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Posts posted by Screech

  1. Ontology does not “come first,†but is negotiated pragmatically through the practice of coming up with conceptual schemes that map onto the world in useful ways. Ontological statements are no more or less privileged than factual ones and are subject to empirical falsification. To reject the facts at hand in order to look at ontology first misses the point entirely.

    Quine 1961 (William Van Orman, liberator of analytic philosophy from the philosophy of language and vanquisher of rationalism, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism†section V, http://www.ditext.com/quine/quine.html)


    The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a [human]-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field. Truth values have to be redistributed over some of our statements. Re-evaluation of some statements entails re-evaluation of others, because of their logical interconnections -- the logical laws being in turn simply certain further statements of the system, certain further elements of the field. Having re-evaluated one statement we must re-evaluate some others, whether they be statements logically connected with the first or whether they be the statements of logical connections themselves. But the total field is so undetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to re-evaluate in the light of any single contrary experience. No particular experiences are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field, except indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the field as a whole.

    If this view is right, it is misleading to speak of the empirical content of an individual statement -- especially if it be a statement at all remote from the experiential periphery of the field. Furthermore it becomes folly to seek a boundary between synthetic statements, which hold contingently on experience, and analytic statements which hold come what may. Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system. Even a statement very close to the periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws. Conversely, by the same token, no statement is immune to revision. Revision even of the logical law of the excluded middle has been proposed as a means of simplifying quantum mechanics; and what difference is there in principle between such a shift and the shift whereby Kepler superseded Ptolemy, or Einstein Newton, or Darwin Aristotle?

    For vividness I have been speaking in terms of varying distances from a sensory periphery. Let me try now to clarify this notion without metaphor. Certain statements, though about physical objects and not sense experience, seem peculiarly germane to sense experience -- and in a selective way: some statements to some experiences, others to others. Such statements, especially germane to particular experiences, I picture as near the periphery. But in this relation of "germaneness" I envisage nothing more than a loose association reflecting the relative likelihood, in practice, of our choosing one statement rather than another for revision in the event of recalcitrant experience. For example, we can imagine recalcitrant experiences to which we would surely be inclined to accommodate our system by re-evaluating just the statement that there are brick houses on Elm Street, together with related statements on the same topic. We can imagine other recalcitrant experiences to which we would be inclined to accommodate our system by re-evaluating just the statement that there are no centaurs, along with kindred statements. A recalcitrant experience can, I have already urged, be accommodated by any of various alternative re-evaluations in various alternative quarters of the total system; but, in the cases which we are now imagining, our natural tendency to disturb the total system as little as possible would lead us to focus our revisions upon these specific statements concerning brick houses or centaurs. These statements are felt, therefore, to have a sharper empirical reference than highly theoretical statements of physics or logic or ontology. The latter statements may be thought of as relatively centrally located within the total network, meaning merely that little preferential connection with any particular sense data obtrudes itself.

    As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries -- not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits18b comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. Let me interject that for my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer's gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience.

    Positing does not stop with macroscopic physical objects. Objects at the atomic level and beyond are posited to make the laws of macroscopic objects, and ultimately the laws of experience, simpler and more manageable; and we need not expect or demand full definition of atomic and subatomic entities in terms of macroscopic ones, any more than definition of macroscopic things in terms of sense data. Science is a continuation of common sense, and it continues the common-sense expedient of swelling ontology to simplify theory.

    Physical objects, small and large, are not the only posits. Forces are another example; and indeed we are told nowadays that the boundary between energy and matter is obsolete. Moreover, the abstract entities which are the substance of mathematics -- ultimately classes and classes of classes and so on up -- are another posit in the same spirit. Epistemologically these are myths on the same footing with physical objects and gods, neither better nor worse except for differences in the degree to which they expedite our dealings with sense experiences.

    The over-all algebra of rational and irrational numbers is underdetermined by the algebra of rational numbers, but is smoother and more convenient; and it includes the algebra of rational numbers as a jagged or gerrymandered part.19b Total science, mathematical and natural and human, is similarly but more extremely underdetermined by experience. The edge of the system must be kept squared with experience; the rest, with all its elaborate myths or fictions, has as its objective the simplicity of laws.

    Ontological questions, under this view, are on a par with questions of natural science.20b Consider the question whether to countenance classes as entities. This, as I have argued elsewhere,10a21b is the question whether to quantify with respect to variables which take classes as values. Now Carnap ["Empiricism, semantics, and ontology," Revue internationale de philosophie 4 (1950), 20-40.] has maintained11a that this is a question not of matters of fact but of choosing a convenient language form, a convenient conceptual scheme or framework for science. With this I agree, but only on the proviso that the same be conceded regarding scientific hypotheses generally. Carnap has recognized12a that he is able to preserve a double standard for ontological questions and scientific hypotheses only by assuming an absolute distinction between the analytic and the synthetic; and I need not say again that this is a distinction which I reject. 22b

    The issue over there being classes seems more a question of convenient conceptual scheme; the issue over there being centaurs, or brick houses on Elm Street, seems more a question of fact. But I have been urging that this difference is only one of degree, and that it turns upon our vaguely pragmatic inclination to adjust one strand of the fabric of science rather than another in accommodating some particular recalcitrant experience. Conservatism figures in such choices, and so does the quest or simplicity.

    Carnap, Lewis, and others take a pragmatic stand on the question of choosing between language forms, scientific [and] frameworks; but their pragmatism leaves off at the imagined boundary between the analytic and the synthetic. In repudiating such a boundary I espouse a more thorough pragmatism. Each [person] is given a scientific heritage plus a continuing barrage of sensory stimulation; and the considerations which guide [them] in warping [their] scientific heritage to fit [their] continuing sensory promptings are, where rational, pragmatic.


    EDIT: Fixed Quine's name.

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  2. My point was not that you can't make inferences about God's motives but that if you do, you can't prevent me from doing so (say, by making a rhetorical move that God's motives are inscrutable). So you can't solve the problem of evil: like why would God allow evil that humans didn't cause to exist? Or if freedom is going to cause so much suffering, why give us free will?

  3. The argument that choice is morally important is question-begging because it presumes any benevolent god would prefer freedom to all other human virtues. If the mind of god is unknowable to the point where it is unfathomable why they would create the would as it currently is, you're exercising bad faith when you then appeal to an external value to claim that that is the basis of god's inscrutable value judgment. Either we can know the mind of god, in which case I can present arguments that this is not the best of all possible worlds (and you haven't solved the problem of evil), or we can't, in which case you can't appeal to god's value judgment about "freedom" (and you haven't solved the problem of evil).


    Love your line, by the way, retired. "God-shaped whole," eh.


    Evolutionary double bind: either evolution can't account for human altruism (extreme acts of love or sacrifice) or it says altruism is favored by evolution.

    So... altruism is favored by evolution? (I literally brought this up in the fourth post in the thread, I'm more than comfortable with this conclusion) So, in some cases, is social parasitism.

  4. I'm not getting into the "nature of divine morality" debate, it's dumb. But just to follow your argument to the logical conclusion here, doesn't that imply that God's plan for the universe cannot be fixed by external standards of morality, because no such standards exist? So in what sense can God be called "omnibenevolent"? And what other criteria might an omnipotent and omniscient deity use to construct a plan for the world?

  5. That's if you assume there are three possible outcomes (good, evil, neutral). I would argue there are an infinite number of possible outcomes on a spectrum from perfectly good to perfectly evil, and therefore the possibility of god being perfectly good is lim(x->infinity)1/x = 0.

  6. Actually, that's a good point. I've definitely heard "uniqueness overwhelms the link" much more commonly and I'm pretty sure I meant that when I said "brink overwhelms the link" (UQ is too strong, the link isn't sufficient to get us there). On your reading, (Brink is too strong, so link will be triggered regardless) I would basically classify it as a non-unique. Sorry for the confusion.

  7. As the only actually original premise, Inception deserved it.
    I liked it better when it was called The Matrix, and I liked THAT better when it was called Descartes' Meditations.


    EDIT: Really, McNinja? REALLY? The Oscars are SRS BZNESS.

  8. For example, why are we STILL debating a fictional text from thousands of years ago as if it were true. It may be philosophically interesting, but so are platonic dialogues.


    I don't know if you've checked into classics scholarship lately, but...


    Actually, I'm just bullshitting. But the historicity of Plato seems like something Classics scholars would waste their time arguing about.

  9. ... did... did you even click on the link? Or does the concept of an "evolutionary pathway" not make sense to you? Or, alternately, do you have secret teleological commitments such that you think the eyespot is a "less perfect" version of the "real" eye, and as such is evolutionarily implausible, even though all the intermediary stages of the eye had definite and demonstrable evolutionary benefits and is backed up by hard science and investigation?

  10. I was raised Catholic, but my familiarity with 19th-century philosophy has really burned me out on this debate. People give way too many shits about religion relative to its actual importance in modern society. I don't want to participate in the debate as a whole. Just one point:


    They come up with a theory and try and find facts to prove it. This is not the scientific process, it's backwards. You take facts and then come up with a conclusion, not the inverse. This perverse science is pervading actual intelligent discussion, and will continue to do so unless it's pointed out as a flawed process.


    That's not really fair, or accurate. Go read a philosophy of science book. Very few people are still committed to this view of the model of science (basically naive Baconian) because "go crunch a bunch of numbers and do a bunch of experiments to generate a bunch of data without any presuppositions" is terribly unproductive. Maybe back in the 18th century, when we still had to figure out, like, how electricity worked by zapping a bunch of different substances, but today, you have to have a theoretical model to proceed from in order to constrain your avenues of inquiry in terms of which questions you decide to try and answer. Similarly, in paleoanthropology.


    Without a theory model to attempt to incorporate new evidence in to, or to find ways to generate new evidence (for example, a theory about migration patterns and group behavior may lead you to assume that new fossils might turn up in X location) you're hopelessly lost. A pile of bones does not make an argument, and it never will. And if you don't have enough data, or your dating techniques are flawed, so be it. You still have to work with the resources available to you, and to try to give them some coherence. The theoretical structure is an essential element, I would argue the most essential element, to the work of science.


    "I, for one, will freely admit that I have never heard paleoanthropological data speak. Data, in my view, cannot exist outside of a theoretical framework, and the relation of data to such a framework lies in their potential power of refutation. No data can really "prove" a theory correct."


    Data and Theory in Paleoanthropological Controversies

    M. H. Wolpoff

    American Anthropologist

    New Series, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Mar., 1976), pp. 94-96


    EDIT: For philosophy of science books I continue to recommend Understanding Philosophy of Science by James Ladyman. It's clearly and interestingly written (for science rather than philosophy majors, which I actually prefer), and although Ladyman is from LSE and is a closet Popperian his treatment is very balanced.

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