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I won’t pretend to have an attempt at a full-fletched epistemology, but something I often ponder and would like to set in words for my own clarification is my opinion on what knowledge can be based on. As someone who occasionally gets into arguments over religion or philosophy, I consider it important to know what fundamental basis I am really attempting to argue from.

First, let us recognise that a superior epistemology should make as few assumptions as possible. If we are to reason, we must use logic, but logic is but a way of taking facts (premises) and figuring out what other facts (conclusions) are implied by them. It can’t introduce new knowledge per se, and while it can point out problematic premises by showing inconsistencies, it cannot supply correct ones. Thus on some level we have to simply assume some premises—as few as possible (the more we have, the more we risk error) and as safe and inarguable as possible.

To me, the most fundamental source of knowledge is and must be physical reality. This may sound uncontroversial or at least unsurprising coming from me, but let me clarify: I believe that physical reality must hold epistemological primacy even over logic (and its broader-scope cousin, mathematics). Logic is important and a critical tool for reason, but it follows from reality, not the other way around. (You might recognise this as the opposite of what the ancient Greek philosophers generally held.)

Some have held that perception of physical reality can’t be accepted as fundamental, because our senses are flawed. Certainly no one can prove to every pedant’s and solipsist’s satisfaction that we do not, for example, live in a computer simulation, or in Plato’s cave; that reality isn’t in fact with our perception of consistency an illusion. All these notions, though, seem to share in common the attribute that they are completely unproductive. If my mind is randomly recomposed moment by moment, with memories and perception of continuity mere illusions, then ipso facto I cannot effectively reason about anything.

If you tell me that I should trust in your words, or the words of some sacred writ, because my eyes and ears deceive me, I will respond that if my eyes and ears deceive me, I surely cannot trust words either written or spoken. If you tell me that I should believe in something or other because my ability to reason is limited and fallible, then why should I be convinced? If I find that argument convincing, I am ipso facto convinced by means of faulty reasoning.

No, surely to say anything meaningful about anything at all, we must accept that there is an external reality and that, for all their flaws, our senses and perceptions at least provide some kind of systematic picture thereof. It may not always be correct—in fact we know of lots of ways in which our perceptions often fail us—but if it is at least basically systematic (within the margins, as it were, of measurement error), then this gives us a chance to address the truth, aided by statistics and probability, augmenting our memories with records (so long as we can read them), our senses with instrumented perception (so long as we can read the dials with reasonable fidelity), our fallible reasoning with formal logic.

I believe that everyone (at any rate, anyone who is not insane) essentially believes this (in part because I believe that people who argue that reality is an illusion and our memories may well be recreated moment by moment are really just playing word-games, actually living their lives quite in accordance with conventional notions of continuity and cause-and-effect). Even people who relegate empiricism to a distinctly secondary position after, say, faith in some religious dogma still accept this, whether they admit it or not. Without accepting the testimony of their senses, they wouldn’t have any cause to know that any scripture exists or what it says.

Very well, so we accept a sort of basic empiricism: The world exists, and our senses report on it, if not perfectly then at least systematically so that we can by dint of intellectual effort untangle systematic errors and gain a clearer picture. What else do we need? Until recently I should have said logic—an argument needs premises and a valid formulation; empiricism gives us premises; logic provides the formulation; ergo we need both.

However, as my second point, I believe that logic is secondary to physical reality and need not be taken as a fundamental.

Perhaps my biggest light-bulb moment in formulating this thought was rendering explicit the fairly obvious observation that the logical syllogism is really no more than a mathematical restatement of the physical principle of cause and effect.

logicformal logicempiricism
if A, then BABA is observed always to cause B
A [is true]AA happened
therefore B [is true]Btherefore B happened

In other words, I conclude that logic is simply a description of cause and effect, just as F=(m₁×m₂)/G is a description of (Newtonian) gravity, rather than itself (qua formula or idea) anything fundamental. Reality would go on as usual even if nothing within it had any concept of logic. However, if reality did not proceed according to the laws of cause and effect, there could be no logic: If we existed, we should have nothing to base it upon, nor would it be applicable to anything. It could at best be a self-consistent but meaningless system of symbol manipulation.

Third and finally, I believe that we need nothing else at the very bottom of our epistemology. There is reality. It is necessary (because without observation of reality there can be no knowledge); it is also sufficient. Observing reality naturally generates the laws of logic, which however complicated they get ultimately flow from the basic syllogism, which is itself a statement of the empirically observed principles of cause and effect.

Of course any meaningful argument about anything whatsoever, unless it be epistemology itself, is naturally going to invoke much higher-level principles. The rules of logics are the atoms of arguments, syllogisms the molecules; only when we care about the subatomic do we need to bother to point out that the logic-atoms are really made up of empirical nucleons. However, I am aware of no good reason why I should take seriously any argument that does not render down into this empirical nucleon soup if sufficiently picked apart.

I don’t pretend to be able to reduce most arguments to their nuclear details, but this does not mean that I abandon the idea. I don’t pretend to be able to explain every minute detail of a burning match down to the level of atomic interactions and changes in valence electron layers, either—this does not reduce my confidence that the standard model of physics is in principle perfectly capable of explaining that burning match without having to involve phlogistons. If someone attempted to convince me of the reality of phlogistons, my ignorance of details would not be sufficient grounds for me to accept it: They should have to directly demonstrate the reality of phlogistons, or that my physical theory is in principle insufficient to explain fire.

Similarly, i you introduce any other principle into an argument—faith, for instance, or curious notions such as epistemological relativism—I shall regard any such principle as a phlogiston, whose existance and relevance you shall have to substantiate before I take any part of your argument seriously. Unless you can do that, explain yourself in terms of observable reality, or be dismissed.

My earlier post, Science and epistemology, contained the germs of this idea. In How I try to think, and how I try not to I muse on how to apply the idea, and common pitfalls to avoid.


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Petter Häggholm

April 2016

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