My Current Philosophical Positions

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 1, 2010 in General Atheism,Morality Demythologized,Worldview Naturalism

I wish every philosophy book would open with a list of the author’s philosophical positions. This would make the book much easier to understand. Many times, I’ve been confused by a book and set it aside only to find out later that the reason for my confusion was that the author wasn’t using a correspondence theory of truth, or something basic like that. (This is why I often prefer secondary literature to primary literature in philosophy: secondary literature usually makes a greater effort at clarity.)

I’ve noticed this at Common Sense Atheism, too. My readers often leave comments that they are confused by what I’ve said, and it’s because they don’t know the hundreds of prior assumptions under which I’m operating.

Thus, in an effort to be more clear, I’ll try to illuminate my current philosophical positions.

Epistemology

From my epistemology flows everything else.

The continuous failure of intuition, first philosophy, testimony, subjective experience, and authority-based systems of knowing leads me to be highly suspicious of them. These systems are also undermined by recent discoveries about the capabilities and limits of human psychology. In contrast, the massive success of science leads me to suspect that methods condoned by science are the most successful methods of knowing we have discovered yet. This approach tends toward naturalized epistemology: I think philosophy will be most productive when it functions as an extension of successful science, rather than as a kind of “first philosophy” that works “before” or “above” science.1 And of course I endorse fallibilism. Even our best scientific theories sometimes fail.

Most philosophy depends heavily on the intuitions of philosophers, and I think this is badly misguided. I suspect such philosophers are either ignorant of cognitive psychology, or plugging their ears to it. While of course we use mental heuristics (sometimes called ‘intuitions’) along chains of inference, I do not think we should trust our intuitions for basic facts. Our minds do not deliver to us direct truth about metaphysics or epistemology or morals.

In fact, I follow Bishop & Trout2 in rejecting the standard analytic epistemology that currently dominates. I think epistemology should not be the study of whether certain belief tokens count as “knowledge,” but rather the study of which reasoning methods tend to get at the truth. Bishop & Trout’s approach is called Strategic Reliabilism.

(By the way, Strategic Reliabilism should be an appealing epistemological system for skeptics, because it focuses on the same things that skeptics focus on: cognitive biases, how to overcome them, how to not fool yourself, how to develop reliable reasoning strategies, and so on.)

Metaphysics

Given my epistemology, I’m left with no good reasons to suspect that reality contains ghosts, paranormal powers, gods, magic, life after death, libertarian free will, or souls. Belief in such things is better explained by human psychology than their actual existence. I’m skeptical enough of folk psychology that it’s probably fair to call me an eliminative materialist.3

Like Kant, I think the external world exists, and causes our experiences, but unfortunately nothing comes to us unfiltered by the mind. That’s why we must test experience from as many angles as possible, and be willing to give up our deeply held intuitions about the categories and nature of reality (as Einstein taught us about space and time) and let the data speak to us as directly as possible. (Alas, all observations are theory-laden.)

I think the problem of universals, like much of metaphysics, results from a confusion about language (damn you, Parmenides!). Does the property of being red exist apart from its instantiations? Not if by “exist” you mean what most people mean when they say tables and ghosts exist. Universals are simply potential patterns of experience. We use these concepts as tools of communication, and this does not imbue them with a higher reality. It can be true to say something is red not because “redness” exists in a Platonic realm, but because that’s how we agreed to use our word-tools to communicate.

Is the universe infinite or finite? Did it begin, or has it existed forever? Are there other universes? I don’t know. I’m hoping physics will tell us, because metaphysicians do not inspire me with confidence on these issues.

Time does not “flow.” Instead, all moments exist statically in a “block universe.” Also, I’m partial to Everett’s interpretation when it comes to quantum mechanics.

I respect a naive theory of truth (the correspondence theory) and a naive theory of identity (as represented here), merely by stipulation: I want to talk about truth and identity in common-sense ways and then talk about whether anything in the world corresponds to our common-sense notions or not.

Ethics

Non-cognitivism has been empirically falsified. Error theory is plausible, though I have adopted desirism “as a working hypothesis.” Much confusion in ethics comes from the fact that people use moral terms to mean a variety of things – as with love and art and beauty (but not chemistry, for example). If morality is defined as a system involving divine commands or categorical imperatives or intrinsic value or hypothetical contracts, then all moral assertions are untrue.

But it may be possible to construct a semantic theory of morality that captures a great deal of moral discourse and practice, and makes only true claims. In fact, it might be possible to build several such theories, and then we would simply argue over which one best captures moral discourse and practice, or else we would have to specify which semantic theory of morality we’re using, exactly as when we discuss a “good movie” it is helpful to clarify whether one means “good” as in “likely to provide a pleasing experience” or “of high artistic merit.” (I suspect there can be several true theories of aesthetics, too, since we use aesthetic terms in a variety of ways. But I haven’t studied aesthetics much.)

What is my political philosophy? How should society be structured? Such a philosophy would flow from my ethical theory, but these are enormously complex questions. In our state of ignorance, I suppose many systems should be tested. Capitalism and liberal democracy, like other systems we’ve tried so far, possess extreme intrinsic problems, and I’m optimistic that we can do better. Parecon and other systems have been described in detail theoretically, and are ready to be tested in the real world.

My philosophical views today are massively different than they were 5 years ago. They are even massively different than they were one year ago. I have no reason to suspect my views will stop evolving any time soon.

If I compare myself to “most naturalists,” I would have to guess that my views are par for the course when it comes to naturalized epistemology, broad evidentialism, scientific realism, metaphysical naturalism, the B theory of time, and the rejection of contra-causal free will. The positions I hold that are most unusual among naturalists are probably: (1) desirism, (2) strategic reliabilism, (3) Everett over Copenhagen, and (4) eliminative materialism.

  1. For an excellent introduction to this kind of philosophical naturalism, see Jack Ritchie’s Understanding Naturalism. []
  2. See Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment []
  3. How do I reconcile eliminative materialism with a desire-based theory of ethics? More on that later: stay tuned! []

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{ 62 comments… read them below or add one }

Jacopo September 1, 2010 at 4:12 am

*correspondence.

:)

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G'DIsraeli September 1, 2010 at 5:03 am

“nature of reality (as Einstein…” wasn’t Einstein heavily influenced by conventionalism?
Do you believe in atoms & the fourth dimension mention or only things which you can see?
scientific realism is debatable. Does science show us reality our is it a system of symbols which yields useful information?

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David Rogers September 1, 2010 at 5:09 am

Get thee to Polanyi.

Mullins, P. (undated) ‘Michael Polanyi 1891-1976′, deepsite.org, http://www.deepsight.org/articles/polanyi.htm. Visited October 2, 2003. Useful introductory overview of Polanyi’s contribution with special reference to religious thought.

Polanyi, Michael (1958, 1998) Personal Knowledge. Towards a Post Critical Philosophy. London: Routledge. 428 pages. The classic statement tacit knowledge.

Polanyi, Michael (1967) The Tacit Dimension, New York: Anchor Books. (108 + xi pages). Based on the 1962 Terry lectures (Yale) this book provides an overview of tacit knowledge. He looks at tacit knowing, emergence and the significance of a society of explorers.

Polanyi, Michael (1997) Science, Economics and Philosophy: Selected Papers of Michael Polanyi. Edited with an introduction by R.T. Allen. New Brunswick (USA) and London: Transaction Publishers. Essays from 1917 to 1972 that includes an annotated bibliography of Michael Polanyi’s publications on society, economics, and philosophy and summaries of unpublished papers.

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David Rogers September 1, 2010 at 5:22 am

My apologies. The link in the first reference goes to the wrong place.

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lukeprog September 1, 2010 at 5:55 am

Where did you intend for it to go?

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Rob September 1, 2010 at 6:23 am

Luke,

This is not an attempt to poison the well against Michael Polanyi. When creationist William Dembski briefly set up an Intelligent Design study institute at Baylor, he named it “The Michael Polanyi Center”.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Polanyi_Center

In my experience, Michael Polanyi is the favorite philosopher of science among supernaturalist folk.

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antiplastic September 1, 2010 at 7:06 am

“Non-cognitivism has been empirically falsified.”

When did that happen? Did Blackburn get the memo?

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Chip September 1, 2010 at 7:33 am

About Polanyi: true, but he also makes Richard Carrier’s list.
http://astore.amazon.com/richardcarrier-20?_encoding=UTF8&node=7
I think Carrier is a decent counterexample.

My personal situation is that I haven’t read Polanyi in-depth, but from what little I know of his work, I expect I will find it congenial. I am planning to read “Personal Knowledge” and “Meaning” after I hand in my dissertation.

Luke, as a physicist, I’m intrigued you mentioned quantum mechanics. Obviously, the orthodox Copenhagen interpretation is a complete non-starter, as it is self-inconsistent (e.g. where exactly does one get these “classical” measuring devices, in a quantum universe?). I wonder: are you familiar with the Consistent Histories approach?
Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consistent_histories
Website: http://quantum.phys.cmu.edu/
Introductory paper: http://arxiv.org/abs/0909.2359

I used to be a Many-Worlds hater, but when I studied it more, it seemed a lot more innocuous and plausible. Still, I prefer CH. Like MWI, it is realist and *local*, but I find its ontology more congenial. Besides, I would rather reserve all my scorn for the “Consciousness causes collapse” interpretation. :)

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bossmanham September 1, 2010 at 7:33 am

Thanks for this post, Luke, as it does help those of us who are baffled by your deconversion understand the way you think more. I still don’t think you are justified in your atheism, however.

You say:

In contrast, the massive success of science leads me to suspect that methods condoned by science are the most successful methods of knowing we have discovered yet

But doesn’t science itself rely on intuitions (like that nature is uniform or that the external world is as we perceive it), itself relies on first philosophy (it has to at its most basic level, or else we have no reason to even perform experiments), other people’s testimonies (you have to believe scientists), the scientists (and your own) subjective experience, and authorities (scientists)?

These systems are also undermined by recent discoveries about the capabilities and limits of human psychology.

Isn’t science undermined by the same thing, since it is really just the interpretations of humans? I couldn’t see how a theistic view of knowledge could be subject to those, since an all powerful being could certainly successfully convey knowledge in the form of true propositions to us.

In contrast, the massive success of science leads me to suspect that methods condoned by science are the most successful methods of knowing we have discovered yet.

A few things on this pragmatic approach to truth. 1) Who is defining what success is? Different people could have different views on what is a success. 2) What are we looking for success in? The human species? Just getting machinery to work? The continued existence of something in particular? What makes one thing more worth succeeding than another? 3) Even if we can pinpoint these things, just because a belief leads to something working doesn’t mean it’s true.

Our minds do not deliver to us direct truth about metaphysics or epistemology or morals.

You really don’t support this statement. Why should we believe that only these three areas of study aren’t accessible by intuition, but things like the external world are? Why should we think that our intuition that the external world actually exists is true?

Given my epistemology, I’m left with no good reasons to suspect that reality contains ghosts, paranormal powers, gods, magic, life after death, libertarian free will, or souls.

Do you have any good reasons not to? Don’t you think personal experience sans a defeater is a good reason to believe something?

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lukeprog September 1, 2010 at 7:41 am

Chip,

Thanks for the links. Alas, I cannot evaluate interpretations of quantum mechanics based by reading primary research literature, as I’m not trained as a physicist – and not smart enough to be one, either, I suspect. Are you aware of any secondary literature that tries to explain the advantages of CH to Copenhagen and Many-Worlds?

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lukeprog September 1, 2010 at 7:52 am

bossmanham,

Each of your questions could be the subject of entire books, but I’ll give very brief replies.

About science relying on intuitions. As practiced, it certainly does. But these are often ‘heuristic’ intuitions rather than ‘basic’ intuitions, and when I disparage intuition, I’m mostly disparaging basic intuitions. More importantly, science is a social system that we’ve figured out does a pretty good job of overcoming the limits of our human brains – a better job than any other method we’ve discovered, anyway. I’m searching for a good analogy here, but I haven’t found it yet, so if what I’m saying doesn’t make sense, too bad for now. :)

I don’t hold a pragmatist’s view of truth. I hold to the correspondence theory, and then use pragmatic success to adduce probable correspondence. And I’m not defending anything counter-intuitive or complicated, here. Imagine you come across ten guys with the same goal: they want to grow bigger pumpkins. They each have a different method of doing it, but just one guy achieves his goal year after year after year. That one guy appears to have figured out something about how pumpkin-growing works. Every year he succeeds and all others fail, the chances that this is a fluke decrease.

Note that I don’t support any statements in this post, really. It’s a summary of my views, not a defense of them. I didn’t say a damn thing about why I prefer Everett over Copenhagen. As for an answer to the skeptic about the external world, this is a problem for all theories of epistemology, and not one I’ve invested much time in studying. Answering the skeptic is not really the goal of my epistemology, anyway.

You ask if I have good reasons to reject ghosts, gods, magic, and so on. A few, depending on which one you’re talking about. But the main reason I disbelieve in fairies is not because I have an argument against their existence, but because I have no arguments in their favor. I suspect that is why you disbelieve in fairies, too.

Do I think personal experience sans a defeater is a good reason to believe something? That’s a really complex question, depending on how I interpret it, and I don’t have time to discuss it now.

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bossmanham September 1, 2010 at 8:26 am

But these are often ‘heuristic’ intuitions rather than ‘basic’ intuitions, and when I disparage intuition, I’m mostly disparaging basic intuitions

What is your justification for accepting one and ignoring the other? It seems awful ad hoc to pick and choose like that. Seems to me that when it comes to metaphysics, assumptions made there can be just as heuristic as otherwise.

I don’t hold a pragmatist’s view of truth. I hold to the correspondence theory, and then use pragmatic success to adduce probable correspondence.

I know. I was framing the question and issues in that context.

On the pumpkin example, it’s conceivable that this person is doing one thing that they all think is helping him out, then apply it to their pumpkins and get similar results, when all along it was something else. Maybe they toss apples into their pumpkin fields and they think the apples help pumpkins grow, but in reality it could be the worms inside the apples that are doing the work.

Don’t get me wrong, I think induction can work to an extent (because I have other assumptions regarding the deity that make it work), but relying on it solely as your method of coming to knowledge seems a bit risky, since all induction is fallacious. I don’t think simply assuming induction leads to truth is justified.

Note that I don’t support any statements in this post, really. It’s a summary of my views, not a defense of them.

I hope you don’t mind the questions anyway. You have given a few reasons in this post as to why you subscribe to these views, though I was under no illusion that this was comprehensive.

As for an answer to the skeptic about the external world, this is a problem for all theories of epistemology, and not one I’ve invested much time in studying.

It’s not so much for mine (though some theists have made it such *cough* Berkley *cough*). But I must say that for your view to even get off the ground, there has to be that assumption made, which goes against your point about intuition.

But the main reason I disbelieve in fairies is not because I have an argument against their existence, but because I have no arguments in their favor. I suspect that is why you disbelieve in fairies, too.

I know that you know that isn’t an argument against the existence of fairies, since the absence of evidence isn’t grounds for dismissing the truth of something. I disbelieve in fairies because I’m aware of their origins in admitted fictional stories. Though I can’t say I’m a die hard a-fairiest.

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Reginald Selkirk September 1, 2010 at 8:30 am

Rob: This is not an attempt to poison the well against Michael Polanyi. When creationist William Dembski briefly set up an Intelligent Design study institute at Baylor, he named it “The Michael Polanyi Center”.

This should not be considered a reflection on Polanyi, who died in 1976, well before that horse’s ass Dembski showed up at Baylor. I recall reading somewhere ( I read heavily on intelligent design creationism from 2004+) that the Polanyi family was not happy with the selection of Dembski, which was primarily attributable to former Baylor president Robert B. Sloan. (Can’t find a link for this just now)


But I did find this:

MICHAEL POLANYI’S NAME DISASSOCIATED FROM “INTELLIGENT DESIGN”

“It is quite appropriate to associate the name of Michael Polanyi with discussions of science and religion. However, Polanyi explicitly indicated that he did not think that an agency such as that implied by claims of the intelligent design need to be invoked when dealing with the growth in complexity of the living world over aeons past (Personal Knowledge, p. 395). Given this, and given also the debates that have surrounded the Michael Polanyi Center from its origins, it would seem best that whatever research is carried out at Baylor on the design inference should not bear the Polanyi name.”

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Reginald Selkirk September 1, 2010 at 8:32 am

Further:

Because of the Baylor incident, The Polanyi Society invited Dr. William Dembski in 2003 to present a paper at their annual meeting in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. The Polanyi Society also asked three senior Polanyi scholars, Richard Gelwick, John Apczynski, and Walter Gulick, to respond to Dembski regarding how and if Polanyi’s views are relevant to “Intelligent Design.” Dembski accepted the invitation to discuss Polanyi and “Intelligent Design” with Polanyi scholars but later withdrew. Nevertheless The Polanyi Society held its meeting and the three Polanyi scholars identified above discussed Polanyi’s teleology and its relation to the ideas of “Intelligent Design.” All three investigators independently came to the conclusion that Polanyi would not support the “Intelligent Design” project. These presentations can be found in the March, 2005 issue of Zygon, Journal of Science and Religion. Vol. 40, No. I.

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Reginald Selkirk September 1, 2010 at 8:48 am

But doesn’t science itself rely on intuitions (like that nature is uniform or that the external world is as we perceive it), itself relies on first philosophy (it has to at its most basic level, or else we have no reason to even perform experiments), other people’s testimonies (you have to believe scientists), the scientists (and your own) subjective experience, and authorities (scientists)?

Mostly, no.

The uniformity of nature is not just an intuition, it is a reasonable conclusion from experimentation. E.g.:
Evidence for Large-scale Uniformity of Physical Laws
A.D. Tubbs & A.M. Wolfe (1980) Astrophysical Journal, Part 2 – Letters to the Editor, vol. 236, p. L105-L108

That the external world is as we perceive it: Science, to the extent possible, runs experiments to verify our initial perceptions. In some cases, such as perceptual psychology, science has verified that our perceptions are inaccurate and prone to certain illusions. (perceptual illusions, cognitive illusions)

Yes, to a lesser charge – science does rely on the existence of an actual external world which is amenable to experimentation. I.e. if we were al living in the Matrix, then the entire body of scientific experimentation would be invalid.

other people’s testimony:
No, science does not rely on this. Scientific findings are always open to repetition and verification. Science advances by questioning earlier findings. Some finding have been repeated and verified to a much fuller extent than others. You should accept evolution, for example, because it has held up wonderfully over a century and a half of intense attempts at disproof. If you want to question the lastest diet and health correlation studies until they have been better verified, then fine, I do that as well.

Scientists should not be viewed as authorities, but as experts. This distinction is perhaps esoteric, but it is important. Venus does not orbit the sun on Galileo’s authority, but rather Galileo was considered an early expert because he observed that phenomenon.

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Reginald Selkirk September 1, 2010 at 9:05 am

But doesn’t science itself rely on intuitions (like that nature is uniform…

One more point on this – science includes the concept of running controls. If nature were not uniform, we could expect that most experiments would fail due to the lack of consistency of the control groups.

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bossmanham September 1, 2010 at 9:17 am

Reginald,

Science most certainly does assume uniformity. We’re not just talking about physical laws, but of all nature. You can’t go back in time to verify that things were as they are now. You can’t verify that the way things our in our solar system hold for other solar systems. That research paper itself must assume certain things remain constant to come to its conclusions. All science is based on certain assumptions.

That the external world is as we perceive it

How do you know that?

No, science does not rely on this. Scientific findings are always open to repetition and verification

Which would presumably be from other people, eh?

Scientists should not be viewed as authorities, but as experts.

A rose by any other name…you’re still relying on the testimony of supposed people in higher positions then we are.

One more point on this – science includes the concept of running controls

Which can’t compensate for things we can’t know.

Your post was just one big practice in equivocation.

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bossmanham September 1, 2010 at 9:20 am

Further, in that paper, they have to assume that all of the variables they are comparing are causally connected, and this is based on other assumptions about the way the world is.

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Reginald Selkirk September 1, 2010 at 9:39 am

You can’t verify that the way things our in our solar system hold for other solar systems.

Wrong. Evidence already presented.

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Thomas September 1, 2010 at 9:57 am

I’m skeptical enough of folk psychology that it’s probably fair to call me an eliminative materialist.

Wow, that shocked me to be honest. To me eliminative materialism is so obviously wrong that I am really surprised that you hold to this position – which isn´t, by the way, very popular among philosophers of mind these days. This is especially ironic given your high views on ethics and morality. Jaegwon Kim, in his Physicalism, Or Something Near Enough, wonders the “consciousness-bashing”, which “still goes on in some quarters”, while at the same time these same philosophers regard moral philosophy and value theory high. “It is an ironic fact that the felt qualities of conscious experience, perhaps the only things that ultimately matter to us, are often relegated in the rest of philosophy to the status of “secondary qualities”, in the shadowy zone between the real and the unreal, or even jettisoned outright as artifacts of confused minds.” (Kim, 11-12) And if Kim isn´t a naturalist, then who is?

By the way, I´d like to recommend a book for you: William Hasker: The Emergent Self (Cornell, 1999). This book contains many powerful anti-physicalist -arguments. Chapter one deals with eliminative materialism, and argues, quite well, that EM is probably self-refuting.

One more thing about naturalized epistemology. How do you solve the self-refutation problem with that? You say that “…philosophy will be most productive when it functions as an extension of successful science, rather than as a kind of “first philosophy” that works “before” or “above” science”, but this statement itself is of course not a scientific statement, but a philosophical position that functions “before” science. Naturalized epistemology is itself an instance of first philosophy prior to the empirical sciences. So, by it´s own standards, it seems to be self refuting. I´m yet to hear a satisfying answer to this problem. Naturalists want to avoid first philosophy, but it´s not sure how they reasonably can.

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Reginald Selkirk September 1, 2010 at 10:47 am

Scientists should not be viewed as authorities, but as experts.
A rose by any other name…you’re still relying on the testimony of supposed people in higher positions then we are.

“What you mean ‘we,’ kimosabe?” Do I understand that you are too stupid/ignorant/contrarian to have learned any science, and now plan to use that ignorance as an excuse to doubt any science you choose? If so, fuck you.

Science is, in principle, open to verification and replication. The evidence is usually open for inspection. Papers are published openly. Methods and models used are referenced and described.

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Hermes September 1, 2010 at 10:51 am

bossmanham: Science most certainly does assume uniformity.

You’ve got it backward. Reality has some consistency and uniformity. How do we know that? If reality did not have that consistency and uniformity, it would not be demonstrable. It is, so it does.

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lukeprog September 1, 2010 at 11:03 am

Hermes,

Exactly.

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Josh September 1, 2010 at 11:29 am

In what sense has non-cognitivism been empirically falsified?

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MichaelPJ September 1, 2010 at 11:47 am

With all due respect, and much as I generally disagree with bossamnham, I think you’re you’re missing the point here. I think bossmanham is riffing on the age-old problem of induction.

You know the sort of thing I mean: “Well, science may have been right up til now, but what if it turns out that reality is quite different, and it’s just a coincidence that up til now everything has appeared to exhibit regularity.” (remember Russell’s chicken!)

I think any response to this has to be pragmatic. We adopt some assumptions because we have no choice. We tend to pick similar ones because we are evolutionarily programmed to, but if you chose to live your life according to counter-induction, then there’s not much I can do to persuade you otherwise (although the remark “It’s your funeral” would be particularly apposite).

The point is that this is unfortunate. I have to make some assumptions about the world so that I have any hope of getting my breakfast, and I go with the ones I remember working (if my memory is reliable!) because I’m programmed to and it seems no worse than the alternatives. But that doesn’t license us to start throwing around intuitions willy-nilly. The only reason we make the assumptions we do about induction etc. is because it would be impossible for us to act without them. Any “higher-up” intuitions certainly do not fall into that category.

Bossmanham says that induction is a risky way to get knowledge. This is entirely true, and unfortunately human epistemology is a risky business (Russell’s chicken wouldn’t have had any advantages if it’d been a theist!). Deal with it.

@Thomas

You need to read some Dennett. If Kim isn’t a naturalist, Denntt is :P Aha! I counter your appeal to authority with another appeal to authority!
Eliminative materialism doesn’t do away with anything we value. Being an eliminative materialist (or at least somewhere in the vicinity) doesn’t mean we can’t hate pain or enjoy listening to Shostakovich. It just means that we don’t quite tell ourselves the truth about those things.

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TH September 1, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Bossmanham says that induction is a risky way to get knowledge. This is entirely true, and unfortunately human epistemology is a risky business

If you can not point to an alternative way of getting knowledge that is not risky, then the word “risky” is inappropriate here.

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Hermes September 1, 2010 at 12:41 pm

MichaelPJ, well said. Along those lines, taking a reasonable caution to an extreme leads to problems dealing with reality.

Solipsists that bring up the ‘brain in a vat’ problem as a reason to reject any shared reality or to promote a personal preference, fail in this way. It’s true that it is possible that reality might be that we are brains in vats with what we think is real merely a simulation. It’s also true that reality might be chaotic and that the sciences seem to be correct by pure chance.

Yet, there are no specific reasons to take a complete solipsist position or an extreme skepticism of consistency. Caution? Caution is prudent. Replace what is demonstrated with what is speculated but not demonstrated? That is not prudent.

In practice, people who reject science or specific fields of science based on an intuition are as unsupported in their actions as the solipsists who want the brain in a vat idea to be taken seriously beyond a philosophical game.

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Hermes September 1, 2010 at 12:42 pm

TH, I agree as well. Risky is much too strong of a word.

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MichaelPJ September 1, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Huh? “Risky” doesn’t have to be relative to anything! It just means that there is significant risk; and indeed in human epistemology there is always significant risk of being wrong. Surely that’s not controversial?

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MichaelPJ September 1, 2010 at 12:49 pm

I should probably point out that I’m not supporting bossmanham! I disagree with him, for the reasons I outlined. I just think his points need to be addressed.

As you say, I’m taking the classic pragmatist response to scepticism (*): yes we might be brains in a vat, or induction might not work, but we have to assume that isn’t the case.
The brain in the vat idea is more than a philosophical game. It’s an important pointer to the oft-unacknowledged fact that all our knowledge rests on pragmatic assumptions. It is true that that fact is not problematic, however.

(*) Although I think it’s a bit unfair to call it a “response” as that suggests that you’ve refuted the sceptic, whereas pragmatism really embraces the sceptic.

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TH September 1, 2010 at 1:10 pm

MichaelPJ
Sorry, wish I would edit my comments. I thought you were using “risky” the way bossmanham used it:

Don’t get me wrong, I think induction can work to an extent (because I have other assumptions regarding the deity that make it work), but relying on it solely as your method of coming to knowledge seems a bit risky, since all induction is fallacious.

I can only read this as implying that using induction, sans deity, is a bit dangerous and should be avoided where possible.

(And I believe that it’s nonsense that belief in God somehow gets around the problem of induction; there’s no reason God can’t or won’t decide to turn himself into Satan tomorrow)

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lukeprog September 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Just so people know. This is a short post. I shall not be writing a book-length defense of philosophical naturalism to defend every sentence in this post.

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Sly September 1, 2010 at 1:31 pm

I think I am with Luke on everything except for desirism, although there I am an error theorist.

I have always found it absurd when people try to challenge induction as a mark against science. They will make this sophist claim and then proceed to use induction throughout the day. Because they know it is true!

Anyway has anyone considered taking a line from Plantiga and making induction a properly basic belief? It seems that induction is much more basic than god. You cannot even make sense of reading the bible without induction.I feel like someone could argue for it along the same lines as Plantiga does quite effectively.

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Chip September 1, 2010 at 1:51 pm

As a Bayesian, of course, I’m okay with induction-done-right. :)

Luke, I don’t really have any good non-mathematical treatments. I can recommend Griffiths’ book:
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0521539293/ref=cm_rdp_product
The low ratings it has are mostly from people expecting from it what it was never meant to be.

Griffiths works in toy models to help develop quantum “intuition” (if you’ll pardon the term), which I think is very helpful. I think he makes the math accessible for non-physicists, but I’m a very poor judge of that, since I’m within epsilon of a physics PhD.

Ultimately, my take: given your other interests and your time constraints, it’s probably not worth your effort to become an expert on quantum mechanics interpretations, given that all of them make the same predictions anyway. But you should be aware that there’s this other interpretation which I expect you would find congenial.

Cheeers :)

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bossmanham September 1, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Reginald,

Wrong. Evidence already presented.

Wrong. You provided evidence that assumes some uniformity. When I say science assumes uniformity, you can’t appeal to science to prove uniformity. That’s reasoning in a circle. It’s like asking me how I know the Bible is true and me simply saying “because it says so!”

“What you mean ‘we,’ kimosabe?” Do I understand that you are too stupid/ignorant/contrarian to have learned any science, and now plan to use that ignorance as an excuse to doubt any science you choose? If so, fuck you.

What are you talking about? I’ll freely admit I’m not a scientist. I rely on the expertise of people who make a living in their specific fields of study, but I’m not so naive to think that they go into the study without presuppositions. The question is are their presuppositions justified? Get over yourself, dude.

Science is, in principle, open to verification and replication. The evidence is usually open for inspection. Papers are published openly. Methods and models used are referenced and described.

By people who assume certain things to be true in order to interpret said evidence. If one approaches the same set of evidence with different presuppositions, they could reach radically different conclusions.

Hermes,

You’ve got it backward. Reality has some consistency and uniformity. How do we know that? If reality did not have that consistency and uniformity, it would not be demonstrable. It is, so it does.

This is also begging the question. When I ask how do you justify the belief in uniformity in the field of science, you can’t simply say that scientific observation has proven it, because you have to use the assumption to prove it.

Further, you don’t know that reality has consistency and uniformity, you are assuming it. Asserting what I am asking for justification in believing is not an argument in justification of the position.

MichaelPJ,

Yes, I am bringing up the POI, but not simply. I am also pointing out that scientism requires more unjustified assumptions than any form of theism would (or another method of epistemology that doesn’t impose the ad hoc constraint of methodological naturalism). I pointed out that this reliance on science that Luke has expressed in the post and the problems it supposedly avoids (intuition, first philosophy, testimony, subjective experience, and authority-based systems) are actually inherent within science itself as well. Luke says all of those have failed, then adopts a system in which they are all used anyway.

Luke,

Just so people know. This is a short post. I shall not be writing a book-length defense of philosophical naturalism to defend every sentence in this post.

I’m not asking for something like that. However, you claimed that intuition, first philosophy, testimony, subjective experience, and authority-based systems are all failures. I pointed out that the scientific endeavor uses all of those. How then do we justify scientism? By your own standard it fails.

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lukeprog September 1, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Chip,

I’ll have to agree with “your take”. Please do share your informed views when you have them.

Luke

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Hermes September 1, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Bossmanham, if you want a more subtle response look at my reply to MichaelPJ and TH. Otherwise, here’s a reply to you directly;

Hermes:

You’ve got it backward. Reality has some consistency and uniformity. How do we know that? If reality did not have that consistency and uniformity, it would not be demonstrable. It is, so it does.

Bossmanham: This is also begging the question. When I ask how do you justify the belief in uniformity in the field of science, you can’t simply say that scientific observation has proven it, because you have to use the assumption to prove it.

Further, you don’t know that reality has consistency and uniformity, you are assuming it. Asserting what I am asking for justification in believing is not an argument in justification of the position.

Actually, I explicitly did not mention the sciences in my reply. Science benefits from and demonstrates the way reality is, just as any other field or observation does.

But, you mentioned the sciences. Let’s deal with them. In one fell swoop, let’s say that the sciences are totally invalid.

Done. The sciences are gone.

What now? Seriously.

Do you have an insight that you want to share now that the sciences aren’t in the way?

If you do, then why not make a positive claim and back it up without reference to the sciences?

Go ahead. No more boogie man science in the way.

What do you have? Knock me out.

Back to the point: If you need justification in an absolute way for something that you rely on just to get out of bed in the morning, you’re barking mad and don’t deserve serious consideration. If you want to stop attacking the unassailable and put forth your own claims, you are quite free to do so. I won’t spend time defending what you yourself don’t actually disagree with.

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phasespace September 1, 2010 at 3:49 pm

bossmanham,

This is also begging the question.

No, it it isn’t, the uniformity is inductively deduced. We don’t assume uniformity, we look around, we observe, we test, and we conclude that yes, we do see uniformity everywhere we look. Yes, the POI, is still there sitting at the bottom of this, but this is definitely not circular, and it is a little silly of you to say that it is. I seriously doubt that you really believe that in the first place.

Further, you don’t know that reality has consistency and uniformity, you are assuming it.

The ApJ paper referenced above needs to do no such thing, and it doesn’t. To put it another way, if there are non-uniformities in the laws of physics, it would be very peculiar to find that these supposed non-uniformities manifest themselves in just the right way to make it look as though uniformity were universal at our location. That’s the only way such an objection has a flicker of hope of being right, but it is wildly implausible, unless you want to go down the path that reality isn’t real, which I doubt you believe. The only room for non-uniformity in our physical laws is at a level below the detection limits of our observations or beyond what is currently observable.

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TH September 1, 2010 at 4:03 pm

bossmanham

But doesn’t science itself rely on intuitions (like that nature is uniform or that the external world is as we perceive it), itself relies on first philosophy (it has to at its most basic level, or else we have no reason to even perform experiments), other people’s testimonies (you have to believe scientists), the scientists (and your own) subjective experience, and authorities (scientists)?

Science doesn’t rely on intuition; rather, intuition can provide a basis for an experiment or theory, but knowledge will only be assigned according to experimental results. No assumptions about uniformity are needed, since, if it turns that reality is not uniform, experimental results will also fail to show uniform results. Likewise, if the external world is not as we perceive it, experiments will likely reveal that too (as Dennett points out, the artificial reality of brains in a vat requires such vast computational power that it is probably all around easier to just put brains into biological organisms in a physical universe instead.)

Science does not rely on first philosophy as I understand your phrasing above. Rather people are naturally curious about how things work and a methodology that consistently yields useful information will be adopted as any useful tool would.

Trusting to the accuracy of scientific conclusions can be done probabilistically, starting with basic facts about the scientific method, such as that science works best with honesty and truth and that its self-correcting nature means that the larger or more significant a lie or faked result, the more difficult it is to cover it up over time. And of course, one can always study any particular subject in arbitrary depth to increase one’s confidence in it. This is considerably different than trusting the authority of an ancient book.

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Gil S. September 1, 2010 at 4:15 pm

This “science first, philosophy second” business is highly questionable. Philosophy is more certain about particular truths such as logic, self-existence, etc than anything that science has ever demonstrated. There’s of course the speculative part of philosophy which I am of course not defending here. The point is, philosophy is a discipline that questions the normative nature reality. Science is built on certain epistemological assumptions about logic, truth, and mathematics. While they’re observable in reality, you would be begging the question to posit the fact that reality is observed by us to be coherent that therefore logic is verified scientifically.

I’m afraid no defense of naturalism from you could ever justify this. Given the problem of induction and the like, science is in no position to be ontologically prior to philosophy. Even for philosophy, science is a great and very useful method of what/how we should think about physical reality but it is a tool so let’s not conceit ourselves in to believing that it is greater than what it really is. Otherwise, you’re probably engaging in fallacious thinking.

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nate September 1, 2010 at 4:28 pm

could someone explain when non-cognitivism was falsified? I don’t want to hold a position that has been proven wrong.

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Hermes September 1, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Gill, I don’t think it’s an issue of before or after, superior or inferior. If something is a fact, it must be consistent with other known facts.

So, if something is logically true it can’t be contradicted by observations. If it is, then either the logic and/or the observations need to be examined to determine if a mistake or an inappropriate conclusion was being drawn.

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MichaelPJ September 1, 2010 at 4:43 pm

I’d also like to add my vote for at least a pointer to the place where non-cognitivism was falsified. I disagree with non-cognitivism, as it happens, and I’d love to add this knock-down argument to my aresenal.

Regarding the primacy of science or philosophy, I think science is practically prior, but that’s just because we’re effectively evolutionarily programmed for it. It’s our nature to figure stuff out by trial and error, and to theorise and refute those theories. It’s how we live.
However, I think at least some philosophy is prior to science from the point of view of justification. When we, as rational beings, try to justify the beliefs we have, and the methods we have for producing beliefs (science!), we need to do a bit of philosophy before we can start using science as a justification.

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Gil S. September 1, 2010 at 5:23 pm

@Hermes

Well, I’d completely agree with that and if it’s what Luke meant then I apologize for misinterpreting it. Perhaps I have simply read into the text an issue that I had recently debated with a friend of mine who holds science to be a “self-sustaining star” compared to philosophy which is said to be from the stone age. This kind of thinking seems to be somewhat similar to weak scientism as far as I’m aware and I generally dislike the “science is better than philosophy!” attitude. As if science makes the need for philosophy null unless science is king and philosophy is it’s slave.

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Hermes September 1, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Personally, I think that philosophy is highly overrated and science is underappreciated. Both are largely misunderstood. Philosophy is taken as whatever you think or guess, or whatever can be argued, while science is mistaken for technology. There’s no conflict if the focus is on one reality/world not diverse and non-overlapping worldviews chosen based on inflexible biases. There aren’t Christian worlds that differ from Muslim worlds and Communist worlds that differ from Capitalist ones. Reality, if not heeded but distorted, will not yield facts or conclusions reliably.

Philosophical conversations are often used to push nonsense when facts about reality are already available to resolve the philosophical conversation either decisively or practically. If those facts come from one or more of the sciences then it would be inappropriate to reject them because of a bias against the sciences.

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ShaneSteinhauser September 1, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Bomb? Hello Bomb?

YOU ARE FALSE DATA THEREFORE I SHALL IGNORE YOU

Bomb? Snap out of it bomb.

IN THE BEGINING THERE WAS ONLY DARKNESS AND I MOVED UPON THE FACE OF THE DARKNESS AND I WAS ALONE

Bomb?

LET THERE BE LIGHT

*Explodes*

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Inquiring Infidel September 1, 2010 at 9:01 pm

Luke, how do you square eliminative materialism with desirism? I thought eliminative materialists typically hold that things like desires do not exist. If you think that desires do exist, why do you reject certain aspects of folk psychology but not others?

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Cyril September 1, 2010 at 9:36 pm

When he talks about non-cognitivism being falsified, I think he’s referring to the position put forward elsewhere that non-cognitivist theories don’t properly reflect how people use moral terms, i.e. as facts and not as opinions, commands, etc. So even if they make entirely true statements, those statements are not about “morality”.

Of course, that’s just how I interpreted it. I could be wrong.

On a different note, to ShaneSteinhauser:
Huh?

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Alex September 2, 2010 at 1:11 am

Cyril: ShaneSteinhauser is referencing the movie “Dark Star” with a sentient bomb being the catalyst for fixing overwhelming problems in a, er, big way. Ignore at will. :)

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lukeprog September 2, 2010 at 4:00 am

Cyril,

Yes re: non-cognitivism.

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antiplastic September 2, 2010 at 6:55 am

1) Frege-Geach Embedding describes a truth-functional, *logical* relation, not an empirical one. For heaven’s sake, it’s not as though Bertrand Russell was unaware of the “anthropological data” that people ascribe truth values to moral claims!

2) Gibbard and Blackburn have only spent, what, the last quarter century explaining how expressivist semantics operate.

3) Did you not see (as at least three other people besides myself did) AF’s rather devastating admission in the other thread that “In fact, I go so far as to claim ‘people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires’ is false, for the most part.”?

If “don’t properly reflect how people use moral terms” is supposed to make a view “empirically falsified” then what on earth does one make of this?

It used to be like pulling teeth to get to the realization that fyfisism was not a theory of morality, but a theory of “morality-in-scare-quotes”. Now it looks like it’s a “theory-in-scare-quotes” of “morality-in-scare-quotes”! If you’re not even *trying* to get something right, then your “theory” isn’t wrong, it’s not even wrong. It’s a handful of purely verbal slogans dangled ornamentally off pre-existing center-left moral views held for independent reasons.

4) Looking forward to fn.3′s promise to reconcile all this with eliminativism’s erasure of a key “theoretical” term.

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Bill Snedden September 2, 2010 at 11:11 am

In response to bossmanham, I think it might be possible to “ground” scientific induction through a series of retortive arguments based on certain logical axioms. For example, you can’t argue against the truth of the law of non-contradiction because any attempt to do so necessarily assumes it’s truth for your argument couldn’t be true unless the LoNC were itself to be true.

It seems to me that scientific induction might be grounded similarly through the law of identity: an object is itself. Any attempt to argue against this necessarily assumes its truth as the “object” of your argument would have to be itself in order for your argument to succeed (e.g., an argument that “A” isn’t necessarily “A” assumes that there is some means of quantifying “A” such that it can be distinguished from “non-A”.)

In the case of scientific induction, we might say that an oxygen atom is an oxygen atom, so when we observe it we should always expect to see those characteristics that define it as an oxygen atom (appearance, behavior, etc.). If we observe something not characteristic of an oxygen atom, we’re either NOT observing an oxygen atom, OR we have made a previous measurement error with respect to the characteristics of an oxygen atom.

Either way, we’ve still got a possible ontological “grounding” for scientific induction that does not rely on “assumptions” or “intuitions”.

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Reginald Selkirk September 2, 2010 at 11:32 am

Philosophy is more certain about particular truths such as logic, self-existence, etc than anything that science has ever demonstrated.

Philosophy offers certainty about self-existence?

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al friedlander September 2, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Hermes, I agree with your comment above.

I’m not trying to push any science vs philosophy remarks either, but I am sometimes surprised at how much certain branches of philosophy are ‘allowed to get away with’. With that said, I also noticed that other philosophers are the guys who keep these former guys in check.

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MichaelPJ September 2, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Yeah, in my experience it’s pretty much a given that every philosopher thinks 60% of philosophy is terrible, misguided, possibly malicious bullshit.

They just don’t agree on which 60%.

On the plus side, this means that there is a lot of self-directed scutiny!

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Hermes September 2, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Al, I agree.

While I have little to add, I’ll still toss out a fairly self-indulgent and rambling rant…

* * *

I think the reason is that most non-philosophers consider philosophical challenges to be irrelevant or not clearly about the actual field that they criticize. This leaves other philosophers with the primary interest in the challenge. This is true regardless of if the comments are relevant and focused or not.

Yet, there seems to be a silver bullet mentality with people who promote philosophical arguments against the sciences that is not matched by a similar mentality towards non-science fields.

The sciences or some subfield of the sciences tends to get challenged frequently but without an acknowledgment of current research, verifiable specific facts, or of the general lack of stridency — intentional tentativeness — of scientific conclusions. As for other specialties, politics and economics are infrequently challenged, historians and artists are rarely challenged, and accountants or plumbers are never challenged.

Why go through detailed abstract philosophical criticisms of the different sciences when a similar abstract approach would be laughable when applied to a specific field of the arts? The best answer I can think of is that the arts, accounting, and plumbers don’t usually intrude on what philosophers used to claim as their domain. The sciences do, so the philosophical comments — valid or not — are seen as justified. The same presumption would not be there for the field of accounting.

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al friedlander September 3, 2010 at 10:25 am

^
Well said

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Mike Young September 3, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Luke, you cannot get around first philosophy. I will make a video to show this and I will post it on youtube for you to watch.

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lukeprog September 3, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Mike Young,

Okay.

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bossmanham September 7, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Hermes,

Actually, I explicitly did not mention the sciences in my reply. Science benefits from and demonstrates the way reality is, just as any other field or observation does.

It doesn’t have to be explicitly mentioned. You said that reality has consistency and uniformity, and it can be demonstrated showing it to be true. But it can’t be demonstrated in any a priori kind of way, and it can’t be observed, mainly because we can’t go back in time nor travel great distances from the earth. We have to trust our intuition that it is the case, which goes beyond science, which goes beyond Luke’s epistemology.

But, you mentioned the sciences. Let’s deal with them. In one fell swoop, let’s say that the sciences are totally invalid.

I didn’t say that. I said if we are holding to Luke’s standards as articulated here, it is invalid. I think lots of science that proceeds by proper presuppositions is valid.

No, it it isn’t, the uniformity is inductively deduced

I already talked about this problem. If science is how we come to knowledge, how do we justify the knowledge we go into science with?

We don’t assume uniformity, we look around, we observe, we test, and we conclude that yes, we do see uniformity everywhere we look.

And yet, we can’t look everywhere. Plus, this is pretty much the scientific endeavor. Form a hypothesis, observe, by means of induction infer the truth. But we can always be wrong.

To put it another way, if there are non-uniformities in the laws of physics, it would be very peculiar to find that these supposed non-uniformities manifest themselves in just the right way to make it look as though uniformity were universal at our location.

Why would it be peculiar? Why couldn’t the rates of, say, the speed of light have changed? If it did, then measuring things now against the current speed and asserting that if it were different we’d see it is tacitly assuming the speed of light has remained constant.

TH,

Science doesn’t rely on intuition; rather, intuition can provide a basis for an experiment or theory, but knowledge will only be assigned according to experimental results.

If you’re using false intuition to formulate your experiments, then you’re sunk in terms of discovering the truth.

No assumptions about uniformity are needed, since, if it turns that reality is not uniform, experimental results will also fail to show uniform results

No it won’t. You have to assume that things work today the way they did yesterday to formulate conclusions about any piece of evidence. You have to assume that, for instance, animals millions of years ago died and left skeletons behind just like we do today, and that fossilization happened in similar ways then as it does today. Without that assumption, any observations we make of fossils are moot.

Likewise, if the external world is not as we perceive it, experiments will likely reveal that too

How? If we’re doing the observations in the fake external world, we couldn’t know it. And your example from Dennett is pretty irrelevant.

Science does not rely on first philosophy as I understand your phrasing above.

Yes it does, because the completely science-less argument that searching for knowledge and observing things is first philosophy. We’d have no reason to do it without that.

Bill Snedden,

It seems to me that scientific induction might be grounded similarly through the law of identity

Got an argument to support that? The law of non contradiction seems to be an innate sense that we have that has to be true, or life simply doesn’t make sense. Induction doesn’t seem to hold that position as I can, and already have, provide examples of where induction sans further assumptions fails.

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Adamoriens February 20, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Hermes,Actually, I explicitly did not mention the sciences in my reply. Science benefits from and demonstrates the way reality is, just as any other field or observation does.It doesn’t have to be explicitly mentioned. You said that reality has consistency and uniformity, and it can be demonstrated showing it to be true. But it can’t be demonstrated in any a priori kind of way, and it can’t be observed, mainly because we can’t go back in time nor travel great distances from the earth. We have to trust our intuition that it is the case, which goes beyond science, which goes beyond Luke’s epistemology.But, you mentioned the sciences. Let’s deal with them. In one fell swoop, let’s say that the sciences are totally invalid.I didn’t say that. I said if we are holding to Luke’s standards as articulated here, it is invalid. I think lots of science that proceeds by proper presuppositions is valid.No, it it isn’t, the uniformity is inductively deducedI already talked about this problem. If science is how we come to knowledge, how do we justify the knowledge we go into science with?We don’t assume uniformity, we look around, we observe, we test, and we conclude that yes, we do see uniformity everywhere we look. And yet, we can’t look everywhere. Plus, this is pretty much the scientific endeavor. Form a hypothesis, observe, by means of induction infer the truth. But we can always be wrong.To put it another way, if there are non-uniformities in the laws of physics, it would be very peculiar to find that these supposed non-uniformities manifest themselves in just the right way to make it look as though uniformity were universal at our location. Why would it be peculiar? Why couldn’t the rates of, say, the speed of light have changed? If it did, then measuring things now against the current speed and asserting that if it were different we’d see it is tacitly assuming the speed of light has remained constant.TH,Science doesn’t rely on intuition; rather, intuition can provide a basis for an experiment or theory, but knowledge will only be assigned according to experimental results.If you’re using false intuition to formulate your experiments, then you’re sunk in terms of discovering the truth.No assumptions about uniformity are needed, since, if it turns that reality is not uniform, experimental results will also fail to show uniform resultsNo it won’t. You have to assume that things work today the way they did yesterday to formulate conclusions about any piece of evidence. You have to assume that, for instance, animals millions of years ago died and left skeletons behind just like we do today, and that fossilization happened in similar ways then as it does today. Without that assumption, any observations we make of fossils are moot.

It is true that the universal belief in uniformity in nature is often simply intuitive, but it seems pretty plausible as an inference to the best explanation.

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Jim Stair August 5, 2011 at 11:49 am

I thought that you might like to hear a good explanation of the dualistic epistomology that you have decided to reject. http://www.ligonier.org/rym/broadcasts/audio/aquinas-part-1/

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