Archive for the ‘critical rationalism’ Category

Review of Boaz Miller’s ‘Rationality Principle Idealized’

In critical rationalism, popper on 28/02/2012 at 9:48 am

Just found this review. It’s worth checking out.


Feser writes on Popper

In critical rationalism on 27/02/2012 at 4:28 am

The Thomist Edward Feser has written a few blog articles on issues relating to Popper’s work in philosophy of mind here, here, and here. His most recent post Hayek and Popper on the mind is also worth a read.

I don’t agree with Feser on many things (his arguments for Catholicism for one), but he seems to appreciate work done by Popper (perhaps when his criticisms against monism are useful) and is an excellent writer.


Surprise, Surprise: Brainstorming is a Bust

In critical rationalism on 15/02/2012 at 12:13 am

It turns out brainstorming doesn’t work. Guess what does?

[Charlan] Nemeth’s studies suggest that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that [Alex] Osborn thought was most important. As Nemeth puts it, “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict.

According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

It’s also worth reading for the history of MIT’s Building 20.


Theism and science compatible?

In critical rationalism, plantinga on 09/02/2012 at 7:30 am

Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened. (1 Kings 18:27)

Yes, they are. But first, I should explain …

I see only the prima facie absurdness in religious dogmas. I’m a genial atheist, the kind that will listen to those with a religious bent and let them believe what they will — as long as their metaphysical system is not incoherent: their beliefs are coherent and consistent with our best available knowledge. I might be wrong; they might be right. But overall, in the social sphere, I find most religions to be obviously manmade, at their best boring or neutral, and pernicious at their worst.

Consider a physical system that at first blush appears to contradict a metaphysical system, say that the universe is guided by a deity that acts directly in the world, or initially designed so that its movements follow its aims. Further suppose that we know precisely the history of this physical system. By statically analyzing the data, we learn that the apparently random effects have an organization so that they appear to not be random, so it does not warrant the claim that a random source is behind it. If accepted, this would falsify the claim that there is a random source. Of course, this leaves open the possibility that the source, while not random, is not due to this hypothesized designer or guider (apophenia happens), but it would be a significant blow to any claim that the source is random and corroborate claims about the existence of a guider or designer.

On the contrary, if we find that the data is in fact random, then nothing follows. The data does not warrant the claim that a random source is behind it. Rather, it corroborates that the source is random, but it equally corroborates that the source is guided or designed, but the designer or guider could act in ways that we are unaware of; or with plans, aims, and whims with which we have no access.

So, given the physical system and initial conditions shortly after the big bang, what is the probability p that in this universe an intelligent species will evolve purely by unguided means? If p had a very low value, this would falsify unguided evolution, for unguided evolution would probably not produce an intelligent species. If p had a high value, this would not falsify guided evolution, for the religious individual could claim that their deity guided or designed the universe in such a way that intelligent beings would evolve. Thus, against our intuitions, any advancement in the natural sciences has the potential of falsifying unguided physical systems, but not guided or designed physical systems.

What is the moral of the story? Metaphysical claims about deities are unfalsifiable, and can be held on to come what may, as long as the claims do not logically contradict one another and in line with our best available knowledge (or our best available knowledge is explained away with ad hoc rationalizations for inconvenient facts), but — since we’re good Popperians — unfalsifiability does not support a position; rather, it detracts from it. If the metaphysical system is to satisfy these two requirements (coherence and consistence with best available knowledge), they need only be constructed in such a way that a central religious claim is not amendable to scientific inquiry. By happenstance, there are an infinite number of coherent metaphysical systems: the Prime Mover may be left-handed, or the Great Architect live in a shack on the back side of the moon, and so on. The very fact of the unfalsifiability of metaphysical claims about deities is enough for us to reject it due to our wish to keep our ontological baggage light and rule them all out, and not set question-begging standards that let in some but not all metaphysical beings that are unobservable/uncriticizable.

Addendum: Here I should give a rudimentary account of Popper’s argument according to virtue epistemology: one way to understand critical rationalism is that there are intellectual traits that are virtuous in so far as they help solve problems ranging from the concrete to the most abstract. We create solutions to these problems, but our solutions will often make some mistake, and not solve these problems. If we want to solve problems, the only way to eliminate error is through criticism of these solutions.

It is far too easy to find positive stories, surreptitiously save our theories from criticism (either by slight modification of the theories at the core or ad hoc adjustments to the periphery), or sit back knowing that our metaphysical beliefs are untouchable, and such intellectual traits can take place with different content. Therefore, to promote intellectual well-being, we ought to shy away from giving self-serving positive stories about why we believe things to be so, or attempt to inoculate our theories from criticism, or believe metaphysical claims that cannot be subject to criticism.

Searching for confirming evidence, gradually changing positions without acknowledgement, and adopting beliefs that are beyond the scope of critical discussion are not virtuous acts. Rather, it is virtuous to refrain from these activities, virtuous to actively listen to criticism from others, and even more virtuous to be actively critical of our own theories. If we cannot do so, we retire from solving problems as failures.



In critical rationalism on 19/11/2011 at 7:05 am

As I was sitting in my chair,
I knew the bottom wasn’t there,
Nor legs nor back, but I just sat,
Ignoring little things like that.

How apt at describing most justificationist programs and their belief that all will be resolved. Acting as if some hypotheses are to be preferred is indispensable to the conduct of ordinary life, but they are a matter of convention, and to believe that one may reliably choose the right properties is a belief without warrant. Therefore, they do not follow their own proposed procedure.


Woe to Induction

In critical rationalism, induction on 18/11/2011 at 8:01 am

Łukasiewicz’s argument against inductive inference is simple: under any objective interpretation of the probability calculus, the probability that a single hypothesis is true where m is the set of logical consequences of the hypothesis and if n events are taken to possess property P is m / (m+n). Thus, m is always greater than n, so that the probability of the hypothesis cannot be greater than ½. Moreover, since scientific theories are often universal, m approaches infinity and the probability of the scientific theory approaches 0. Carnap rediscovers this argument after attempting to produce an objective inductive logic and is shaken to the core.

Łukasiewicz, Jan. 1909. On Probability of Inductive Conclusions, Przeglad Filozoficzny, 12, 209–210.

Carnap, Rudolph. 1950. The Logical Foundations of Probability. 2nd ed., Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 572.



In borges, critical rationalism on 18/10/2011 at 12:04 pm

I mistrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity. (Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols)

Nietzsche, the aphorist par excellence, put the problem most succinctly: constructing a framework is worthwhile only insofar as someone is willing to throw it away. It is the inevitable urge of any intellectual to extend their framework until it touches upon all aspects of life, becoming a world-view that explains all. Most intellectuals believe that the gap between the the world-view and the world can be crossed, and known to have been crossed, if we are diligent and wise; however, the will to a system forgets that a world-view can never be mapped one-to-one to the world.

If one holds on to their world-view, they are committed to its authority; they are a slave to the world-view. If one is willing to give up on their world-view, they are free.


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 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)


From ‘Ought’ to ‘Is’

In bartley, critical rationalism, ethics on 06/09/2011 at 2:50 am

After reading Eric MacDonald’s piece on natural law theory over at Choice in Dying, I think it best to describe how a Critical Rationalist as influenced by Popper and Bartley crosses the ‘is-ought’ gap. Natural law theory seeks to ground ethics in something tangible, something that is easy to grasp. It is in the nature of things to be so, and therefore it follows that we must follow the nature of things. Of course, this indubitably begs the question of what exactly is the nature of things. To take a poor example, it is in the nature of things that bananas fit hands, but bananas also fit into orifices other than the mouth. But put this problem aside for the moment. Assume that it can be solved, or at least a group of people may come to an agreement, tentative though it may be, on the nature of things. Hume, though, notes that it is difficult to justify an ‘ought’ as logically following from an ‘is’, and does not rule this out as impossible. I, on the other hand, take this justification as impossible, since this problem of justification is little more than a variation of Fries’s trilemma: (1) either this ethical justification goes in a circle, (2) grounded on a foundation that is assumed without argument, or (3) part of an infinite series of justifications.
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In critical rationalism, fallibilism on 02/09/2011 at 11:51 pm

[It] is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes. (Ramana Maharshi)


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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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 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.


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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