Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

Positive and Negative

In bartley, critical rationalism, duhem, experiments, fallibilism, fideism, irrationalism, skepticism on 29/06/2011 at 11:53 am

There is a significant difference between what I will call ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ thinking. Positive thinking rests on the assumption that a solution’s past success (the ‘is’) guarantees or increases the probability of the solution’s future success (the ‘ought’): past success ought to show future success. Negative thinking, however, does not run into the is/ought problem: if a universal statement contradicts an existential statement, and the existential statement corresponds with the facts, then the existential statement is false.

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In experiments on 29/06/2011 at 9:32 am

Not many people have heard of Alfred North Whitehead’s (yes, the coauthor of the Principia Mathematica!) 1922 theory of gravitation. It’s an interesting theory, not just for its content, but for its historical significance: for the longest time, both Einstein’s theory of gravitation and Whitehead’s theory of gravitation predicted “not only for the three classic tests of light bending, gravitational redshift and the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, but also for the Shapiro time delay effect,” (See Gary Biggons, On the Multiple Deaths of Whitehead’s Theory of Gravity) and subsequently both theories were equally corroborated by the data.

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In fallibilism, feyerabend on 29/06/2011 at 5:12 am

The interview ‘Feyerabend and Beyond‘ with Golanzo Munévar is worth a read–a proper defense (and critique) of Feyerabend, who I’ve always felt was misunderstood by most philosophers of science.


The Wall

In borges on 28/06/2011 at 11:35 pm

Burning books and erecting fortifications are the usual occupations of princes; the only thing unique about Shih Huang Ti was the scale on which he worked. … To enclose an orchard or a garden is common, but not an empire. … The unyielding wall which, at this moment and all moments, casts its system of shadows over lands I shall never see, is the shadow of a Caesar who ordered the most reverent of nations to burn its past. (Jorge Luis Borges, The Wall and the Books, Selected Non-Fictions, 345-6)

A philosopher is Borges’s prince. The philosopher preemptively deflects attacks, keeps criticism at bay, builds walls to protect their pet ideas. Or is that taking the analogy too far? Shih Huang Ti built a wall; don’t we all build walls?


Gardner’s Misstep

In carnap, critical rationalism, empiricism, experiments, fallibilism, gardner, holism, justificationism, popper, the ancient greeks, wittgenstein on 28/06/2011 at 10:33 am

Martin Gardner wrote A Skeptical Look at Karl Popper back in 2001. I decided to give it a read then put down some provisional comments …

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Status Lymphaticus

In experiments, fallibilism, justificationism, skepticism on 28/06/2011 at 12:28 am

Through the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, children were frequently having heart attacks after being administered anesthetic. As Mosher says,

A thymic death is one of the supreme tragedies of surgery. An apparently healthy child dies during the administration of an anesthetic, during or after an uncomplicated tonsil and adenoid operation, or, as recently happened, during a simple circumcision. Again, as reported by one of our medical examiners, a child was standing on the edge of the sidewalk. A runaway horse dashed by and the child dropped dead. At autopsy the condition known as status lymphaticus was found; that is, there was an enlarged thymus and a hypertrophy of all the lymphoid structures of the alimentary canal … This slight pathology was all that was found to explain the unexpected death. (Harris P. Mosher, “An Original Communication,” “A Clinical and Preoperative Study of the Thymus in Children of the Tonsil and Adenoid Age,” The Laryngoscope Vol.36. Jan. 1926.)

Upon examination of the child’s body, the thymus was frequently found larger than expected. Everything else was normal. Since the thymus is pretty close to the heart, doctors decided to routinely radiate the thymus in children to shrink it in size.

From 1924 to 1946, it was the policy of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston to apply prophylactic irradiation in every case in which an “enlarged” thymus gland was diagnosed in infancy. … Whenever the width of the superior mediastinum was at least half the width of the heart the gland was characterized as `enlarged’ or `suspicious,’ and the child was given radiation treatment… (M.L. Janower & O.S. Miettenen, “Neoplasms after Childhood Irradiation of the Thymus Gland,” Journal of the American Medical Association Vol.215: 753. 1971.)

It turns out that there was no ‘slight pathology’ of an enlarged thymus: medical cadavers actually had smaller glands than on average. Chronic stress leads to the thymus becoming smaller, and these men and women before death were under extreme amounts of stress. Cadavers were, for one hundred and fifty years, collected from poor houses. These were people that were near death without access to proper medical care. The auxiliary hypothesis “Children that died immediately after being administered anesthetic have an enlarged thymus” was wrong–dead wrong.

All the evidence corroborated status lymphaticus as a cause of heart attacks, and yet it also corroborated the theory that doctors were misapplying anesthetic to children. No one thought to figure out the correct proportion for children. Thousands of children died.

What are we wrong about right now?



In justificationism, skepticism on 27/06/2011 at 10:46 am

Jonathan Schaffer’s The Debasing Demon [.pdf] was an immense pleasure to read. Some highlights:

I will draw three lessons from the debasing demon. The first lesson is that all knowledge is imperilled by sceptical doubt, even knowledge of the cogito. This clarifies the range of scepticism. The second and related lesson is that anti-sceptical strategies relying on a residue of knowledge immune from doubt cannot succeed. The debasing demon leaves no residuum. The third lesson is that deception and debasement do not exhaust the forms of sceptical doubt. In that sense, there are more demons in epistemic hell than are dreamt of in epistemology. (Schaffer, 228)

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In fallibilism, the ancient greeks on 24/06/2011 at 9:28 am

At the start of Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus is now old, blind, led around by a child. He cannot act out into the world, at least not in the way he once acted.

The young Oedipus once impressed his will on to the world. Who I am depends on creating myself through action. He understood himself as product of exertions, as acting out into world, creating a new self that will not kill his father and sleep with his mother. Not anymore.

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Among the Truthers

In fallibilism, fideism on 24/06/2011 at 7:27 am

The definition of the conspiracy theory … goes to the mindset of the conspiracy theorist, which is this: when presented with contrary evidence to their theory, they do not address the substance of the evidence. Instead, what they do is they systematically draw larger and larger circles around the groups of conspirators who are involved. (Jonathan Kay, Michael Coren Show Interview)

The analogy from conspiracy theories to ad hoc adjustments or immunizing procedures in science is, I would think, far too obvious.

Jonathan Kay’s blog Among The Truthers is an excellent resource explaining the mental state of conspiracy theorists.



In ethics on 24/06/2011 at 12:04 am

Trade is a decent and proper relationship, with dignity and respect on both sides. … It would have been easy, I dare say, for us to dazzle them with some of our technological conjuring tricks: to play back their recorded voice, or to have taken their picture on an instant camera; but when you’re faced with encounters like this, such tricks seem tawdry and trivial. It’s not that we can do these tricks, that they have [] quills through their nostrils, or that we happen to live on bits of cow’s meat wrapped up in a cunning way in bits of metal. It is not the differences between us that are important; it is the similarities. (Richard Attenborough, A Blank on the Map)


Kuhn’s Dogmatism

In kuhn on 23/06/2011 at 1:00 pm

Kuhn does not give a logic to scientific discovery. Rather, he opens the door to the sociology of science, of a collaborative/competitive game that emerges out of the interaction of fallible and petty people.

Therefore, we have to make a choice. We can either work on puzzles or we can work on problems; we can either close our ears to criticism or we can accept criticism; we can be uncritical of our ideas or we can be critical of our ideas.

In each of these cases, we must ask, Which choices should I make? Do I want to solve the serious problems that keep me up at night? Do I want to stick my neck out and conjecture something new (even if it is false) about the world? Do I want to reject the ideas I hold dear that cannot survive criticism?

I would consider these questions to be part of the logic of scientific discovery. If scientists provide affirmative answers, this would lead to an environment that mirrors a free and open society. If scientists provide negative answers, this would lead to an environment that Kuhn describes: a dogmatic, puzzle-solving, kibitzing society.

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Philosophy of Science v. Epistemology

In duhem, induction, quine on 23/06/2011 at 10:41 am

In light of Einstein, Rutherford, and Maxwell, if we assume the knowledge-acquiring process S employs in everyday affairs is distilled or refined in scientific practice, then the problem of induction and the Duhem-Quine thesis should have long ago put to rest any theory of knowledge that claims S can know theory 1 has a greater objective verisimilitude than theory 2.



In critical rationalism, ethics, evolution on 23/06/2011 at 5:18 am

I don’t think we’re here for anything. We’re just products of evolution. You can say, “Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose,” but I’m anticipating a pretty good lunch. (Dr. James Watson, from Recurial)

… There was never a time in the pre-DNA era when a lot of us biologists sat around the table and said ‘Let us first clearly DEFINE life before we explore it.’ We just went out there, forged ahead and FOUND OUT what it was. It’s no doubt good to have a rough idea of what one is talking about but matters of terminology are best left to philosophers who spend most of their time on such things. Indeed clear definitions often EMERGE from empirical research. We now no longer quibble over questions like is a virus REALLY alive. (Dr. Francis Crick, The Astonishing Francis Crick)



In popper, quine on 22/06/2011 at 12:54 pm

One intuitively wouldn’t want to have a set of incoherent beliefs. Preferring incoherence is to be frowned upon, for one belief in this set must be false. Any sort of epistemology should then strive for some kind of coherence and mutual support, and if incoherence is found, of finding a way to determine which member of the set is false and which is true.

There are two kinds of coherentism I’m thinking of: the first kind is sort of a nebulous coherentism, that it is better to prefer a set of beliefs that support one another over a set of incoherent beliefs. I would then call myself a ‘weak’ coherentist in a sense, as would most modern epistemologists, but we strive not just for the coherence of our beliefs as indicating its truth, but for the truth of all of our beliefs.

The second kind of coherentism I will call ‘strict coherentism.’ It sees no recourse necessary to any sort of a posteriori examination. This gambit is played, I think, in order to circumnavigate a serious problem for most justificationists: we may be justified in preferring a coherent system over an incoherent system.

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The Chaos Monster

In fallibilism, skepticism, the ancient greeks on 22/06/2011 at 9:28 am

In Jungian terms, the uncanny breaks down our expectations for how the world is to operate. When we attempt to understand things, we can only see them through our own filter. If you have a hammer, everything you see is a nail. Our preconceived notions of what is normal break down, and when they are violated, we realize how fragile our epistemic assumptions are: the world isn’t full of nails. We’re left disturbed, unsettled, or shaken. We’re confronted with the irrational and the breakdown of fundamental order of the world. Without something to hold on to, we’re left fumbling in the dark.

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Salmon and Corroboration

In bartley, critical rationalism, induction, popper, salmon on 22/06/2011 at 2:14 am

If inductive evidence is ampliative evidence, then it is clear what would count as a successful outcome of the inductivist project. Given hypothesis h, and evidence e, one must show that evidence e makes p(h if e, e), greater than p(h if e). Evidence e can be anything one cares to name, including repeated sightings of white swans, black raven, or blue hats.

Popper and Miller proved in 1983 that, following from the rules of probability, no e can satisfy this requirement. Until this proof is answered, inductivists are tilting at windmills.

” … if the hypothesis h logically implies the evidence e in the presence b [background knowledge] (so that he is equivalent to h) then p(h, eb) is proportional to p(h, b) … suppose that e is some such evidence statement as ‘All swans in Vienna in 1986 are white’, h  the supposedly inductive generalization ‘All swans are white’ and k the counterinductive generalization ‘All swans are black, except those in Vienna in 1986, which are white’. Then p(h, eb) = p(h, b)/p(k, b). No matter how h and k generalize on the evidence e, this evidence is unable to disturb the ration of their probabilities …. Supporting evidence points in all directions at once, and therefore points usefully in no direction. (Popper & Miller, Why Probabilistic Support is not Inductive, Phil. Trans. of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Vol. 321, No. 1562 (Apr. 30, 1987))

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Rand’s Misunderstanding of Philosophy Post-Kant

In rand on 21/06/2011 at 3:28 am


Dykes begins his next ‘assault’ on CR with

If it is true that our senses are pre-programmed; if it is true that ‘there is no sense organ in which anticipatory theories are not genetically incorporated’; then what flows into our minds is determined and what flows out of them is subjective. … Since it is ultimately the product of the pre-programmed interpretation of the data which entered Popper’s mind, CR is a theory which can only be applied to Popper. According to his own view of his contact with reality, he would not be able to verify the relevance of CR to anybody else (§3,¶3).

Yes, if Kant is correct in making a distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal, then there could be no such thing as direct and unmediated communication, utterly free creation of theories, and so on. What of it? Does that make CR, or any other post-Kantian stance for that matter, incorrect?

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Rand’s Problem with the Problem of Induction

In induction, rand on 21/06/2011 at 3:16 am


By careful observation – free from preconception – we are able to discover the identities of the entities we observe. Thereafter, we are fully entitled to assume that like entities will cause like events, the form of inference we call induction. And, because it rests on the axiom of the Law of Identity, correct induction – free from contradiction – is a valid route to knowledge. (¶ 11)

I must address this paragraph, line by line: “By careful observation – free from preconception – we are able to discover the identities of the entities we observe.” (¶ 11) The assumption that we may have unmediated observation, ‘free from preconception’, is just that: an assumption that such an observation may take place. From what we know in neuroscience and basic biology, it appears that all sensory qualities we have are not in any way immediate. It is dubious, to say the least, that it is possible to observe ‘free from preconception’, for it would require a mind wiped clean even of its structure, and perhaps eliminating all its previous content. Simply put, the mind is not in any way a blank slate. To counter the fact that it is impossible to know if one is observing ‘free from preconception’ by declaring that we have observation ‘free from preconception’ is absurd.

Thus, Dykes must first argue that observation is ‘free from preconception,’ and that we may come to know which observations are ‘free from preconception’ and which observations are not.

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Rand’s Law of Identitiy

In induction, rand on 21/06/2011 at 2:59 am

I’ve learned very few truly valuable things in life. I won’t list them all, and they may be repugnant or less than valuable to some, but I will list one: argument is not about winning. If you win an argument, you lose. Arguments are about getting closer, no matter how hard they are, to the truth. Of course, I choose not to go into a lengthy argument about why this is the case, simply because I’m not out to convert anyone.

That said, there are times that I see arguments that are just wrong. In these cases, I do not mean to say that their conclusions are therefore false, only that the argument is fallacious — not manifestly so, as is often the case. Some times the wrongness is hidden deep within, and only by prying carefully at the edges can we get a glimpse at where the argument runs afoul.

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The Fallibilists

In fallibilism, fideism on 20/06/2011 at 9:26 am

If the argument from the criterion is correct, the fideist ought to suspend judgment on his dogmatic philosophical beliefs, along with his ordinary beliefs, for the argument applies equally to both.

Since the skeptic wants to see whether his opponent at least by his own standards or canons has knowledge, he in his own arguments adheres to these standards. But this does not mean that he himself is committed to them. He is aware of the fact, e.g., that ordinarily we do not operate by these [the dogmatic] standards and that it is because his opponents want more than we ordinarily have that they try to subject themselves to these stricter canons; they want “real” knowledge, certain knowledge. (Michael Frede, The Skeptic’s Beliefs (1987), p. 204)

Thus, the fideist ought to withhold assent on all subjects; and yet, the argument has no implications for what the fallibilist ought or ought not to believe, except for that the fallibilist ought to believe nothing if he were a fideist.

But of course, the fallibilist is not a fideist: no part of the fallibilist’s position assumes that judgments may only be made on the basis of a criterion of truth.

And yet, if true, fallibilism cannot be warrantly asserted to be true. What of it, when fallibilism denies that very possibility? If it were false, then welcome criticism that unveils its weakness.