William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Category: Philosophy (page 1 of 115)

The philosophy of science, empiricism, a priori reasoning, epistemology, and so on.

We Don’t Know Anything

Degrees for everybody.

Degrees for everybody.

The Appeal to Authority is not a formal fallacy, but an “informal” one, a fancy way of admitting that arguments in the form of “Because I said so” are often valid and sound. If these arguments were always a fallacy, there’d be no use asking potential employees for their resumes, no point in asking, “What are my chances, doc?”, really no reason to ask anybody anything about which you are uncertain.

On the other hand, the argument becomes a fallacy routinely in the hands of the media and politicians. Surf over to Slate (I won’t link), tune in to NPR, or listen to Debbie Wasserman Schultz speak on nearly any subject for examples.

So much is common knowledge. And I think fallacious instances of “Because I said so” are on the increase. This is because of many reasons—the usual suspects: scientism, ideology, political correctness, privilege, insularity, etc.—but one occasion for sin, a certain form of the fallacy, is not well known.

This is the form “We now know…”, usually put in service of some sociological, educational, psychological, or other loose science, like the effects of deadly rampant out-of-control tipping-point global warming.

Just like its father, the “We now know…” form of the argument from authority is sometimes valid and sound. A journalist might write, “We now know the neutrino has mass…” and cite some press release put out by some university. The journalist will be right, because in this case (you’ll have to trust me) the claim is true. But the “we” part is risible. The problem is not just that the reporter himself boasts indirectly of an expertise he does not have and has not earned, but that he encourages the same flippant behavior in his audience. And the audience, duly flattered, makes itself part of the “we”. “We now know” is then on everybody’s lips.

For many propositions from the hard sciences, as said, this is mostly harmless, because the “We now know…” won’t be fallacious. The problem is that the knowledge comes cheap and is thus subject to easy misinterpretation and incorrect extrapolation. This is because complex scientific propositions are usually highly conditional, filled with technical premises and other presuppositions, and these rarely make it to the popular level. People go off half cocked, as it were.

Actual hard scientists, in their own fields of competence, rarely fall into the trap, not taking anybody’s word for anything which they can prove for themselves. And so knowledge in the fields manned by rigorous technicians increases. But since nobody bats 1.000 and not every claim can be personally checked, the occasional error slips by.

No, the real problem, as usual, comes from fields which make fewer demands on their practitioners, and fewer still to none on their popular audiences. It’s going to be a man of some mental training who bothers to seek out and to read anything about neutrinos. But sociological claims and the like are available to one and all. Indeed, they are hard to escape, like (bad) music in restaurants.

The problem starts at the “top”. Here’s a typical example, the paper “Taking a Long View on What We Now Know about Social and Environmental Accountability and Reporting” in the Electronic Journal of Radical Organisation Theory. The paper is filled with “We now know…” propositions which are at best only sketchily supported, and others that are only wild surmises. Results from papers like this are fed to students and the public, and those who take joy in that most vague of notions “sustainability”, will uncritically add the propositions to the list of things “We now know…”

You can’t really blame the students, the dears, at least not fully. The serious fault is with inexpert experts, a large and growing class, a growth given impetus by the swelling of higher education. More people earning a “degree” means more professors, and since the gifts of intelligence are varied, this means a necessary expansion in “degrees” which require less effort (from both parties). It is in these fields the “We now know…” is mainly found. Compounding the problem is that the students who carry these “We now knows…” feel that their beliefs have been certified by their degrees.

The solution would thus appear to be a return to (or increase in, since it still partially exists) some idea of educational elitism, the idea that some forms of knowledge are better or more important than others. But give our insatiable craving for Equality, I don’t see it happening.

The Problem Of Grue Isn’t; Or, A Gruesome Non-Paradox About Induction

This emerald does not appear to be green, nor grue. Maybe Goodman was right!

This emerald does not appear to be green, nor grue. Maybe Goodman was right!

Skepticism about induction happens only among academic philosophers, and only in print. Tell an induction skeptic to take a long walk off a short dock or hint that his health insurance will be cancelled and you will find an immediate and angry convert to Realism.

Some philosophers come to their skepticism about induction from puzzles which they are unable to solve and reason that, since they cannot solve the puzzles, it’s a good bet to side with skepticism. Well, in some ways this is natural.

A classic puzzle is Nelson Goodman’s “grue”. Goes like this. Grue is a predicate, like green or blue, but with a built-in ad hoc time component. Objects are grue if they are green and observed before 21 October 1978 or blue and observed after that date. A green grape observed 20 October 1978 and a blue bonnet observed 22 October 1978 are grue. But if you saw the green grape yesterday, or remember the blue bonnet from 1976, then neither are grue. The definition changes with the arbitrary date.

So imagine it’s before the Date and you’ve seen or heard of only green emeralds. Induction says future, or rather all unobserved, emeralds will also be green. But since it’s before the Date, these emeralds are also grue, thus induction also says all unobserved emeralds will be grue. Finally comes yesterday—and lo!—a green and not a blue emerald appears, thus not a grue emerald. Induction, which told us it should be grue, is broken!

There have been several exposures of the grue fallacy before, and up until the other day (another date!) I had thought David Stove’s in his Rationality of Induction was best. But I now cast my vote for Louis Groarke’s in his An Aristotelian Account of Induction. He calls belief in Goodman’s fallacy “an adamant will to doubt rather than an evidence-based example of a deep problem with induction” and likens it to the fallacy of the false question (e.g. “Have you stopped cheating on your taxes yet?”).

Groarke says (p. 65):

The proposition, “emeralds are grue,” [if true] can be unpacked into three separate claims: emeralds are green before time t (proposition1); emeralds are blue after time t (proposition2); and emeralds turn from green to blue at time t (proposition3). Goodman illegitimately translates support for proposition1 into support for proposition2 and proposition3. But the fact that we have evidence in support of proposition1 does not give us any evidence in support of all three propositions taken together.

What does the arbitrary time have to do with the essential composition of an emerald? Not much; or rather, nothing. The reason we expect (via induction) unobserved emeralds to be green is we expect that whatever is causing emeralds to be green will remain the same. That is, the essence of what it is to be an emerald is unchanging, and that is what induction is: the understanding of this essence, and awareness of cause.

Groarke emphasizes that the time we observe something is not a fact about the object, but a fact about us. And what is part of us is not part of the object. Plus, the only evidence anybody has, at this point in time, is that all observed emeralds have been green. We even have a chemical explanation for why this is so, which paradox enthusiasts must ignore. Thus “there is absolutely no evidence that any emeralds are blue if observed after time t.”

Two things Groake doesn’t mention. First is that, in real life, the arbitrary time t is ever receding into the future. I picked an obviously absurd date above; it’s absurd because we have all seen green emeralds but no blue ones up to today, which is well past 1978. The ad hoc date highlights the manufactured quality of the so-called paradox. When, exactly, should we use a grue-like predicate for anything?

Secondly, nobody not in search of reasons to be skeptical would have ever thought to apply a predicate like grue to anything. It is entirely artificial. If you doubt that, consider that you can substitute any other predicate after the arbitrary date. It doesn’t have to be blue. Try salty, hot, tall, or fast. An emerald that is green up until t then fast? That’s ridiculous! Yes, it is.

After showing the paradox isn’t, Groake goes on to explain the possible reasons why the paradox has been so eagerly embraced. Cartesian corrosion. That bottomless skepticism which dear old Descartes introduced in the hope of finding a bedrock of certainty. There isn’t space here to prove that, but anybody who has read deeply in epistemology will understand what that means.

Update A glimpse of how much angst the “problem” of grue has created, try this (or similar) searches. Also note the New & Improved title.

Summary Against Modern Thought: God ‘s Existence And Essence Are The Same

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

Thinking cap times, folks. What God is and that He is are the same thing. I AM WHO AM.

Chapter 22: That in God existence and essence are the same

1 FROM what has been shown above, we may go on to prove that in God essence or quiddity is not distinct from His existence.

2For it has been shown above[1] that there is a thing which exists of itself necessarily, and this is God.i Now necessary existence, if it belong to a quiddity which is not that existence itself, is either inconsistent with or repugnant to that quiddity, as per se existence is to the quiddity of whiteness, or else is consistent or akin thereto, for instance that whiteness exist in some other thing. In the former supposition it will not belong to that quiddity to exist per se necessarily, for instance it becomes not whiteness to exist per se. In the second hypothesis, either this existence must be dependent on the essence, or both of them on some other cause, or the essence on the existence. The first two are in contradiction with the very notion of necessary per se existence: for if it depend on something else, it no longer exists necessarily. From the third supposition it follows that this quiddity is added accidentally to the thing which exists per se necessarily: because whatever follows on the essence of a thing is accidental thereto. Therefore God has not an essence distinct from His existence.ii

5…Further. Each thing exists by its own existence. Wherefore that which is not its own existence does not exist per se necessarily. But God exists per se necessarily. Therefore God is His own existence.

7…Moreover. Existence denotes a kind of actuality: since a thing is said to exist, not through being in potentiality, but through being in act. Now everything to which an act is becoming, and which is distinct from that act, is related thereto as potentiality to act: since act and potentiality are reciprocal terms. Accordingly, if the divine essence is distinct from its existence, it follows that His essence and existence are mutually related as potentiality and act. Now it has been proved that in God there is nothing of potentiality, and that He is pure act.[4] Therefore God’s essence is not distinct from His existence.iii

9…Further. Everything exists through having existence. Therefore nothing the essence of which is not its existence, exists by its essence, but by participation of something, namely existence. Now that which exists by participation of something cannot be the first being, because that in which a thing participates in order to exist, is previous to that thing. But God is the first being, to which nothing is previous.[6] Therefore God’s essence is His existence.iv

10 This sublime truth Moses was taught by the Lord: for when he asked the Lord (Exod. iii. 13, 14): If the children of Israel should say to me: What is His name? what shall I say to them? the Lord answered: I AM WHO AM….Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: HE WHO IS hath sent me to you; thus declaring His own name to be: HE WHO IS. Now every name is appointed to signify the nature or essence of a thing. Wherefore it follows that God’s very existence itself is His essence or nature.v

———————————————————————

iChapter 13. Always Chapter 13. Go and re-read it. Don’t be lazy.

iiRepeat that paragraph three times fast. It’s all there, but not put in the friendliest language to us, whose gray matter is accidentally much smaller than Thomas’s. Considering that paragraph’s density is what might have led him to re-write that proof in a happier way, in the Summa Theologica, Book 1, Question 3, Article 4, sed contra:

First, whatever a thing has besides its essence must be caused either by the constituent principles of that essence (like a property that necessarily accompanies the species–as the faculty of laughing is proper to a man–and is caused by the constituent principles of the species), or by some exterior agent–as heat is caused in water by fire. Therefore, if the existence of a thing differs from its essence, this existence must be caused either by some exterior agent or by its essential principles. Now it is impossible for a thing’s existence to be caused by its essential constituent principles, for nothing can be the sufficient cause of its own existence, if its existence is caused. Therefore that thing, whose existence differs from its essence, must have its existence caused by another. But this cannot be true of God; because we call God the first efficient cause. Therefore it is impossible that in God His existence should differ from His essence.

Secondly, existence is that which makes every form or nature actual; for goodness and humanity are spoken of as actual, only because they are spoken of as existing. Therefore existence must be compared to essence, if the latter is a distinct reality, as actuality to potentiality. Therefore, since in God there is no potentiality, as shown above (Article 1), it follows that in Him essence does not differ from existence. Therefore His essence is His existence.

Thirdly, because, just as that which has fire, but is not itself fire, is on fire by participation; so that which has existence but is not existence, is a being by participation. But God is His own essence, as shown above (Article 3) if, therefore, He is not His own existence He will be not essential, but participated being. He will not therefore be the first being–which is absurd. Therefore God is His own existence, and not merely His own essence.

Admit it: that is some pretty writin’! “[N]othing can be the sufficient cause of its own existence, if its existence is caused.” God is not caused, He is the necessary being, as we already learned. Thomas also refers to Article 3, “Whether God is the same as His essence or nature?”, in which he notes that in things composed of matter and form (like us and baseball bats) essence and existence differ, but in things “in which individualization is not due to individual matter”, and since God is not made of matter but does have an essence and since forms or universals don’t exist materially (we are not Plantonists here), God “must be His own Godhead, His own Life, and whatever else is thus predicated of Him.” What is predicated of Him, we are still to learn (Chapter 30).

Now St Thomas continues in Chapter 22, and so shall we, but omitting some of the now redundant material.

iiiThis is redundant, but I like it, because we ever need to emphasize the difference between potentiality and actuality.

ivBy being “first” being, Thomas does not mean God was caused. God’s existence is necessary. It’s not that everything else came “after” God, but that God is necessary for the existence of everything else. God is outside time.

v(Ellipsis original.) We don’t often include scriptural evidence, and even here we are not asking you to rely on it as a separate proof that essence = existence (we already have enough proof). But just look at what this nearly illiterate pre-computerized pre-Enlightenment “desert tribe” came up with! We have deduced from first principles the very same name of God as they knew! I AM = existence. WHO AM = essence. I AM WHO AM is equivalent to existence = essence, and so is HE WHO IS. Ain’t you amazed?! (I’m speaking in the voice of Captain Aubrey.)

[1] Ch. xiii.
[2] Ch. xviii.
[3] Ch. xiii.
[4] Ch. xvi.
[5] Ch. xviii.
[6] Ch. xiii.
[7] vii. 11.
[8] ii.

Truth, Knowledge, Belief, & Gettier Problems

"Hey, you never know."

“Hey, you never know.”

Proof Isn’t All That

The first section can be skipped for those who know what necessary versus conditional truth is.

I recall an anecdote about John von Neumann which had a fellow asking von Neumann for the proof of some mathematical proposition. Von Neumann asked the fellow which of other several theorems the fellow might already know, and he mentioned two, whereupon von Neumann proved the proposition twice, along the two different paths. Implicit in the story is that he could have proven it upon the other paths as well.

We don’t know what this proposition was, so call it X. Since X is necessarily true, we can have knowledge of it, where knowledge, as some philosopher define it, is “justified true belief.” They’d say the justification comes from the proof and the belief comes from us as an act of our intellect.

But does truth come from the proof? Von Neumann showed there were many different ways of knowing a proposition was true, but the multiplicity did not add to the truth of X. X was just true, and always was, regardless whether anybody knew it or believed it. So there is a difference between the truth of some thing and our knowing it; or rather, there seems to be a difference in the justification of our belief the thing is true and its truth.

Let’s clarify. Take our old standby argument with premises E = “All Martians wear hats and George is a Martian” relative to the proposition Y = “George wears a hat.” Y given E is true; that is to say, we know that Y given E is true, that it follows. We may therefore believe Y given E, as a sort of joint proposition, say, Y-given-E. But Y by itself, sans E, is not a necessary truth. Neither is E by itself a necessary truth. But Y-given-E is. Y therefore is a conditional truth, given or accepting or believing or having faith that E.

A necessary truth is one which is true no matter what. Take non-contradiction. It cannot be true that Z = “X is true and so simultaneously is not-X true”. In other (and confusing words), not-Z is true. There isn’t any way to think that Z (except, as many do, by changing it so that Z is no longer Z, and then forgetting they made changes). Why is Z false? Who knows? God made it that way. Why is it true that W = “For every natural number r, r = r”? I have no idea. God made it that way. What is our justification for believing W? Faith? Or is it that we’re too light in gray matter to discover a proof—or, worse, a counter proof?

Actually, we do have reasons for believing not-Z and W. That we cannot think of how Z is true is a dandy reason for thinking it false, and all experience is that for every natural number r, r does indeed equal r. Induction supplies the rest. From our senses to the truth!

All this is just a sketch, which we needed for the real meat which follows.

Get Gettier

A man hears his wife say she bought him a lottery ticket and he thinks to himself, R = “I now have a chance to win”. Unbeknownst to him, his wife was teasing. We know this, his wife knows this, but the man does not. The man accepts his wife’s word, conditional on which he believes R. R given the premise “Wife bought ticket” is thus a conditional truth. A believable truth, too, given he accepts (unconditionally) his wife’s word. R is not necessarily true, however, as is obvious.

Now Edmund Gettier famously claimed there were situations in which a person has a justified true belief, yet that belief did not meet the test of knowledge. Our lottery situation isn’t quite what he had in mind, because everybody would agree that R is a conditional but not necessary truth. To make this a “Gettier problem”, let’s add the premise “The man’s mother bought him a ticket for the same drawing but told nobody”. It is clear that R is now true, say Gettier followers, and the man is should believe it, but his claim doesn’t rise to the level of knowledge because his accepting R is based on his believing something which is false in fact (his wife’s joke).

But R is still a conditional truth to us and to the mother, who know of her actions. R, being contingent, can never be a necessary truth.

Gettier “problems”, I think, are based on forgetfulness. We forget who knows what and we forget what question is being asked of the evidence. To the man, R is conditionally true based on one set of premises, and to us it is conditionally false based on one set of evidence (just the wife’s statement) true based on another set (adding the mother’s). R is never true is the necessary sense. Plus, there are any number of premises which can exist, and which can be believed, that make it conditionally true. Even conditioned on the premise, D= “I, the man in this example, bought my own ticket” R is still only conditionally and not necessarily true.

In short, Gettier “problems” aren’t. This, incidentally, is one of the few cases where symbolic logic helps; I mean, being able to write the story down in symbols makes it much easier to see what goes where and who knows what, so that it is less easy to slip up.

Homework

I’m taking this example from Wikipedia, which (yes) does a good job explaining the set up.

The [justified true belief] account of knowledge is the claim that knowledge can be conceptually analyzed as justified true belief — which is to say that the meaning of sentences such as “Smith knows that it rained today” can be given with the following set of necessary and sufficient conditions:

A subject S knows that a proposition P is true if and only if:

  1. P is true, and
  2. S believes that P is true, and
  3. S is justified in believing that P is true

Recall von Neumann’s example and that X being true and anybody knowing X and the proof or belief of X are not the same thing. And also note that this definition mistakenly forgets to emphasize whether P is a conditional or necessary truth.

Here is a Gettier problem (also Wikipedia):

Smith has applied for a job, but, it is claimed, has a justified belief that “Jones will get the job”. He also has a justified belief that “Jones has 10 coins in his pocket”. Smith therefore (justifiably) concludes (by the rule of the transitivity of identity) that “the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket”.

In fact, Jones does not get the job. Instead, Smith does. However, as it happens, Smith (unknowingly and by sheer chance) also had 10 coins in his pocket. So his belief that “the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket” was justified and true. But it does not appear to be knowledge.

What has gone wrong?

The Imposing-Their-Beliefs Fallacy

Perry trying to impose a curious view.

Perry trying to impose a curious view.

Here is an example of the Imposing-Their-Beliefs Fallacy (ITBF), taken from the New Republic article “The Straight, White, Middle-Class Man Needs to Be Dethroned” by Grayson Perry, a self-labeled “artist” (the trick these days is to discover who is not an “artist”):

They dominate the upper echelons of our society, imposing, unconsciously or otherwise, their values and preferences on the rest of the population. With their colourful textile phalluses hanging round their necks, they make up an overwhelming majority in government, in boardrooms, and also in the media.

Incidentally, it was only after reading up on Perry’s background and noting his obsession with the sexual, that I figured out that “colourful textile phalluses” meant ties. Skip it.

The fallacy does not lie in the statement itself, because, of course, it is possible, and even common, to impose one’s beliefs, values, and preferences on another. Indeed, it is even necessary that imposing occur. That fallacy thus lies in stating that it should not or could not.

Since some form of imposition is necessary, the presence of the fallacy, then, is always an attempt to impose beliefs, values, and preferences other than the ones being railed against. First a proof of the necessity, then proof that the fallacy wielder really just wants his own way.

Newborn and infants must have beliefs, values, and preferences imposed upon them, or else they will die. Children, too. The State imposes the belief that killing for fun and profit (of those human beings who managed to escape the womb, at any rate) is wrong, and it further imposes its value that those who kill will be punished; and it expresses preferences for the kinds of punishment. You can dispute that the State should do this, but even insisting on anarchy is to impose beliefs, values, and preferences.

If you say to another man, “Do not steal from me” or “Do not slit my daughter’s throat” you have imposed or are seeking to impose. If you ever say “should” or “ought” you are imposing, and the same is true if you use synonyms of these words like “judgmental” and “hateful” and so on.

It doesn’t even matter if, as Hume insisted, there really is a distinction between “is” and “ought” (and that is disputable), any time you approve or disapprove of another’s actions, you have imposed or are seeking to. The only slim possibility of non-imposition is if you are utterly indifferent to not only your own self, but to all others. That indifference includes the absence of love or hate or any other emotion.

Now evidence that the fallacy is always inverted.

At Truth-Out.org, in the article “Meet the Right-Wing Christian Companies Trying to Impose Their Values on Their Workers“, the author echoes the common complaint that employees not being given (government-mandated) free things because they are employees is an imposition. Which, of course, it is. The employees instead want to impose their belief that they should be given whatever it is they want and to not be required to give anything in return for it. Strangely, and in an indication of how far gone our culture is, the ITBF was convincing to Government.

Think Progress carried the article “Catholic Bishops: ‘Religious Liberty’ Includes Right To Discriminate Against Gay People, Impose Values“, which is seeped in the Imposing-Their-Beliefs Fallacy. Many today have forgotten the (what used to be) obvious fact that imposing beliefs is what religions do, and so to complain about this is a marker of insanity, stupidly, or political Machiavellianism. The Think Progress folks instead want to impose their values in the expected way.

These examples can be multiplied indefinitely, so it is easy to lose the wonder you should feel whenever you encounter the fallacy. But do try to be vigilant.

Now this Grayson Perry who supplied our first example of the fallacy goes on to say that straight, middle-class white men is a “group that punches far, far above its weight.” A curious claim given the list of accomplishments by this “tribe” (to include the computer on which Perry wrote his fallacy and the internet which served it up to his readers).

But it is clear which beliefs, values, and preferences Perry wishes to impose on us (for I can reveal Yours Truly is a member of this suspect group). I wonder if he’ll get away with it.

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