In It’s Not Easy Being Grue, I argued for skepticism — or at least incredulity — towards any inductive inference made solely by appealing to a posteriori evidence. Two hypotheses, as long as they have a logical content greater than the evidence and are not yet refuted are, as a matter of following the rules of logic, necessarily equally favored by the evidence. Even if one should appeal to one of the two hypotheses having a natural property, this problem still stands, since it cannot be uncovered through a posteriori investigation. Of course, more than two hypotheses fit this criteria — any number of empirically adequate hypotheses with greater logical content than the evidence may be constructed. In sum, favoring one hypothesis over another, even with an a prior warrant, cannot be determined from a posteriori evidence at all.
Archive for the ‘justificationism’ Category
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?
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.
I begin with the ‘grounds clause’ and then expand on whether the two clauses satisfy a proper definition of knowledge in light of the justificationist program.
Take the term ‘justified’ as one of the following:
- S adopts a belief in an epistemically responsible manner (call this the ‘responsibility clause’).
- A relationship between the proposition believed and the grounds on which it is believed by S (call this the ‘grounds clause’).
As I will show, both clauses are needed in a plausible account of knowledge. The justification clause in the traditional doctrine that knowledge equals justified true belief must have these two components (1, 2). Furthermore, if 1 and 2 are satisfied, then the belief and truth clauses are reducible to the grounds and responsibility clauses — they will be necessarily believed and be true. The first part of this two-parter will show that the responsibility clause is not sufficient for a justificationist account of knowledge.
Wesley Salmon objects to Popper’s theory of knowledge on the grounds that, contrary to its stated rejection of a principle of induction, in order to explain how one can rationally decide between competing unfalsified theories, it requires the adoption of a principle of induction. The advice to an applied scientist or engineer to act as if the best-tested theories are probably true and the untested theories are probably false, though no doubt excellent advice, does not have any claim to be dubbed ‘rational’ unless a pragmatic principle of induction is adopted.
If the applied scientist’s choice is guided by the best-tested scientific theories available to him, then it appears that he is assuming that what was successful in the past will remain successful in the future. This would be an assumption rejected by Popper, for it employs the principle of induction. However, if a scientist, following Popper’s theory of knowledge, renounces a principle of induction, then he is not allowed to say that ‘future unobserved events will resemble past observed events.’
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.
There is endless conjecture, and certainty is not to be counted upon (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason)
Some people treat evidence as something that accumulates over time, like sap from a tree. Once enough evidence is collected, you need only synthesize it into syrup, and then you’ve proved your point. “I have X amount of evidence for Y, therefore you ought to believe Y, otherwise you are behaving irrationally.” So the story goes.
I cannot suffer fools, and Nicholas Lash is an educated fool–the worst kind by far, for his words can beguile those with less learning than he. And by Jove, Lash has a way with words. His All good reasoning comes from prior commitments and beliefs, published in the “Comment is Free” section of the Guardian, is a strangely enticing word-salad.
And what of Lash? He is, according to the press release by Durham University on the occasion of Lash receiving an honorary degree, “regarded as one of the most influential Roman Catholic philosophical theologians of our time.”
… all good reasoning expresses and proceeds from prior commitments and beliefs and relies, at every step along the way, on believing – however cautiously and critically – the testimony of others engaged in this and similar collaborative enterprises.
The article is, in brief, a case-study of the Wittgensteinian attempts by the learned to protect religious conjectures from criticism. With a quick bit of Googling, it turns out that Lash is indebted to Wittgenstein’s approach. That attitude throws up hastily built walls to keep trespassers at bay–while simultaneously legitimizing all other ‘forms of life.’ While such a conclusion may have sat well with Wittgenstein, how can Lash dare say anything critical of other ‘forms of life’? Everyone is already committed. No rational argumentation–and thus no change, except for the religious conversion on par with Saul on the road to Damascus–is permissible.
But is that the case? Don’t people often change their minds when confronted with criticism from without the community? Of course; however, Lash’s attitude, and his perplexing language, do little more than hinder those that may in due time change.
It follows (and O’Collins’s definition brings this out so well) that serious theological investigation is never purely a matter of inference and deduction; never merely a matter of the reasoning mind. It is also a matter of the mind and heart at prayer. There is a sense in which all good theology is done on one’s knees.
In sum, rather than a raging a war of words between intellectual ‘nations,’ Lash would have us all live in little herme(nu)tically-sealed cocoons. Thank you, but I’ll pass on the offer.
There’s a lovely debate that’s been around for some time between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig at Biola University. I recommend that you watch it — or watch parts of it, namely Christopher Hitchens’s turns at the podium. William Lane Craig is an awful speaker. Christ must have granted Hitchens a silver tongue and Craig a wooden ear. If you can bear through Craig’s turn at the microphone, then you’ll witness a great ‘debate’ between a philosopher-hack and a public intellectual.
What I find most interesting about the debate — besides the subject of ‘Does God exist?’ — is Hitchens and Craig’s respective debating styles. I will start with Hitchens:
I go to a wedding and I miss a gigantic explosion in the blogosphere over Sir Harold Kroto’s Nobel Laureate lecture. Eh, I’ve missed worse things.
Andrew Brown at The Guardian has an adequate–but far from complete–drubbing of Kroto’s proto-positivist claim that “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.”
PZ Myers disagrees with Brown, but I’m not surprised. After reading him for a few years, he comes off as a genuine naïve Popperian, saying “If someone were to say something truly false and giggleworthy, like for instance, “all cats are black,” what I’d do is go out and find a Siamese and a white Persian and wave them in his face. Isn’t that obvious?” After Quine, it isn’t so obvious anymore. Isn’t that obvious? PZ is a scientist, and scientists aren’t often paid to think about epistemology, so I won’t hold it against him. Only through a critical discussion can we come to an agreement, tentative though it may be, about things like the color of cats–and yet this agreement is forever provisional. If someone were to point out this distinction in private, PZ would probably temper his initial statement, but headlines sell papers.
Kroto, Myers, and Brown all come off thinking that science is directed at establishing claims–I am apparently the odd man out when I concede that, rather than lifting up other traditions to science’s level, science does not have the epistemic privilege Kroto and PZ think: there is no way to reliably determine the truth.
That said, we can choose to prefer science over other ‘ways of knowing’ for the same reason we can choose to prefer a theory that has survived criticism over one that has not: while its past success at solving our problems provide no ‘good reasons’ for favoring science, the failures of alternative ‘ways of knowing’ are sufficient to provisionally adopt what remains.
Through the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, children were frequently having heart attacks after being administered anesthetic. As Mosher says,
A thymic death is one of the supreme tragedies of surgery. An apparently healthy child dies during the administration of an anesthetic, during or after an uncomplicated tonsil and adenoid operation, or, as recently happened, during a simple circumcision. Again, as reported by one of our medical examiners, a child was standing on the edge of the sidewalk. A runaway horse dashed by and the child dropped dead. At autopsy the condition known as status lymphaticus was found; that is, there was an enlarged thymus and a hypertrophy of all the lymphoid structures of the alimentary canal … This slight pathology was all that was found to explain the unexpected death. (Harris P. Mosher, “An Original Communication,” “A Clinical and Preoperative Study of the Thymus in Children of the Tonsil and Adenoid Age,” The Laryngoscope Vol.36. Jan. 1926.)
Upon examination of the child’s body, the thymus was frequently found larger than expected. Everything else was normal. Since the thymus is pretty close to the heart, doctors decided to routinely radiate the thymus in children to shrink it in size.
From 1924 to 1946, it was the policy of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston to apply prophylactic irradiation in every case in which an “enlarged” thymus gland was diagnosed in infancy. … Whenever the width of the superior mediastinum was at least half the width of the heart the gland was characterized as `enlarged’ or `suspicious,’ and the child was given radiation treatment… (M.L. Janower & O.S. Miettenen, “Neoplasms after Childhood Irradiation of the Thymus Gland,” Journal of the American Medical Association Vol.215: 753. 1971.)
It turns out that there was no ‘slight pathology’ of an enlarged thymus: medical cadavers actually had smaller glands than on average. Chronic stress leads to the thymus becoming smaller, and these men and women before death were under extreme amounts of stress. Cadavers were, for one hundred and fifty years, collected from poor houses. These were people that were near death without access to proper medical care. The auxiliary hypothesis “Children that died immediately after being administered anesthetic have an enlarged thymus” was wrong–dead wrong.
All the evidence corroborated status lymphaticus as a cause of heart attacks, and yet it also corroborated the theory that doctors were misapplying anesthetic to children. No one thought to figure out the correct proportion for children. Thousands of children died.
What are we wrong about right now?
Jonathan Schaffer’s The Debasing Demon [.pdf] was an immense pleasure to read. Some highlights:
I will draw three lessons from the debasing demon. The first lesson is that all knowledge is imperilled by sceptical doubt, even knowledge of the cogito. This clarifies the range of scepticism. The second and related lesson is that anti-sceptical strategies relying on a residue of knowledge immune from doubt cannot succeed. The debasing demon leaves no residuum. The third lesson is that deception and debasement do not exhaust the forms of sceptical doubt. In that sense, there are more demons in epistemic hell than are dreamt of in epistemology. (Schaffer, 228)
A key moment in her [Rep. Bachmann’s] political evolution, as for many of her generation, was the film series How Should We Then Live by the theologian Francis Schaeffer, who is widely credited for mobilizing evangelicals against abortion, an issue most had previously ignored. A Presbyterian minister, Schaeffer argued that our entire perception of reality depends on our worldview, and that only those with the right one can understand the true nature of things. Christianity, he argued, is “a whole system of truth, and this system is the only system that will stand up to all the questions that are presented to us as we face the reality of existence.” Theories or assertions from outside this system—evolution, for example—can be dismissed as the product of mistaken premises. (Michelle Goldberg, Bachmann’s Unrivaled Extremism)
I don’t know what to say about people that are incapable of admitting fault. Ideology can be very powerful, psychologically, especially if it’s grounded in religious convictions: there are people that, if presented with evidence that challenges or discredits their beliefs, are capable of writing it off entirely.
What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant…. What’s this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil? (Ashoka)
Some people think that there are no grounds on which to judge different cultures. The cultural practice of ‘honor’ killing is as equally justified as cultural practices that ensure freedom of speech, for instance. That’s how the argument goes.
In a (qualified) sense, I agree. There are no foundations one can appeal to, no (so far as I can tell) justification for human rights or human dignity that extend beyond culture. What I’m getting at is that we ought to remain agnostic over the existence of any ethical code that is inherent to the universe.
This same claim is directed towards different cultural theories of knowledge (Feyerabend, et al.): who am I to say that, since all theories of knowledge are cultural constructs, reading the entrails of goats is any better than the Western process of scientific discovery?
How will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know? (Plato, Meno, 2nd ed. tr. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett 1981), 13 (80d).)
In its most general form, problems take place when our conjectures run up against some sort of difficulty, some sort of wall that impedes advancement. Our intuitions are stressed during rigorous testing. That is a problem. For instance, the following argument looks like a problem…
Externalism assumes that internalism misses the very point of the act of justifying statements. Epistemic luck about justifiers should not be a significant factor in cases of true knowledge, not fortuitous ‘true opinion.’ The justifier can be independent of the beliefs of Adam, resting on the fact that the justifier is in fact a proper justifier. In other words, if The Times is an accurate predictor, it does not matter if Adam have awareness of his access to an accurate predictor.
Even if Adam cannot provide a good reason why The Times is a reliable source, as long as The Times is in fact a proper justifier of p, and if Adam forms the belief p after reading The Times, and if the content of The Times is in fact true, then Adam is in possession of knowledge. To generalize, in the externalist program Adam will have a justified true belief iff
Assume that a reliable belief-formation process (whatever it may be) determines when one possesses good reasons. For instance, Adam reads in the New York Times the prediction p: “the Queen of England will be visiting New York City on the fifth of June.” Adam’s reasonable belief in The Times‘s accuracy in predicting visiting dignitaries is a justifier for p. The Times often employs fact-checkers that catch mistakes, it is prima facie reasonable to assume that Adam’s copy of The Times is not a forgery, and so on. Taking all this into consideration, Adam now believes that p. As it so happens, The Times was correct: p is true. This is a good description of insufficient but good reasons. To generalize, the internalist program says that Adam will have a justified true belief iff Adam
- has access to a justifier for p,
- believes that p, and
- p is in fact true.