Archive for July, 2011

July 31, 2011

On truth (1): Introduction

by Neil Rickert

This is intended as the first of several posts about truth.  We use the word “truth” in many ways, without clearly distinguishing between those uses.  Often people talk of truth as correspondence, although it isn’t always clear what is meant by that.  These posts, to some extent, will be an attempt to explore the idea of correspondence.

In the philosophical literature, often “truth” is applied to propositions.  Here a proposition is something like the meaning of a statement, rather than the statement itself.  There is some dispute as to whether there are such things as propositions, partly because people don’t always agree on the meaning of a statement. I shall, instead, discuss truth as applied to representations, where natural language statements can be considered examples of representations.  I won’t say much about statements until toward the end of this series.  It is easier if we start with simpler forms of representation, such as photographs and other technological representation systems.

For this post, I want to start by looking at correspondence.

Truth is sometimes said to be correspondence to the facts.  But that won’t do.  Most people see a fact as a true statement.  So saying that a statement is true if it corresponds to the facts sounds circular.  Some people will try to explain truth by saying something like:

“The cat is on the mat” is true if and only if the cat is on the mat.

This is sometimes described as a disquotational account of truth, or a deflationary account of truth.  Some people say that it is a correspondence theory, and sometime they reference Tarski’s theory of truth.  However, Tarski was defining truth in a formal language, and a disquotational account can work there.  But, when used within natural language, it seems a rather empty account of truth.

If we want to thing of truth as correspondence, then we should think of it in terms of correspondence with reality.  However, it is not completely clear what “correspondence with reality” should mean.  As a mathematician, I tend to think of a correspondence as some kind of mapping.  And that is what I plan to explore.

The next post in this series will look at the photograph as a representation of reality, and at photography as a way of mapping reality into photographic representations.

July 25, 2011

Agency and free will

by Neil Rickert

Recently, the blogosphere has had a number of posts asserting that we have no free will, and claiming to prove that.  One is tempted to ask whether the posters make this claim of their own free will (which they deny having), and if it is not made of their own free will one might wonder whether to take them seriously.  In one such post, Jerry Coyne asked “So why don’t computers have free will?”  In a comment to that post, I suggested that it was because computer systems are based on the “rational agent” model of behavior.  Here, I shall expand on that point.

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July 16, 2011

Knowledge and belief

by Neil Rickert

In a comment on John Wilkins’ blog, I expressed disagreement with John’s assertion “knowledge is a species of belief.”  The purpose of this post is to continue that discussion, and to attempt to further explain why I disagree with most philosophers on this topic.

I’ll start by trying to be clear that this is not a personal disagreement with John.  As best I can tell, most philosophers get this wrong.  Thomas Kuhn got it wrong, in spite of his training in physics.  In an earlier post, Why do philosophy of science John attempted to make the case for philosophy of science.  I chose not to comment, though I had considered posting “The trouble with philosophy of science is that it is done so badly.”  I am not sure why, but philosophers seem to be unable to understand what science is, and how it works.

Getting back to the comment I posted to John’s recent post, I there mentioned three statements that I held when in high school:

  1. Newton’s f=ma (it should really be f=d(mv)/dt, but let’s avoid techicalities).
  2. Jesus rose from the dead.
  3. Mt. Everest is around 29,000 ft in height.

Comparing those statements, I find that there is a kind of tension involved in the second and third of those.  That tension is because they could be wrong.  I see that tension as involving a kind of psychological commitment, which I see as at the heart of belief.

For the first (the Newtonian statement) there was no tension, and it seems to me that there was no psychological commitment.  The statement just seemed obvious, so it required no commitment and generated no tension.  The obvious explanation is that the Newtonian statement is analytic.  That is to say, it is true by virtue of the meanings of its terms.  Most contemporary philosophers resist that view, much as they resist the idea that data is theory laden.

A typical view of analytic statements is that they have no content (or no descriptive content, or no informative content).  That’s doubtless true, and that is why f=ma requires no commitment and generates no tension.  But it does not follow that there is no knowledge.  If f=ma is true by virtue of the meanings of its terms, then the associated knowledge is to be found in those meanings, rather than in the statement itself.  My high school physics teacher did a superb job of conveying the meanings needed to understand Newtonian physics, and it was because of that knowledge of meanings that f=ma was itself trivially obvious.

In the traditional philosophical account we can say that statements, such as the three listed above, are abstract propositions.  Those propositions are then said to be connected to reality via something called “intentionality.”  In his Chinese Room arguments, John Searle has said that intentionality is due to the causal properties of the brain.  As a rough approximation, I say that science is chiefly concerned with intentionality rather than with propositions.  Science is engaged in generating the causal connections that are needed for intentionality.

In my comment to John’s blog, I suggested a duality between belief and knowledge.  I see knowledge as the causal connections to reality that make it possible to have beliefs about reality.  And that’s the basis for the duality.

I’ll finish with a shift of gears.

I want to cross a busy road.  I look around at the traffic.  It can reasonably be said that I form beliefs (or at least that I form representations) about that traffic, and I use those beliefs or representations to decide whether it is safe to cross the road.

Once I have crossed the road, I can discard those beliefs or representations.  They are of no further use to me.  When I next cross that road, the traffic will have changed and the older representations won’t be applicable.  So there is no point at all in putting those representations in my belief box (I think Fodor likes to talk of a belief box).  I refer to those as ephemeral beliefs.  I hold them for only a short period of time, then discard them when I am done.  In order to do that, I must have an underlying set of capabilities to form these ephemeral beliefs or “just in time” beliefs.  I want to use “knowledge” to refer to that underlying set of capabilities, rather than to the beliefs themselves.  If I have a 6 year old child, I will be holding his hand while crossing that busy road.  I don’t expect that child to have yet developed the capabilities needed to form the beliefs used for safe crossing of that road.

In his 1983 book “Intentionality”, at around page 150, John Searle discusses learning to ski.  He suggests that we might start with some beliefs.  But as we learn, we become more skillful.  And the beliefs become irrelevant to us.  Searle sees us as developing causal connections, such that we no longer need the representations (or beliefs).  Searle’s account seems about right to me.  I am using “knowledge” to refer to those causal connections that we develop, rather than to the beliefs that became irrelevant.

July 13, 2011

Just raise the debt ceiling

by Neil Rickert

Okay, I get it.  The politicians are at an impasse.  They are unable to reach a sensible compromise.

At least they should be able to raise the debt ceiling for now.  They can then fight the 2012 election on the question of how to deal with the budget problems.  Let the voters decide.

The alternatives will be to fight the election on the great depression of 2011-2012 caused by the Republicans putting ideological purity ahead of the best interests of the nation, or to fight the election on the issue of why the Republicans caused great suffering to people who depend on social security.


July 11, 2011

Determinism and scientific laws

by Neil Rickert

This is a followup to my earlier post on free will.  The debates around free will usually relate it to determinism.  And some people seem to believe that science shows that we are in a deterministic universe.  As one of the comments to Jerry Coyne’s post suggests, if we are scientists, then we should be devising experiment tests to help us determine whether our universe is deterministic.  And, much like that commenter, I am unable to conceive of how it could be tested.  That ought to suggest that “determinism” itself is not a well defined idea.

Determinists seem to base their determinism on the fact that our scientific laws are deterministic.  But that is surely a mistake.  We prefer deterministic laws, because those are the most useful for making predictions.  If the deterministic law is slightly off, then our predictions will be slightly off.  Being able to make predictions that are close, but not quite exact, is already quite useful.  So we should prefer deterministic laws that are slightly off, over indeterministic laws that are completely correct but that cannot make predictions because of their indeterminism.

As an illustration, consider the gas laws from physics.  These are deterministic, and very useful for making predictions.  The physicists actually call them the “ideal gas laws,” for they are completely correct only about an imaginary ideal gas.  They are not quite correct about real gases.  Philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright has argued that many of the laws of physics are idealizations, rather than correct descriptions.  And if the deterministic laws of physics are actually idealizations, then they do not constitute actual evidence for the belief that the universe itself is deterministic.

July 11, 2011

That free will thingie

by Neil Rickert

I’m not sure what it is about the concept of “free will”, but discussions of it always seem to bring out more heat than light.  Recently, Jerry Coyne, over at the Why Evolution Is True site (he doesn’t like it being called a blog), has made several posts on the topic of free will.  Then he promised no more, at least for a month.  His post today, Why your concept of “free will” is important is the second one that breaks the promise (as Jerry admits).

I remember reading a book, several years ago, on the question of free will and determinism.  The author was a determinist and incompatibilist, meaning that he held the view that we live in a deterministic world in which there is no free will.  After presenting his thesis that denies free will, the author had a chapter which amounted a discussion of what you could do about the fact that you now know that you do not have free will.  Or, as I like to describe it, that was a chapter about how you can use the free will that you do not have so as to make changes in your life that accommodate you to the fact that you do not have free will.

Well, that makes no sense at all.

Looking at Jerry Coyne’s latest post, I note that he says:

But that doesn’t end the discussion of determinism versus nondeterminism of human behavior, because one’s view on that question has profound implications for whether and how we punish people.

In effect, Jerry is saying that now that you know that the criminals did not have the free will to avoid committing the crime, you must use the free will that you do not have, in order to change how society deals with criminals.

Sorry, but that does not make sense either.

July 9, 2011

Chance, law, metaphysics

by Neil Rickert

This post is partly a reaction to two recent blog posts that are related to the role of chance, particularly in evolution.  The two blog posts are “Confessions of a Design Heretic” by nullasalus (at the Uncommon Descent site) and “Could God Have Set Up Darwinian Accidents?” by John Wilkins (at his Evolving Thoughts site).

I believe that both nullasalus and Wilkins are from Australia.  Perhaps their posts are reactions to the southern hemisphere winter.  Evolution is usually said as partly a result of chance, particularly as it shows up in random mutation.  In his post, nullasalus says “I question the very existence of Chance.”  In arguing that, nullasalus is supporting the idea sometimes expressed by theistic evolutionists, that God is at work behind the scenes, tweaking things so as to get the results that He desires.  Wilkins is not proposing that theistic evolution is correct, but he is suggesting that it is “a coherent position to hold.”

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July 8, 2011

Partitioning and categorization

by Neil Rickert

I discussed the idea of partitioning the world in an earlier post.  Categorization is an old idea, dating back to Plato or earlier.  In this post, I want to compare and contrast the ideas of partitioning and of categorization.

It is widely believed that categorization is cognitively important.  However, heretic that I am, I disagree.  I believe that it is partitioning that is cognitively important, and I suspect that the results of partitioning are often being mischaracterized as due to categorization.

Categorization is usually described as grouping things into categories.  Either one groups things that are similar, or one groups things that are similar to a presumed stereotypical model.  The result is a hierarchical organization of the world, with larger categories composed of smaller categories.  So your pet dog might be an entity.  This, along with other dogs, is grouped into the categories of dogs.  Then dogs, cats and other critters are grouped into the category of mammals, etc.  Partitioning results in a similar hierarchical organization.  The difference is that, with partitioning, one starts at the top (the world as a whole), and looks for reliable ways of dividing that large group into small groups.  So partitioning and categorization can both be said to structure the world, with the structuring being done top-down with partitioning or bottom up with categorization.

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July 4, 2011

Geometry and logic (3)

by Neil Rickert

In my previous post in this series I talked about the idea of partition, or dividing up the world.

Let’s suppose that we start with the world, and then divide it into two parts.  Call those parts A and B.  Perhaps it is the division into night and day, something that newborn infants have problems with but begin to get after a while.  Next we divide those parts, based on some other characteristics.  So A is further partitioned into parts A1 and A2, while B is further partitioned into parts B1 and B2.

If we continue partitioning in this way, we will have a way of organizing the world into the partitions.  And that organization will look a bit like a tree, something similar to a family tree.  If our partition was into two parts at each stage, we will finish up with a particular type of tree diagram that is known as a binary tree.

There is a natural way of finding items on a binary tree.  And that is to use logic.  At each branch point you encounter, you make the decision “if what I am seeking has characteristic 1, then go down branch 1; otherwise go down branch 2.”

My suggestion here is that the reason we find logic to be useful, is that as part of our cognition and perception of the world, we have been applying what I have called “geometric method” to organize our world into a nested series of partitions.  We use this geometric or partitioning method as a way of identifying objects, and the usefulness of logic is a consequence of our basing object recognition on such a partitioning scheme.