Monday, October 19, 2009

Arguing on the Internet: Epistemology and Truth (cl)

So yeah, cl and I are arguing on the internet. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me personally, but I am ruled by my passions: I do almost anything that I do in fits and starts. Arguing with cl is now, like, near the top of my list, right beneath "Don't get fired" and "Don't starve or dehydrate." But "Maintain an interesting blog" is up there, too, and I know that this will not be of interest to everyone. To that end, I shall post arguments with cl no more than once every other day, and I'll make sure to have anything else up in between - but still, that means if I post every day, this blog will be half-cl for quite some time (hopefully).

The story so far: cl wrote a post that really piqued me (in the good way), so I responded and then things got hairy. Today I will be addressing what are, to me, the three most interesting things about cl's last salvo - knowability, a response to his argument from probability, and rhetorical gamesmanship. I'll close with a bit on truth, which I offer up as another direction in which the discussion might proceed.

First, a bit about knowability, which will touch on epistemology, the study of the nature and content of knowledge. cl posted an interesting logical argument involving this, and then clarified his meaning in a comment at my request (thanks for that, cl!). From what I can gather, cl and I agree in at least a vague way that the "awesomeness" of a claim has something to do with its grounding in experience: in his own words, "That which can be verified by experience is knowable; that which cannot be verified by experience is not." Or, as I say, "Knowledge must be grounded in empirical observation." However, cl then goes on to say,
We can make inferences about that which cannot be verified by direct experience - for example the claim that life exists in some other corner of the universe, or that George Washington was the first president of the United States - but that's it. Does this mean we can't "know" the planets revolve around the sun? In a sense, yes...
Well, I actually agree with this as stated. However, we must also infer that our direct experiences as we remember them are valid in any way at all - and they in fact might not be. For instance, I may hear a voice and believe it is God, but it might also be the Goddamned Devil, or a person in another room, or my own internal narrator, or butt-puckering insanity - and at first blush, it seems awful hard to tell how some of these possibilities might be sorted out. This puts us in an interesting position with respect to truth (see below), but for now I shall simply say that not even direct experiences are immune to the leap of inference at which cl so precisely gestures, so long as those experiences are in the past (since all experiences not currently being had are in fact remembered - or misremembered, sometimes). It is self-evident, after all, that we do in fact have experiences, and anyone may verify this with the briefest of introspection - however, the content of those experiences, and their bearing on reality, are always subject to question. This is because, in short, we cannot directly perceive causality itself and may only infer it from the constant conjunction we perceive between suspected causes and their alleged effects (thanks, Hume!).

There is no getting around this. Thinkers of all stripes have tried, and failed, and whined about it (even me!); but we must all live with this doubt as our constant companion. As I said earlier, echoing Descartes: de omnibus dubitandum. So, if even direct experience is subject to question, what are we left with? I go with testability, which moves the goalposts for knowability quite a bit.

I realize that when I encounter an argument, or even a proposition, I do not decide whether to endorse it as logical or dismiss it as ridiculous right away - I first perceive either agreement or disagreement. It took me a while to get over this, but the instantaneous reaction I have of either "OK" or "No way" is itself a matterer of perception, at least in my own mind. Hell, others might be different. At any rate, if I have trouble determining whether I am perceiving thoughts of "OK" or thoughts of "No way," that's when I start to think about the claim itself. And I have agreed too readily to a great many things which I have later gone on to regret, ranging from trivial mathematical mistakes to the embarrassing thought that my mother must hate me for feeding me vegetables (I love vegetables now, and feel like an absolute twat for ever being a child, pretty much). But if, when I think about a proposition and then have difficulty trying to sort out just why I am perceiving agreement or disagreement with it, I then feel an urge to check. In the past, I felt the urge merely to decide.

Checking is important because then I can tell whether I am remembering something correctly or incorrectly. After all, I have mis-remembered in the past. So if I have trouble justifying a particular belief I hold, and can't remember what it was that made me think that in the first place, I then go see what I can check. And if I can't check to my satisfaction, I tend to withhold belief and write it off as unimportant - after all, that which leaves no effects to check is mighty difficult to call "relevant" on several well-respected definitions. This is more or less how I live my life, with respect to epistemology, anyway - more on this when we get to truth.

Whether or not you agree with cl's argument that it is more reasonable to believe that consciousness persists after death, I see a real gem of wisdom in there, which is a matter of perspective: cl's argument shows that, depending on how we define our terms, we can get to some surprisingly different conclusions about how we ought to form our beliefs. A great many people seem to form their beliefs - or at least a great many of them - in something resembling a binary truth table: X is true, Y is false, Z is true if A is not, B is true if and only if C is also true, and so on. Whether or not any particular person does, I cannot say, but this is in keeping with the overwhelming majority of my experience among humanity. When we say, "I don't know," most people usually mean, "I haven't thought about it," or, "I haven't decided."

Not me. My truth table has "true," "false," "not applicable," "I don't know," and "it depends." Other people might include "maybe," "probably," and "not if I have anything to say about it!" When I drop my hackey-sack, it falls to the ground: true. Two plus two equals five, for extremely large values of two: false (but funny!). This statement is a lie: not applicable (or "nonsense"). There is non-Earthly life in the solar system: I don't know. The Earth goes around the Sun: it depends on your frame of reference - if we define Earth's core as the center of our solar system, then of course the Sun goes around it, but then the rest of the planets and other stuff get a bunch of weird epicycles which we can rather handily avoid by adopting a heliocentric perspective instead. God exists: I don't know. God doesn't exist: I don't know.

Buh? Yeah. I don't know whether any sort of supernatural critter exists. I really don't. However, if some kind of supernatural critter did exist, then it would be this-or-that way, and not thus-and-such. In other words, it might be Thor-like, or Yahweh-like, or leprechaun-like, or FSM-like, or unicorn-like; and if it's one of those, then I sure don't want to pick the wrong one! But what if it's none of the ones that humans have come up with, and something totally different? What if it's aggravated by people believing in false gods, but has no "actual" religion of its own for followers to believe? What if it wrote no holy text, but instead tricked people into writing false ones? What if Richard Carrier's End of Pascal's Wager actually is the case?

I don't know.

I don't know, and so I withhold belief. In all of them, and in consciousness after death, and in live on other planets, and in parallel universes, and in any particular version of the maybe-even-not-approaching Singularity, and in a great many other things. Even if there is a supernatural critter, which there may well be, I do not believe in any particular one - and so I am not a theist. Since I am not a theist, that makes me an atheist. I am also an agnostic, because I don't know either way for sure, and so in that way I am an agnostic atheist; moreover, I'm skeptical of anyone who does think they have "all the answers" (or even a great many of them!), and so I am a skeptical agnostic atheist; and I'm a humanist, and a homo sapiens, and a house-renting-type person, and all sorts of other designations. But I am not a theist, for lack of evidence alone. I just don't know which way to go, so I don't go any way on that question. As for ethics, relationships, economics, and so on, well, my views get more complex and my "titles" keep on stacking up. But I am only an atheist because I am not a theist, I am not an atheist because I think I've "disproved God." Nobody can, that's just silly. I just won't believe until I can poke my fingers through some holes like the apostle Thomas.

A quick note on rhetorical gamesmanship before we get to truth. First, some may have noticed that I called cl a rhetorician and described his blogger's statement as platitudinous. I did each of these things for exactly one reason each: I called him a rhetorician because I thought I had discovered that the central motivating factor in his internet activity was honing his argumentative skill, and I called his blogger's statement "platitudinous" because some of his most interesting sentences sounded like platitudes to me. In the first place, I did not mean "rhetorician" as an insult, as I explained to cl in an e-mail; I think it is no bad thing to be concerned with how persuasive one is as a first priority, I think it is only bad if one then does bad things with such a skill. I mean, I want to be persuasive, for cryin' out loud, and so I too am a rhetorician. And in the second place, I was mistaken on the meaning of platitude! I thought "platitudes" were just simple-sounding phrases, more or less, some of which are trite and meaningless and some of which lend quite easily to deep wisdom. But I actually checked just now, and as it turns out, "platitude" only means the former thing (trite and meaningless), whereas I had honestly meant to indicate the latter thing (lending quite easily to deep wisdom). So yeah, foot-in-mouth for the win. Mea culpa!

So yeah, finally, on truth: there are two prevailing theories of truth in philosophical circles, the correspondence theory of truth and the coherence theory of truth. To steal Scotlyn's turn of phrase and boil a whole lot of argy-bargy down to one sentence, "correspondence" means "is the case in reality," and "coherence" means "is consistent with the greater body of true propositions." I couldn't tell you why this is a serious debate if you put a gun to my head, because both are important to me: true things ought to correspond to reality, I think, and true things also ought to cohere with one another. I think if either one of those is lacking, then you don't have truth; and if you can only get one but not both, then any claims to truth are suspect. So when I check to see if something is or is not the case, I'm satisfying the correspondence quotient; when I integrate that bit of knowledge with the rest of my knowledge, I'm roughly checking for coherence. They both matter.

So when I define "knowledge" as "justified true belief," understand that "true" means both "corresponds to reality" and "coheres with other true propositions." So for a claim to be "knowable," to me, means that I have to be able to get a justified true belief out of it. If I don't believe it, I can't be said to know it; if it's not true, then I can think I know it without actually knowing it (and even justify that thought process); and if it's not justified, then I merely believe a true thing without knowing it. That last one's sketchy, so here's a quick example: I've believed that the Earth is round as long as I can remember, but I also remember that I was told so by my teachers and parents. As I began to question my teachers and parents, I found that they were not always right on things (such as math teachers insisting that the French word macabre is pronounced "MACK-uh-bray" and not "muh-KAHB," despite the correction of a seventh-grader such as I was at the time). Yet I never stopped believing that the world was round, even after losing my justification; instead, I learned how Eratosthenes calculated the Earth's circumference while trying to check whether it was round or flat, and so found a better justification.

Sometimes I have had to revise my beliefs based on observations so that they cohere with others, as alluded to above on why "checking" is important. As an easy (and real) example, I used to have many fears and superstitions as a child, some of them based on things I was told by others. I heard from my mom that ending microwave oven cook times in zero (such as 1:30, 2:00, etc.) would result in your food getting burned, so you needed to end cook times in non-zeroes. I don't know why I ever listened, but one day I actually checked by seeing how long cookies took to burn in a microwave, and I found two interesting facts: first, that cookies burn within a few seconds of the same general time, no matter what digit is last when the machine starts cooking; second, that my mom was wrong on this matter. So I wrote off what I thought was a whole bunch of superstitious hogwash along with that, and now we fast-forward to last year when my then-roommate, Amy, tells me that cool water boils faster than warm water, and warm water freezes faster than cool water. I called bullshit, because I had tested many of the superstitious claims I'd gotten from my mom, but then I went and checked: turns out, the Mpemba effect is real!

Sometimes, bullshit-sounding claims are actually true. But you can never know for sure until you check, and you shouldn't believe if you can't check yet.

8 comments:

cl said...

Damn, you are quick! I'll get to this, but you write as voluminously as anyone I've met so cut me some slack. I've got what feels like a billion things to catch up to back at my own soapbox.

By the way, be sure to peep tomorrow's post. There's a personal invitation there for you. I hope you're into it, I think you're perfectly cut out for the job.

One thing I can say about your post here from just a glance, the value "I don't know" factors into tomorrow's post, where I assert that such is essentially my conclusion regarding the video game incident.

D said...

Hey, take it at your own pace, buddy! I'm in a bit of a busy spot, myself, so I feel your pain (I just have the good fortune to be a swift typist). And on top of it, next month is National Novel Writing Month, where I basically have to write 1,500 words a day to stay just behind pace.

But yeah, I'll keep my eyes open and see where things go. I read about your video game incident over the weekend, and I have many thoughts on it - I'll narrow it down some when I see what you actually use it for. Have a great one!

cl said...

However, we must also infer that our direct experiences as we remember them are valid in any way at all - and they in fact might not be.

Correct, and I definitely consider such in all estimations, but do you realize this leaves you equally open to Plantinga's assault on your own reliability of mind?

butt-puckering insanity

LOL

So, if even direct experience is subject to question, what are we left with? I go with testability, which moves the goalposts for knowability quite a bit.

But D, "testability" also relies on the inferences. The only thing that can trump doubt is belief - faith. Taken to it's extreme, nothing is genuinely provable; we could chalk any experience up to neurological misfire - but of course that's not the standard normal people use in normal life. However, I have noticed this often becomes the atheist's standard despite that fact.

Checking is important because then I can tell whether I am remembering something correctly or incorrectly.

I completely agree, but can we assume that all phenomena are checkable? If we are honest and admit that we shouldn't, this leaves you with the uncomfortable responsibility of adapting your epistemological filter thusly: either we figure out a way to rationally apprehend the uncheckable, or we reject it out of hand. The vast majority of atheists I've encountered do the latter without so much as a second thought. Many who fancy themselves rationalists handle this by simply drawing a line in the sand and refusing to believe in that which cannot be checked, but if that's the case, by all means these same people are required to NEVER BELIEVE the proposition that consciousness ceases upon death, because such cannot possibly be checked.

Personally, I think we need something more breathable.

..if I can't check to my satisfaction, I tend to withhold belief and write it off as unimportant

Yet don't you hold the belief that consciousness ceases upon death even though you can't "check to your satisfaction?" If so, do you just write that off as an unavoidable conundrum of the logical cascade?

This statement is a lie: not applicable (or "nonsense").

Nice. I also appreciated the distinctions on correspondence and coherence. I will make particular use of these distinctions as time goes on, as we both seem to respect and understand them.

So when I define "knowledge" as "justified true belief," understand that "true" means both "corresponds to reality" and "coheres with other true propositions."

I agree in spirit, but think of the difficulty: "corresponds to reality" is no measure of truth. The idea that the Sun circled Earth "corresponds to reality." There's always the possibility that the current paradigm is wrong.

Yet I never stopped believing that the world was round, even after losing my justification; instead, I learned how Eratosthenes calculated the Earth's circumference while trying to check whether it was round or flat, and so found a better justification.

Honestly, I don't see that it's possible for you to believe in God then. At least, not without some major upheavel. God is simply not a proposition we can check with our trusty little tools. So I'll go ahead and coin a new one that's really quite an old one: we've reached Thomas' Dilemma! You won't believe unless you can put your fingers through the holes, and I readily concede I can't boss a resurrected Christ back down to Earth for you.

Now what? Tea and crumpets??

D said...

I don't need to hear it from Plantinga, I know firsthand that my mind is not entirely reliable. That's why I try to form my beliefs like a skeptic; atheism simply follows naturally from there.

Of course testability relies on inferences, but it's another layer of protection between "what I think right the fuck now" and "error." (I think of epistemology as essentially a condom for my mind to keep out ideas that are merely infectious; ideas with other merits pass right on through.) Remember, I don't chase "absolute truth," I'm only interested in what is reasonable to believe, and I hinge my definition of "reasonable" upon things I could demonstrate to others (unless they are facts that could only be known by pure introspection, in which case I try to avoid over-generalizing when possible). And I disagree about faith - I think the only thing that can trump doubt is being convinced - some people only need a coherent story, some people need a demonstration of correspondence to boot. I don't doubt that the Earth is round, remember? I know how to check at any time, and should I encounter a reason to doubt, all I have to do is remember the process and do the math.

I also agree that not all phenomena are checkable. But remember, "checkable" just means "leaves an evidential fingerprint upon my experiences." Not all phenomena do this, as you pointed out, but I don't see how I can be expected to distinguish true uncheckable propositions from false ones. I also agree that I may still be mistaken on any given point. And I also know that you can't tell Jesus what to do and expect him to do it. So, now what, indeed!

I vote yes to tea & crumpets, but after that, I am wondering what God thinks of my lack of belief. Or at least what you think God thinks of my lack of belief, and why you think that, and why you think God thinks such things. Now that that's been phrased with proper philosophical clumsiness, I am honestly interested in finding out what you think and why.

cl said...

FYI, I've gotten back to you re 'power commenters' and jim's also graced us with his presence in the thread.

And I disagree about faith - I think the only thing that can trump doubt is being convinced

Isn't faith the same thing as "being convinced?" I don't see an actual difference between the two. Do you?

..I don't see how I can be expected to distinguish true uncheckable propositions from false ones.

Then why do you accept the uncheckable position of atheism as true, even if just provisionally? I'm dying to know. To me, the person who values checkable claims over uncheckable ones has no business claiming that God(s) don't exist and consciousness ceases upon death. Neither of those claims are checkable, yet you believe them both, right? I can agree with you that we're not interested in establishing "absolute truth" as much as "reason to believe," but if checkability is the criteria, you've got no reason to be an atheist: you can never check to see that it's true.

I vote yes to tea & crumpets, but after that, I am wondering what God thinks of my lack of belief. Or at least what you think God thinks of my lack of belief, and why you think that, and why you think God thinks such things. Now that that's been phrased with proper philosophical clumsiness, I am honestly interested in finding out what you think and why.

Well then. Afford me more time, as a useful answer here will take some effort and willingness to "listen" on my part.

D said...

"Isn't faith the same thing as 'being convinced'?"

I, uhh... functionally, yes! OK, you've convinced me (for now). I'll let you know if I can think of any interesting counterexamples while integrating this. Oh, wait! I'm not joking, I seriously just thought of this. You convinced me because I could think of no good reason to disagree. It was a Necker Cube moment, and it just happened: I thought, "Wow. Like being unable to put a real number between 0.99999(repeating forever) and 1, I cannot put a real concept 'between' these two, so they're probably the same concept and I'm wasting a label. [I did some writing.] OH SHIT, SON! He just convinced me with an argument, and then I checked with my mind, and assented!" Then I just wrote from "Oh, wait" on. While writing this last bit, I've also realized that your idea of faith is probably a different thing from what I mean by "faith" (which is, "belief without or despite evidence" - and arguments are mental evidence).

As for the rest, again, I do not believe that God certainly does not exist. I deliberately withhold belief both ways. Because I do not endorse the proposition, "God exists," as true, I am not a theist. Since I am not a theist, I am by definition an atheist - these two metaphysical positions are mutually exclusive and exhaustive, one either believes in one or more deities and thus is a theist, or lacks such a belief and is an atheist. While "atheism" certainly connotes a whole lot more in common parlance, this is the atheism to which I subscribe (agnosticism is an epistemological position, not a metaphysical one, and I am also an agnostic).

What do you think happens to the data on your hard drive if you melt it into slag? Does it "go somewhere," or does it cease to exist as such? So far as I am able to tell, there is no mechanism by which consciousness could "go somewhere" at death, so I do not believe that it does in fact go anywhere. This is not the same thing as a positive belief that it ceases entirely at death; however, I also understand that just about every function of consciousness can be explained by the brain, and so I gather that the inference to the best explanation (IBE) is that consciousness actually does cease at death - but I don't firmly believe this in any sense, I merely acknowledge that it appears to me to be the best explanation. My beliefs are, "I am conscious now; I don't know what will happen to this consciousness when I die; the IBE points to consciousness ceasing at death, to my mind; The End." Does that clarify my position for you?

And take all the time you think you need! I'm looking forward to it, I want to face your honest best and see what I can make of it.

That Guy Montag said...

I'm going to just step in with an old bugbear and possibly get slapped for it, but Hume strikes me as confused on the whole problem of induction. I'll try and get more in depth on my point but I'm off to a Philosophy of Mind lecture in like minutes so I'll give a potted version of the argument:

Accepted by Hume and myself, Induction follows from a rule following universe.

Modus Ponens: If A (rule following) then B (I can infer the rule by induction).

Hume's fallacy: To perceive order is to infer rule following therefore circular.

Actual fallacy: To perceive order is to assert rule following I.E B therefore A: the fallacy is Asserting the Consequent.

Hume's lost; the problem of induction isn't.

Discuss if you like and I'll come back and fill that one out a bit but I'm comfortable it saves induction and if you follow it, it sets up some of the bigger features of the scientific method specifically experimenting and even describes testing against chance if you remember your Law of the Excluded Middle.

D said...

Montag,
Great stuff! No slapping, I promise (unless you ask nicely). I also think that Hume is being a little bit... snooty, in terms of just how seriously he takes this. When I wear my pragmatist hat, the problem of induction goes right out the window because it's useless (except as a word of caution, lest our ontology outgrow its epistemological britches).

I like your argument, though, and I'll respond with one of my own:
1. Knowledge is defined as justified true belief.
2. We can't always tell if a justified belief is true per se, but we can check to see if it is believed (by introspection) or justified (by reason/evidence).
3. I perceive a constant conjunction between "reasoning processes" and "the justification of beliefs," insofar as I have never noticed the latter apart from the former (i.e. justification is a reasoning process which may or may not also involve pointing at material evidence).
4. If the problem of induction is in fact a problem, then we can't trust our reasoning processes.
5. A reasoning process is required to arrive at the problem of induction, and to justify buying into it.

C. Therefore, if the problem of induction is in fact a problem, then we shouldn't believe that it is because we have used untrustworthy reasoning processes to arrive at and justify this conclusion.
C'. Therefore, the problem of induction entails that there is no problem of induction.
C''. Therefore, there can be no problem of induction (i.e. it's tautologically false, and in an uninteresting way to boot!).

I think I just won... but I'm not sure. What I do know is that it's really hard for us to say with confidence that we're in a rule-following universe when all our knowledge is implicitly appended with, "to the best of our ability to tell, so far." I am comfortable with this doubt, but that doesn't make it go away - I'm just saying it's a doubt that has to be lived with or deliberately ignored. I mean, it sure looks like we're in a rule-following universe, to the best of our ability to tell, so far; however, it might be the case that the universe is only temporarily (or even merely locally) following rules so as not to be "ruleless as a rule." Or, in a nutshell, the problem of induction is just a philosophically awkward way of asking petulantly, "But what if you're wrong?" Well, then I'm wrong (and willing to be honest about the possibility). Big deal.

Anyway, there's lots of fun little in-jokes about induction, such as the proof of counterinduction: "Induction has worked in the past, therefore it will work in the future. Counterinduction has not worked in the past, therefore it will work in the future. This is a contradiction, which induction cannot abide, but counterinduction can. Therefore, counterinduction will work in the future, because induction cannot account for the contradiction entailed by counterinduction's future success."

Bottom Line: Look, I actually agree with you, and that argument of yours was a welcome new twist on an old favorite. I just refuse on principle to ever place all of my certainty chips on this or that proposition, and I'm categorically skeptical of anyone who ever tells me that it's a good move. Hume's got a cute little point, but at the end of the day, nobody cares.