Thursday, April 1, 2010

epistemology capstone

Just a few quick things to sum a few things up from the epistemology discussion we had recently--

Despite a bit of my email that has been a bit gloating (in the sense that they think I am cowed), I'm happy, ultimately, with how the discussion turned out. It was certainly generative. Some commenters were a little, ah, uncharitable, but that's the exchange of ideas. I appreciate the interest. (I have to say, if you find yourself, for example, going into my wish list to try to find something to make fun of, please go get laid.) One of the things that I think is important to think about is that a use vision of human knowledge, as I prefer, doesn't have to be true to be useful, but a truth vision of knowledge usually has to be true to be satisfactory to those who favor such a vision. I could be all wet, about all of this, but I think that there is still value in questioning some of the assumptions behind more totalizing epistemologies. If nothing else, most people are amenable to the idea that, whatever the possibilities of human cognition, any individual at any time has limited access to truth. Yet I find, with myself and with others, that this is hard to remember within the flow of life, and perhaps my questions can help inspire me and others to do so.

Questions persist, for me. I have always found and continue to find inductive or consequentialist justifications for objectivist truth frameworks kind of intuitively odd. Will Wilson's response has met with praise, and justly so. I do want to say something, though, regarding the intellectual prowess of giraffes. Will says,

the humble Giraffe is well adapted to its environment, but will never come to understand particle physics or the workings of its own neurophysiology. How are we to know that we are not like Giraffes, only with considerably wider possible-knowledge horizons? A simple response is that we haven’t failed yet. The theories we build in order to explain the universe around us are remarkably, even distressingly successful.... Let us return to the giraffes! There is no evolutionary pressure to having minds that can figure out U(1) x SU(2) x SU(3) symmetry, or why it is that the spin of an electron has to be what it is (also due to symmetry constraints).

There's something we need to add here, though: not only does the giraffe not know how to understand electron spin; it does not know that there is such a thing as not knowing how to understand electron spin. It's not just that the giraffe can't answer the question, but that its limited consciousness is incapable of realizing that such a question might be posed. What might be the case, but we can't know, is that there are problems that we are similarly unaware of. If you'll forgive me for invoking Donald Rumsfeld, there are known unknowns-- the reconciliation of relativistic gravity with quantum mechanics; the Riemann hypothesis-- but there might also be unknown unknowns, things that we don't know we don't know. If this were true, it would undercut what Will is saying; it shouldn't surprise us that with time we solve the problems we apprehend, but it also shouldn't surprise us if there are questions we aren't even aware are questions. (You can add a "yet" to the end of that, if you're inclined.)

Is this deductively compelling? Of course not. I don't expect to convince anyone of anything with such a thought experiment, particularly people of a more harder nosed disposition. Such questions would have to exist to be a compelling argument against Will's inductive attitude towards human knowledge, and of course, we won't know them until we know them, and then we might start solving them. I'm not asking anyone to take them on faith and decide anything. I just think the question is interesting. You'd be surprised, I think, of the amount of rigor you can maintain even after you have let go of the idea that you have to prove everything to a particular level of deductive satisfaction, on the level of intellectual play.

Now, you could accuse me here of having the kind of theology-echoing considerations that I was criticizing before-- for where could these questions lie if not in the human mind? (When I echoed Sartre in saying that, if everyone believed in fascism, fascism would be the truth of man, a commenter took me to mean that I thought morality was a matter of majority rule. I meant it in a more simple way than that: when people say that there would still be an anti-fascist morality that exists independent of the fact that everyone in the world supported fascism, I am wondering literally where that morality could be said to reside.) What I would say (and, trust me, this is all conjectural) is that the questions that we don't know we aren't asking wouldn't exist until we discover them, but that the possibility that they could be discovered would be enough to trouble Will's point. If this is confusing to you, you're not alone, and I'd love to hear ideas in the comments.

Finally, the one email that bothered me was one that insisted that what I was saying was resistant or disrespectful to science. I've heard that before, but I have always felt the opposite way. To me, a use vision of truth is more respectful to science, because science is fantastically useful. Judge them by their works. I find questions about whether something represents a scientific problem or not kind of besides the point; does the scientific method provide useful solutions to the practical problems? If so, then we can call it a scientific problem. (An obsession with taxonomy is an example of a place where, I think, traditional epistemology could use some constructivist insights.) Questions that we consider unscientific, like moral questions, remain unscientific because to date science has demonstrated little ability to provide practical solutions to those questions. Should that change, so shall our categorization of the questions.

This is also a useful way to think about questions such as the persistent (and often quite heated) controversy about string theory, which is not only about whether string theory represents an accurate vision of the physical universe but whether string theory is scientific at all. Again: what is string theory's use? If string theory proves useful for human flourishing, it will endure. If it doesn't, it will fall away. Whether or not working with string theory represents a good utilization of the time and resources of cosmology is a question that I suspect can only be answered in retrospect. Even if string theory is eventually discarded, though, that isn't to say that exploring it would have been proven to have been a mistake; we don't talk about luminiferous aether anymore, but we have great reason to be glad we once did.

If string theory can neither be made to conform with standard Popperian definitions of what constitutes scientific discourse, but is likewise not discarded by physics-- if string theory never meets the empirical and falsifiable satisfaction of standard philosophy of science, but no more useful, superior theory is forthcoming-- then I imagine that our current definitions of science, or philosophy of science, will evolve, as most things do. They will evolve in such a case because it would be in our best interest for them to evolve. And that would be a very exciting moment, to me, and worth daydreaming about.

Update: Commenter Led, from the Postmodern Conservative blog, writes in to say that my response echoes some of the things he was saying in his comment on that piece. While I wasn't consciously repeating anything he said in that comment, it's certainly close enough to where it's worth giving him credit for the genesis of some ideas here. I certainly had to have been influenced by reading his comment before I posted this.


Anonymous said...

Suicide Girls? You dog, you.


Primeau said...

More seriously . . .

What might be the case, but we can't know, is that there are problems that we are similarly unaware of.
Freddie de Boer

This dilemma is not restricted solely to the pursuit of scientific, empirical conclusions. It also bedevils moral reasoning. It makes challenging the justification of your long dead heroes. They're all slave owners and mass murderers and wife beaters and rabid anti-Semites, right?

Attitudes and actions presently deemed intolerable: Are they excused (or even explained) by so-called "prevailing standards"?

Even in Jefferson's day, sound minds proffered excellent and logical objections to slavery. Jefferson knew these objections. How then can we hail him, this possessor and driver of human flesh? Ah, context, and so on.

Is that it? Is all right and wrong reducible to mis-en-scene?

The dilemma Freddie suggests frustrates an interest in How Things Are, but it absolutely shatters an interest in How Things Should Be.

What if our children's children see us as monsters? "Mom, why doesn't grandpop understand my love for Joe? So what if he's cyber? He's my one, my only! Why can't the old bastard get it"


A student of history understands life to be the gradual repudiation of most everything you think real and right and relevant. Ah well.

Cross posted:


Michael said...

The unknown unknown factor is significant, but I'm not sure how it throws into doubt what we "know" (and I agree that there is no sense in obsessing over hte level of absoluteness to that knowledge -- it is in all cases something less than absolute but in many cases quite close). Those questions we have encountered and answered to a consensus level of satsifaction -- that's our knowledge. There are some questions we're not sure of. There may be others we have not yet encountered, and still others we may never be able even to conceive of. But I still don't know how this affects the question of what we do know -- unless we're going to get into brain-in-a-vat territory.

You quote Wilson's response more, but I really think Sanchez's gets at this problem better. We can never get outside or sensory bubble, and all real, responsible claims of knowledge are entirely consistent with this.

Freddie said...

Yeah, I think I agree with you completely, Michael.

Michael said...


Anonymous said...

I'm fairly new to the blog, so forgive me if I am missing something.

I think you are entirely correct to admonish your commenters to the extent they lack charity.

However, a few posts down, you appear to be celebrating for getting banned from some other website - and for commenting that a post was "making you stupider."

This doesn't strike me as terribly charitable, but then again, I realize there could be something I'm missing.

And while this would not justify your commenters lack of charity towards you, it doesn't seem to be the best way to be setting the tone.

Freddie said...

I like to direct insouciance and subversion towards those who undertake insouciance and subversion, charity towards those who are charitable, etc. Look, I love a lot of what Gawker blogs post, and a lot of people involved at Gawker media. I also enjoy being a bit of a punk towards the enterprise, because it is a consortium dedicated towards being a bit of a punk.

Look, I have to say, I'm always glad when I get linked to from elsewhere, and I appreciate it. However, what consistently rankles is the number of commenters who read only the posts that are linked to and take them entirely out of the context and conversation that they are a part of. For example, an older post will be linked to, and commenters will complain about some aspect of the post-- after I have already gone on in a later post to address those problems at length. It really takes a minimum of effort to understand the context of what is going on in the rest of my blog. This entire enterprise, from day one, has meant to be a transparent process. My thoughts and opinions evolve, and I show you the process.

So, with Gawker, I recently went on at length about my complicated feelings towards them. If that's beyond your interest, that's fine, but the fact is that I've addressed it.

Matoko Kusanagi said...

well....what will you say if we find Higgs Bosons at the LHSC at CERN?
that will validate parts of 11D string theory.
is that popperian enough for you?
i think....the times they are a' changing Freddie, cher.
Third Culture intellectuallism is on the rise, and that is simple anathema to the First Culture intellectuals endlessly and tediously cited by "conservatives".
New metaphysicians are emerging in the domains of SBH, quantum consciousness, quantum biology, cosmology, and spacetime.

There are more things under heaven and in earth than are dreamt of your tired old epistemiologies, Freddie.