trying to find the limits of philosophy

July 15, 2010

When you write a blog that’s actually read by more than a few people, you get to hear plenty of criticisms and complaints, and one of the most frequent criticisms yours truly gets when it comes to posts which discuss the scientific method’s strengths and how we form scientific conclusions, is my frequent lack of any philosophical sophistication. While I may have sampled some classic works, I’d be the last person to claim that I’m really all that fluent in the world of scholarly pontificators and won’t hesitate to crack jokes about philosophers when given the chance to do so. However, the critics tell me, what I’m missing are the contributions of thinkers who spend their lifetimes trying to formulate general schemas for how we perceive the world around us and define the limits of knowledge in its most abstract form. But is philosophy really all it’s so often made out to be? Is a factually and numerically-minded philosophical philistine like myself really missing that much? I’d argue not.

Now, I admit that just like there’s a time and a place for everything, there’s a time for philosophy. Say that we’re dealing with a concept in which there’s no right answer, like your favorite style of art, or favorite color, or a taste in music, or as some might groundlessly say, lack thereof. There’s no formal basis on which to declare that a cubist’s work has more merit than that of an impressionist, or a surrealist. There’s no objective way to call the color yellow better than a shade of blue. Do we take a vote and judge on the basis of popularity? Sure we can, but we would just be falling for a bandwagon fallacy and we know that not everything the public at large finds a hit today will be just as popular tomorrow, and even if something is popular doesn’t mean it’s good. Individual opinions should count as well since we have no rational reason to assume that the public is always right. So in this case, a philosopher could outline what we mean by artistic merit in a generally fickle culture. But would we need to keep our hypothetical philosopher around to find out why something is popular and how we pick a favorite color, or a favorite style of music? I’d say no and call a psychologist instead. Here’s why.

Psychologists will ask questions, set up experiments, try to replicate their findings and in general, could come to some very interesting conclusions backed by hard evidence. Do people pick their favorites based on social surroundings? Do they really like what they say they like, or are they just throwing out something they think will impress those around them, and if it’s the latter, what motivates them to do this? So while we’ll leave the merit of art, culture and the value we place in them in the realm of philosophical debate, we’ll come up with concrete answers to relevant questions and hopefully, provide something for philosophers to consider. You see, when we’re talking about measurable, quantifiable things and questions which have good answers based on plenty of data, there’s not really much room for philosophy to contribute. Even worse, trying to construct an elaborate paradox or seemingly logical philosophical proposition about something in the scientific realm could result in completely invalid assumptions, as with Xeno’s arrow, which tried to argue that time and motion simply can’t exist while clearly lacking even the most rudimentary grounding in physics. So if you want to use philosophy to address science, be aware that you might find yourself barking up the wrong tree if you’re not careful…

[ illustration from Exorcising Laplace's Demon by Aaron Diaz ]

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  • Apteris

    I question your assumption that philosophy is only good for deciding among fashions, and would point you towards the Introduction to Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy for a brief yet compelling case in favour of the discipline. Alas, the introduction is too long to paste here and the Google preview omits pages anyway.

    I would like to point out that Zeno’s paradoxes seem to me not nearly as easy to resolve as one might think. I’ve found this page very informative. Now, I am not a physicist, so if the author of that page is horribly mistaken, feel free to point it out. However, I think he makes a good case, not that there is no time and motion, but that Zeno in fact was claiming something modern science agrees with: that it makes no sense to think of space and time as separate. Forgive the liberal copy and pasting.

    Regarding these first two arguments, there’s a tradition among some high school calculus teachers to present them as “Zeno’s Paradox”, and then “resolve the paradox” by pointing out that an infinite series can have a finite sum. This may be a useful pedagogical device for beginning calculus students, but it misses an interesting and important philosophical point implied by Zeno’s arguments. To see this, we can re-formulate the essence of these two arguments in more modern terms, and show that, far from being vitiated by the convergence of infinite series, they actually depend on the convergence of the geometric series. Consider a ray of light bouncing between an infinite sequence of mirrors as illustrated below

    However, [arguments against the constructibility of infinitely smaller mirrors/arguments about the photon not being a point particle] merely confirm Zeno’s position that the physical world is not scale-invariant or infinitely divisible (noting that Planck’s constant h represents an absolute scale). Thus, we haven’t debunked Zeno, we’ve merely conceded his point. Of course, this point is not, in itself, paradoxical. It simply indicates that at some level the physical world must be regarded as consisting of finite indivisible entities. We arrive at Zeno’s paradox only when these arguments against infinite divisibility are combined with the complementary set of arguments (The Arrow and The Stadium)

    if there is literally no physical difference between a moving and a non-moving arrow in any given discrete instant, then how does the arrow know from one instant to the next if it is moving? In other words, how is causality transmitted forward in time through a sequence of instants, in each of which motion does not exist?

    The theory of special relativity answers Zeno’s concern over the lack of an instantaneous difference between a moving and a non-moving arrow by positing a fundamental re-structuring the basic way in which space and time fit together, such that there really is an instantaneous difference between a moving and a non-moving object, insofar as it makes sense to speak of “an instant” of a physical system with mutually moving elements. Objects in relative motion have different planes of simultaneity, with all the familiar relativistic consequences, so not only does a moving object look different to the world, but the world looks different to a moving object.

    This resolution of the paradox of motion presumably never occurred to Zeno, but it’s no exaggeration to say that special relativity vindicates Zeno’s skepticism and physical intuition about the nature of motion. He was correct that instantaneous velocity in the context of absolute space and absolute time does not correspond to physical reality, and probably doesn’t even make sense. From Zeno’s point of view, the classical concept of absolute time was not logically sound, and special relativity (or something like it) is a logical necessity, not just an empirical fact. [..] Doubtless it’s stretching the point to say that Zeno anticipated the theory of special relativity, but it’s undeniably true that his misgivings about the logical consistency of motion in it’s classical form were substantially justified. The universe does not (and arguably, could not) work the way people thought it did.

    If you have the time to look over the page, let me (rather, us) know what you think.

  • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Just Al

    I think I’m largely in agreement with Greg – philosophy spends far too much of its time assuming a given factor or posit, then trying to either confirm or deny this in logical arguments. The vindication or failure isn’t within the arguments, it comes from the assumed posit.

    Case in point, Bertrand Russell’s windy exposition quoted above about Zeno’s Paradoxes, all of it hinging on two flaws: that he doesn’t understand either relativity or “instant.”

    All objects are in motion. We can only refer to motionless when referring to a given point, for instance, this mark on the ground. The arrow is motionless, relative to the mark (this is why it’s actually called freaking relativity,) which itself is trundling along with continental drift, whipping around on the surface of the earth during rotation, revolving around the sun, following the sun around the galaxy, and getting dragged along by the galaxy in whatever odd direction related to any other galaxy, and through the expansion of the universe. The philosophical point here, which doesn’t actually exist, is “motionless.” Russell seems to know enough to bring up Planck’s Constant but somehow doesn’t get relativity. For an introduction as to why this matters to me, it fails miserably.

    As for “instant,” this is an abstract point where all relative criteria are met – the arrow being this far from the mark on the ground or whatever. It’s exactly like a geometrical “point” – you cannot go small enough, in either space or time, to define this exactly. The real world means approximation and “this is as small as we want to bother with.”

    Achilles passes the tortoise easily, for one simple reason: you stop measuring in an infinitely diminishing manner with moving goalposts and choose a different relative point – say, the finish line (I know, we’re talking crazy here, but bear with me.) In two seconds, Achilles travels four times farther than the tortoise, and in exactly 7.239876987326912876519832761923 seconds reaches the arbitrary line (or as small as your ruler can reasonably measure) that you call the finish line. Actually, you’re not really sure if it occurred at 7.239876987326912876519832761923 seconds or perhaps 7.239876987326912876519832761977, because your calculation on light speed within the atmosphere might be off due to humidity, but there’s only two decimal places on the watch anyway. Hell, just call it seven seconds – the tortoise has stopped, relative to some clover that it’s eating…

    Pondering infinitesimals is something that is caused by an odd region or trait of our brains, but it’s easy to see it goes nowhere. Rationalizing it doesn’t actually make it useful. What’s funny is how easily people are blinded by the posit (“We’ll only measure half the distance each time”) and don’t trust obvious physics which show that passing tortoises is incredibly easy.

    My question is, do most philosophers actually know this, and simply make a living by exploiting it, or are they actually trapped by not being able to get beyond a useless posit? And is that a philosophical question in itself? Screw it – I’m hungry.

  • Apteris

    Case in point, Bertrand Russell’s windy exposition quoted above about Zeno’s Paradoxes

    Oh no, no no. Sorry if my post gave that impression. Bertrand Russell had nothing to do with the above quotes. The quotes are from a different web page, the second link in my post, the link that goes here. Russell argued along a completely different line.

    What’s funny is how easily people are blinded by the posit (“We’ll only measure half the distance each time”) and don’t trust obvious physics which show that passing tortoises is incredibly easy.

    Yeah, it’s not the tortoise by itself. It’s Achilles’ situation taken together with the Arrow situation that forms a paradox. It’s obvious that Achilles overtakes the tortoise, and that the arrow reaches its mark. But–and this is from Zeno’s perspective–the fact that Achilles overtakes the tortoise means that you can’t divide a finite distance into infinitely many sub-distances. And the fact that the arrow reaches its mark, even though at any one ‘point in time’ it is stationary, means that it makes no sense to talk of the distance between the bow and the mark as a finite set of distances, but we have to consider it a continuous interval. Thus, paradox.

  • Peter Church

    I agree more with your critics that you mention in your article. It seems that you are not yet at the point of ‘finding the limits of philosophy’ but instead that you haven’t yet found a way into philosophy that’s useful to your and your practice.

    It’s my belief that all science majors should do a course in philosophy of science as part of their undergraduate degree. Concepts like ‘evidence’, ‘measurement’, and even ideas for how scientific results can be represented are less stable than you might imagine. If you branch out philosophy of science you might find it interesting and challenging to read what some philosophers have to say about the humanist assumptions that lie behind a lot of psychology.

    Within philosophy of science there are plenty of classic texts from Hegel, Bergson, Deleuze, very many logical positivists, and some major thinkers such as Kuhn who write speficically about science, but I would recommend starting with more contemporary philosophers of science and working back. Ian Hacking is extremely readable and interesting and ‘the social construction of what’ will address both the subject and methods of psychology and ‘the taming of chance’ provides important insight about statistical methods. You might also like Isabelle Stengers and van Fraassen.

  • Matt P

    I certainly agree with your detractors on this one. I think philosophy is an excellent way to exercise your ability to draw logical, rational conclusions from particular premises. Certainly you may be working with incorrect premises, but to say philosophy is useless because it makes use of incorrect premises seems a bit hasty (foolish) to me.

    Example: epistemology. In your “if you believe in science, you’re doing it wrong” post you said something about accepting anthropogenic global warming because you’d reviewed all of the available sources and it seems the most likely conclusion to you. Forgive me for not taking the time to look up the actual quote.

    Anyway, I will take your claim at face value and concede that you may have done just that. But have you done this for, say, the procedure of transplanting a human heart? Have you reviewed all the peer reviewed literature available concerning the proper combination of materials required to produce the most effective vehicle tire? And yet you rely on such scientific research second-hand, at best. If I only accepted as scientific fact that which I have personally investigated, I would lead a very hamstrung life.

    Instead I choose to believe what specialists in various fields say they have concluded (barring, of course, some indication that I NEED to investigate further). This is, of course, somewhat a leap of faith. I say I “know” that the earth is billions of years old, but really, I just believe what trusted scientific scholars have told me. I have better things to do with my time than reading every peer reviewed geological paper on the matter.

    This selective utilization of faith required, from me at least, a fair bit of conscious reconciliation. Functional philosophy, you might say…

  • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Just Al

    Oh no, no no. Sorry if my post gave that impression. Bertrand Russell had nothing to do with the above quotes. The quotes are from a different web page, the second link in my post, the link that goes here. Russell argued along a completely different line.

    Whoops! My bad – I missed the link entirely. I apologize for that.

    Now, I’m going to admit to skimming the page, because what I was seeing (besides time spent that I need to be spending elsewhere) was some repeating of the same standpoint, and again, in a rather wordy fashion – and if I say it’s wordy, It probably is ;-)

    The page, however, still doesn’t appear to me to be justifying philosophy in any way. Can we progress infinitely smaller? Mathematically, yes – but math is an abstraction in itself (I manage to piss off a lot of people with this, but think about it before answering.) As I pointed out, decimals can go forever.

    Physically, can we progress infinitely smaller? Not to current indications – there’s a point where it breaks down. Philosophy, however, did not provide this answer; quantum physics did. Some may argue that quantum physics relies on philosophy, and I suppose that it depends on your definition, but physics relies more on the same thing all other sciences do, and that’s empirical testing, which is what philosophy supporters are trying to argue against.

    The thing is, Zeno’s Paradoxes survive today even though they have simple, fatal flaws: they are all non-sequiturs, presenting conflicting criteria. My point above still stands – Zeno changed the goalposts. There’s a lesson in there, sure – but not the one that is typically argued.

    And again, what are the real world implications? If I say, “Are we perceiving the world as it is, or only think we are?” – what have I accomplished? I mean, besides keeping stoners off the street. “Where is the line between blue and green?” – I need to know something like these, in what way? When it comes down to it, I still drive my teal car to the grocery store, and it works just the same if I call it blue and my girlfriend calls it green.

    So, I guess my challenge is, show me just one philosophical insight, one real world application, one “gosh, we wouldn’t have had that with empirical testing!” situation to prove me wrong. To be fair, I should ask for a whole bunch of them, to show philosophy actually has a standing in the realm of sciences, but right now, one will do. Because I haven’t seen even one yet.

  • Apteris

    The thing is, Zeno’s Paradoxes survive today even though they have simple, fatal flaws: they are all non-sequiturs, presenting conflicting criteria. My point above still stands – Zeno changed the goalposts.

    I don’t see how he changed goalposts. Zeno’s arrow paradox argues that space must be continuous. Zeno’s turtle paradox argues that it doesn’t make sense to infinitely subdivide a finite space–thus, that space must be discrete. Both of his arguments are contradicted by more modern theories, but I think we can safely say his argument was valid.

    “Where is the line between blue and green?” – I need to know something like these, in what way? When it comes down to it, I still drive my teal car to the grocery store, and it works just the same if I call it blue and my girlfriend calls it green.

    So your argument is that we shouldn’t care about unsolved questions?

    So, I guess my challenge is, show me just one philosophical insight, one real world application, one “gosh, we wouldn’t have had that with empirical testing!” situation to prove me wrong. To be fair, I should ask for a whole bunch of them, to show philosophy actually has a standing in the realm of sciences, but right now, one will do. Because I haven’t seen even one yet.

    Philosophy isn’t a science, first of all, so it’s unfair of you to judge it as one. Secondly, it’s funny that you ask me to pit philosophy against empiricism, seeing how empiricism is itself a philosophy. But if you’re interested in real-world applications, you may look at epistemology, which studies the nature of knowledge, and one of whose problems, the Gettier problem, poses important questions for law, and about how different cultures perceive “truth”; you may look at underdetermination, which asks how we are to choose between two theories when the evidence supports them both equally well; you may look at utilitarianism, which argues that we should strive for “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, which is obviously desirable but which doesn’t exactly follow from empiricism; and you may look at the demarcation problem and Münchhausen’s trilemma, one asking what the limits of science are and the other how we can ultimately show the truth of any statement.

    These are all important questions–among many others–that empirical testing doesn’t speak to.

  • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Just Al

    I don’t see how he changed goalposts. Zeno’s arrow paradox argues that space must be continuous.

    The arrow paradox argues that an arrow, frozen in time, displays no evidence of movement – the paradox point isn’t even that we think it’s obviously moving – Zeno claimed movement was actually an illusion because of this. But movement is change over time – removing time from the equation removes the definition of movement. It’s the same as saying “define color without light.”

    Zeno’s turtle paradox argues that it doesn’t make sense to infinitely subdivide a finite space–thus, that space must be discrete.

    So how is that supposed to be a paradox? Zeno argued nothing of the sort – the paradox came from the idea that Achilles never reached the tortoise, because every measurement, albeit smaller and smaller, was to where the turtle had been. It’s the idea of “how long to reach Point A if we travel half the distance with each step?” argument – my seventh grade math class answered that one in less than a minute. Again, no paradox, unless you use it to wonder why Achilles cannot reach the tortoise – eventually, you get to “Hey, maybe we should measure the point that Achilles and the tortoise intersect at the same time,” which is a fairly simple math problem for people that don’t suck at math as badly as I do. But you don’t get a paradox from two situations with different criteria.

    And again, mathematically, you can infinitely subdivide a finite space. You just can’t logically claim that it’s a different goal. Neither one of these demonstrates in any way that movement is an illusion, only that you can screw with what you measure and think it leads to profundity.

    So your argument is that we shouldn’t care about unsolved questions?

    Not at all. But we shouldn’t care about unsolvable ones, or most especially, ones where the defining criteria are abstract. This question isn’t unsolvable, once you define what “blue” is, e.g., within a certain frequency range. Using the social construct of “blue,” which is up to individual interpretation, is where the question fails.

    Philosophy isn’t a science, first of all, so it’s unfair of you to judge it as one. Secondly, it’s funny that you ask me to pit philosophy against empiricism, seeing how empiricism is itself a philosophy.

    So empiricism isn’t a science now? Funny, I thought that was the entire basis of the scientific method.

    Most people would disagree with the claim that empiricism falls under philosophy, or that it doesn’t actually supersede it. It differs, radically, from all other disciplines in that it allows for a method of demonstrating that any given theory can apply without input from human thinking, or in other words, exists as fact. F=M*A is testable – that’s why it’s used. We can even measure something as it is now (except for an unmoving arrow) and determine how it was in the past. Philosophy leaves the door open for umpteen different interpretations of what some object might have been doing in the past, but only one will be correct – are you going to argue that? And in order to find out what this might be, you have to resort to physical evidence. Which is why empiricism supersedes philosophy – it’s the only one that steps outside the boundaries of the human mind and resorts to physical traits that are interpreted the same by everyone, regardless.

    But if you’re interested in real-world applications, you may look at epistemology, which studies the nature of knowledge, and one of whose problems, the Gettier problem, poses important questions for law, and about how different cultures perceive “truth”;…

    Actually, I asked for actual examples, but we’ll go with this one for now. Epistemology has been around for a long time now, and served as the basis of many different religious sects – it’s still used as the tired “other ways of knowing” argument to try and explain why various gods aren’t living up to their claims. The thing is, no “other way of knowing” has ever shown that it can be used to predict or design anything of any value. We did not begin to advance our body of knowledge significantly until the modern scientific method – empiricism.

    Know something? I’d never heard of the Gettier problem until now, and looked it up. Found two flaws in three minutes of reading. Flaw number one: attempting to use “truth” under multiple contrasting definitions. Which is why “truth” is one of the few terms that actually start me laughing the moment somebody brings them up. What the hell is it supposed to be? Like “Art,” it’s different to everybody you talk to, so why are you actually trying to use it at all? Flaw number two: Is perceived truth (or, to mangle the concept but proceed more usefully, perceived fact) applicable to anything at all? I’ll solve that one for you: no. People are constantly incorrect about their assumptions, beliefs, and knowledge – this is not news. Being correct by accident, or by flawed logic or flawed justification, doesn’t actually lead anywhere, since the flaws can always fail the next time they’re used. Now here’s the ugly part – in order to use the key criteria of what’s “correct,” you have to know what that is first. What part of philosophy gives you that, if it isn’t empiricism?

    …you may look at underdetermination, which asks how we are to choose between two theories when the evidence supports them both equally well;…

    You don’t. Gather more evidence. What the hell would underdeterminism have us do, contemplate our navels?

    Now, I’m not going to bother chasing down the fine points of underdeterminism, but simply point out what you typed above. It asks the question? Questions are easy – what about providing an answer? I’m not trying to be snarky, but are you seriously proposing that the value lies in asking?

    …you may look at utilitarianism, which argues that we should strive for “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, which is obviously desirable but which doesn’t exactly follow from empiricism;…

    Fail in three ways. “Happiness” is an abstract that cannot adequately be defined beyond the individual (most times not even then,) but even if you go with a statistical sample, that’s empiricism. So how could it not follow? And greatest happiness is not obviously desirable – advancement does not come from happiness; complacency does. Happiness is relative to unhappiness, and relies on the contrast.

    …and you may look at the demarcation problem and Münchhausen’s trilemma, one asking what the limits of science are and the other how we can ultimately show the truth of any statement.

    Limits of science? None – science is a methodical process of learning, so it would only be limited by omniscience, an abstract that I sincerely hope you find pointless to argue about.

    Know ultimate truth of any statement? Ignoring the idiotic concept of truth again, your answer is: you can’t. Find the facts that provide the closest answer they can, use that for whatever you need it to, and keep looking. That’s the key bit right there – we can always be wrong. The best goal is to reduce this possibility as much as human endeavor can allow. We won’t get there until we get over this conceit of our fabulous minds.

  • Apteris

    Not at all. But we shouldn’t care about unsolvable ones, or most especially, ones where the defining criteria are abstract. This question isn’t unsolvable, once you define what “blue” is, e.g., within a certain frequency range. Using the social construct of “blue,” which is up to individual interpretation, is where the question fails.

    The question isn’t about the color frequency we name blue. The question is about the quale that the color blue produces. For most people a wavelength of 440 to 490 nm will produce the blue quale, but for some people the same wavelengths will produce the green quale. These people will function identically, with different subjective experiences; this is itself not an unsolvable question, but neither is it one that ‘fails’. If you want a more striking example, whereas most of us will experience the fear quale when in a frightening situation, some won’t. Psychologist Robert D. Hare writes: One rapist, high on the Psychopathy Checklist, commented that he found it hard to empathize with his victims. “They are frightened, right? But, you see, I don’t really understand it. I’ve been frightened myself, and it wasn’t unpleasant.”
    The question is relevant.

    So empiricism isn’t a science now? Funny, I thought that was the entire basis of the scientific method.

    No, it’s not. Empiricism is a theory of knowledge, and the fact that it underpins science doesn’t make it itself a science.

    And in order to find out what this might be, you have to resort to physical evidence. Which is why empiricism supersedes philosophy – it’s the only one that steps outside the boundaries of the human mind and resorts to physical traits that are interpreted the same by everyone, regardless.

    There is nothing within human experience that steps outside the human mind. All that we do, including our science, depends on our senses and minds. Now don’t get me wrong, I definitely think that noumena exist, but it does seem to me that they are ungraspable. Which is to say, I’m really really confident that our world is real and not an elaborate computer simulation, but I can’t actually prove it. Neither can you.

    Epistemology has been around for a long time now, and served as the basis of many different religious sects – it’s still used as the tired “other ways of knowing” argument to try and explain why various gods aren’t living up to their claims. The thing is, no “other way of knowing” has ever shown that it can be used to predict or design anything of any value. We did not begin to advance our body of knowledge significantly until the modern scientific method – empiricism.

    My favorite epistemologist has also written quite insightful essays, such as “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?” or “Why I Am Not a Christian”, so please don’t try to smear the discipline. Also, please define “other ways of knowing” and then we’ll discuss whether they’re useful or not.

    Know something? I’d never heard of the Gettier problem until now, and looked it up. Found two flaws in three minutes of reading. Flaw number one: attempting to use “truth” under multiple contrasting definitions.

    That’s not a flaw, that’s what the problem asks: what is the correct definition of truth?

    Which is why “truth” is one of the few terms that actually start me laughing the moment somebody brings them up. What the hell is it supposed to be? Like “Art,” it’s different to everybody you talk to, so why are you actually trying to use it at all?

    I’m trying to use it because my math teacher won’t accept 2+2 = Mount Rushmore as an answer.

    Flaw number two: Is perceived truth (or, to mangle the concept but proceed more usefully, perceived fact) applicable to anything at all?

    Yes, it’s applicable to everything, since in the absence of divine revelation, perceived truth is all we have.

    Being correct by accident, or by flawed logic or flawed justification, doesn’t actually lead anywhere, since the flaws can always fail the next time they’re used.

    Which is why it’s important to note when we are correct by accident, and what the consequences thereof are.

    Now here’s the ugly part – in order to use the key criteria of what’s “correct,” you have to know what that is first. What part of philosophy gives you that, if it isn’t empiricism?

    Uhuh. Say there’s a witness on the stand in a court of law, and that witness claims “the robber shot the pedestrian”, which did in fact happen, but which the witness does not know because he just had a personal grudge against the robber. Explain to me how to use empiricism to decide whether the witness should be convicted of perjury or not.

    You don’t. Gather more evidence. What the hell would underdeterminism have us do, contemplate our navels?

    OK, here are your options. We have two competing scientific theories that have a very noble goal. You want to find out which is the accurate theory. Each of the theories requires $ hundreds of millions to carry out research, and you don’t have enough money to finance both. Which of the two do allocate money to? What’s that you say? Contrived hypothetical example? No, it’s not.

  • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Just Al

    The question isn’t about the color frequency we name blue. The question is about the quale that the color blue produces.

    No, that’s actually a separate question. But we’ll assume that this is what you were intending to ask anyway. What’s your point? That you can determine what effect this has with something other than evidence? And how then do you know that you’re right?

    No, it’s not. Empiricism is a theory of knowledge, and the fact that it underpins science doesn’t make it itself a science.

    Fair enough, but it’s exactly the thing the original post was addressing – evidence-based knowledge versus introspective-based. If you really want to bandy around bullshit, fine, I’ll clarify my standpoint: empirical philosophy is the only branch of philosophy that provides any useful answer, and only because of its reliance on physical evidence. That didn’t improve things, did it?

    There is nothing within human experience that steps outside the human mind. All that we do, including our science, depends on our senses and minds. Now don’t get me wrong, I definitely think that noumena exist, but it does seem to me that they are ungraspable. Which is to say, I’m really really confident that our world is real and not an elaborate computer simulation, but I can’t actually prove it. Neither can you.

    Won’t argue that at all – it’s not news that we filter everything through human perception. I’ve played this game before, years ago, abandoned it back then. If you can’t change this, ignore it. I’d like to fly, but can’t, so I don’t spend countless hours arguing the gestalt of flight and believing this will make me fly.

    You mentioned two things, senses and mind. Senses can be mistaken, but for the greater part can be considered reasonably accurate. Minds, however, are prone to fantasy, far more inaccuracy than senses. In order to differentiate fact from fiction (or the closest approximation thereof,) we rely on our senses – physical evidence. And the reason the empirical method was adopted and is used constantly is primarily because of the fallibility of the human mind. I certainly may suffer from confirmation bias, but chances are you don’t when reviewing my work or repeating my experiments. My computer works just fine, but not because the argument for electron theory was so convincing to me – I couldn’t tell you what it is, accurately. It works because electron theory was tested and refined. Without these tests, you have long windy stories.

    100% accurate? Hell, no, but no one ever said it was. But it beats hell out of everything else that we’ve pursued over the centuries.

    As for the “computer simulation” idea and various extensions of the “realm beyond our senses” arguments? Seriously, I couldn’t care less. I operate from the standpoint of ignoring fantasy situations and dealing with what has been evidenced. If it remains outside of our perception, so be it. I have little doubts that, imperfect as we are, the possibility exists that we cannot perceive everything. However, I am not going to change that by thinking hard about it. The realms that we have uncovered, such as the quantum, were not predicted in any way by any philosophy. Those that even approached the subject, for instance, the precursor to fractal geometry idea that each thing is made of littler things ad infinitum, have been wrong. Was that logic flawed? Can you demonstrate it from the argument itself?

    My favorite epistemologist has also written quite insightful essays, such as “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?” or “Why I Am Not a Christian”, so please don’t try to smear the discipline.

    Why not? I’m not obligated to honor your preferences in any way, any more than you’re obligated to honor mine.

    Okay, we’ll take your first essay example, anyway. I’ve argued such things before, with people very firmly on the opposite viewpoint from myself. Usually, it gets nowhere – until you bring evidence in. It is actually very easy to argue logically that religion makes useful contributions, but it often breaks down when the figures show otherwise, or when you can demonstrate that empathy, for instance, is innate. No one wants to believe that empathy exists in “lower” species, or even that it is hardwired into our brains rather than socially constructed – not when their argument is based on empathy being provided by religion. But people find it hard to argue with evidence, and do in fact rely on it.

    Also, please define “other ways of knowing” and then we’ll discuss whether they’re useful or not.

    The first is, naturally, logic – sounds good, seems good, but relies on accurate premises and agreed-upon definitions. Then, of course, it still operates only within those definitions, which most times are either oversimplified or incomplete. It also suffers from the problem that logic has no firm definition itself. Then there’s epiphany, the idea that “truth,” or any particular facet of correct knowledge, can arrive full blown either through internal or external means. There’s transcendence, the idea that the mind can be modified/prepared for greater knowledge by specific disciplines (like meditation) or drugs. And related to this, usually, is spirituality, the concept that communication with supernatural forces can take place in “receptive” minds. Those are the ones I hear most often, but believe it or not, I’ve also heard of knowledge by emotion – related perhaps to epiphany, but relying on emotional impact to establish the value.

    That’s not a flaw, that’s what the problem asks: what is the correct definition of truth?

    I’ll bite: what is it? Seriously.

    Because if you don’t have an answer that applies to all of the situations that you and others use that damn word within, why are you even promoting it? Call it an OCD thing with me, but I’m really tired of the idea that philosophy is in search of something that has no proper definition. Most especially when people usually have not entertained the philosophical idea that they’re looking for a by-product of their own minds.

    Want to save yourself a lot of time? Drop the usage of exalted but meaningless words. Search for “fact” – that usually only requires that you can support it with evidence, and someone else gets the same answer. You’d be amazed at how often this provides a solution when “truth” continues to use up words…

    I’m trying to use it because my math teacher won’t accept 2+2 = Mount Rushmore as an answer.

    All you did was demonstrate the problem with logical arguments, by stepping outside of the logical criteria, mathematics. However, 2+2=5 remains within the criteria and perfectly correct – as long as I assume certain traits like rounding ;-)

    Still, did truth get you any closer to the answer you sought than fact? Did you, perhaps, learn your basic math many years ago with physical objects like oranges and such?

    Yes, it’s applicable to everything, since in the absence of divine revelation, perceived truth is all we have.

    But if my truth and yours do not agree, what then? Philosophers would have us believe that whoever could talk it up the best defines truth, and I suspect lawyers agree. Me, I’d go with empiricism again.

    Uhuh. Say there’s a witness on the stand in a court of law, and that witness claims “the robber shot the pedestrian”, which did in fact happen, but which the witness does not know because he just had a personal grudge against the robber. Explain to me how to use empiricism to decide whether the witness should be convicted of perjury or not.

    How do you even know the witness committed perjury?

    You’re getting into a pet peeve of mine, but it applies here. Courts, right now in the US at least, rely a bit too much on witness testimony without adequate recognition of how weak this really is. Think about the number of people you know that can tell you OJ’s guilt but could not relate a decent list of the evidence. Nevertheless, convictions rarely take place on testimony alone, and require corroborating evidence. For very good reason.

    Now, Gettier’s problem doesn’t actually address this simple solution. Instead, it wants to make a case that your perjuring witness either lied knowingly or unknowingly, and that the difference between these defines “truth as they know it.” That’s stupid – it’s common knowledge that we’re imperfect witnesses, wasting time trying to accommodate this so witnesses can be considered useful is pointless. And, I’ll hazard a guess, intended solely to influence juries, rather than establish guilt in a useful manner.

    OK, here are your options. We have two competing scientific theories that have a very noble goal. You want to find out which is the accurate theory. Each of the theories requires $ hundreds of millions to carry out research, and you don’t have enough money to finance both. Which of the two do allocate money to? What’s that you say? Contrived hypothetical example? No, it’s not.

    Actually, yes, it is. See Greg’s recent post about just this very thing. Neither of the two theories you linked (String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity) offer anything that can be tested, demonstrated, or applied to any part of physics as we know it, and exist purely in the realm of mathematics. As I understand it, String Theory predicts nothing that we can see or should be able to find in some particular aspect of physics (as in a collider,) while Loop Quantum Gravity might be at least provisionally supported if we find something we haven’t seen yet, but it still predicts nothing.

    Myself, I shelve both and fund something else until a grad student at least comes up with an extension of either that shows some promise. Why, what did underdeterminism have you do?

    Finally, one small nitpick and one big observation. Nitpick: you never answered my request for one item of knowledge gained strictly from philosophy. Observation: you seem to think that some value lies in creating questions, and I have to say that this is a trait far too prevalent in philosophy. I’m afraid I can’t fly with that – value lies only in answers.

  • Apteris

    No, that’s actually a separate question. But we’ll assume that this is what you were intending to ask anyway. What’s your point? That you can determine what effect this has with something other than evidence? And how then do you know that you’re right?

    No it’s not a separate question. You posed it when you said “Where is the line between blue and green?” – I need to know something like these, in what way? I understand that you might have seen this as simply a problem of definition–that is, assigning names to different wavelengths–but the fact is it’s not just a matter of definition. The same color can evoke different sensations in different people and this phenomenon is worth investigating. My point was to contradict your assertion that it works just the same if I call it blue and my girlfriend calls it green–cause it doesn’t.

    empirical philosophy is the only branch of philosophy that provides any useful answer, and only because of its reliance on physical evidence

    So I guess the theories of natural rights, justice, and practical forms of government are not useful answers?

    The realms that we have uncovered, such as the quantum, were not predicted in any way by any philosophy.

    Yes, actually, they were. Lucretius predicted brownian motion, Democritus before him speculated on atoms, and the Buddha’s teachings on kalapas bear at least a superficial similarity to a modern theory of physics.

    All of which is besides the point, because philosophy is not a science, it’s not its job to predict quantum mechanics, and I don’t see any scientists predicting quantum mechanics before 1900 either.

    Why not? I’m not obligated to honor your preferences in any way, any more than you’re obligated to honor mine.

    Wait, you’re asking me why you shouldn’t smear a discipline you’re apparently not too familiar with? Um, because that’s morally wrong and intellectually dishonest?

    It is actually very easy to argue logically that religion makes useful contributions, but it often breaks down when the figures show otherwise, or when you can demonstrate that empathy, for instance, is innate. No one wants to believe that empathy exists in “lower” species, or even that it is hardwired into our brains rather than socially constructed – not when their argument is based on empathy being provided by religion.

    There is evidence both for and against religion; this is beyond dispute. The only observation I’d like to make here is that the article I referenced relies on evidence a great deal. Yet another counterargument to your “philosophy is worthless” thrust. Seriously, read it. You’ll like it.

    The first is, naturally, logic – sounds good, seems good, but relies on accurate premises and agreed-upon definitions. Then, of course, it still operates only within those definitions, which most times are either oversimplified or incomplete. It also suffers from the problem that logic has no firm definition itself. Then there’s epiphany, the idea that “truth,” or any particular facet of correct knowledge, can arrive full blown either through internal or external means. There’s transcendence, the idea that the mind can be modified/prepared for greater knowledge by specific disciplines (like meditation) or drugs. And related to this, usually, is spirituality, the concept that communication with supernatural forces can take place in “receptive” minds. Those are the ones I hear most often, but believe it or not, I’ve also heard of knowledge by emotion – related perhaps to epiphany, but relying on emotional impact to establish the value.

    Logic has several definitions, and firmness is not something they lack. Epiphany doesn’t mean that truth just pops into your head ex nihilo, epiphany means that you suddenly realise what the truth is. The Eureka! moment is one example of epiphany. Transcendence, if we set aside the religious definitions of the term, argues that there exist phenomena outside of human knowledge/experience, which is most certainly true and which you yourself agree with. As for meditation or drugs, yes, they can prepare you for greater knowledge. Adderall is proof enough of that. “Communication with unseen forces” is something I don’t put much stock in. Knowledge by emotion… I don’t know. It can certainly be that emotion can reveal something you weren’t aware of. As in “I had no idea I was patriotic until the moment a stranger said something bad about my country.”

    That’s not a flaw, that’s what the problem asks: what is the correct definition of truth?

    I’ll bite: what is it? Seriously.

    If you’re really interested in finding it, may I suggest the Wikipedia article on the matter as a good starting point. Believe me, if I could answer such a major question in a couple of sentences, I would. I’m personally a fan of (i.e. I agree most strongly with) the correspondence and pragmatic theories of truth, but I do see some merit in the constructivist and consensus theories. And lest you accuse me of bandying bullshit again, no, I’m not throwing fancy words around. I’ve read about those theories and have an opinion on them.

    Want to save yourself a lot of time? Drop the usage of exalted but meaningless words. Search for “fact” – that usually only requires that you can support it with evidence, and someone else gets the same answer. You’d be amazed at how often this provides a solution when “truth” continues to use up words…

    So would you object to me saying “it is true that feathers and hammers fall at the same rate in a vacuum”? Is that still using an exalted word?

    All you did was demonstrate the problem with logical arguments, by stepping outside of the logical criteria, mathematics.

    No, what I did was point out that your question of “why should we use the term ‘truth’?” is silly.

    But if my truth and yours do not agree, what then? Philosophers would have us believe that whoever could talk it up the best defines truth, and I suspect lawyers agree. Me, I’d go with empiricism again.

    Some philosophers may try to do that, but not ones I agree with. From my view, there is no such thing as “my truth” or “your truth”, truth is impersonal, and two truths can contradict each other only in a paradox. In all other cases there are just multiple opinions, some of which will be wrong.

    How do you even know the witness committed perjury?

    Not important for our purposes.

    Now, Gettier’s problem doesn’t actually address this simple solution. Instead, it wants to make a case that your perjuring witness either lied knowingly or unknowingly, and that the difference between these defines “truth as they know it.” That’s stupid – it’s common knowledge that we’re imperfect witnesses, wasting time trying to accommodate this so witnesses can be considered useful is pointless.

    No it’s not stupid, it’s critically important. If the witness accurately relates what he saw, then he’s being an honest witness. If he’s outright lying, he’s committing perjury. If he’s accurately stating what he remembers (“the robber shot the pedestrian”) but what he remembers is incorrect (i.e. he only saw it out of the corner of his eye, or has bad long-term memory or something) then he’s making an honest mistake–his testimony should be discounted but he should not be penalised. If the witness is stating a truth (you might even call it a fact) by saying “the robber shot the pedestrian”, but the witness in fact does not know this to be true, because he was in the bagel shop at the time, then he is bearing false testimony, not in regards to the facts but to his knowledge of the facts, and should be convicted of perjury. There are four possible outcomes here, based on whether or not there was mens rea and actus reus, and in only one should the witness be convicted with perjury.

    Myself, I shelve both and fund something else until a grad student at least comes up with an extension of either that shows some promise.

    That’s nice. So whenever you’re not sure what direction you should take scientific investigation in, you stop scientific investigation. GG.

    Nitpick: you never answered my request for one item of knowledge gained strictly from philosophy.

    Yes, actually, I have in my above posts. Nevertheless, please take a look at Plato’s Republic or at the even earlier Cyrus Cylinder. I hope you’re not about to argue they’re not “items of knowledge”. More generally, the works of all major philosophers constitute knowledge, be they mistaken or not.

    Observation: you seem to think that some value lies in creating questions, and I have to say that this is a trait far too prevalent in philosophy. I’m afraid I can’t fly with that – value lies only in answers.

    Right, which is why there are no important unsolved questions in physics, biology, or mathematics. Oh, wait…