john42t

Scientific Certainty?

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(Note from MSK: This topic was started by splitting off some posts on another thread that had drifted. Bob, i.e., Ba'al Chatzaf, requested the split and the present title and it's a good one.)

If abstract knowledge is permanently open to expansion, revision, recontextualization, and correction, then it is tentative by the definition I've heard and it is clearly tentative in the scientific sense of the term. Maybe other Objectivists have harsher definitions of "tentative" but by the one I'm aware of, Objectivism does argue knowledge is tentative.

Personally, I don't believe it is.

I have no doubt that the fundamental theorem of algebra is correct now and for all times. I would say I believe in it's absolutism as much as a religionist in the existence of God, although maybe for slightly different reasons.

A bit, although not much, weaker, is my faith in the correctness of Newton's gravity laws. It would surprise me to say the least to find that they are grossly mistaken and that in fact planetary orbits follow completely different rules. You could say my faith again rivals that of religionists in that regard.

I know what you're going to argue: Their faith doesn't rest on reason. Well, I'm sure they will tell you something else. They will tell you that if they only had reason to believe there was no God, they would "revise" their stance, "recontextualize" and "correct" it. But so far everything, so they would say, points to the existence of God.

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I have no doubt that the fundamental theorem of algebra is correct now and for all times. I would say I believe in it's absolutism as much as a religionist in the existence of God, although maybe for slightly different reasons.

The fundamental theorem of algebra has zero empirical content. It is not a statement about the world external to humans. Where as scientific statement ARE about the world external to humans. And it is these statements that are provisional, tentative and not absolute.

All a mathematical theorem claims is that the statement constituting the conclusion follows the statements of the hypothesis by way of the axioms of the mathematical system and the rules of logic. A mathematical theorem claims no empirical content other than the formal relation between the hypothesis and the conclusion. For simple theorems one can be as close to one hundred percent sure as it is possible to be. For complicated proofs of theorems such as Fermat's Last Theorem proven by Wiles in 1993 the proof is complicated that it well within the bounds of possibility that the committee that blessed Wiles final proof (a prior proof had errors) could be mistaken and that in years to come an error may be found.

In any case this is nothing like the general statement at the base of physical theories. These cannot be totally and certainly verified empirically because that apply to the entire cosmos for all times. There is no way of doing all of the empirical corroborations require to nail the general law. The best we can do is select particular instances of the consequences of the general law, make a prediction and then test it. And even then, the test itself is theory laden and carries with it the doubts of another theory. At best we can come up with a coherent set of particular statements that are (a) corroborated empirically and (b) are consistent with the general laws of the theory in question.

The best scientific theories are not based on certainty by on a five sigma fit between the prediction and the measurement.

And why isn't measurement certain. Because it depends on the initial state for the entire cosmos being specified. But this is not possible so we distinguish between relevant conditions and irrelevant conditions. For example when we roll a ball down an inclined plane the co-efficient of friction between the ball and the material of the plane is taken to be relevant whereas the temperature in Bombay India at the instant of the experiment is not. Intuitively there is no argument, but a question is being begged all the same. How do we know the temperature in Bombay is irrelevant? Because the underlying theory loading of the test says it is. It is a theory laden conclusion that the temperature in Bombay is irrelevant. And even if it were not how sure are we of the temperature measurement itself? Instruments are subject to environmental variation, particularly thermal interactions locally. And even that last statement (the italicized one) is theory laden.

And so it goes. So we settle for the most coherent network of associations surrounding the effects we are measuring and the means by which we measure. And we haven't even gotten to quantum indeterminacy yet! (See Heisenberg Principle).

So much for absolute certainty. So we settle for five sigma pretty good.

Ba'al Chatzaf

PS. Be prepared to see the theories you love most of all refuted by experiment in your lifetime. Well, some of the theories you love best of all. I think thermodynamics will hold up for another thousand years, but that is just a bet.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Attention Mr. Moderator. Please split this post off to a new thread entitled Scientific Certainty? This will keep the current Hitchens thread from dying of drift.

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PS. Be prepared to see the theories you love most of all refuted by experiment in your lifetime.

In the sense that perihelion rotation "refutes" Newton?

Yes, but that's not the kind of "refutation" I was talking about.

Newton's mechanics will be just as useful as they are now in all millenias to come. They will not suddendly stop working (because the laws of physics change).

They don't change. Reality is knowable.

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PS. Be prepared to see the theories you love most of all refuted by experiment in your lifetime.

In the sense that perihelion rotation "refutes" Newton?

Yes, but that's not the kind of "refutation" I was talking about.

Newton's mechanics will be just as useful as they are now in all millenias to come. They will not suddendly stop working (because the laws of physics change).

They don't change. Reality is knowable.

Of course it is knowable, with the bounds of our technology and our sense. Out There is Out There. The doubt exists on our side of the divide, not in Nature.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Of course it is knowable, with the bounds of our technology and our sense. Out There is Out There. The doubt exists on our side of the divide, not in Nature.

There are people who see the doubt on the side of nature though, and those are what I would call the scepticists. The above statement is what I call absolutism.

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Of course it is knowable, with the bounds of our technology and our sense. Out There is Out There. The doubt exists on our side of the divide, not in Nature.

There are people who see the doubt on the side of nature though, and those are what I would call the scepticists. The above statement is what I call absolutism.

I wouldn't. There is plenty of room for error. Getting five sigma pretty good is not easy.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Of course it is knowable, with the bounds of our technology and our sense. Out There is Out There. The doubt exists on our side of the divide, not in Nature.

Bob,

You sound like you have no doubt about that.

Aren't you speaking from the "in here" perspective?

So how do you know the doubtless stuff you know?

:)

Michael

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Of course it is knowable, with the bounds of our technology and our sense. Out There is Out There. The doubt exists on our side of the divide, not in Nature.

Bob,

You sound like you have no doubt about that.

Aren't you speaking from the "in here" perspective?

So how do you know the doubtless stuff you know?

:smile:

Michael

You are the one that said doubtless, not me. And of course I speak from my side of the barrier. I am In Here. The Real World is Out There.

Mean while New Stuff from and addition 186,000 miles further out reaches us every second. Surprises are likely.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Thus passes one of the Four Horsemen. He was the deadly enemy of Bullshit and Cant.

I will miss his wit.

Goodbye Christopher and Fight On.

Ba'al Chatzaf

Can one infer from your "Fight On" that you imagine Hitchens to be in some kind of 'afterlife'?

In case the answer is "No" - what sense does your remark make?

[Tread title by Selene] "Christopher Hitchens has passed away - well he has the answer now..."

Not if what Hitchens believed to be the truth is the truth. For if there exists no afterlife in any form, he won't exist in any way, shape or form, and thus cannot get any answer.

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Thus passes one of the Four Horsemen. He was the deadly enemy of Bullshit and Cant.

I will miss his wit.

Goodbye Christopher and Fight On.

Ba'al Chatzaf

Can one infer from your "Fight On" that you imagine Hitchens to be in some kind of 'afterlife'?

Angela:

Objectively, you will affirm the position that none of us know for certain whether there is a continuance, in some form, or not...correct?

Adam

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Thus passes one of the Four Horsemen. He was the deadly enemy of Bullshit and Cant.

I will miss his wit.

Goodbye Christopher and Fight On.

Ba'al Chatzaf

Can one infer from your "Fight On" that you imagine Hitchens to be in some kind of 'afterlife'?

Angela:

Objectively, you will affirm the position that none of us know for certain whether there is a continuance, in some form, or not...correct?

Adam

This is correct, yes.

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You are the one that said doubtless, not me.

Bob,

No I didn't. You actually did. Here are your exact words:

"The doubt exists on our side of the divide, not in Nature.
"

How do you know there is no doubt in Nature?

You stated this as an absolute fact.

How do you know that doubt exists on our side?

You stated this as an absolute fact, too.

So once again, how do you know the doubtless stuff you claim to know?

Michael

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Michael:

Maybe it's the things that you don't know that you don't know. Donald Rumsfeld, Landmark Education/Werner Erhardt/Est

Adam

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It is most definitely not true, incidentally, that Objectivism supports the notion that all knowledge is "tentative."  Omigod!  Ayn Rand would spin in her grave if she heard that.  Objectivism holds that all knowledge is contextual.  There's a huge difference.   David Harriman's Logical Leap is all about this issue.

If the statement "all knowledge is tentative" were put like that, without explanation, I'd agree that AR would have rejected it. However, as Andrew is making the statement, I understand it as an alternate way of saying what was meant by the contextuality of knowledge -- while AR was alive. What I think she'd "spin in her grave" about is if she were to see the radical departure of The Logical Leap from things she said herself in the Epistemology Workshop and from things which, judging by reports I've heard, Peikoff said in the last course given on Objectivism while she was alive, his 1976 course.

(Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend all of that course. I missed the part on epistemology. A few months ago, spurred by a discussion on ARCHN blog, I decided to spend the money to buy the tapes so I could research the details of how Peikoff explained the issue of contextuality then. However, I was too late, as the course has gone out of stock.)

Bob Kolker has already entered a request to split the discussion, which request I second. I don't like diverting the thread from memorializing Hitchens.

--

Andrew, I hope to manage to read your Masters Thesis next year. It's on my high-priority want-to-read list.

Ellen

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Andrew, I hope to manage to read your Masters Thesis next year. It's on my high-priority want-to-read list.

Ellen

Ellen,

Sincerest thanks. I hope when you get around to it, you find value in it :)

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Human beings naturally crave certainty. They do not wish to live in a world of Heracletian flux.

But it is an undisputed fact that the world is in a Heracletian flux. For absolutely everything that exists in the cosmsos is in a process of permanent transformation (albeit many of these transformations are not perceptible to our senses adapted to functioning in a mesoscopic dimension).

The human need to crave certainty is therefore in a certain contradiction to this process of permanent transformation. It is a genuine need though, stemming from our being biologically programmed to function in our world.

Which is why we don't, in everyday life, conceive of e. g. a 'table' as an association of whirling atoms, etc.

Nor do we, normally, let the absence of certainty when it comes to our daily survival, interfere with our daily actions: Therefore we will (normally) still plan for the coming week, although there exists no certainty whether we will survive this day.

Not to be misunderstood: I'm not advocating skepticisim about everything. I never had the impression either that Christopher Hitchens' skepticism about many things went as far as doubting this own existence. :wink:

But the existential shock, as one could call it, when we are faced with the irreversibility of death often lifts the curtain off the illusion of permanent security and stability. The hope for an "afterlife" is probably caused by us human beings not coming to terms with our ultimate extinction as individual entities.

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Human beings naturally crave certainty. They do not wish to live in a world of Heracletian flux.

But it is an undisputed fact that the world is in a Heracletian flux. For absolutely everything that exists in the cosmsos is in a process of permanent transformation (albeit many of these transformations are not perceptible to our senses adapted to functioning in a mesoscopic dimension).

The human need to crave certainty is therefore in a certain contradiction to this process of permanent transformation. It is a genuine need though, stemming from our being biologically programmed to function in our world.

Which is why we don't, in everyday life, conceive of e. g. a 'table' as an association of whirling atoms, etc.

Nor do we, normally, let the absence of certainty when it comes to our daily survival, interfere with our daily actions: Therefore we will (normally) still plan for the coming week, although there exists no certainty whether we will survive this day, :smile:

The best we can do is invariance. Some quantities remain constant. Other quantities are preserved under known classes of transformations, for example the space-time interval is invariant under transformations of the Lorentz Group. We have our major conservation laws --- conservation of momentum, angular momentum and mass energy. Those are the bedrocks of current physics. We also forbid contradictions. For good reasons too; one, no one has ever observed a contradiction in reality and two, any contradiction at the base of our theories would permit any old conclusion to be drawn logically. That would make logic useless. Ex falsi quadlibet. From a contradiction any old thing follows.

Theories come and some go, but our major conservation laws look solid.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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The best we can do is invariance. Some quantities remain constant. Other quantities are preserved under known classes of transformations, for example the space-time interval is invariant under transformations of the Lorentz Group. We have our major conservation laws --- conservation of momentum, angular momentum and mass energy. Those are the bedrocks of current physics. We also forbid contradictions. For good reasons too; one, no one has ever observed a contradiction in reality and two, any contradiction at the base of our theories would permit any old conclusion to be drawn logically. That would make logic useless. Ex falsi quadlibet. From a contradiction any old thing follows.

Theories come and some go, but our major conservation laws look solid.

Ba'al Chatzaf

Can one say that, while some quantities and natural laws remain constant, everything physical in the cosmos is in a process of permanent transformation, and there is no such thing as a standstill?

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The point I am making is that Hitchens (and the British Empiricist tradition broadly) also accepts the Religionist's definition of "absolute truth" (i.e. "absolute truth" = "intrinsic truth").

I do accept that reason can reach (contextually) absolute truth. But to someone like Hitchens a "contextual absolute" is a contradiction in terms. To put it in Objectivist terms, a "contextual absolute" reads as "Contextually Acontextual."

This doesn't mean that Hitchens believes reason is useless. He's a very strong advocate of human reason (even if, on technical details, he probably has some differences with Objectivism in describing how reason operates). He simply believes that one must always be open to new evidence and never take any empirical statement for granted.

Again, you're assuming that Hitchens is using Objectivese when he isn't.

The "absolute" in "absolute truth" is often used for pure reinforcement, for emphasis. Therefore a statement like "Truth is absolutely contextual" contains no contradiction if "absolutely" is used for reasons of emphasis.

Truth is always contextual. For it is always "Truth about what"? Truth is no floating abstraction, but tied to a context.

In certain contexts, word combinations like "absolute truth" / "absolutely true" can also be interpreted to mean "irrefutable truth"/irrefutably true.

Example: It is absolutely true that this forum is called "Objectivist Living".

A statement claiming absolute truth is only epistemologically valid if the person making it can can provide irrefutable evidence of said truth.

Therefore religious claims about any "divine absolute truth" will fall through the sieve and can be regarded as epistemologically irrelevant.

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Example: It is absolutely true that this forum is called "Objectivist Living".

That is a true statement which could have been otherwise. This forum could have been named Practical Objectivsm or some such.

It is true that this forum is called Objectivist Living but it is happenstantially true. It could have been named otherwise.

I think of absolute truth as necessary truth. X is absolutely true if and only if there are no possible circumstances under which X is false. X is contingently true if X is true but not necessarily true. That makes X non-absolutely true but true none the less.

Question: Did Ayn Rand seriously deal with modalities. (Possibly, Necessarily, Contingently). Aristotle did. See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-logic/

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Bob,

Rand dealt with this issue in her essay, "The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made" and in other places. She distinguished between man-made facts and natural ones ("the given").

See here a list of quotes from The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Metaphysical vs. Man-Made.

Here's the first quote just to get the ball rolling (from “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It:

Any natural phenomenon, i.e., any event which occurs without human participation, is the metaphysically given, and could not have occurred differently or failed to occur; any phenomenon involving human action is the man-made, and could have been different. For example, a flood occurring in an uninhabited land, is the metaphysically given; a dam built to contain the flood water, is the man-made; if the builders miscalculate and the dam breaks, the disaster is metaphysical in its origin, but intensified by man in its consequences. To correct the situation, men must obey nature by studying the causes and potentialities of the flood, then command nature by building better flood controls.

I think her identification here is one of her best ideas. I don't know how many times I have seen science-minded people argue that just because a man-made fact could have been different, this means that a natural fact could have been different, also. They never say it that clearly, but the examples they use generally point to this. Thus, their conclusion is that nothing is certain, or all knowledge is uncertain, or whatever.

That's pretty ragged reasoning, but a very nice sleight-of-hand.

Michael

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Any natural phenomenon, i.e., any event which occurs without human participation, is the metaphysically given, and could not have occurred differently or failed to occur; any phenomenon involving human action is the man-made, and could have been different. For example, a flood occurring in an uninhabited land, is the metaphysically given; a dam built to contain the flood water, is the man-made; if the builders miscalculate and the dam breaks, the disaster is metaphysical in its origin, but intensified by man in its consequences. To correct the situation, men must obey nature by studying the causes and potentialities of the flood, then command nature by building better flood controls.

I think her identification here is one of her best ideas. I don't know how many times I have seen science-minded people argue that just because a man-made fact could have been different, this means that a natural fact could have been different, also. They never say it that clearly, but the examples they use generally point to this. Thus, their conclusion is that nothing is certain, or all knowledge is uncertain, or whatever.

That's pretty ragged reasoning, but a very nice sleight-of-hand.

Michael

Ayn Rand was not familiar with a quantum experiment with Stern-Gerlach magnets. Send a stream of electrons through a Stern-Gerlach magenet and two stream come out spin-up and spin-down. 50-50 If you think the spin up electrons were destined by existence to be spin-up think again. Take the spin-up stream and send it through another Stern Gerlach magnet orient horizontally. Now you get two streams spin-right spin-left 50-50 from the stream that was spin-up 100 percent. Now take the spin-left stream and send it through firsts Stern-Gerlach magnet and you get two streams. Spin-up and Spin-down 50 50. So it seems that half of the spin up electron destined to be so by Existence (Metaphysically Given if you will) is now half spin-up and half spin-down. Go figure.

In any case this shows that Rand's analysis was unphysical.

It wasn't even good sleight of hand, to use your phrase.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Send a stream of electrons through a Stern-Gerlach magenet and two stream come out spin-up and spin-down. 50-50...

Bob,

Really?

How do you know that? Isn't it reasonable to doubt it?

I'm just using your standard...

Michael

It is a very carefully done and oft reproduced experiment. It has been done thousands of times with the same result. It is part of a complex experiment that corroborates the Pauli Exclusion Principle. The chances of error are quite small. It is one of those 5 sigma jobs. Not absolute certainty, but pretty damned sure. Which is about as good as it gets.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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