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Author Topic: Ontological Claims as Epistemological Constraints  (Read 614 times)
badioutothebone
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« Reply #15 on: 16/07/10 @ 21:25 »

Hey, and don't get taken in as I was: "Foucault's Pendulum" is nothing at all to do with Michel!  Grin

He does have his on square in Paris near the Sorbonne.  I found it by accident.  I happened to wander past "Place du Michel Foucault".  Tramps were in there drinkng.  I'm sure it's what he would have wanted.
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"Ain't no devil, just God when he's drunk"  (Tom Waits).
skeptic23
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« Reply #16 on: 26/07/10 @ 22:41 »

Gareth, thanks. I am really enjoying our discussion.

I think you need to be careful about assuming that "everyone" thinks that objectivity is a good idea. Since at least Nietzsche's time (in modern philosophy), there has been a growing trend of questioning the basis of knowledge, and the motive of those seeking objectivity. This trickle is now a torrent, and you might even argue that the whole of continental philosophy after a certain date takes this as a given. So...straw man?
Haha, yes and no to the straw man. Obviously, I need to read up on Continental philosophy. I must be hanging around too many Analyticals. No to the straw man because at least for a sizable population, "objectivity" is the holy grail and I'm grappling with why I think it's a grail and not all that holy. So, my comments at least apply to some people, no?

As for Godel, I think his conclusions can be taken to a more sceptical extreme. It's not so much that some propositions can be proven, whilst others can't; it is that even the provable propositions are only relative to the system. This is a point made by W.V.O. Quine - all 'certainty' and 'objectivity' are relative to a system. Now, the system itself - whether maths, or a philosophical theory of perception, or whatever - exists ultimately as a free-floating thing, without foundation. It may be COHERENT, but it's coherence is not a guarantee of certain absolute truth. Now, if - as science attempts to - we argue that we can reduce one system to another - chemistry to physics, for example - then we still need to find a basis for physics. And so we have an infinite regress.
That's been my view since before I could even articulate it, since about the time I dropped out of the U of Cali philosophy program. At a very basic, crude level, there is what exists (or seems to) and what happens with it (or seems to) and then there are the stories we tell about it all. And the more we learn about how our nervous-plus-sensory systems work, the fuzzier the lines between the realities and the stories become. Philosophy is one kind of story, science another. We seem to keep tripping over our own laces when we try to tie the theoretical shoes we make for ourselves to the ground of reality, i.e., when we try to demonstrate or even prove that there is a connection, even a necessary connection, between our stories and the phenomena that those stories tell about. A story can make sense; that's one thing as you pointed out. And we have a really hard time getting them to do even that! Lack of coherence or consistency can raise doubts about the truth of a story, but the converse isn't true. Like you mentioned, coherence does not guarantee truth. I guess the "truth" we are referring to is the degree of correspondence between the story and what the story is about, except I find myself objecting to what I read about the correspondence version of "truth." I find myself objecting to much of what I read and am realizing that my objection is about the underlying intent of much of what I read. That intent seems to be precisely about how we try to make connections between our stories and the realities that they are about.

Put bluntly, much of the philosophy I've read seems to be an attempt to avoid an unavoidable aspect of any connection we try to make between a story and reality: the connection fundamentally involves an act/leap of faith. This is just the flip side to your observation that a system "exists ultimately as a free-floating thing, without foundation." I would say this a little differently. Systems become free-floating once we require them to be something more than provisional, because then we require that the connection between the system and its subject must be more than provisional, and so far we don't know how to do that. Historically, every system ever conceived has turned out to be provisional, either replaced or significantly altered as we go along and learn more. I see no reason to believe that our current systems will prove to be any different in time, and according to Kurzweil and others, at a frequency that is increasing exponentially as we go along. I always chuckle whenever someone still writes that we have found the ultimate answer to something. People talked that way about the atom for a long time. Then came quantum physics and all kinds of little sub-atomic stuff. Interesting that we still stubbornly insist on characterizing everything as an object. Particles with no size or mass are still particles... how? Is that an observation of the way that things exist or is it a superposition onto what exists of the object-relational mental architecture of the observers? Besides, we build cities, global information and transportation systems, and visit other heavenly bodies in person or with robots, to name just a few things. We didn't accomplish all that by our inability to make the connection between our thinking and reality! So we do know something about making that connection when it counts, and our philosophers are still scratching their heads trying to figure out how to explain why we had the intellectual right to do so. Philosophers are really, really smart guys. Maybe the problem is that they are barking their smarts up the wrong trees.

I would say that systems only appear to be free-floating when we adopt certain perspectives, one of those being the perspective that in order to make the connection between a system and reality, (which is a pragmatic way of saying that the system has a "foundation,") we must describe/demonstrate that connection with thinking/words that can be derived from the system. This begs several questions. Can the connection be described/demonstrated at all? If so, is thinking that is amenable to language sufficient to demonstrate/describe the connection? If so, is it possible to demonstrate/describe the connection with language in such a way that we can trace it back to fundamentals of the system itself without getting trapped in truistic circularity? Our rarely explicit answers to these questions are, "Yes," "Yes," and, "We hope so, because we've not been able to do it yet!" This leaves yet another question--whether we can show that the connection we demonstrated/described is necessary given the fundamentals of the system--because we apparently can't describe or demonstrate these connections necessary or otherwise without getting trapped in circularity, i.e., free-floatedness.

Unavoidable leaps of faith seem obvious in all areas of thought. In "regular" life: approach a pretty girl, jump out of an airplane, ask for a raise, pull a car into traffic for the first time, decide to become parents, etc. Every decision involves some form of deliberation and ends in a leap of faith at the point of commitment, or else we don't commit. At some point we decide for one reason or another that it's time to commit, and that decision never involves the kind of "proof" that we seem to require of our thinking in other areas, e.g., science and philosophy. Some people hold out for more justification than do others before taking the leap, which only means that they delay the leap, not that they avoid it.

In scientific thinking, the gap between imaginative hypothesis at one end of the certainty spectrum and "proof" at the other end takes lots of time and effort to bridge, and through that period of time the gap is provisionally bridged by something other than empirical data that could serve as "evidence." It's naive to think that those who fund scientific research and those who perform it have no conviction about the likelihood of the success of their efforts. Where does their confidence come from, on which rests their conviction that the research is worth pursuing? We could call it many things--gut instinct, hunch, intuition, opinion informed by experience or expertise, educated guess--but whatever we call it, if it entails enough certainty to warrant actually doing the research, it entails a healthy dose of plain old faith. What kept Darwinists going for almost a century before they started to find much evidence that served to confirm the theory as opposed "evidence" that was merely consistent with it? Maybe it was simply their fed-upness with creationism? That would have been a more extreme display of faith than going along for decades without much evidence yet believing that Darwinism was a great explanation. Even today, we have a lot of Darwinists telling us things like "the evidence is overwhelming," (thank you Richard Dawkins!) but I have yet to hear a reputable Darwinist claim that the evidence for the theory is conclusive.  Since when did scientists get overwhelmed, anyway? And what about gravity? What keeps us going now as we have for centuries when it comes to gravity? We still don't have any more evidence that gravity exists in a form that we understand than we do that God exists in a form that we understand. At some point, as much as we try to rationalize and justify a story-reality connection, we always seem to end up making an unjustified decision to stop doubting and act like we know. That is my minimalist definition of "belief."

For a long time I was sure that Descartes didn't take his doubt nearly far enough. Reading Nietzsche showed me that I'm only about a century and a quarter late with that insight, haha! "It is" is about as far as you can go looking for an undoubtable foundation for thinking and still use words that have a semblance of meaning, where "it" refers to we don't know what and "is" means nothing more than "encounterable" by we don't know what in ways that we can't be sure of. Yet, oddly enough, people throughout history have managed to live their lives without digging down nearly that far. We "regular" folks seem to be focused on other things than proving to ourselves that we haven't been tricked by our own minds, things like living and loving and making babies and building and destroying and killing and dying. In fact, Descartes attempted an act which represented a wildly unproven article of faith: that by digging down to mental bedrock he/we could construct ways of viewing reality that would be an improvement over what we were already doing. I'm pretty sure he didn't go to all that trouble while thinking that he was going to come up with something inferior.

So, I might be wrong, but I think that we need to regroup and take a different approach in philosophy or just let those philosophy guys go while we do something very different. Why not admit that we are all believers? I love telling atheists that they engage in every bit as much faith as theists do. They hate the idea. But why deny it? Why set requirements for our thinking that explicitly or implicitly preclude belief? Why consider believing less "certain" than "evidence." Haha. Show me "evidence" and I'll show you something that someone believes is evidence, and not so infrequently, the same thing that someone else believes is evidence of exactly the contrary. We don't deny belief in anything that matters, like our real lives. Some of us like to ignore the fact or pretend that we don't believe, but we still engage in belief every time we make a decision. No one "proves" a fraction of what they act like they know, not even philosophers and scientists, and yet we seem to have no problem moving ahead like we know anyway. I might make an exception for mathematicians. After all, they know an incredible lot. They just can't say what it is to most of us. I'd love to see the mathematics of decision-making some day. What would the symbol be for leaps of faith? Wink

Maybe the problem isn't that we act like we know when we don't have a "proper foundation" for acting like it, whatever that foundation might be, but that we think that moving ahead without "proper foundation" is a problem, especially when we do it all the time anyway. Maybe the problem is that we stubbornly insist on finding something "better" and more "certain" than thinking that entails believing. Why deny or try to avoid believing in our "best" thinking and then be forced to perform these incredibly complex, overly convoluted end-runs around the resulting gaps? Most of the mind-boggling complexity of the philosophy that I've read seems to come precisely from attempting to achieve certainty while avoiding belief. Our pursuit of certainty is like Ray Bradbury's character in "The Man" who keeps arriving moments too late at the planets where the Christ figure just visited (from The Illustrated Man).

Sometimes it seems like the complexity and convolution simply boil down to obfuscation. A writer travels along a twisted path on one side of the chasm far enough that he loses most people and befuddles the rest, then leaps over by magic to the other side of the chasm when no one notices, sometimes not even himself it would seem, and then comes back along the other side of the chasm as if he had managed to build a bridge somewhere. Is that what the incredible voluminousness of philosophical texts is really all about? Does it really take that much brain twisting to see things in new ways? Sheer volume of text does evoke a certain kind of admiration, I have to admit, but I haven't found it to be necessary or helpful, especially when I've taken the effort to actually follow along and then end up afterward thinking, "Is that all there is? All that effort for this?"

I'm toying with ways to distill all of this down to something simple. Unfortunately, (although I'm not sure it works differently for anyone else,) I take awfully convoluted routes to arrive at conclusions which, once they become clear, are really quite simple. How do I know that I'm not guilty of magic chasm-jumping? Haha! I don't. That's why I like putting my ideas out for people to criticize. We are terrible at seeing our own blind spots, so I very much appreciate those who can help illuminate mine. Anyway, my simplification of all this at this point would be to say that most philosophy I've read boils down to attempting to bring the truth under our control. I think that a more constructive approach would be to admit our fundamental lack of control and try, with that in mind, to understand the truth.
« Last Edit: 26/07/10 @ 23:29 by skeptic23 » Logged
Gareth Southwell
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« Reply #17 on: 28/07/10 @ 21:46 »

Good God, you've written a book!  Grin

I shall get back to you directly...
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Gareth Southwell
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« Reply #18 on: 03/08/10 @ 03:43 »

Hi - sorry for the delayed response,

You've said a lot here, so it's difficult to respond to everything in detail. However, I'll pick out what I think are some of the central points, and then perhaps we can talk about them a bit more constructively.

Firstly, I think I largely agree with what you say. I agree about the role played by gut feeling and pragmatism, and even about "magic chasm jumping"! We would seem to agree that there is an insufficient rational foundation for our beliefs, and perhaps there never can be. So, as you seem to imply, either philosophy is on the wrong footing, or else philosophy itself is to blame, and we should just give it up! Tempting... Grin

However, I don't think we need turn our back on philosophy. In it's broadest sense, philosophy is the search for reasons. As such, we needn't accept restrictive definitions of what those reasons must entail, but can - for instance - think of them even as containing irrational elements. I know this will sound contradictory to some, but the point is that - as modern philosophy has made clear - our "reasons" already do spring from non-rational soil. Would this obviate the need for a leap of faith? I'm worried we're getting quite general here, so here's my suggestion at focusing the discussion (if I may): does an account of reason and justification that admits a necessary non-rational element (e.g. gut feeling, leap of faith) thereby give up the notion of truth?
« Last Edit: 03/08/10 @ 03:45 by Gareth Southwell » Logged

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