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Posts Tagged ‘skepticism’

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.

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Trust

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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Disjunctive Propositions

In skepticism on 17/08/2011 at 11:54 pm

Question: do we attain certainty of at least some facts? We are certain, for example, that of two disjunctive propositions, one is true, the other false. We are certain about the truth of the principle of noncontradiction. While there is a trade-off between the utility of justifying informative claims and indubitably, for the principle of noncontradiction does at most say that there are at least some true sentences. Therefore, we know that there are at least some certainties about logic and there exists some true sentences. This is no argument, for it is exists outside the reach of argument: any criticism would, so the argument goes, have to assume the principle of noncontradiction, making it immune from argument. Therefore, the skeptical position is wrong about some state of affairs.

Is this true?

Two skeptical responses:

  1. We might note that a great deal of theory-laden cognition takes place when considering the principle of contradiction. We might, although it sounds silly at first blush, have made a simple mistake in our reasoning. Purported past cognitive state p is to person S actually a memory of past cognitive state p. We might misremember p, no matter how certain we are that we remembered p correctly; or be unaware that we have an improper justifier for p; or the justifier for p may be proper, but we may not be aware of it.
  2. The principle of noncontradiction is wholly supported on the structure of the argument itself, opening itself to the criticism that, while it is assumed as an axiom, logicians and mathematicians that one thought some axioms were obvious or indubitable have turned out to be, upon further reflection, far from obvious or indubitable. Just as Euclid’s fifth axiom could be rejected and still provide consistent non-Euclidean systems, the principle of noncontradiction can be rejected, producing paraconsistent logics.

Are we then certain of at least some facts?

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Electra

In skepticism, the ancient greeks on 16/08/2011 at 7:11 am

I turn everything inside out/ looking for new solutions/ to the problems of today,/ always critical, giving/ suggestions for gracious living/ and they come away from seeing a play/ in a questioning mood, with “where are we at?,”/ and “who’s got my this?,” and “who took my that?.” (Euripides, in Aristophanes, The Frogs, trans. Richmond Lattimore, Four Comedies, 1969, 62)

In Euripides’ Electra, Electra receives evidence of the secret arrival of Orestes, offering three signs that correspond to the three signs offered to Electra in Aeschylus’s earlier Libation Bearers. The ‘older’ Electra rejects the possibility that the hair could be anyone’s but Orestes’s (520 – 23), but Euripides’s Electra is unwilling to make such a leap of faith, methodically rejecting the very same arguments given by Aeschylus’s Electra. She rejects the possibility of her brother would return in secret, for she assumes that he would return openly (524-26) and then she goes on (527-29) to note the inherent differences between the lock of hair from a woman and a man and the irrelevance of foot-size in determining relatives. Many unrelated people also have, obviously, similar hair. This here is the new faith in the capabilities of reason, and yet this faith is repeatedly undermined, not just in literature, but in our everyday lives.

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The Five Tropes

In skepticism, the ancient greeks on 23/07/2011 at 2:24 am

I mentioned in a earlier comment that I think Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Phyrronism is the greatest book ever written. Of course, this is hyperbole on my part, but it gives a good indication of how strong the skeptical position has been for millennia.

Agrippa’s five tropes, published in Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Phyrronism, stand today as the greatest assault on all justificationist theories of knowledge. They are the following:

5-1 Diaphônia:
The mode that argues from disagreement. With respect to some matter that presents itself, there is undecided (anepikriton) conflict, both among the views of ordinary life and the views held by philosophers. Due to this, we are unable to choose or reject one thing, and must fall back on suspension.

5-2 Eis apeiron ekballonta:
Arguments that throw one into an infinite regress. That which is brought forward to make a given matter credible needs yet something else to make it credible, and so on ad infinitum. Since we thus have no starting point for our argument, suspension of judgment follows.

5-3 Pros ti:
Arguments from relativity. X only ever appears such-and-such in relation to the subject judging and to the things observed together with it. Suspension on how it really is follows.

5-4 Hypothesis:
Someone makes an assumption without providing argument. A dogmatist, if thrown back into an infinite regress of arguments, just assumes something as a starting-point, without providing an argument (anapodeiktôs). We suspend over mere hypotheses—they could be false, opposite hypotheses could be formulated, and so on.

5-5 Ton diallêlon:
Arguments that disclose a circularity. This mode is used when that which ought to confirm a given investigated matter requires confirmation (pistis—credibility) from that matter. We are unable to assume either in order to establish the other. We suspend judgment on both. (Vogt, Katja, “Ancient Skepticism“)

The three most popular objections–insofar that I have heard them said repeatedly, and without a sense of irony, in response to the skeptical challenge–have been the following. I now give you my worst of the worst:

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Wherefore art thou Induction?

In critical rationalism, induction, quine, underdetermination on 11/07/2011 at 10:12 am

The word ‘induction’ takes on many meanings, always when most convenient. Like a slippery eel, just when a critic of induction has their hands around its neck, it wiggles out once more.

Does induction refer to the ‘context of discovery’ or the ‘context of justification’?

If ‘induction’ refers to the context of discovery, the critic of induction need only point to the greatest historical developments in science. Without blinders on, the critic points out that these theories are birthed in the heat of dealing with significant scientific problems. The framework comes before observation (read: Einstein). How then could enumerative induction work? Theories are then imaginative creations–possible solutions to problems. Even if enumerative induction is permitted during the context of discovery, it does not help the scientist any more than dreaming next to a raging fire (read: Kekulé’s oroboros), drug use (read: Feynman, Kary Mullis), &c., which is to say that is has no privileged position over even the most arbitrary ‘methods.’

If ‘induction’ refers to the context of justification, is this a process of objective inductive verification à la Carnap? If so, then this program is defunct, for no number of verifications can increase the probability assigned to a strictly universal statement. Is this the process of subjective certitude after repeated verifications? Then it contradicts the probability calculus and fails to solve the problem of underdetermination.

If ‘induction’ refers to the metaphysical assumption of regularity of systems, which we may approximate if enough inductions of the system are collected, then the inductivist retreats to asserting only that there exists regularities, calling this assumption ‘induction.’ If a proposed regularity should turn out to be false, then this was either a mistaken induction or not induction at all. If it is not an induction, then this is little more than wordplay: we cannot tell this type of induction apart from a conjecture. If it is a mistaken induction, this type of induction should only be known to be mistaken in hindsight: it tells us nothing until we learn that we are wrong.

And what is that but a falsification?

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Gardner’s Misstep

In carnap, critical rationalism, empiricism, experiments, fallibilism, gardner, holism, justificationism, popper, the ancient greeks, wittgenstein on 28/06/2011 at 10:33 am

Martin Gardner wrote A Skeptical Look at Karl Popper back in 2001. I decided to give it a read then put down some provisional comments …


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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 Dialleus, pt. 2

In critical rationalism, skepticism on 17/06/2011 at 1:38 am

Who breaks a butterfly upon the wheel?

Imagine that you are writing out a complicated mathematical proof. Most philosophers would say that it would be irrational to believe you are justified in thinking that you have conducted a proper derivation without first checking over each short step in the proof. It’s obvious that you might have made a mistake.

One should always lower the level of confidence assigned to the conclusion of any argument, according to the probability that one has made a mistake in the argument. However, David Hume points out that this estimate in probability may itself be in error. We ought to seek out an estimate for this estimate, which may itself be in error … leading to an infinite series of corrections. This leads to systematic doubt over the truth of synthetic a posteriori statements. The very tools we use to check the truth of our fallible beliefs are themselves fallible.

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Priors

In induction, skepticism on 16/06/2011 at 5:52 pm

Assign a prior probability to a hypothesis h that takes into account our ignorance of the truth or falsity of the hypothesis. Even though a good deal of the predictions (p), in conjunction with some basic statements and initial conditions, of h may be true, either the hypothesis is true or is false. Outcomes of testing are transmitted back to the hypothesis: corroborating evidence e implies that h is true (for true hypotheses will always have their predictions corroborated), while evidence e that conflicts with prediction p, a logical consequence of h, implies that h is false.

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The Dialleus

In justificationism, skepticism on 16/06/2011 at 3:34 pm

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…

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Probability, pt. 2

In induction, skepticism on 15/06/2011 at 4:11 pm

Take the statement A, “It will snow on Friday” and the statement B, “It will not snow on Saturday”. The content of the conjunction AB (“It will snow on Friday and it will not snow on Saturday”) will be greater than or equal to any of its components. The more a statements says about the state of affairs, the greater its content. However, note that the probabilities assigned to either A or B require that the probability of the conjunction AB will be smaller than either of the conjuncts A or B.

If we define 0 as ‘false’ (such as a contradiction: for instance “The ball is both all blue and all red at once.”) and 1 as ‘true’ (such as a tautology: for instance, “A prince is a prince.”) and the possible values between 0 and 1 are all the possible assigned probabilities, then AB will always be more improbable or as probable than either the conjuncts A or B. For instance, if we assign the number .5 to A and .5 to B, then AB equals .25. The more a statement says, the less probable it is.

That is to say, with progressive content of our theories (or when a succession of theories increase in their predictive power) they become more and more improbable.

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Descartes

In justificationism, kuhn, skepticism, wittgenstein on 15/06/2011 at 3:18 pm

Justificationism in Continental Rationalism leads to a situation of salvation and damnation. The epistemologist must save some commonsensical ideas, such as other minds, an external world, the reliability of science, and cast out or exorcise supposed illegitimate foundations. She sorts out the desirable from the undesirable statements, yet to begin this sorting this requires a proper sorter.

Out of all the possible foundations for knowledge, all but one foundation will fail to correctly sort out all desirable positions. If a foundation does not succeed, it will fail to deliver the promised goods. It is one thing to question whether the system is coherent; it is another to question whether it accomplishes its task. For instance, if a proposed foundation asserts the existence of the external world, this is not a satisfactory foundation, for it does not tell us anything of importance about the external world. We are not searching for a meta-criterion, but as a criterion of preferable foundations. I want a foundation that doesn’t let too much in, yet keeps all the riffraff out.

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Instrumentalism

In skepticism on 15/06/2011 at 2:51 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)


The problem with an instrumentalist solution, at least as I see it, is that scientific theories aren’t employed as instruments.

We keep our instruments, even though they have limitations. We use the hammer for pushing nails into wood; we wouldn’t use the hammer as a screwdriver, would we? But while engineers may use a false–but limited–theory, this doesn’t happen in science. When a theory is found to have a limitation, a scientist searches for a better theory, one that overcomes this limitation. Do you think scientists ought to behave like engineers and stop superseding theories with broader theories?

Thus, instrumentalism doesn’t take the progress of science seriously, or it makes no sense by its lights: it’s not interested in the quest for truth.

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The Sphinx

In irrationalism, skepticism, the ancient greeks on 15/06/2011 at 2:30 pm

Most everyone knows the story of Oedipus meeting the Sphinx — how he bests it by solving its riddle, goes off to Thebes, nails his mom, and ruins his life. So what?

The Sphinx is four things in one: the body of a lioness, the torso of a woman, the wings of an eagle, and the tail of a serpent — she is part of the primordial world of chaos, full of monsters and those dark scary things that are hiding just behind you when you’re in the dark, born before the first gods came. Ooga booga!

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