murderer?


Popper on Uncertain Truth

In popper on 13/10/2011 at 4:17 am


On Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology

In plantinga on 12/10/2011 at 9:08 am

Tyler Wunder on Why Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology Fails [.mp3, 99.7 MB]


It’s Worse Being Green

In empiricism, induction, justificationism, underdetermination on 12/10/2011 at 5:19 am

In It’s Not Easy Being Grue, I argued for skepticism — or at least incredulity — towards any inductive inference made solely by appealing to a posteriori evidence. Two hypotheses, as long as they have a logical content greater than the evidence and are not yet refuted are, as a matter of following the rules of logic, necessarily equally favored by the evidence. Even if one should appeal to one of the two hypotheses having a natural property, this problem still stands, since it cannot be uncovered through a posteriori investigation. Of course, more than two hypotheses fit this criteria — any number of empirically adequate hypotheses with greater logical content than the evidence may be constructed. In sum, favoring one hypothesis over another, even with an a prior warrant, cannot be determined from a posteriori evidence at all.

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It’s Not Easy Being Grue

In empiricism, experiments, induction, quine, skepticism, underdetermination on 10/10/2011 at 1:52 am

One solution to Goodman’s new riddle of induction, as proposed by David Lewis and WVO Quine, is that certain languages describe natural properties, which have a special metaphysical status. All things being equal, the evidence will favor the hypothesis that uses languages that have natural properties over any other language in all cases. The problem of choosing between hypotheses that will be favored by the evidence and hypotheses that will not is solved by choosing a hypothesis expressed in a language that uses natural properties. There is, however, a problem with this solution: how can a scientist decide whether a language is using a natural property?

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Reasons for Reasons

In critical rationalism on 09/10/2011 at 4:10 am

I suggest reading Michael Lynch’s article in the New York Times Opinionator blog before reading past the break.

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In critical rationalism, empiricism, the ancient greeks, xenophanes on 05/10/2011 at 4:27 am

The imagination has made more discoveries than the eye. (Joseph Joubert)

We make a conjecture, a guess. We make tentative proposals, and then see how they work. If they don’t withstand criticism, we try again, either making an iteration on the initial theory, or making a drastic revision that explains why the initial theory was mistaken. If they withstand criticism, this says nothing about their truth or falsity. What happens, though, before the criticism?

Anaximander, the first scientist, said the Earth was unsupported in space. From the modern point of view, we do not understand that at the time this was a highly controversial supposition, one that went against the firm foundation of the senses. It is obvious (and I rarely use the word, for very few things are truly obvious) that this was something Anaximander could not possibly have observed. Here we have one of the most revolutionary conjectures, for while it happened to be true (or at least approximately true), it is the first known case of an individual going against the assumption that the senses were the final arbiters of the truth.

Anaximander deduced that if the Earth was supported on pillars, or the back of a turtle, or four elephants, or water, that the pillars, turtle, elephants, or water would themselves require some support. And this new support would require a support as well, and so on, in an infinite regress of supports. So Anaximander did away with the whole notion of support entirely and said that the Earth did not rest on anything.

The eye and the ear are notoriously unreliable, but more importantly, they do not give us any interesting theories. Cosmology does not come from the senses; cosmology is created from the mind. Here we have the first scientist acting — unwittingly, and centuries before the 18th century — as a Kantian, not an empiricist. Science began without empiricism, for empiricism in science is unnecessary and possibly unproductive.


The Sea

In neurath, skepticism on 15/09/2011 at 7:14 am

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction. (Otto Neurath)

The epistemic pessimist values avoiding error over acquiring information. As a result, the pessimist is unwilling to ask information on Prom Night to dance for fear of the potential rejection. Don’t forget your inhaler!

The epistemic optimist values acquiring information over avoiding error. As a result, the optimist falls in love with information, even if the information should be erroneous. There’s gold in that thar valley between her thighs. What of a communicable disease?

What if one were to resolve this tension not as Neurath did, but as follows: one neither fears nor loves information; one depersonalizes information. One feels no attachment or repulsion: one uses the information and sees where it leads. Only then can one decide if the information is worthwhile. One uses information, for that is all one has.

You’re lost at sea during a great storm, grasping floating wreckage. No need to be picky. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps or replace beams one by one anymore. Everything you’ve built is gone now, most of it sinking quickly below the waves. You catch anything that passes within reach. It’s life or death. You need a raft, or a lifeboat, or anything to jury-rig a sail. You need to make it through the storm. Anything will do, until it doesn’t. Any information will work, until it doesn’t work. And if it doesn’t, if it begins to pull you under the waves, cast it aside and replace it with another piece of flotsam floating by in the storm.


The Evolution of Ideas

In critical rationalism on 12/09/2011 at 11:43 pm

While the abstract kingdom stands at a yet greater distance above the biosphere than the latter does above the nonliving universe, ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role. (Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity)



In gellner on 10/09/2011 at 2:51 pm

When there was a recognized final Authority and intellectual court of appeal, the professional thinker could perform a useful function and he could do so with dignity — especially if the authoritative truths were available in a Holy Writ, and literacy which gave access to it was a specialist accomplishment which he did not share with all and sundry. Surrogate final sources of truth have since been sought — the Inner Light of Reason, Experience, History, Nature – but unfortunately these ladies do not speak with a clear, single or unambiguous voice.” (Ernest Gellner, Words and Things, p. 13)


Van Fraassen on Technology

In van fraassen on 07/09/2011 at 6:10 am

Note to self…

There’s one huge problem I have with Bas Van Fraassen’s argument against realism of scientific entities: I have myopia, and have to wear glasses all the time. What clear distinction can I make between using glasses to fix my myopia and using a magnifying glass to see cells? In both cases, I would use a piece of theory-laden technology to improve upon my evolved senses. It might be said that my myopia is, at least in this case, an outlier, as would someone that is born deaf requiring a cochlear implant. The general senses of a community is what matters, not any particular individual. This looks like, at least to me, to be an ad hoc solution: we’re dealing with things in middle-world that are, I should hope, deserving of a stronger epistemological status than atoms. The use of glasses is a technological fix, rather than a widening of my epistemological horizons. But then we return to the problem: where is the hard distinction between a pair of glasses and a magnifying glass?

Imagine that the human race had instead evolved a set of eyes that were far more exact than an eagle’s. The veil surrounding the atom would be pierced. But would it? Our senses are designed only for adequacy, and frequently do not track the truth. The difference between the eagle-eyed race of humans and our own would be what, exactly? Their ‘technology’ has undergone a process of conjecture and refutation on the species-level, refining particular tools over billions of years. Our technology has undergone the same process, but on a different level, the theoretical level. While the differences are superficial, since one is to a large extent innate and the other manufactured, this difference does not extend to the level of epistemological warrant. Why should innate senses be elevated over acquired senses?

Here is the rub: I think Van Fraassen’s argument doesn’t just apply only to the very small, but to any and all possible objects. All sensory experience is theory-laden, not just technological ‘experience’. While there is an extra step between seeing a read-out on a Geiger counter and seeing an apple, none of the two are on surer epistemological footing (think of Plantinga). Van Fraassen’s argument then, if we wish to be conservative in the properties, relations between properties, and objects in our epistemological bag, applies not just to theoretical scientific entities, but to theoretical everyday entities. We ought to be as strongly against realism of the everyday.


It Works!

In fideism on 02/09/2011 at 7:16 am

A friend just sent me this interview of Gov. Rick Perry …

I’ve cleaned up the relevant parts of the interview, scrubbing Perry’s horrible speaking style so that it’s somewhat understandable.

Interviewer: … Why does Texas continue with abstinence education programs when they don’t seem to be working … ?

Perry: Abstinence works.

Interviewer: But … we have the third highest teen pregnancy rate among all states in the country. … It doesn’t seem to be working.

Perry: It works. Maybe it’s the way it’s being taught or the way it’s being applied out there, but the fact of the matter is, it is the best form to teach our children.

I should preface this by noting that Perry is not talking about the act of abstaining from sex. Yes, of course that prevents STDs and pregnancies in teenagers. The question is whether or not abstinence-only education works. Perry clearly answers in the affirmative.

The problem here is not that Perry has the wrong answer. Abstinence-only education does not work. The reasons are well-known, and almost gobsmackingly obvious to anyone that can remember their own hormone-driven teenage years. The temptations of the flesh, directed through billions of years of evolution, compel us to behave in specific ways.

The problem here is not that Perry wants more pregnant or STD-positive teenagers in Texas. Attributing such motives to Perry does little more than paint him as a devil, a person that wishes to make others suffer for making choices he finds distasteful. It’s far too easy to dismiss him as a bad person, for in doing so we reject his position when it is at its weakest. Perry thinks, so I conjecture, that his policies will work to solve a host of plagues in his state. What these problems are, however, are up for debate.

Perry seems unable to go through the process of problem-solving. If a proposal does not, as far as we can tell, work, then we must either reject the proposal or produce some iteration of the proposal that explains why it failed. This is the basic trial and error process: We accept our mistakes. Perry will have none of this. He starts with a proposal (“Abstinence works”) and then when confronted with conflicting data, ends with the proposal!

Here we have an individual that will not change his position even with the world against him. Possibly this is for religious or moral reasons. He might think that premarital sex is sinful. Since Perry think his religion’s position on sinful acts is true, endorsing condom use would do little more than beget sin. Perry has a duty to follow his dogma come what may, otherwise it would not be dogma any more. Any possible consequences, such as a high level of teen pregnancy in Texas, the untold suffering of others, and the spread of STDs, is tolerable when souls hang in the balance.



In ethics, fideism, van til on 30/08/2011 at 12:57 pm

For the life of me, I cannot understand the attitude of Robert Sungenis, as seen in the following quote from the LA Times. The pure inanity of Sungenis, the hubris, the fantastic will to impose his cognitive state onto the world without understanding the possibility of just being flat-out wrong.

“Heliocentrism becomes dangerous if it is being propped up as the true system when, in fact, it is a false system,” said Robert Sungenis, leader of a budding movement to get scientists to reconsider. “False information leads to false ideas, and false ideas lead to illicit and immoral actions — thus the state of the world today.… Prior to Galileo, the church was in full command of the world, and governments and academia were subservient to her.” (A few Catholics still insist Galileo was wrong)

Frankly, Sungenis is an intellectual and cultural fascist. Read some of his work if you don’t believe me. This website too examines his behavior when confronted with criticism, specifically on his anti-Semitic drivel. Even in the above quote, he publicly yearns for the time when the Catholic church governed most of the world. Who could dare say such a thing with a straight face? Is he not aware how appalling such a wish sounds to anyone versed in the history of the Church? The genocide of the Americas, burning of Bruno, pacts with Hitler and Mussolini, and the perpetuation of the lie about the Jews should give anyone a moment’s pause. All dissent would, presumably, be quieted in any way necessary, be it house-arrest, murder, and restricting information or literacy only to the priestly elite.

Since it is obvious (at leas to Sungenis) that he is good — for we all see ourselves as good — it follows that he does not and cannot possibly err. If others have differing theories, this indicates that they are mistaken, and since they cannot see the manifest truth, since “false ideas lead to illicit and immoral actions”, they are therefore evil. Would that there were someone to rid Sungenis of those pesky scientists? Putting these moral conundrums about legislating the truth aside for the moment, his assumption — in much the same way Van Til and other presuppositionalists have in the past — that error is a sign of immorality reveals Sungenis to be closed off from any sort of honest discussion. He cares not about the journey towards the truth, a journey that is forever covered in fog, always down dead-ends and winding labyrinths; he cares only about defending the faith, about crossing his arms and refusing to acknowledge anyone else as even being a moral equal, much less the possibility of them being right.

It doesn’t help that Sungenis is an ignorant creationist. The following video is pure lunacy.


Understanding Reality

In critical rationalism on 29/08/2011 at 6:39 am

Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavour to understand reality, we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch … He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism, and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison. But he certainly believes that, as his knowledge increases, his picture of reality will become simpler and … explain a … wider range of his sensuous expressions. He may also believe in the existence of the ideal limit of knowledge and that it is approached by the human mind. He may call this limit the objective truth. (Albert Einstein, The Evolution of Physics Simon and Schuster, New York, 1938, 33)



In critical rationalism, irrationalism, skepticism on 26/08/2011 at 2:39 pm

People accept without reflection the ideas, fads, styles, and tastes of their times. Everyone is subject to this problem, even those that harp on this problem.

Why do we dismiss the stories printed in the National Enquirer and accept the articles printed in Scientific American? Is the difference in the presentation? Are we clued in to the problems in trusting the National Enquirer after seeing the sensationalistic headlines and poor typesetting?

We’re just going about begging the question, since we are using the guilty verdict as part of the prosecution. It sounds like a matter of taste to prefer Scientific American for its excellent formatting. What are we to make of the discovery by the National Inquirer of the John Edwards scandal?

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In grunbaum, holism, quine on 25/08/2011 at 2:26 pm

Quine’s problem (which is different from the Duhem problem) begins by calling into question ‘the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience.’ (Quine, 39) However it was never Duhem’s intention to save the hypothesis, merely to indicate the element of uncertainty of falsifying evidence. Quine has taken the Duhem problem and extended it so that there is no limit to the set of hypotheses which face a test: “our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body.” (ibid, 41)

Of course, Quine is correct in saying that “Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system. Even a statement very close to the periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws. Conversely, by the same token, no statement is immune to revision,” (ibid, 43) but as Grünbaum shows, this is a trivial result.

It’s best not to reduce Grünbaum’s argument too far, but a brief analysis of the paper is necessary: Grünbaum demonstrates that while the Quine problem is trivially true as a matter of following the rules of logic, it leaves us only with no compelling reason to favor any of our auxiliary hypotheses over our scientific theories, and in its non-trivial form is a non sequitur. Anyone interested in examining Grünbaum’s argument fully can read the paper here [.pdf] (alt link).

In a letter dated June 1, 1962 and printed in Harding (1976), Quine responded to Grünbam. It’s interesting to understand Quine in light of this letter. I’ve reproduced it below, bolding specific passages of note.

Dear Professor Grünbaum:

I have read your paper on the falsifiability of theories with interest. Your claim that the Duhem-Quine thesis, as you call it, is untenable if taken non-trivially, strikes me as persuasive. Certainly it is carefully argued.

For my own part I would say that the thesis as I have used it is probably trivial. I haven’t advanced it as an interesting thesis as such. I bring it in only in the course of arguing against such notions as that the empirical content of sentences can in general be sorted out distributively, sentence by sentence, or that the understanding of a term can be segregated from collateral information regarding the object. For such purposes I am not concerned even to avoid the trivial extreme of sustaining a law by changing a meaning; for the cleavage between meaning and fact is part of what, in such contexts, I am questioning. Actually my holism is not as extreme as those brief vague paragraphs at the end of “Two dogmas of empiricism” are bound to sound. See sections 1-3 and 7-10 of Word and Object.

Sincerely yours,

W. V. Quine

After all, if you see something that appears to be a black swan no matter how many tests are conducted, only by the most tortuous steps can one protect the theory “All swans are white.”


Induction Machines

In critical rationalism, induction on 23/08/2011 at 12:26 pm

Imagine that a computer is built to make empirical generalizations with inductive logic (whatever that may be) and that this computer is in a simple universe with a limited number of individuals,number of properties, and relationships between these properties the individuals can have. Furthermore, the universe operates with a limited number of ‘natural laws’. In this universe a computer can be created such that in some reasonable period of time it will discover the ‘natural laws’. If the laws were modified, then the computer would find a new set of laws. If this universe were further complicated, then this computer could be enhanced to be able to formulate hypotheses, to test these hypotheses, and to eliminate those that do not survive testing.

This induction machine is limited insofar as it is limited by its programmer’s intellectual horizon: the programmer decides what is or is not a property or relation; the programmer decides what the induction machine can recognize as repetitions; it is the programmer that decides what kinds of questions the machine should address. All the most important and difficult problems are already solved by the programmer, and this induction machine is little more than a speeding-up process of a room full of bean-counters or punch-card holders.

Here we have today’s work in artificial intelligence, which is precisely limited by this constraint. The theories that these computer programs develop are conditional on the initial conditions that are needed for in an induction machine. Inductive inferences does not then occur within the context of discovery; the programmer provides these. Inductive inferences occur within the context of justification, and even then it still does not satisfactorily solve the problem of induction, for the problem cannot logically be solved. These computers have become problem-solving machines that operate on conjecturing the most parsimonious theory and attempted refutation of that theory.


Local and Global Anomalies

In critical rationalism on 20/08/2011 at 9:38 am

An anomaly, a recalcitrant fact, may bode trouble for either a local part of a theoretical system, easily detached and replaced without significant revision to other parts of the system, or the theoretical system as a whole. If religious practices developed long before settled communities, then the findings at Gobekli Tepe would overturn a local part, and such a correction would be (comparatively) made without much fuss in the sociology of religion. However, if a fossilized rabbit was uncovered in Precambrian strata, this is not merely a problem for the theory of evolution. If it is in fact a fossilized rabbit in Precambrian strata, it knocks over central assumptions in radiometric dating, physics, and geology.

In the sea of anomalies, it is rational not to engage in a scientific revolution when anomalies are seemingly local rather than global; conversely, it is irrational to refuse a scientific revolution when anomalies are seemingly global rather than local. There remains a problem: the seriousness of anomalies is not currently subject to calculation, and may not in principle be calculated. Without a mathematical underpinning, a sociological, political, or methodological underpinning may be of service.



In skepticism, the ancient greeks on 16/08/2011 at 7:11 am

I turn everything inside out/ looking for new solutions/ to the problems of today,/ always critical, giving/ suggestions for gracious living/ and they come away from seeing a play/ in a questioning mood, with “where are we at?,”/ and “who’s got my this?,” and “who took my that?.” (Euripides, in Aristophanes, The Frogs, trans. Richmond Lattimore, Four Comedies, 1969, 62)

In Euripides’ Electra, Electra receives evidence of the secret arrival of Orestes, offering three signs that correspond to the three signs offered to Electra in Aeschylus’s earlier Libation Bearers. The ‘older’ Electra rejects the possibility that the hair could be anyone’s but Orestes’s (520 – 23), but Euripides’s Electra is unwilling to make such a leap of faith, methodically rejecting the very same arguments given by Aeschylus’s Electra. She rejects the possibility of her brother would return in secret, for she assumes that he would return openly (524-26) and then she goes on (527-29) to note the inherent differences between the lock of hair from a woman and a man and the irrelevance of foot-size in determining relatives. Many unrelated people also have, obviously, similar hair. This here is the new faith in the capabilities of reason, and yet this faith is repeatedly undermined, not just in literature, but in our everyday lives.

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In bartley, critical rationalism, empiricism, fideism, quine, van fraassen on 12/08/2011 at 11:18 am
Empiricism in the philosophy of science, even in its modern variants, takes observation reports of phenomenal states as a reliable route to knowledge. The problem for empiricists is as follows: Why adopt the theory (T1) that observation reports are a reliable way to sort out true from false theories and not adopt the theory (T2) that theories are a reliable way to sort out true from false observation reports? If the empiricist rejects T1 and adopts T2, the empiricist rejects empiricism and becomes a Kantian; however, this does not address the problem, for why should the Kantian adopt T2 and reject T1? The epistemological pendulum swings back.

If a basic statement and theory are incoherent, then observation reports cannot inform us that theories are wrong and theories cannot inform us that observation reports are wrong. Either the theories or observation reports are wrong — or both. Neither T1 nor T2 should be adopted a priori, for they effectively annihilate one another: all we can see is an incoherence between T1 and T2.

Furthermore, even after we recognize an incoherence between an observation report and a theory, this ‘recognizing’ is relative to a given system of logic, background assumptions, language, and cognitive framework: we are even fallible in recognizing incoherence. Whatever method or route we follow that leads to preferring one over the other will either not rest on an Archimedean point, or will not be known to rest on an Archimedean point. All is theory-laden and subject to error. We must admit that it is possible to change the logic we employ, statements we adopt, theories we accept, methods we follow, language we use, or the cognitive frameworks we inhabit, for none of them are privileged.



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