Tag Archives: epistemology

Against Physics as Ontologically Basic

1.  Biology is epistemically independent of physics:

Let’s assume that biology is not epistemically independent of physics, i.e. to know any biology we must first know something about physics.  However, consider evolution as determined by natural selection and the struggle for survival.  We can know about the struggle for survival and natural selection without appealing to physics — just as Darwin did when he created the theory — and hence we can fundamentally understand at least some, if not most, of biology independent of physics.

2.  Physics supervenes on biology:

Whatever ability we have to comprehend is an evolved skill.  Therefore any physical understanding of the world, as an instance of general comprehension,  supervenes on the biology of this skill.

3.  Biology is just as fundamental as physics:

If the principles involved in biology and physics are epistemically independent and each can be said to supervene on  the other, then neither has theoretical primordiality.

Therefore physics is not ontologically basic.

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[This argument was inspired by a discussion over at It’s Only a Theory start by Mohan Matthen.

And I want it to be known that I HATE SUPERVENIENCE.  Basically if you use supervenience regularly then you are a BAD PERSON.  The only good argument that uses supervenience is one that reduces the overall usage of the word:  it is my hope that the above argument will prevent people from saying that biology supervenes on physics.  For every argument in which I thought that using supervenience might prove useful, I found a much, much superior argument that did not make use of the term.  I know you always live to regret statements like this, but right now I don’t care.]

Posted in argumentation, biology, epistemology, evolution, ontology, philosophy, physics, science. Tagged with , , , .

Of Duckrabbits and Identity

Of late I’ve become increasingly concerned with the meaning of identity.  When we say, ‘x = x,’ we don’t mean that the x on the left is exactly identical to the x on the right because the x on the left is just that, on the left, and the x on the right is on the right, not the left.  Since equality would be useless without having 2 different objects (try to imagine the use of a reflexive identity symbol, i.e., one that for whatever object it is applies to, indicates that the object  is identical with itself), there is something mysterious about the use of identity.

But what is the mystery?  It cannot be anything to do with the subjects being declared identical: these objects are arbitrary to the particular topic being discussed.  For example if I say ‘the morning star = the evening star’ then we are talking about planets, and if I say that ‘3 = y’ then I am talking about numbers.  The identity sign is the same in both, even though the objects being discussed are rather different.

It is easy enough to believe that by paying attention to the different objects being declared identical we can know how to act (some sort of context principle *cringe*).  But this doesn’t address the question specifically: although we can know how to use the identity symbol in specific instances, this tells us nothing about how identity works or what it means.

Take a look at this:

drthumb = drthumb

The picture is the same save for location on the webpage.

———–

But what if we call the one on the left a duck and the one on the right a rabbit: what is different?  The features obviously don’t change, only the way we are seeing (perceiving? apprehending? looking at? interpreting?)  the two images.

(Triple bonus points to anyone who can look at the two pictures at once and see one as a duck and the other as a rabbit. Hint- it is easier for me to do it if I try to see the one on the left as a rabbit and the one on the right as a duck… focus on the mouths.)

In this example, as opposed to the others discussed above, a decision was required to be made – to see one picture one way and the other another way – before the differences even existed.  Now, in the above examples it appeared that there was a difference of knowledge: at one point we didn’t know that the evening star and morning star were one and the same, or that y was equal to 3.  This isn’t the case when looking at identical duckrabbit pictures because there is nothing about the two pictures that is different; the difference is entirely in the mind.

Let me make a suggestion about how to describe the phenomenon of being able to see one image two different ways: the image can be instantiated in two different ways, i.e. it has an associated universe with a population of two.  There are two possible descriptions associated with this image and until we make a decision about how to describe it, the image is like an uninstantiated formula.

Identity, then, is an indication that the two associated objects are things that can be generalized to the same formula.  The picture of the duck and the picture of the rabbit can be called identical because they both have a single general formula (the duckrabbit picture) that can be instantiated into either.  The identity symbol indicates that the two associated objects are two instantiations of the same general thing, be it a number, planet or image (but not objects in space-time because that would be self-contradictory… space-time and instantiation, a topic for another day).

How identity works can now be identified: it is to instantiate and generalize.  Consider the mystery of how we see the duckrabbit one way or the other: no one can tell you how you are able to see the image one way or the other.  However, you are able to instantiate the image in one way and then another, and recognize that both the duck and rabbit are shown by the same image.

Instantiation and generalization are skills and the identity symbol between the two images above indicates that you have to use that skill to generalized both to one formula.  Most of the time it is non-trivial to instantiate or generalize in order to show two things (formulas) to be equal.  In the case of the duckrabbit it is trivial because the work went into the instantiation process (to see the images one way or the other); in the other examples the situation is reversed, such that we had the instantiations but not the general formula.  In all cases, though, only when we can go back and forth between different instantiations and a single generalization do we claim two things identical.

Posted in epistemology, metaphysics, ontology, philosophy, wittgenstein. Tagged with , , , , .

Argument Structure

Basic argument structure goes like this:

  1. Premise 1
  2. Premise 2
  3. ———————–

  4. Conclusion

Knowing how to argue is great, except when someone you disagree with is proving things you don’t like.  In that case you have to know how to break your opponent’s argument or provide an argument that they cannot break.

First thing that most people do to break an argument is to attack premises (assuming no fallacies are present).  To avoid accepting your opponent’s conclusion in line 3, if you can cast doubt on the truth of premise 1, then your opponent will never get to line 3.

Personally I think this sucks.  I hate arguing about the truth of premises because many times people have no idea what the truth is and hold unbelievably stupid positions.

G. E. Moore argued that if the conclusion is more certain than the premises, then you can flip the argument:

  1. Conclusion
  2. Premise 2
  3. ———————–

  4. Premise 1

Instead of arguing about the truth of the premises, this strategy pits the premises against the conclusion by arguing that while the premises imply the conclusion, the conclusion also implies the premises.  Hence there is a question about which should be used to prove the other, and, as long as this question remains, nothing is proved.

This leads to a kind of argument holism.  An argument must first be judged on the relative certainties of its premises and conclusion before the premises can even be considered to be used to derive the conclusion.

Personally I think this is great.  It is possible to just ignore whole arguments on the grounds that the person arguing hasn’t taken into account the relative certainties involved.  If you haven’t ensured that your premises are more certain than your conclusion, then you can’t expect anyone to accept your conclusion based upon those premises.

However this leads to a nasty problem.  If all arguments are subject to this sort of holism, then arguments can be reduced to their conclusions: if the whole argument is of equal certainty, i.e. the conclusion is just as certain as a premise, then there is no reason to bother with the premises.  If we just deal with conclusions, and everyone is certain of their own conclusions, then arguing is useless.

(In practice, of course, only mostly useless.  You can (try to) undermine someone’s argument by finding something more certain and incompatible with the conclusion in question (premises are always a good place to start looking).  For better or worse, though, even when people’s premises have been destroyed, all too often they still are certain of their conclusions.)

Moreover, if everyone is certain of their conclusions, then no conclusion is any more certain than another.  If everything has equal certainty, then nothing is certain.

How to get around this problem of equal certainty?

First let me mention that this is a strictly philosophical problem: in daily life we have greater certainty in some things than we do in others.  For instance I trust certain people, and hence if they say something is true then I will be more certain of it’s truth than if someone else were to say the same thing.  So fair warning: what comes next is a philosophical solution to a philosophical problem.

If something and its opposite are equally certain, then, generally, there is nothing more that we can know about it.  For example if we know that it is either raining or not raining, then we really don’t know much about the weather.   This applies in all cases, except for paradoxes.   In a paradox something and its opposite imply each other. Hence, in a paradox, there is only one thing, not a thing and it’s negation.

Most the time paradoxes only shows us things that cannot exist.  However, if what caused the paradox was the negation of something, then we can have certainty in that thing: it’s negation cannot exist on pain of paradox.

Therefore, to provided a rock solid foundation for an argument, a paradox must be appealed to such that the paradox must have been generated from the negation of the thing to be used as a premise.

As far as I can tell, this is the only argument structure that yields absolutely certain results.  All other arguments styles are subject to questions about the truth of premises and the legitimacy of using those premises (even if true) for proving a particular conclusion.

Posted in argumentation, epistemology, logic, philosophy. Tagged with , , .

Getting Around Gettier

The Gettier argument (and its descendants) run thusly

Someone thinks they know x.

However, due to factor y, they do not know x.

These sorts of thought experiments are used regularly to undermine different accounts of knowledge. Generally I think they are effective but there is one gray area that is under-appreciated.

When the thought experiment is introduced, it is generally assumed to be unproblematic: whoever is setting up the thought experiment is defining the situation and generally is allowed to do so as he or she pleases. However, in setting up a thought experiment that has to do with knowledge, we are inherently assuming an ability to create thought experiments. This means we are presupposing knowing how to do something order to analyze knowledge in general.

In this instance, due to the self reflexive nature of epistemological research, we are forced to accept a presupposition of knowledge of thought experiments when trying to explain knowledge. Therefore Gettier-style thought experiments beg the question by analyzing Knowledge while making you implicitly presuppose a form of knowledge.

Unless you are a skeptic, you are probably thinking that no one is denying that we have knowledge; we just can’t explain it yet. Gettier merely was pointing this out. Therefore it is fine that we have the knowledge of how to have thought experiments and the Gettier-style thought experiments stand as testament to the failure of the Justified-True-Belief account of knowledge.

As I said above, for the most part I agree. I say ‘for the most part’ because just about all the theories of knowledge I have seen don’t take presupposed knowledge as a problem that has to be dealt with, just explained. Hence the big upshot is: If an epistemology came along that started off by explaining thought experiments (and presupposed knowledge in general), then that theory would be a step ahead of Gettier. With a theory of presupposed knowledge you would have the opportunity to prevent Gettier-style thought experiments from becoming problematic. (Those theories would be able to have a retroactive thought-experiment abortion, a la The Terminator.)

Personally I default to my stated epistemological position. Still, for those who disagree with me (and as far as I can tell that is everyone but, like, 3, if I am lucky and it’s a good day), I offer this argument/ suggestion in hopes that it is useful.

Posted in epistemology, philosophy. Tagged with , .

A Counterexample to Skepticism

The statement, “Either something happened or something didn’t happen,” is immune to skepticism.

If a skeptic tries to doubt it, then something has happened, making the statement true. If no one doubts it and nothing happened, then the statement is again true. Therefore you may have absolute certainty that something has or has not happened.

Moreover, this statement has it’s uses: I can imagine mothers all over the country trying to impress upon their teenagers to refrain using the word ‘like’. “Either something happened or something didn’t happen. Nothing ‘like happened’.”

Posted in epistemology, philosophy. Tagged with , , .

A note on epistemology

Justified true belief does not yield knowledge, and everyone should know this by now. Beyond Gettier’s argument, is this tack I heard given by Jaakko Hintikka:

You may believe something, fine, and have whatever justifications you wish. But how do you know the thing is true?

The point he was making was that far beyond the issue of problems in having the right sort of justifications is the problem of having truth as well. Whenever the Justified-true-belief scheme is used for knowledge the truth of the thing in question is whitewashed over: all the focus is put on the justification and the truth is assumed to exist separately.

For example if I make a claim P, then I clearly believe P, I will need to give justifications x, y, z, etc., and P needs to be true for me to count P to be part of my knowledge. The first two conditions are easy enough for me to demonstrate according to some standards, even if skepticism is still an issue. However, I, nor anyone else, has any ability to demonstrate the truth of P in ways over and above whatever I have given as my justification. Therefore Justified-true-belief reduces to Justified-belief, which no one accepts as knowledge.

Between this argument and Gettier, I see the Justified-true-belief scheme of knowledge as beyond saving. To recover some sense of knowledge, we can focus on this idea:

If you know something, then it is not possible to be mistaken.

There are two ways of dealing with this conditional. First, you can make your definition of what it is to know something always correspond with whatever you cannot be mistaken about. Besides being ad hoc, this sliding scale for knowledge does not correspond very well with what we generally take to be knowledge.

Secondly, we can make what it is not possible to be mistaken about correspond to our knowledge. Although you have already called foul, hear me out. If you were to find out certain things were wrong you might start to doubt your own sanity. For example if you were to find out all the basic things you ‘know’ were wrong – there is no such place as the United States, water is not comprised of oxygen and hydrogen, subjects and verbs are one and the same, you are currently not reading, etc., – you would have reason to worry (at least I would).

Therefore I suggest that knowledge is comprised of things that if they were to be false, then we would not be able to claim we were sane. This definition makes a distinction between things we can be mistaken about and things we cannot be mistaken about. To be mistaken about this second type of thing would entail an unacceptable consequence: if you are insane then you cannot claim to have knowledge.

Is this ad hoc, as above? No, because the definition of what would classify you as insane does not refer to knowledge specifically. For example take the statement, “If x, y and z are false then I am crazy.” No mention of knowledge whatsoever. Therefore this definition is not ad hoc.

Does this definition of knowledge correspond to our intuitions? Very much so: it is based specifically upon the everyday experiences we have and our most established theories of the world.

What about skepticism: can’t we always be mistaken? The skeptic here is asking us to imagine the unimaginable. If we do as the skeptic asks, then we would be required to imagine ourselves to be insane and tell the skeptic what we think as insane people. I can’t do this- I don’t even have a guess as to how to go about trying to do this.

In the end you are wagering your sanity in order to have a claim to knowledge. However, there is no danger in this bet because you hold all the cards: you know what you can imagine to be different. Therefore you gain a theory of knowledge and lose nothing.

Posted in argumentation, epistemology, mind, philosophy, wittgenstein. Tagged with , .