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Some Philosophical Thoughts

I have this sort of love/hate relationship with philosophy. I like it because some of the arguments and reasoning are so clever and subtle, but I also dislike it because it is often so pointless. Does it really matter if a philosopher offers his opinion on a subject without also finding a way to test the idea? So often it seems that philosophical ideas exist in a sort of vacuum where they don’t have any viable connection with the real world.

That’s not always the case, of course, and there are branches of philosophy which try to use more scientific, empirical methodologies which can be tested and therefore might be able to be connected with reality. But some of the most basic areas aren’t open to this sort of examination.

The subject of this blog (which is basically my epistemological philosophy) has arisen mainly because of various on-line debates (you might have already guessed this if you regularly follow this blog) which I am currently involved in (my source of subjects seems to be either debates or podcasts). Often the objection my opponents have to accepting science is the claim that science cannot be an ultimate source of knowledge because it relies on untested premises, and this is actually true!

But the problem is that every worldview or system of knowledge must ultimately suffer from the same limitation. So really the issue becomes: which of all the imperfect knowledge systems we have works the best, even if we readily concede it is imperfect?

We can never be totally sure of anything in the real world because we can only interact with the real world through our senses and we already know (or think we know) that they can be easily confused.

A deeper issue is whether there is a thing called reality at all and if there is, is there only one reality or many depending on your worldview. If there is no reality or there are multiple realities which change based on the way you think, then we really are in trouble. Again, there’s no way to prove this for sure but the repeatable results which we get from careful formal tests (such as those of science) indicate that it’s safe to assume there is just one.

Note that quantum effects such as the observer affecting the outcome of an experiment, wave-particle duality, and the many-worlds interpretation don’t really constitute evidence of multiple realities because these effects always manifest themselves consistently – at least we think so, but we can’t be certain!

Science largely relies on empiricism which uses inductive logic to gain information about the world. Many people point out that induction can never really prove anything and I agree. It doesn’t matter how many white swans we see, we could find a black (or purple) one with the next observation. So if we only see white swans it’s OK to say that all swans are white but only as an interim conclusion, and in fact that conclusions will always be interim because we can never look at every instance of anything of any consequence.

But what is the alternative? What about deduction, using the laws of logic? Well that’s OK, using deduction can prove something but it can’t prove anything new. If all men are mortal and Aristotle is a man we can deduce that Aristotle is mortal, but so what? That doesn’t reveal any new truth we didn’t already know. It’s just a rearrangement of information we already have.

I have already dealt with faith-based and revealed knowledge in a previous blog entry but I will briefly reiterate my conclusion here. It was that true faith-based knowledge cannot exist because the selection of which faith-based system (for example, which religion) to adopt is not itself faith-based (it could depend on arbitrary social factors or even the application of scientific principles). And the same applies to revealed knowledge because the source of revelation is made before the revelation itself (you can’t gain knowledge from the Bible for example until you choose the Bible as your preferred source).

So it seems the only source of real knowledge is induction and that can never provide certainty. I am admitting I can never know anything for certain but am I even certain of that? Well no, I’m not!

But applying a certainty value to any knowledge claim isn’t that bad. We already do that with many things: there is a 50% chance of rain tomorrow, we are 95% sure that global warming is caused by human activity, the age of the Universe is 13.72 billion years plus or minus 100 million, etc. (don’t necessarily trust those numbers as being correct, I just used them as an example).

In fact many people say that the people who are most certain of their conclusions are most likely to be wrong. This isn’t always true, of course, because some genuine knowledge does have a very good confidence value, but it should act as a warning regarding those who know for certain that their god exists or that they really were abducted by aliens.

So in summary, here’s my philosophy of knowledge…

1. We can never know anything for certain (not even the fact that we can’t know anything for certain) but it is pointless to proceed on that idea, so we must be pragmatic and accept that the best we can do is to get arbitrarily close to knowing a fact.

2. There is only one reality and properly executed observations and experiments will always access that same reality. Any claim that a different methodology reveals a different reality is really just saying that it is revealing a falsity.

3. Pure logic cannot reveal any new knowledge, and faith and revelation based knowledge is unreliable, so empirically derived knowledge is the only reliable source.

4. All knowledge should have a confidence measurement but it might be reasonable to avoid having to include those numbers over and over again by saying certain things are a fact even though we should leave a small amount of doubt no matter how certain something seems.

So there it is. If you are debating me and I have referred you here and you got this far, well done! If you disagree or can see any major flaws in my logic then please feel free to comment.

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  1. March 7, 2013 at 9:52 am

    The point of music theory is to play a musical instrument according to your musical training.
    The point of philosophy is to live according to your philosophical stance.

    Music theory soon starts to feel pointless if you never make any sounds. Philosophy also becomes pointless if you never apply it to your own day to day life.

    No matter how much you rev the engine you’re not really driving a car until you put it into gear.

  2. ojb42
    March 7, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    I think we agree on this although I don’t completely understand the relevance of your metaphors of music and driving a car!

    • March 8, 2013 at 3:02 pm

      My point was that we don’t really need philosophy as much as we need to to *apply* it to our daily lives, our daily relationships and daily interactions (which is all that actually exists in reality).

      Becoming an expert on philosophical matters is rather like becoming an expert of health and fitness matters. It counts for very little unless we apply the basics to our daily lives in a consistent and deliberate way. And most of us just don’t!

      We tend to define a ‘expert’ in philosophy (or whatever) as someone who knows complex things in their heads and can talk about them and write about them. But whether or not they can actually APPLY even a tiny fraction of that knowledge and wisdom to their daily lives is never a part of the definition of ‘expert’.

      As a result, most modern day philosophers (and most experts in other academic fields too) are rather like health and fitness guru’s who are full of knowledge and who can endlessly discuss and write books about fitness and health….. but they are 20 stone and get out of breath going to the toilet ;)

      And this is one major reason why the world is in such a terrible state!

  3. ojb42
    March 8, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    Yes, that’s partly what I meant when I said philosophy exists in a type of vacuum. There’s not a lot of point unless it has some possible application to real life. That’s why the observation that we can never know anything for sure is true but useless.

    I don’t know if I agree that experts in different fields don’t “practice what they preach”. Can you give some examples of where you see this happening?

    I think the reason the world is in a “terrible state” is not so much that the experts don’t do what they should do, it’s that the wrong people are in charge. Most politicians (who make the ultimate decisions) come from backgrounds such as law, accounting, or business rather than science or philosophy.

    • March 9, 2013 at 2:28 pm

      “…. I don’t know if I agree that experts in different fields don’t “practice what they preach”. Can you give some examples of where you see this happening?…”

      Example One

      A teacher in a state school might tell the children that coercion, violence and theft are immoral and socially unacceptable ways to behave in a civilised society. But that teacher’s salary is extracted from those children’s parents using coercion and, if necessary, violence. Even adults without any children are forced to pay that teacher’s salary. And if anyone refuses they will eventually be kidnapped and put inside a cage. If they struggle they will be beaten with clubs. If they try to defend themselves and their property they might even be shot.

      Example Two

      Certain ‘celebrity philosophers’ make a lucrative career for themselves by pointing out the irrationality of religious belief and berating religious people for acting immorally (wars, persecution, terrorism etc) because their religion and their god supposedly ‘told them’ to behave that way.

      Yet these same towering intellectual giants are blind to the fact that they too worship their own imaginary god and will do whatever they’re told by people claiming to speak on behalf of that god – even if it is morally despicable behaviour, such as funding terrorism and genocide. The only difference is their imaginary god is known as a ‘government’, the people who claim to speak on behalf of this imaginary god call themselves ‘politicians’ rather than priests and the fancy building they operate from is called a ‘parliament building’ or a ‘white house’ instead of a church or cathedral.

      But just like the gods they ridicule for not existing, these philosophers could never prove the existence of the god they worship – this magical, all powerful entity called a ‘government’.

      They can’t see that all that exists in reality are just a bunch of people called ‘politicians’ who claim to speak *on behalf* of this invisible entity called a ‘government’. This is no different to other religions which also consist of a bunch of people called ‘priests’ who claim to speak *on behalf* of an invisible entity which they call ‘god’.

      Example Three

      Scientists teach us that empirical evidence is truth, and that basic laws of physics (such as Newton’s laws) cannot be broken. They teach us that the laws of the universe do not know or care about human motives and agendas and so science should never be influenced by ‘politics’ or any biases or assumptions on the part of the observer, and if it is then it is no longer science, but dogma and propaganda (or just plain bad science).

      Yet with the exception of one person, the entire global scientific / academic community has failed, either wilfully or due to incompetence, to determine (at least in the public domain) even the most fundamental basics of what actually happened to the WTC on September 11th 2001. They all failed to examine even the most basic empirical evidence that any crime/ accident scene investigation involving destroyed buildings would normally focus on, such as seismic data, physical evidence and basic visual observations.

      In other words, the event which led to a complete restructuring of all of western society, the never ending global war of terror and the invasion of several nations, mass murder and social, environmental and economic devastation etc etc…. the event which triggered all of this was never accurately (ie scientifically) determined by the scientific / academic community to begin with, despite them all having access to more than enough evidence to do so.

      The same is true of the billion dollar news media industry who also failed to determine what the basic facts were in relation to this rather important news story. Either wilfully, under duress or due to incompetence they ALL failed spectacularly….. as did every supposedly well educated and critically thinking person on the planet. I include myself in that last category because I did not look at all of the available evidence and make sense of it myself until quite recently.

      We may be sending probes to mars but in many ways we are still living in the dark ages.

  4. ojb42
    March 9, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    Wow, I can see you have a particular ideology which you seem to be following here. You aren’t by any chance a libertarian, are you? I can always recognise that rather extreme dogma they seem to think has some basis in reality!

    Plus you believe some complete nut job espousing a crazy conspiracy theory. Oh dear, and you seemed so reasonable to start with!

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