Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

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.



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.



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 Sea

In neurath, skepticism on 15/09/2011 at 7:14 am

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction. (Otto Neurath)

The epistemic pessimist values avoiding error over acquiring information. As a result, the pessimist is unwilling to ask information on Prom Night to dance for fear of the potential rejection. Don’t forget your inhaler!

The epistemic optimist values acquiring information over avoiding error. As a result, the optimist falls in love with information, even if the information should be erroneous. There’s gold in that thar valley between her thighs. What of a communicable disease?

What if one were to resolve this tension not as Neurath did, but as follows: one neither fears nor loves information; one depersonalizes information. One feels no attachment or repulsion: one uses the information and sees where it leads. Only then can one decide if the information is worthwhile. One uses information, for that is all one has.

You’re lost at sea during a great storm, grasping floating wreckage. No need to be picky. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps or replace beams one by one anymore. Everything you’ve built is gone now, most of it sinking quickly below the waves. You catch anything that passes within reach. It’s life or death. You need a raft, or a lifeboat, or anything to jury-rig a sail. You need to make it through the storm. Anything will do, until it doesn’t. Any information will work, until it doesn’t work. And if it doesn’t, if it begins to pull you under the waves, cast it aside and replace it with another piece of flotsam floating by in the storm.


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)



In gellner on 10/09/2011 at 2:51 pm

When there was a recognized final Authority and intellectual court of appeal, the professional thinker could perform a useful function and he could do so with dignity — especially if the authoritative truths were available in a Holy Writ, and literacy which gave access to it was a specialist accomplishment which he did not share with all and sundry. Surrogate final sources of truth have since been sought — the Inner Light of Reason, Experience, History, Nature – but unfortunately these ladies do not speak with a clear, single or unambiguous voice.” (Ernest Gellner, Words and Things, p. 13)


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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Philosophy and Science-Themed T-Shirts!

In art on 02/09/2011 at 11:47 pm

It’s difficult for anyone working in philosophy to find a nice casual philosophy-themed shirt. A few years ago, I picked up this most awesome shirt:

I’ve just learned that the company behind the shirt, Amorphia Apparel, has come out with a new line of t-shirts. And they are awesome. Most of them use the instantly recognizable font of some of my favorite punk and metal bands, mashed together with famous philosophers and scientists. I think I’ll have to pick up a copy of this one soon, seeing as I rate Hume as one of the greatest philosophers …

I’m just sad that there’s no Popper shirt. What would it even look like? I decided to make a quick mock-up Popper-logo in an homage to Iron Maiden.


It Works!

In fideism on 02/09/2011 at 7:16 am

A friend just sent me this interview of Gov. Rick Perry …

I’ve cleaned up the relevant parts of the interview, scrubbing Perry’s horrible speaking style so that it’s somewhat understandable.

Interviewer: … Why does Texas continue with abstinence education programs when they don’t seem to be working … ?

Perry: Abstinence works.

Interviewer: But … we have the third highest teen pregnancy rate among all states in the country. … It doesn’t seem to be working.

Perry: It works. Maybe it’s the way it’s being taught or the way it’s being applied out there, but the fact of the matter is, it is the best form to teach our children.

I should preface this by noting that Perry is not talking about the act of abstaining from sex. Yes, of course that prevents STDs and pregnancies in teenagers. The question is whether or not abstinence-only education works. Perry clearly answers in the affirmative.

The problem here is not that Perry has the wrong answer. Abstinence-only education does not work. The reasons are well-known, and almost gobsmackingly obvious to anyone that can remember their own hormone-driven teenage years. The temptations of the flesh, directed through billions of years of evolution, compel us to behave in specific ways.

The problem here is not that Perry wants more pregnant or STD-positive teenagers in Texas. Attributing such motives to Perry does little more than paint him as a devil, a person that wishes to make others suffer for making choices he finds distasteful. It’s far too easy to dismiss him as a bad person, for in doing so we reject his position when it is at its weakest. Perry thinks, so I conjecture, that his policies will work to solve a host of plagues in his state. What these problems are, however, are up for debate.

Perry seems unable to go through the process of problem-solving. If a proposal does not, as far as we can tell, work, then we must either reject the proposal or produce some iteration of the proposal that explains why it failed. This is the basic trial and error process: We accept our mistakes. Perry will have none of this. He starts with a proposal (“Abstinence works”) and then when confronted with conflicting data, ends with the proposal!

Here we have an individual that will not change his position even with the world against him. Possibly this is for religious or moral reasons. He might think that premarital sex is sinful. Since Perry think his religion’s position on sinful acts is true, endorsing condom use would do little more than beget sin. Perry has a duty to follow his dogma come what may, otherwise it would not be dogma any more. Any possible consequences, such as a high level of teen pregnancy in Texas, the untold suffering of others, and the spread of STDs, is tolerable when souls hang in the balance.



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 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.”


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.


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 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.


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.


The ‘Grounds Clause’

In gettier, justificationism on 03/08/2011 at 9:36 am

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.

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Practical Prediction

In experiments, induction, justificationism, popper, salmon on 01/08/2011 at 5:24 am

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.’

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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)