Posts Tagged ‘fallibilism’

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).


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)



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.



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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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.


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.


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)


One Dogma of Logical Negativism

In fallibilism, popper, quine on 11/07/2011 at 6:07 am


Positive theories of knowledge assert that, if they are correct, future guesses are guaranteed to have (at least probabilistically) a marked improvement in their objective verisimilitude, not just in their increased empirical adequacy. If this were true, it would be an immense boon for everyone. Logical negativism rules such a possibility out a priori; in fact, it originates in the supposed failure of all positive theories of knowledge. Therefore, the greatest argument one can muster against this dogma in logical negativism is to demonstrate that some kind of necessary increase in verisimilitude occurs when replacing an old theory with a new one.

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A Woven Web

In fallibilism, xenophanes on 10/07/2011 at 6:29 am

The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,/ All things to us, but in the course of time/ Through seeking we may learn and know things better./ But as for certain truth, no man has known it,/ Nor shall he know it, neither of the gods/ Nor yet of all the things of which I speak./ For even if by chance he were to utter/ The final truth, he would himself not know it: For all is but a woven web of guesses (Xenophanes, Fragments, DK, B 18;35; & 34)

Assume 1, 2:

  1. All observation is theory-impregnated. (Hanson’s Patterns of Discovery is a good introduction.)
  2. If all observation is theory-impregnated, observations cannot definitely refute scientific theories: they are conjectural.
  3. Therefore, if observation (conjecture A) conflicts with scientific theory (conjecture B), there is no way to justify conjecture A or B as wrong.

Surely, some times A will be wrong, other times B will be wrong. Either A or B (or both) could agree with our background knowledge (conjecture C), but that does not make A or B any more justified, since that’s pushing the regress back one more step.

If observation is repeatedly corroborated, that is no sign that it is correct (the problem of induction, natch). Even if observation is known to be correct, that does not entail the falsity of conjecture B: there could be a problem with the experimental setup (conjecture D) or an auxiliary hypothesis (conjecture E).

Maybe Democritus was on to something when he said, “We know nothing in reality; for truth lies in an abyss.” Which conjecture is refuting which? Or is everything we know (or think we know) tentative and provisional, subject to future change? A “woven web of guesses” sits fine with me.


The Crest of the Hill

In evolution, fallibilism on 09/07/2011 at 6:15 am

One must tear them away from the reality to which they have become accustomed to and cause them to see everything anew. … but one has to do everything, one has to create a situation that threatens them. … For knowledge, whatever it is worth, from the most precise mathematics to the darkest suggestions of art, is not to calm the soul but to create a state of vibration and tension in it. (Witold Gombrowicz, Diary)


If evolution can force a group of organisms into a local maximum determined by some path it went down long ago, if life evolved an inherently inefficient mechanism, it would be stuck with it — you can’t start over without scrapping the whole project. This, I think, can be made analogous to scientific theories:

If we assume that science is interested in the overarching goal of attaining interesting truths, but we cannot know when or if we have acquired these interesting truths, then we have to settle for eliminating interesting falsehoods. Imagine we have a graph with different labels for the x, y, and z, coordinates. What do they stand for? I don’t know. I’m not a mathematician. Perhaps we can have verisimilitude, logical content, and something else I can’t be bothered to think of right now. It might not be able to be expressed in three dimensions. More might be needed. It’s not something that bothers me — it’s for creating a mental image of the possible theories available. Something like this.

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Among the Truthers

In fallibilism, fideism on 24/06/2011 at 7:27 am

The definition of the conspiracy theory … goes to the mindset of the conspiracy theorist, which is this: when presented with contrary evidence to their theory, they do not address the substance of the evidence. Instead, what they do is they systematically draw larger and larger circles around the groups of conspirators who are involved. (Jonathan Kay, Michael Coren Show Interview)

The analogy from conspiracy theories to ad hoc adjustments or immunizing procedures in science is, I would think, far too obvious.

Jonathan Kay’s blog Among The Truthers is an excellent resource explaining the mental state of conspiracy theorists.


The Chaos Monster

In fallibilism, skepticism, the ancient greeks on 22/06/2011 at 9:28 am

In Jungian terms, the uncanny breaks down our expectations for how the world is to operate. When we attempt to understand things, we can only see them through our own filter. If you have a hammer, everything you see is a nail. Our preconceived notions of what is normal break down, and when they are violated, we realize how fragile our epistemic assumptions are: the world isn’t full of nails. We’re left disturbed, unsettled, or shaken. We’re confronted with the irrational and the breakdown of fundamental order of the world. Without something to hold on to, we’re left fumbling in the dark.

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The Fallibilists

In fallibilism, fideism on 20/06/2011 at 9:26 am

If the argument from the criterion is correct, the fideist ought to suspend judgment on his dogmatic philosophical beliefs, along with his ordinary beliefs, for the argument applies equally to both.

Since the skeptic wants to see whether his opponent at least by his own standards or canons has knowledge, he in his own arguments adheres to these standards. But this does not mean that he himself is committed to them. He is aware of the fact, e.g., that ordinarily we do not operate by these [the dogmatic] standards and that it is because his opponents want more than we ordinarily have that they try to subject themselves to these stricter canons; they want “real” knowledge, certain knowledge. (Michael Frede, The Skeptic’s Beliefs (1987), p. 204)

Thus, the fideist ought to withhold assent on all subjects; and yet, the argument has no implications for what the fallibilist ought or ought not to believe, except for that the fallibilist ought to believe nothing if he were a fideist.

But of course, the fallibilist is not a fideist: no part of the fallibilist’s position assumes that judgments may only be made on the basis of a criterion of truth.

And yet, if true, fallibilism cannot be warrantly asserted to be true. What of it, when fallibilism denies that very possibility? If it were false, then welcome criticism that unveils its weakness.



In experiments, fallibilism on 15/06/2011 at 4:01 pm

The famous experiment of Geiger and Marson found that when they shot alpha particles at a very thin sheet of gold foil, a few of the alpha particles – about one in twenty thousand – were reflected by the foil rather than merely deflected. As Rutherford said later:

It was quite the most incredible event that has ever happened to me in my life. It was almost as incredible as if you fired a fifteen-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you. (Ernst Rutherford, ‘The Development of the Theory of Atomic Structure’, in Background of Modern Science, edited by J. Needham and W. Pagel, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1938, pp. 61-74.)

This remark of Rutherford’s shows the utterly revolutionary nature of the discovery: no one expected to see alpha particles rebound off gold, and yet it was conceivable. Rutherford realized that the experiment refuted J.J. Thomson’s model of the atom, and he replaced it by his own model of the atom.

This was the beginning of nuclear science.

It also happens to fit exactly within Popper’s method of falsificationism.


Through a Glass Darkly

In fallibilism, fideism, kuhn, popper on 15/06/2011 at 3:41 pm

There exists some way to certify statements as true or false. There must be some reason for believing them, a reason that may rest on other reasons (for example, z rests on y; y rests on x), but there must be some sort of instrument — call it a ‘touchstone’ — that sorts out true from false statements. There exists entrance examinations that determine truth and falsehood, similar to academic standards of admittance. If analogies to instruments and standards are not enough, then a religious allusion may be necessary: true statements are touched with grace by good reasons. This paragraph, in brief, sums up the prism through which the justificationist views the world.

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“Piss Christ”

In ethics, fallibilism on 15/06/2011 at 6:02 am

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. (WB Yeats, The Second Coming)

Piss Christ, the picture that enraged a thousand preachers in the US back in 1987, was destroyed by French Christian protesters.

I liked the photograph. If you didn’t know what the crucifix was submerged in, you’d think of it almost as … reverent. Serrano has always remained somewhat vague about its meaning, saying that it’s far more about the cheapening and commercialization of Christianity than a direct attack at Christ. Serrano was raised Roman Catholic, and might still be practicing to this day. Protesters, though, have always known that it is an affront to Christianity, and after several attempts at destroying the picture, have finally succeeded. Here is a photo of the aftermath.

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