Archive for the ‘fallibilism’ Category

Observation and Representation

In fallibilism on 31/12/2011 at 10:21 am

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has equipped a deep-space probe with a pictorial message ‘on the off-chance that somewhere on the way it is intercepted by intelligent scientifically educated beings.’ It is unlikely that their effort was meant to be taken quite seriously, but what if we try? These beings would first of all have to be equipped with ‘receivers’ among their sense organs that respond to the same band of electromagnetic waves as our eyes do. Even in that unlikely case they could not possibly get the message. Reading an image, like the reception of any other message, is dependent on prior knowledge of possibilities; we can only recognize what we know. Even the sight of the awkward naked figures in the illustration cannot be separated in our mind from our knowledge. We know that feet are for standing and eyes are for looking and we project this knowledge onto these configurations, which would look ‘like nothing on earth’ without this prior information. It is this information alone that enables us to separate the code from the message; we see which of the lines are intended as contours and which are intended as conventional modelling. Our ‘scientifically educated’ fellow creatures in space might be forgiven if they saw the figures as wire constructs with loose bits and pieces hovering weightlessly in between. Even if they deciphered this aspect of the code, what would they make of the woman’s right arm that tapers off like a flamingo’s neck and beak? The creatures are ‘drawn to scale against the outline of the spacecraft,’ but if the recipients are supposed to understand foreshortening, they might also expect to see perspective and conceive the craft as being further back, which would make the scale of the manikins minute. As for the fact that ‘the man has his right hand raised in greeting’ (the female of the species presumably being less outgoing), not even an earthly Chinese or Indian would be able to correctly interpret this gesture from his own repertory.

The representation of humans is accompanied by a chart: a pattern of lines beside the figures standing for the 14 pulsars of the Milky Way, the whole being designed to locate the sun of our universe. A second drawing (how are they to know it is not part of the same chart?) ‘shows the earth and the other planets in relation to the sun and the path of Pioneer from earth and swinging past Jupiter.’ The trajectory, it will be noticed, is endowed with a directional arrowhead; it seems to have escaped the designers that this is a conventional symbol unknown to a race that never had the equivalent of bows and arrows. (Ernst Gombrich, The Image and the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. London: Phaidon (1982), 150-151)


Maps and Territories

In fallibilism on 09/12/2011 at 2:46 am

For every judgment in a syllogistic chain, the mind seeks to discover a major premiss; the law of the syllogism requires that we seek a premiss for every premiss, a condition for every condition, until we arrive at that which is unconditional. This maxim is a proper one for the purpose of governing the operations of the mind, but it should not be confused with the erroneous supposition that there is in fact a first, unconditioned link in the chain of premisses. For it is one thing to know that every member of an intellectual sequence has a preceding condition, and quite another to maintain that we can comprehend the sequence in its entirety including a first, unconditioned member. (Kołakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, 40)


Existence Has its Own Order

In art, fallibilism on 06/12/2011 at 6:06 am

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others (Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian 245).



In fallibilism, fideism on 19/11/2011 at 12:19 pm

If a problem is compared to a maze, one could “solve” it by walking around its border without ever entering, if the relevant rules did not forbid it. To some that would be the height of intellectual dishonesty. They would call this ‘cheating’. Maybe they are right, but we should not think the “solution” a cheat if the maze has no exit, for it is a solution to a different problem, namely that of progressing from point A to B, rather than traversing a maze. It is an optimum in a different context. In other words, if one sees that the maze has no exit, is therefore unsolvable by traditional methods besides walking around or knocking down walls.


Success and Failure

In experiments, fallibilism on 18/10/2011 at 2:28 pm

Things that succeed teach us little beyond the fact that they have been successful; things that fail provide incontrovertible evidence that the limits of design have been exceeded. Emulating success risks failure; studying failure increases our chances of success. The simple principle that is seldom explicitly stated is that the most successful designs are based on the best and most complete assumptions about failure. (Henry Petroski, Success Through Failure)


Two Articles

In fallibilism on 03/10/2011 at 6:39 am

Isaiah Berlin and His Groupies.

How the Scientist Got His Ideas.


You’re Not Paranoid if It’s True

In fallibilism on 09/09/2011 at 12:50 am

What happens when believers in 9/11 conspiracy theories change their minds.



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)



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]


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.



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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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)


You Have No Idea How Wrong You Are

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


Tim Harford on Trial, Error, and the God Complex

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


Tim Harford’s website.



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)


Feynman on the Religious Impulse to Know

In fallibilism on 18/07/2011 at 2:44 am

When you doubt and ask, it gets a little harder to believe.  You see, one thing is that I can live with doubt and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. . . But I don’t have to know an answer; I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things—by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me. (Richard Feynman)

Over at Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne posts the popular video of Richard Feynman explaining the religious impulse. Feynman was a brilliant man, far more competent philosophically than most. The video Take the world from a different view (transcript) is simply a treat.


Technology and Failure

In experiments, fallibilism, induction, skepticism on 12/07/2011 at 12:35 pm

Over the years, shuttle managers had treated each additional debris strike not as evidence of failure that required immediate correction, but as proof that the shuttle could safely survive impacts that violated its design specifications. (Lee Hotz, Huston, you have a problem)


Success Through Failure

In fallibilism on 12/07/2011 at 12:32 pm

Things that succeed teach us little beyond the fact that they have been successful; things that fail provide incontrovertible evidence that the limits of design have been exceeded. Emulating success risks failure; studying failure increases our chances of success. The simple principle that is seldom explicitly stated is that the most successful designs are based on the best and most complete assumptions about failure.” (Henry Petroski, Success Through Failure)