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Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page

Hubris

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.

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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)

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Trust

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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Quine

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.”

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In Defense of Plato

In the ancient greeks on 23/08/2011 at 12:32 pm

I recall reading, I don’t know where or when, a book analyzing Plato’s call to outlaw poetry. If I can reconstruct their striking conjecture as a pale ghost-image, it amounted to the following: within Ancient Greece, all societal problems were solved by performing a ‘biblical’ exegesis of The Odyssey. If two parties were in disagreement, Homer was called to the fore, and each side would make their case that their position best sided with Homer. Plato, then, was not out to forbid the high school production of King Lear or the publication of Yeats, but the dismissal of a way of life that was antithetical to his own. Problems could not be solved by appealing to an authoritative text, and with no view of precedent, but through universal law.

I do not know if this interpretation was correct, and I suspect that it is mistaken; however, it is still quite interesting, and in its defense, there are historical parallels: in The Eumenides, Aeschylus ends the ancient blood feud between the Furies and Orestes by way of a hung twelve-person jury. The Greeks show their progress towards unification of modern law and abandoning the ancient ways by way of an allegory. It may be wrong, but it gives a reading that makes far more sense to modern ears than the initial modern reaction to Plato.

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Marcus

In fallibilism on 23/08/2011 at 12:27 pm

Some people feel they have to understand everything, I don’t feel that. I feel that eventually a lot more will be understood (this deals subjects that have nothing to do with legend). I’m willing to tackle certain problems, try to understand them, realize there are other problems I won’t be able to solve. I don’t have the expertise, even if I did I might not be able to solve it. But I’m willing to live with that. [Rudolph Marcus]

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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.

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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.

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Rules

In experiments, induction, justificationism on 20/08/2011 at 7:29 am

A philosophical problem has the form: I don’t know my way about. (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

Up until the late 19th century every observation was compatible with Newton’s theory of gravity. All these observations are also compatible with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Two quite different theories were compatible with the same set of observations; therefore, one cannot know they have derived true theories from observations.

Assume we have a long series of numbers. They go on: 2, 4, 8 … What is the next number in the series?

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Research Programs

In fallibilism on 20/08/2011 at 6:48 am

Feminist theory, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Marxist interpretations of texts speak more about their respective research programs than of the text. Upon reading their work, a small portal briefly opens so I can catch a small glimpse through a dense fog how the world must look like to them — everything revolves around gender inequalities, sexual turmoil, class struggle.

Of course, this isn’t limited to three research programs. I single them out only because they are the most egregious examples. All research programs have this affliction. Everything is understood in light of theory. Just this morning I caught myself understanding a literary critic as expressing, while couched in different language, the same problems and working within the same research program found in evolutionary epistemology. I misread a text so I can understand it better.

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Psychics, Palm Reading, and Tarrot Cards

In irrationalism on 20/08/2011 at 1:02 am

ABC Primetime recently did an episode on psychics. From ten to twenty minutes in the episode, three ‘psychics’ take James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge. Their responses when each of them — naturally — fail indicate that they are unable or unwilling to accept being wrong. We have three prime examples of how a proposition is testable, but its practitioners protect the hard core of the program by blaming an auxiliary hypotheses or the experimental setup. They’re willing to sacrifice anything in the protective belt to save the central meta-theoretical assumptions about their abilities to commune with the dead, read palms, or flip cards. As Randi says, “It’s called … what’s the term? ‘Stubborn!'”

Given recalcitrant data, one can easily place blame on the assumptions in the protective belt. It is only when the protective belt functions only for explaining away anomalies and does not generate new predictions that the scientific research program has become degenerative. While the theory is not refuted, for no theories can be refuted with any finality, the fact that the hard core has been protected come what may is enough to reject it as useless, potentially false, but overall as a system that does not explain anything anymore.

How, then, are we to take the psychic’s psychological makeup? They are superficially no more different than you or I, for we all make adjustments of the periphery rather than our self-image. Optimism would have been smothered in the cradle. Try living a life where any mistake would cause an existential crisis, a sense of terror at our inability to do anything right. We’re willing to think that we are good and just people, even though we remember that as a child we stole a candy bar. We lie to ourselves that we are honest, happy to think that each past lie was made under circumstances that required a little white lie or fib. It is a matter of degree, rather than kind.

We are all willing to hold on to our self-image in the face of reality, but just as the scientific community is, upon logical reconstruction and sociological function, designed to facilitate criticism of theories, not persons, above all other dogmas, the psychic community is designed to deflect any and all possible criticism. Possibly, this takes place after a link is made between the person and the central meta-theoretical assumption. After all, this is some special ‘ability’ that has been cultivated over many years. They’ve reached a point where a criticism of the central assumption is transformed into a criticism of their self-image. No one could let that stand without the strongest defense possible, including sacrificing everything-but the central meta-theoretical assumption to protect the self-image.

The third part of the program, though, is the most tragic. While the physics were either credulous idiots with the knack at cold reading or magicians that wanted to fleece people out of their money, this part focuses on psychics that claim to find the bodies of missing family members, known as ‘psychic detectives.’ It’s a heart-wrenching story of wasting time and energy on false leads and mental terrorism. Frankly, it’s disgusting. These ‘psychic detectives’ deserve a good verbal beat-down, and possibly a restraining order against the rest of humanity.

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Disjunctive Propositions

In skepticism on 17/08/2011 at 11:54 pm

Question: do we attain certainty of at least some facts? We are certain, for example, that of two disjunctive propositions, one is true, the other false. We are certain about the truth of the principle of noncontradiction. While there is a trade-off between the utility of justifying informative claims and indubitably, for the principle of noncontradiction does at most say that there are at least some true sentences. Therefore, we know that there are at least some certainties about logic and there exists some true sentences. This is no argument, for it is exists outside the reach of argument: any criticism would, so the argument goes, have to assume the principle of noncontradiction, making it immune from argument. Therefore, the skeptical position is wrong about some state of affairs.

Is this true?

Two skeptical responses:

  1. We might note that a great deal of theory-laden cognition takes place when considering the principle of contradiction. We might, although it sounds silly at first blush, have made a simple mistake in our reasoning. Purported past cognitive state p is to person S actually a memory of past cognitive state p. We might misremember p, no matter how certain we are that we remembered p correctly; or be unaware that we have an improper justifier for p; or the justifier for p may be proper, but we may not be aware of it.
  2. The principle of noncontradiction is wholly supported on the structure of the argument itself, opening itself to the criticism that, while it is assumed as an axiom, logicians and mathematicians that one thought some axioms were obvious or indubitable have turned out to be, upon further reflection, far from obvious or indubitable. Just as Euclid’s fifth axiom could be rejected and still provide consistent non-Euclidean systems, the principle of noncontradiction can be rejected, producing paraconsistent logics.

Are we then certain of at least some facts?

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Electra

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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Fideism

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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Chess

In fallibilism, justificationism on 08/08/2011 at 2:41 pm

Two undefeated chess grandmasters meet at a chess tournament. No ties are accepted: this is a mental fight where only one can win. Each believes that they will win the match, and in fact has good reasons to believe that they will win: they each have defeated all previous games. For one of them their belief is true, for the other their belief is false, yet the winner cannot be said to know. True belief (mere opinion, doxa) does not make knowledge (episteme). We want a way to sort out true from false beliefs, and not just accidentally stumble upon truths like one of the grandmasters. To cut a long story short, we need some reliable way of sorting out true from false beliefs.

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The Sun Also Rises

In induction on 08/08/2011 at 5:57 am

As simply as possible …

Do we know that the Sun will rise tomorrow because it has risen in the past? No. Hume’s psychological account of inductive inferences is mistaken, for it misstated the problem. Somehow empiricists have taken Hume as the final word that the justification for the belief that the Sun will rise tomorrow is that the Sun has risen in the past.  It is easy to undermine that argument, for there is no logical inference made. We know the Sun will rise tomorrow because we know why it rises. We have an explanation: the Earth rotates on its axis roughly every 24 hours, and we have an explanation for why that happens, and so on. The rising Sun has led us to seek an explanation, and that explanation is our ‘justification,’ for if the Earth rotates on its axis roughly every 24 hours, then the Sun will rise tomorrow.

The logical content is transmitted from the conditional “if” to the “then,” for while the phrase ‘the Sun will rise tomorrow’ is clearly not true when understood in its broadest sense (the Sun does not ‘rise’, solar eclipses are infrequent events, and people in the far North experience no sunlight for months at a time), when understood colloquially, it is but an observation report of the Sun rising in the East when viewed from a particular vantage point at a particular time. In other words, it would be like saying “If all dogs are brown, then all other things being equal, an individual will, upon seeing a dog, report that it is brown.”

Conditional knowledge, however, is in no way justified by appealing to the explanation. Another explanation about laws of gravitation is necessary. This new explanation requires another explanation, and so on, creating an infinite regress of explanations. This conditional knowledge is in no way justified, for our explanations have in the past been false, and there is no way to know if our explanations are true, for explanations always have a logical content that extends far into the future and past, discussing events that we will never have a chance to observe.

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The Spirit of Truth

In kolakowski on 05/08/2011 at 9:04 am

Philosophy can never discover any universally admissible truths … The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver the truth but to build the spirit of truth, and this means never to let the inquisitive energy of mind go to sleep, never to stop questioning what appears to be obvious or definitive, always to defy the seemingly intact resources of common sense, always to suspect that there might be “another side” in what we take for granted, and never to allow us to forget that there are questions that lie beyond the legitimate horizon of science and are nonetheless crucially important to the survival of humanity as we know it. (Leszek Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial, p. 135)

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Futurism

In art on 05/08/2011 at 1:59 am

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Strevens on Induction

In induction on 04/08/2011 at 4:38 pm

When two theories are empirically equivalent, their likelihoods relative to any given body of evidence are equal. Thus the difference in anyone’s subjective probabilities for the theories must be due entirely to the difference in the prior probabilities that were assigned to the theories before any evidence came in. Bayesian confirmation theory preserves a prior bias towards simplicity, but it implements no additional bias of its own. …

Bayesian confirmation theory does impose an objective constraint on inductive inference, in the form of the likelihood lover’s principle, but this is not sufficient to commit the Bayesian to assuming the uniformity of nature, or the superiority of “non-grueish” vocabulary or simple theories. The first of these failures, in particular, implies that [Bayesian confirmation theory] does not solve the problem of induction in its old-fashioned sense.

If the old-fashioned problem of induction cannot be solved, what can we nevertheless say about [Bayesian confirmation theory]’s contribution to the justification of induction? There are two kinds of comments that can be made. First, we can identify unconditional, though relatively weak, constraints that [Bayesian confirmation theory] puts on induction, most notably the likelihood lover’s principle. Second, we can identify conditional constraints on induction, that is, constraints that hold given other, reasonable, or at least psychologically compelling, assumptions. We can say, for example, that if we assign low priors to grueish hypotheses, [Bayesian confirmation theory] directs us to expect a future that resembles the past. This is, remember, considerably more than we had before we began. (Michael Strevens, Notes on Bayesian Confirmation Theory [.pdf], 66)

Strevens is admirable, for he is upfront about the inadequacies of Bayesianism. That said, Strevens at times overstates his case. For instance, tet me simplify the bolded passages: “The evidence for any particular theory is underdetermined … however, if we reject theories that are incompatible with our assumption that the future will resemble the past, we will expect a future that resembles the past.” At least two problems for Strevens:

(1) The future does not resemble the past in all domains: black swans, white ravens — in fact, all falsified scientific theories — should give us pause before assuming something that is demonstrably false when applied to all domains. Therefore, if the future resembles the past in only some domains, why we should assume that the future will resemble the past in any particular domain?

(2) Even if the future should resemble the past in this particular domain, it does not follow that any theory that assumes a future that resembles the past is true, for while ‘grueish hypotheses’ are ruled out, there may still be an alternative theory that follows from that same assumption that the future will resemble the past that is in fact true. After all, it’s happened in the past (Einstein replacing Newton).

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The Cause of Error

In fallibilism on 04/08/2011 at 12:02 am

For truth or illusory appearance does not reside in the object, in so far as it is intuited, but in the judgment upon the object, in so far as it is thought. It is therefore quite correct to say that the senses do not err, not because they always judge correctly, but because they do not judge at all. Hence truth and error, consequently also, illusory appearance as the cause of error, are only to be found in a judgment, that is, in the relation of an object to our understanding. (Immanual Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 209)

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