Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

Rehearsing a Revolution

In bartley, popper on 31/07/2011 at 4:33 am

Here is a copy of the first part of an unfinished biography of Karl Popper, by William W. Bartley: Rehearsing a Revolution [.pdf]. I suggest reading pp. 50-71, for they deal with Popper’s trouble with Kant and Kierkegaard.

Two points of interest I’ve picked up from talking to friends of Bartley: (1) he was either bisexual or gay (this puts his Wittgenstein in a different light); (2) he took up writing the — rather poor, in my opinion — hagiography of Werner Erhard in order to live comfortably in California with his long-time companion.


Broadening the Horizons

In critical rationalism on 30/07/2011 at 10:45 am

If philosophy is not to slide toward irrelevance and become a puzzle-game-playing discipline, good mainly for teaching the young to think clearly, some central parts of philosophy should broaden their horizons. (Tyler Burge, Origins of Objectivity, xvii)


Van Til

In critical rationalism, fideism, justificationism, van til on 29/07/2011 at 5:14 am

I mentioned in passing some time ago the name ‘Van Til’ in the context of presuppositionalism. It is a prime example of what Lee Kelly (see this article) refers to as ‘objective dogma,’ for the structure of the presuppositionalist stance is so that any criticism of it is rejected as impermissible. I’ve done my best to reconstruct Van Til’s argument as best I can, but if there are any glaring mistakes, please correct me in the comments …

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In critical rationalism, popper on 29/07/2011 at 1:10 am

Peter Singer’s 1974 article in the New York Review of Books, Discovering Karl Popper is extremely favorable of Popper’s philosophy of science–except for three paragraphs in the middle, which are highly informed criticism. I’ve reproduced them below along with some limited comments in light of that criticism.

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In gellner on 28/07/2011 at 2:44 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)



In critical rationalism, fideism, popper, wittgenstein on 26/07/2011 at 5:51 am

A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push. (Ludwig Wittgenstein)


In Wittgenstein’s posthumous Philosophical Investigations he argues that meaning of terms is equal to its use within language: each ‘linguistic universe’ has its own rules. Content cannot be separated from criteria by which they are judged: criteria is never inter-cultural, but sub-cultural. Each discipline or ‘language’ game has its own standards, which cannot be reducible to other standards or principles. The task of the philosopher is then to describe and clarify standards, not to judge, defend, or criticize proposals laid out within a ‘language game.’ Criticism can only point out the misuse of language, or violations of the rules.

Argument or judgment does not cross disciplines, for they exist only in reference to criteria of the rules of the game. This leads to relativism, where there is no rational choice to be made between competing games: all games are equally defensible.

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In borges on 25/07/2011 at 3:55 pm

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography. (Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley)



In critical rationalism, evolution, justificationism, plantinga on 25/07/2011 at 8:27 am

I find Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism (it should probably be called the ‘evolutionary argument against correct belief formation’, but I’ll get to that in a second) to be perfectly permissible (with certain revisions). This might come as a shock to some, considering that I am an open agnostic atheist about gods. In fact, I am far more of an apathist in spirit, for positing the existence of gods is a non-explanation for, I think, a non-problem. Plantinga’s argument boils down to little more than an attack against assumptions in epistemology, not against ‘naturalism’: evolution and our traditional theories of knowledge are incompatible.

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You Have No Idea How Wrong You Are

In fallibilism, induction, the ancient greeks on 25/07/2011 at 3:06 am



In fideism, induction on 23/07/2011 at 6:24 am

Nothing is more characteristic of a dogmatist epistemology than its theory of error. For if some truths are manifest, one must explain how anyone can be mistaken about them, in other words, why the truths are not manifest to everybody. According to its particular theory of error, each dogmatist epistemology offers its particular therapeutics to purge minds from error. (Imre Lakatos)

I’ve heard it said from followers of Rand that a theory (usually one of Rand’s own, or a variation thereof) is unassailable, for any criticism of the theory must necessarily assume the theory in order to criticize it. This, somehow, invalidates all criticism.

Is the supposition “Any criticism must assume the validity of the theory being criticized” self-evident?

One problem: how does one know that all possible criticisms employ that theory? Is anyone familiar with all potential arguments against the theory? Of course not: novel ideas are created every day. Therefore, this assertion, that all criticism must assume the theory is true, is based on an inductive inference, which cannot, as a matter of logic, be as demonstrably self-evident or unconditionally immune to criticism as it first appears.

It might be the case that it is true, but it is hardly evident to me, especially once this doubt is raised. Furthermore, whatever theory is used to demonstrate how the initial theory is self-evident must, of course, be scrutinized to determine if it suffers from the same problem: is this new theory self-evident as well? A regress of ‘unassailable’ theories begins in earnest.

The world is far more interesting than we can imagine: asserting that no criticism could possibly exist speaks only to, I think, their limited intellectual horizon. I conjecture that it is better for an idea to stick its neck out as far as it can, therefore inviting many criticisms, and taking them serious. One criticism, if accepted, is enough. As the followers of Rand would have it, the world can only be a constant construction of sandcastles following the blueprints of the Master, and yet no helpful criticism of the blueprints or their faithful execution is permitted. I might go so far as to say that this meta-theory is self-evident, but of course, I don’t.

Assume that everything I have just said is not the case: assume that the Randian (for they are such an easy punching bag, no?) now says that by any criticism that does not assume the same things as Objectivism is then starting from different — incompatible — assumptions, and is not a viable criticism. This might be a possible defensive maneuver for the Randian, for it disallows criticism of its assumptions and criticism of its coherence. Here we have the gestation of the most uninteresting post-modernists within the Randian (or the religious presuppositionalists like Van Til), for the Randian must not be aware of a reductio ad absurdum.

And this, I should note, is a point that deserves no further clarification on my part, for pointing out incoherence is one of the most powerful criticisms available.


Tim Harford on Trial, Error, and the God Complex

In fallibilism on 23/07/2011 at 6:15 am


Tim Harford’s website.


What’s Day is Night

In experiments, induction on 23/07/2011 at 3:23 am

Over at the impressive community blog of Less Wrong, Eliezer Yudkowsky published an interesting article titled “Einstein’s Arrogance.” Check it out. It’s worth a read. One point stands out:

To assign more than 50% probability to the correct candidate from a pool of 100,000,000 possible hypotheses, you need at least 27 bits of evidence (or thereabouts).  You cannot expect to find the correct candidate without tests that are this strong, because lesser tests will yield more than one candidate that passes all the tests.  If you try to apply a test that only has a million-to-one chance of a false positive (~20 bits), you’ll end up with a hundred candidates.  Just finding the right answer, within a large space of possibilities, requires a large amount of evidence. (bolding mine)

The argumentation is impressive, but Yudkowsky should note that the pool of possible hypotheses is far greater than 100,000,000 — it is infinite. Just as an infinite number of curves can fit two, three, four … up to n points on a graph, and there is a one-to-one match between equations that express these curves and the curves, so can the logical consequences of an infinite number of hypotheses ‘predict’ the results of any finite number of experiments. Therefore, no number of bits of evidence can ever permit assigning a probability more than 50% to any candidate from the pool, much less assigning a probability to the correct candidate.

Ah, but there is a way to limit the number of theories in the pool of possible hypotheses to a finite number. The only way the pool is limited is, so I conjecture, by the elimination of theories that are incompatible with our background assumptions. And yet, any of our background assumptions could be false. Yudkowsky advances the thought-experiment of black boxes that always beep when the properly-ordered six numbers are entered, but have a 25% chance of beeping when the combination is wrong. But how does one know that these black boxes always beep when the properly-ordered six numbers are entered? Yes, this is a thought-experiment, but it is an assumption that is more often than not false in science: our background assumptions, even about the accuracy of black boxes, are unjustified, constantly open to revision, and have historically been revised.

Up until the Michelson-Morley experiment (and for some time after), one of our background assumptions was that light traveled through a medium called ‘luminiferous aether.’ Before the background assumptions deductively entailed by luminiferious aether were rejected, Einstein’s hypothesis was ruled out from swimming in the pool of possible hypotheses, for the two contradict one another about the speed of light: Einstein assumed that the speed of light in a vacuum was constant regardless of reference frame. Everything else follows from this assumption (and some mathematical equations formulated by Lorentz). Therefore, the pool of possible hypotheses in light of our background assumptions is never fixed at an arbitrary number, and this pool may not even contain at any one time a correct candidate.

In fact, if we are to work with probabilities, I pull out the pessimistic meta-induction argument and see how it flies: every previous theory we have rejected rested on false background assumptions. It is highly probable that our current background assumptions are false, therefore it is highly probable that we exclude from the pool of possible hypotheses a true hypothesis.

If that argument does not sit well, then we can appeal to a more robust interpretation of probability: we have an infinite number of hypotheses at our disposal that equally fit the available results of a finite number of tests. How could we ever claim that a finite number of hypotheses (only one hundred million?) should include the true hypothesis?

And so on.


The Five Tropes

In skepticism, the ancient greeks on 23/07/2011 at 2:24 am

I mentioned in a earlier comment that I think Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Phyrronism is the greatest book ever written. Of course, this is hyperbole on my part, but it gives a good indication of how strong the skeptical position has been for millennia.

Agrippa’s five tropes, published in Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Phyrronism, stand today as the greatest assault on all justificationist theories of knowledge. They are the following:

5-1 Diaphônia:
The mode that argues from disagreement. With respect to some matter that presents itself, there is undecided (anepikriton) conflict, both among the views of ordinary life and the views held by philosophers. Due to this, we are unable to choose or reject one thing, and must fall back on suspension.

5-2 Eis apeiron ekballonta:
Arguments that throw one into an infinite regress. That which is brought forward to make a given matter credible needs yet something else to make it credible, and so on ad infinitum. Since we thus have no starting point for our argument, suspension of judgment follows.

5-3 Pros ti:
Arguments from relativity. X only ever appears such-and-such in relation to the subject judging and to the things observed together with it. Suspension on how it really is follows.

5-4 Hypothesis:
Someone makes an assumption without providing argument. A dogmatist, if thrown back into an infinite regress of arguments, just assumes something as a starting-point, without providing an argument (anapodeiktôs). We suspend over mere hypotheses—they could be false, opposite hypotheses could be formulated, and so on.

5-5 Ton diallêlon:
Arguments that disclose a circularity. This mode is used when that which ought to confirm a given investigated matter requires confirmation (pistis—credibility) from that matter. We are unable to assume either in order to establish the other. We suspend judgment on both. (Vogt, Katja, “Ancient Skepticism“)

The three most popular objections–insofar that I have heard them said repeatedly, and without a sense of irony, in response to the skeptical challenge–have been the following. I now give you my worst of the worst:

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Laudan on the Demarcation Problem

In empiricism, experiments, laudan, popper on 22/07/2011 at 1:36 am

Larry Laudan’s well-known paper “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem” has been republished several times in several volumes. The most readily available copy I could find was in “Physics, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis: Essays in Honor of Adolf Grünbaum.” The paper is worth reading for Laudan’s historical analysis of the demarcation problem, but two points in the essay stand out as supremely lackluster, especially for Laudan.

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Of What is Rationally Permitted

In critical rationalism, empiricism, van fraassen on 21/07/2011 at 2:52 am

Bas van Fraassen’s work is, to use the words of another philosopher said to me during a brief Skype conversation, “one of the best philosophers of science alive.” But why? The concluding pages of his article The False Hopes of Traditional Epistemology (2000) stand out as bucking the trend in philosophy of science and epistemology in much the same way Bartley and Popper did–he considers the historical problem-situation, finds faults with all the available options, and then reconfigures the problem in such a way as to dig out an underlying assumption.

In this case, his language is still laden with certain terms that make him far more understandable to others that still cling to these assumptions, but his conclusions are, when understood, close enough to critical rationalism as to deserve either catcalls and gnashing of teeth from the traditionalist monkeys that cling to the rafters, or a long time spent reflecting by critical rationalists. I’ve already taken on board several of his positions, and may take on more in time, but even if I should reject them in due course, he has provided, even implicitly, a powerful alternative to critical rationalism.

I take it that what is rational is precisely what is rationally permitted. Thus we are rational in believing something exactly when we are not rationally compelled to believe the opposite. This implies, tautologically, that nothing more than staying within the bounds of reason is needed for this status of rationality–not good reasons, not a rationale, not support of any special sort, not a pedigree of inductive reasoning or confirmation, nothing is needed above and beyond coherence. Thus any truly coherent position is rational.

Now this may strike you as absurd, because it seems to imply that ‘anything goes’, the ugly brought of skepticism’s ‘nothing goes’. But that is simply not so. If it were so, I would have come to an impasse and would have to admit that the constrains of rationality are more than coherence. But it is not so, and we have not in fact come to an impasse.

… Logically speaking there may be infinitely many coherent alternatives to our posterior opinion, but almost none of these will be live options for us. This is not an accidental feature of our situation, but integral to it, exactly because we have prior opinion and prior understanding, which is not laid out for us on the side, like a textbook, but which is already our own. Any small part of it we can think of changing as part of our response, and any large part of it we can think as possibly changed, to any imaginable alterative, over the long run, in the course of time. But we do not have the wherewithal to respond in more than a limited variety of ways at any given time. Many of the imaginable alteratives to what seems plausible to us cannot be incorporated by us.

… It does not mean that there are constraints on rationality beyond coherence, and it does not mean that we are following apliative rules after all. It means simply that the Neurath ‘mariners repairing their boat at sea’ for m of relativism does not lead us into a damagingly enfeebled epistemic enterprise. The ‘already on a boat’ part defeats the skeptical argument based on the ‘at sea’ part.

So here is my conclusion. We supply our own opinion, with nothing to ground it, and no method to give us an extra source of knowledge. Only the ’empty’ techniques of logic and pure math are available either to refine and improve or expose the defects of this option. That is the human condition. But it is enough. (Bas van Fraassen, The False Hopes of Traditional Epistemology, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. LX, No. 2, March 2000, 277-279)



In experiments, fallibilism on 20/07/2011 at 7:06 am

The problem: if a scientist abandons theory A after deciding that it does not stand up to criticism (say, the theory fails a crucial experiment), the scientist could make the wrong choice. Theory A could very well be true, or be more approximately true (have more verisimilitude), than the replacement theory B.

Why is this a problem?

  1. The crucial experiment could produce a false positive, so that a scientist rejects the theory rather than rejecting the result of the test. Naturally, the scientist’s replacement theory B would have less verisimilitude.
  2.  The crucial experiment produces a true outcome, but theory B is more approximately true than theory A over this small range; however, theory B has overall less verisimilitude than theory A.

This problem applies to any number of crucial experiments: a scientist may abandon a theory with a high degree of objective verisimilitude because he mistakenly thinks it has a low degree of verisimilitude.

The set of preformed crucial experiments will be very small, smaller than all crucial experiments available to the scientist at any one time, which in turn will be very, very small compared to all crucial experiments. This further assumes that the results of the tests are easily decidable.

Think of it this way: the scientist has insufficient reasons, which amount to nothing, after preforming a crucial experiment. Now, just keep adding additional insufficient reasons. What does the scientist have? Nothing.

What have we learned? There cannot be any evidence that anything can raise the objective probability of future success.

Assume that 1 is not an immediate problem. All results of tests are conclusive. The problem still remains, and appears to be far more robust and serious for the scientist than Quine’s problem. Now, how do we deal with 2?

One solution is to tentatively reject A and adopt B. After all, they’re only theories. Truth takes second to coherence, but the rule of operations is the negation of Quine’s holism and goes against Popper’s claim that scientists are interested in increasing verisimilitude in scientific theories. If anything, this best approximates van Fraassen’s position on empirical adequacy.



In fallibilism on 20/07/2011 at 3:41 am

We’re not doing good, we’re just doing less bad. (Joshua Prince-Ramus)

When I have advanced as far as I can … I can see more country ahead, but with so disturbed and clouded a vision that I can distinguish nothing. Then I realize how weak and poor, how heavy and lifeless I am, in comparison … and feel pity and contempt for myself. (Montaigne)

Once I understood that I can never be undeniably right I understood that we are all incompetent and ignorant. I mean that in the most derogatory way: We are all idiots. We’re driftwood in the wake of the flood. When hearing compliments from others about my intelligence, I know I am not alone in my immediate emotional response: everyone has that feeling of being a fraud. I know very little, far more than I appear to, and what I know is most likely wrong. And when I think of something I take to be original, I learn in time that its predecessors have been around for thirty, fifty years — sometimes several thousand years — and they usually have expressed this idea far more aptly than I ever could.


Stating the Obvious

In fallibilism on 20/07/2011 at 1:46 am

We may certainly define truth by reference to the criteria of efficacy; such a definition is not self-contradictory and does not lead into an infinite regress; nevertheless, it is arbitrary; to accept it requires an act of faith and therefore the principle credo ut intelligam operates over the entire field of knowledge; this is hardly more than to say that we are incapable of producing an epistemological absolute or that our intelligence is finite: not exactly a world-shaking discovery. (Leszek Kolakowski, Religion: If There Is No God– : On God, the Devil, Sin, and Other Worries of the So-Called Philosophy of Religion, p. 79)


The “Proper” Work of Philosophy

In wittgenstein on 19/07/2011 at 11:27 pm

That there can be no … superior tribunal has also been one theme of contemporary analytical philosophy in Britain, beginning in the late 1930s and gaining strength since the war. Philosophy as a kind of antropology of knowledge and belief is a conception revived in the later work of Wittgenstein. His suggestion was that we should turn our attention to the justification of belief, and of claims to knowledge, which are customarily accepted, and not look for a rationally satisfying justification altogether outside our established habits of thought: such a justification could never in principle be found. The proper work of philosophy is purely descriptive, to set out the linguistic facts that reveal our habits of thought … (Professor S. Hampshire, in David Hume: a Symposium, ed. D.F. Pears, London, Macmillan, 1963, p. 5)


Quick Follow-Up

In critical rationalism, empiricism, fideism on 19/07/2011 at 9:13 am

The comments over at Feser’s blog are fairly amusing. The theist’s side is wanting, so they give the tu quoque: the empiricist’s is unfounded as well. I can only shrug and let them fight it out amongst themselves.

That said, it’s a good example of two groups operating within the justificationist meta-context, and generally falling all over themselves–one comment even relates to my previous post and CR in general, if you’re able to slog through the whole thread:

The OFloinn says,

What has been discounted was Popper’ larger program of discrediting the certainty of scientific knowledge, reducing it from knowledge to opinion, however well-educated the opinion was. It’s inadequacy can be seen by considering two falsified theories: Heliocentrism, falsified by the lack of stellar parallax by Aristotle, Archimedes, et al.; Maxwell’s electromagnetism, falsified by the existence of permanent magnets. These two examples indicate the inadequacies of Popperian irrationalism.

I sometimes wonder how some people are able to think and breathe at the same time without choking.