Friday, April 28, 2017

For Me, Truth Does Not Lie In Science

I am a philosopher by education, so I love playing with definitions.  Some times, it is not just playing. In fact, the foundations of thought often rely on how we define and use words.  In addition to that, the words that we attach to things in the world provide a foundation for what we consider to be real and reality. A word that I think we need to pay more attention to these days is truth. Here is my take:

There is a simple definition of truth that can apply anywhere: that something is true when it is consistent with experience.  A statement about the world can be considered true when it is consistent with experience. But that is often not what we are talking about now when we refer to truth, especially not with science. Things that we try to establish as true or false these days are often far outside of experience, especially our personal experience. Science itself is beyond personal experience and deals with data derived from measurements and experiments often using specialized and purposefully designed equipment. This is important-- science is important--, but it is far from experience, especially the everyday experience of most people.  That is part of why I think the connection between truth and science is strained and tenuous.  I think truth is (or has to be) connected to experience and to everyday life AND to the meaning of both.  Science can be connected to meaning and is for some people, but for many, it is too narrow and sterile to give meaning or to draw values from.  I tend to fall into that camp even though I can be amazed at the theories and discoveries of science and their applications in technology. 

That is just beginning of what I mean when I say: I don't think that science finds truth. Science finds very useful and practical knowledge and information. It allows us to predict and manipulate the world around us which is very useful, but is that truth?  The data, facts and theories of science are practical and useful. There is great value and importance in that. However, I don't think that is truth. 

For me, truth has much more to do with meaning and value. Truth is not just facts or the theories derived from them.  Facts need weight assigned to them.  They need a structure given to them, a narrative (or meta-narrative) so to speak.  That comes from values and meaning. Information and theories from science should inform the creation of meaning and value when appropriate, but value and meaning (and therefore truth) go beyond them and often come before them.

Mixed in with all of this is the leap from science as a descriptive pursuit to values and meaning which are prescriptive.  Saying that science can be the foundation for meaning or values violates Hume's Law (jumping from the 'is' to the 'ought' without sufficient reason) in a way that I can respect when someone else does it, but will not do myself because it is essentially a logical leap of faith, and one that I don't trust or believe in.  I place truth on the side of the 'ought' along with meaning and values, not on the side of 'is' which is where science and its facts and theories lie.  There is a influence that passes from one side to the other, and in both directions.   But I think that the 'ought' side is more foundational and originary.  As a result, I don't associate science with truth in any deep or meaningful way.  I understand why others do, but I see it as a leap of faith and not as a logically sound choice that I should be compelled to make.  My leap is to place truth closer to meaning and value, while still respecting science and its facts and theories. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Incomprehensible by Design

Dedicated to Fr. Paneloux SJ

I find myself more and more convinced that in order for God to give us free will, he also had to create a world that we are unable to fully understand. To put it in existentialist terms: to give us free will, God also had to give us the absurd.

If the world was completely comprehensible, then we would be able to know what things are and how they work, completely. This would mean that the world would dictate to us what we should do, or that simply knowing enough would make it clear to us what we should do or even will do. In any of these cases, free will would no longer exist in any meaningful form. Choices would be obvious and we would always be convinced to make the right choice.

The complexity and irrationality of the world makes free will not only possible and unavoidable, but it makes it a burden. We (if not as an individual, at least as a society) create the paradigm or system that we use to make sense of the world. They are not given to us by God (though they maybe more or less inspired by the Divine), and they are not inherent in the world. They are human constructs that are limited and imperfect. There have been others than the one we find ourselves in, and there are others outside of the one we are in at any time. There will be others still, as the current ones adapt and adjust to a changing world.

Even when we come to know things there is always the problem of putting value on those things and deciding how to use them. Sometimes this is done after we come to know them. Sometimes values and use were part of discovering things and coming to understand them. Often it is a mix of both before and after. (And they-- both the things, and the values and uses-- can always change as we go.)

If any of those things-- the things themselves, the values or the uses-- were definitively and clearly determined, they would limit our free will by giving us information that we had to take seriously and act according to. If they all were, they would completely override free will.

It then seems obvious that the world can't be logical or comprehensible to us if we are to keep our free will and be able to exercise it. We can misunderstand, make mistakes, make bad choices and disagree with each other because things are not clear cut and obvious, and they never will be because by design they aren't.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Scientism Has Reached The EPA

This does not surprise me at all, and in fact it is quite appropriate.  We now have someone running the EPA (one of the departments of the US government that is and should be most reliant on science) who believes in scientism: Scott Pruitt.  This is not surprising considering how widespread scientism is in general. 

What is scientism?  It is typically defined as the belief that scientific methods, logic, reasoning and/or standards can (or in fact must) be applied to all human pursuits, especially those related to truth.  It often denies that there are even differences in the methods, logic and standards in the different fields of science.  As a result it thinks that everything should be held to scientific standards: literature, philosophy, art, etc.  If a topic of field of study isn’t or can’t be then it is of little or no use except as entertainment. 

This often manifests itself in the belief that scientific truths are unchanging and proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.  In reality, scientific truths can always change and proof in science consists of convincing the large majority of the experts in a field to agree upon something.  It does not deal with eternal truths nor is anything in science indisputable.  Truths are based on physical evidence which can always change.  They are also open to debate, but inside the field and among the experts who are qualified to engage in the debate.  And even when something is under debate, science is conservative in the fact that it doesn’t throw out the old truth or theory until there is consensus on a new one. 

In short, scientism is fundamentalist science.  Fundamentalist Catholics might believe that whatever the Pope says is true absolutely.  This is far from the truth and ignores the complexity of the Church: the theology, tradition, laws and hierarchy.  A different kind of fundamentalist Christian may believe that anything the Bible says is absolutely true.  This ignores the fact that the Bible sometimes contradicts itself.  It also ignores the fact that it was written by humans who were living in a certain time and space and limited by their language and worldview.  God may have inspired them, but humans had to understand that inspiration and put it into words.  That makes the Bible a human document that is not infallible and absolute. 

I make the examples about religion because I think they are easy to understand, and they are related to my educational background.  However, there are fundamentalist economists (on both sides: free market and socialist), fundamentalist democrats (who believe in the absolute applicability of democracy) and so on. 

Getting back to the EPA: Pruitt is not denying facts necessarily; he is just asking for a level of proof that is unrealistic.  In fact, I would say it is actually unscientific.  He can likely do this with a clear conscience because he misunderstands what science is.  (He misunderstands what truth and facts are in general it seems.)  This is not something that is unique to him, and in fact it is a widespread understanding of what science is, or is supposed to be.  For all too many people, science is made up of definite undeniable facts and truths that are proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. 

The other side of the coin with scientism is what we see often portrayed in the media, especially when it comes to medical research.  People take the latest study to be the definitive word on the subject.  If a new study goes against the accepted theory, the average person (spurred on by the media) take that to mean that everything must change.  This misunderstands science because in real science no one study or set of data can change what is considered accepted scientific truth, or fact.  It takes multiple studies and years at least.  In the end it takes a change in consensus among the large majority of experts in the field. 

What I think makes it easier to be a scientist today can be roughly explained with two factors:

The first is that people these days distrust authority and experts.  (This is true not just in science but in many other areas as well.)  They want to trust just the facts and data, and they want to believe that the data will tell them exactly what is to be trusted and believed.  They don’t trust the experts in science or their consensus.  The experts should not be necessary because the data and facts should speak for themselves. 

The second is that people can find all sorts of ‘information’ in the internet and in doing so are often (without knowing it) only ‘finding’ only the information that supports what they already believe. 

Much more should be said about these two points, but I will leave it at that for now.

I think the important thing now is to realize that it is not just stubbornness, idiocy or deceit that is causing people like Scott Pruitt to do and say what he is. To take that approach is to set him up as a strawman and not take him seriously. (And I believe that has been done for far too long and has led to him now being the head of the EPA.) Also, he is not alone in what he thinks. At the root of this is a misunderstanding of what science is. What is at the root is scientism, a fundamentalist view of science, and it seems to be widespread. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

There Are No Facts... The Dangers and Responsibility

"There are no facts, only interpretations."-- Nietzsche

This quote needs to go with something like this one from Heidegger to fill out its meaning:

"We never really first perceive a throng of sensations... Much closer to us than all sensations are the things themselves.  We hear the door shut in the house and never hear acoustical sensations or even mere sounds."

What is the meaning of these two quotes?  It is that what we take as facts are already interpretations because the physical things in themselves (the nomena as Kant calls it) are meaningless in and of themselves.  Things are ideas and not the bare sensations we have or the physical objects in the world; ideas shape the sensations (our experience of the physical objects) into what we commonly call 'things.'  The bare physical has qualities like weigh, size, hardness, etc.  And those qualities have an impact on us, but what that impact means (especially when it comes to how we act or think) is not in the physical object; it is in the idea, in the thing.

We interpret every experience and object to make sense of it, and facts already make some sort of sense. So facts are not pure experience or data, they are already interpreted.  As a result, there really are no objective facts because they are already always interpretations in so far as the have meaning, or are an idea and not just a sensation. 

Pointing this out is especially important because things (including facts) come prepackaged these days.  We encounter very little without mediation or packaging.  A big part of that packaging is interpretation. 

This is not meant to be a defense of 'alternative facts.'  It is legitimate to question methods, definitions and context to try and uncover the assumptions and influences that shaped the facts and things being discusses or dealt with.  This is important to do when you think there is a problem or even a disagreement in how different people experience and understand things.  But it is naive to simply deny facts and offer alternatives without digging deeper.

It must always be kept in mind that reinterpreting any of these things or facts changes more than just that one thing.  When you question at a fundamental level, anything that you change there has the potential to affect everything else in that network of meaning, all the other things and facts that are connected to it.  Interpretation and questioning things and facts is not something to be taken lightly.

Yet, because so many intelligent people deny the fundamental role that interpretation plays in our understanding and insist that facts are self-evident, it leaves the door open to people who want to take the Nietzsche quote and use it in a superficial way simply to twist any situation to their advantage.  Taking interpretation seriously and examining interpretations in a serious way (not brushing them aside as nonsense if we don't agree or understand right away) will take the power of this quote from those that simply want to find advantage by using it. 

There are no facts, only interpretations...  This revelation of Nietzsche's brings with it potential dangers and serious responsibility.  It does not at all mean that anything goes, and we need to resist that naïve interpretation of it.  It means that serious thought and attention needs to be paid to interpretation.  It means that when genuine disagreement arises, facts cannot be taken as self-evident and used to quickly shut down debate.  It means that differences in interpretation and perspective need to be taken seriously: discussed and explored in a genuine and intelligent way. It means the world is a more complex place than we often want to admit, and that we need to take up the responsibility that comes with that if we want to keep others from taking advantage of that.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

1984 in 2017?

Reading 1984 in 2017, really?  I can’t think of a more trite idea.

Granted, doublespeak and groupthink are pretty big these days.  Doublespeak has been big in politics at least as long as I have been eligible to vote.  It is common in business and management.  It is everywhere really, and we have to learn to see past it and get on with our lives in an intelligent way.  To think that anything unique with doublespeak is going on right now is to show an ignorance to what has been going on for a long time already. 

Groupthink has a strong history in the US in recent decades too: the run-up to the Iraq War; the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis; the US involvement in the Arab Spring.  Neo-liberal or Neo-conservative, it doesn’t matter; these camps are filled with groupthink that doesn’t want to recognize the real and sometimes drastic differences in ideals, values, cultures and people around the world.  Politicians are blinded by ideology and business as usual from the everyday reality, concerns and experience of everyday people, and then they are surprised when backlash occurs.  Their solutions seem to be to double down on their ideology and current path.  I think that qualifies as groupthink. 

Reading 1984 now is like waking up the day after the election and watching the debates as if they are the most important thing on YouTube. 

What do I think is worth reading now?  I think Camus’ The Plague is a very timely book.  Most people take it as a work talking about the struggle against Fascism, but Camus was far more deep and philosophical than that.  The plague that people struggle against in the book is not a human nor a government.  It is something bigger than that: a force of ‘nature,’ a part of reality that is bigger than humanity. 

What we are struggling against right now is not other humans.  We are struggling against ideas and realities (different interpretations of the world we live in) that are bigger than any person or group of people.  When we blame those things on people or groups (and demonize or make heroes of them), we are taking the stupid way out.  Stupid because it really doesn't get us out; it just draws us deeper in.  We divide ourselves, alienate ourselves from the experience and concerns of others, and all of this leads us to be more deeply entrenched and blinded by the assumptions of our interpretation of the world.  This is a recipe for disaster for a democracy, and I think it is the situation in many failed states. 

Big Brother is not our enemy.  Our enemy is a world that we are ignoring more and more as we retreat further and further into ideology and the virtual.  We make this worse by using others as a scapegoat, blaming them instead of seeing that we are all at fault. 

So please, spare me anymore talk of 1984. It is a great book, and if you haven't read it, you should.  But stop the hysteria because it is no more timely now than it was ten years ago.  (I also think Brave New World is a better dystonia novel, philosophy wise. Yet, it is no more timely now than it was 10 years ago.)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Trans-valuation of Values

We need a trans-valuation of values.  Our ideals, values, categories and words need to be examined and refashioned. 

This is a re-drawing of the lines that define things and a re-configuration of the categories we organize things into, especially good and evil, right and wrong.  The world has changed-- both the physical world and the world of thought-- and our way of thinking and speaking of it needs to be re-calibrated. 

Right now it is easy to demonize corporations and profit, and there are a lot of good reasons to question and criticize.  However, these things are necessary for society to be anything like it currently is.  When we demonize them, we are setting them up as a straw-man to be burned. This doesn't really solve any real problems in a way that most people would find desirable.

It is easy to demonize universities and intellectuals, especially those with liberal political agendas.  But again, they are necessary. Without the universities and intellectuals, we are not only ignorant but we are less and less likely to have goals and the ability to think critically no matter how much or little information we have.

These are just two examples.

In addition to that, we have an environment where not supporting something is seen as hating it.  This is the old "if you are not with us you are against us" adage taken to a logically and practically absurd extreme.  If you don't support unrestricted gun ownership, you want to take all of our guns away.  If you don't support some specific push for human rights for some certain group, you hate them.  This is the way that too many people talk and, it seems, the way they think.  It is absurd, but that is hard to see when you are inside of it.  When you are in over your head with those values and categories, it is hard to see things any other way. 

We need to stop entrenching ourselves in our separate camps and demonizing others.  Criticism and debate are good, but there is little of that now because our public discourse is filled with false dichotomies, hyperbole and lack of trust.  What we need is to re-define the words we use and ideals we hold. Lines need to be re-drawn and categories re-configured.  Otherwise we are stuck preaching to the choir on one hand or talking past each other on the other, or worse yet constantly attacking each other.   

This sort of thing is the job of philosophers, theologians and artists.  Yet, these people are not taken seriously these days because science rules.  Science however is (mostly) descriptive, and this task is (largely) prescriptive.  What is worse is that entertainers (some of whom can actually claim the title of artist) are not doing this job even though they think they are.  What they are doing for the most part is simply reaffirming and strengthening the values and ideals that they hold.  They are not refashioning; they are simply reusing, not even recycling them.  And when they are in decline or being questioned (which they proclaim to be attacks and hate) the artists exaggerate and radicalize them to try to prop them up.  That is nothing more than a downward spiral. 

To everyone: Your ideals, values, categories and words do not come from the world. They come from humanity: our minds traditions and habits.

The the political and intellectual elite, and the media: Your ideals, values categories and words correspond less and less with the reality the rest of us live in.

To the artists, especially writers: It is high time to forge new ideals, values, categories and words.  Not to defend the old or completely reject them, but to refashion them into something that can unite and inspire. A trans-valuation of not just values but of reality is needed. Who is up to the task?

(Yes, I am channeling Nietzsche here more than a bit here, but his thoughts in this area are quite timely.)

Friday, November 25, 2016

Post-truth Is a Result of Both the Misunderstanding and Rejection of Post-modernism

We find ourselves in a post-truth world because of the poor way in which we have dealt with the revelations of post-modernism.

Post-modernism does indeed say that there is no truth, but that is only part of the story.  Leaving it there is like saying that there is no time because of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. What Einstein said was that time is relative to the speed an object is traveling at, not that time doesn't exist.

The post-modern revelation was that there is no universal and eternal truths because truth is always relative.  That does not mean that truth is completely arbitrary or completely non-existent.

Truth is relative to time and place, which means it is also relative to the past and the perceived or desired future.  Truth is never simple, and it is rarely easy. It is something that needs to be thought out and also believed in, and it must be believable. It needs to resonate with the people (their experience, community, history and vision of the future) and their physical surroundings.

We live in a post-truth world because some people refuse to believe that truth is relative and insist on a solid universal and/or eternal conception of truth and a storehouse of truths that fit that criteria. These people deny the complexity inherent in reality that post-modernism revealed. Others take up only a simplified and naïve version of post-modernism and insist that truth does not exist at all. 

One side insists on using only truths that deny or ignore the importance of context, truths that they know because of their privileged position and abilities. Meanwhile, the other side takes hold of any idea that is beneficial to them and promotes it as a truth.  Sooner or later, the difference between the sides collapses and they both employ each other's tactics. 

As these two sides fight against one another (and take advantage of the average person as they do so) the idea of truth is torn to shreds.  Both sides use it cynically to gain support for their own agenda. As this goes on any truths that we have and need are trivialized and made ineffective.  People, society and knowledge are left in free-fall, or left to wander in a wasteland.  As this goes on society as a whole and the average person loses.