Beyond Criticism?

The Retreat To Commitment, by William Warren Bartley III, p 123:
There may, of course, be other nonlogical considerations which lead one to grant that it would be pointless to hold some particular view as being open to criticism. It would, for instance, be a bit silly for me to maintain that I held some statements that I might make—e.g., "I am over two years old"—open to criticism and revision.

Yet the fact that some statements are in some sense like this "beyond criticism" is irrelevant to our problems of relativism, fideism, and scepticism.
The claim that some statements are beyond criticism is anti-fallibilist and anti-Popperian.

It is not at all silly to maintain that the example statement is open to criticism. It's essential. Not doing so would be deeply irrational. We can make mistakes, and denying that has consequences, e.g. we'll wonder: how do we know which things we can't be mistaken about? And that question begs for an authoritarian, as well as false, answer.

You may be thinking, "Yes, Elliot, but you are over two years old, and we both know it, and you can't think of a single way that might be false." But I can.

For example, my understanding of time could contain a mistake. Is that a ridiculous possibility? It is not. Most people today have large mistakes in their understanding of time (and of space)! Einstein and other physicists discovered that and space are connected and it's weird and doesn't follow common sense. For example, the common sense concept of two things happening simultaneously at different places is a mistake: what appears simultaneous actually depends where you watch from. If some common sense notions of time can be mistaken, why laugh off the possibility that our way of keeping track of how much time has passed contains a mistake?

Another issue is when you start counting. At conception? Most people would say at birth. But why birth? Maybe we should start counting from the time Bartley was a person. That may have been before or after birth. According to many people, brain development doesn't finish until age 20 or so. In that case, a 21 year old might only have been a full person for one year.

Of course there are plenty of other ways the statement could be mistaken. We must keep an open mind to them so that when someone has a new, counter-intuitive idea we don't just laugh at him but listen. Sure the guy might be a crank, but if we ignore all such ideas that will include the good ones.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (94)

Whirlwind Tour of Justificationism

From an email thread about free will:

Once upon a time (624 BC) Thales was born. Thus began philosophy.

Thales invented criticism. Instead of telling his followers what to believe, he made suggestions, and asked that they think for themselves and form their own ideas.

A little later, Xenophanes invented fallibility and the idea of seeking the truth to improve our knowledge without finding the final truth. He also identified and criticized parochialism.

In the tradition of Thales and Xenophanes came Socrates, the man who was wise for admitting his vast ignorance (among other things).

But only two generations after Socrates, philosophy was changed dramatically by Aristotle. Aristotle invented justificationism which has been the dominant school of philosophy since, and which opposes the critical, fallibilist philosophies which preceded him (and which were revived by Popper and Deutsch).

Aristotle's way of thinking had some major strands such as:

1) he wanted episteme -- objectively true knowledge.
2) he wanted to guarantee that he really had episteme -- he wanted justified, true knowledge. he rejected doxa (conjecture).
3) he thought he had episteme -- he was "the man who knows"
4) he thought he had justification
5) in relation to this, he invented induction as a method of justifying knowledge

Thus Aristotle rejected the fallibilist, uncertain ethos of striving to improve that preceded him, and replaced it with an authoritarian approach seeking guarantees and to establish existing knowledge against doubt.

Induction, as well as all other attempts, were unable to justify knowledge. Nothing can guarantee that some idea is episteme, so all attempts to do it failed.

Much later, Bacon attached induction to science and empiricism. And some people like Hume noticed it didn't work. But they didn't know what to do without it because they were still focussed on the same problem situation Aristotle had laid out: that we should justify our knowledge and find guarantees. So without induction they still had to figure out how to do that, and salvaging induction seemed easier than starting over. Hence the persistent interest in reviving induction.

What Popper did is go back to the old pre-Aristotle philosophical tradition which favors criticism and fallibilism, and which has no need for justification. Popper accepted that doxa (conjectures) have value, as Xenophanes had, and he explained how we can improve our knowledge without justification. He also refuted a bunch of justificationist ideas.

Then David Deutsch wrote "A Conversation About Justification" in _The Fabric of Reality_.

So how does that relate to free will? The basic argument against free will goes like this, "There is no way to justify free will, or guarantee it exists, therefore it's nonsense." The primary argument against free will is nothing but a demand for justification in the Aristotelian style.

As an example, one might say free will is nothing but a conjecture without an empirical evidence. To translate, that means free will is merely doxa, and hasn't got any empirical justification. This is essentially true, but not actually a problem.

Arguments against free will take many guises, but justificationist thinking is the basic theme giving them appeal.

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Popper Against Violence

we have a duty towards our children: to educate them, to teach them to construct a better world. A less violent world. For the goal of civilization is precisely the elimination of violence.
In An Introduction To The Thought Of Karl Popper by Roberta Corvi which gives the cite Corriere della Sera, 16 July 1992.

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Critical Rationalism: Essays for Joseph Agassi

Here are some comments on essays from the two volume book Critical Rationalism: Essays for Joseph Agassi

Paul Feyerabend / Universals as Tyrants and Mediators

No strong thesis. (No point.)

Ben-Ami Scharfstein / Our Difficulties in Finding the Right Words

Thesis is that Popper was wrong in "The Myth of the Framework". But he doesn't mention Popper or seem aware of Popper's arguments. He just says stuff Popper already refuted. Also I easily thought a bunch of severe criticisms while reading it. Also it was offensive because it said that blind or deaf people don't think like full human beings.

Also it's careless, e.g. it says "What the adult finds so difficult, the young child finds impossible." But a young child can do it, at the very least, by the method of growing up to be an adult then doing it. So it's not impossible for him. Truth is hard to come by so we have to be more careful than that.

Abner Shimony / The Confrontation and Monadology

Very short dialogs with lots of metaphorical and poetic type language and no clear arguments. Philosophy needs to make clear, understandable statements to be any good.

John Watkins / Epiphenomenalism and Human Reason

No strong thesis or conclusion. Has textual analysis about what specific people thought and meant to say (who cares?). Also contains a list of 5 arguments for pessimism and point by point optimistic commentary which is OK.

Hans Albert / Religion, Science, and the Myth of the Framework

Meandering religious discussion. Concludes atheism is true for some reason (old news, isn't it?). No strong thesis.

Tom Settle / You Can't Haev Science As Your Religion!

Pleasant, conversational writing style. Anti-materialist themes. Complains that the "selfish" gene theory of Dawkins is able to explain "altruistic" behaviors of animals. Calls Dawkins' approach "an impertinent and even insulting program" over this superficial clash of words. He doesn't argue his strong, closed-minded insults made from ignorance.

Nathaniel Loar / Religion and Rational Philosophy: Coming of Age

Lots of discussion of what other people said (who cares? I wanted a thesis). But bonus points for mentioning Xenophanes. The most interesting part was some negative comments on Bartley's views: apparently he was quite religious in outlook.

David Miller / How Little Uniformity Need an Inductive Inference Presuppose

Discussing induction with formal symbols and a formal style does not suddenly make it interesting. Popper refuted it more than enough times, and this isn't even a refutation. Most of this is tedious analysis of many possible meanings of sentences inductivists have uttered. It also comes to a conclusion about how the more evidence you have, the less strong of an inductive principle is needed. This is a vaguely pro-induction conclusion which Miller follows up by insulting induction for some reason. And anyway it can't be true unless Popper was wrong about induction's non-sequitur status, e.g. this whole argument presupposes you can have positive evidence for statements which actually you can't.

Mario Bunge / The Poverty of Rational Choice Theory

This one has a clear thesis: rational choice theory is flawed. OK, cool, and I agree. But the quality of argument is poor. Example:
[Gary S. Becker] concluded [in his 1955 Ph.D. dissertation] that discrimination by whites against blacks reduces the incomes of both groups — a result that went against the conventinoal wisdom that discrimination favors the whites. Regardless of the truth value of this conclusion, it clearly refutes the "rationality" assumption. Indeed, if discrimination does go against the self-interest of the whites, why have so many of them been practicing it systematically and for so long in the USA, Africa, and elsewhere? Was it not because it is highly profitable at least in the (rather longish) short run?
Bunge says the truth value of the conclusion doesn't matter. But it does. If it's false that racial discrimination is counter-productive, then racism presents no problem to the rationality principle. It's only if Becker's conclusion is true that a bunch of white people have behaved contrary to their self-interest.

Bunge then asks why people did it. Maybe because they were racists? Maybe they didn't know it was counter-productive. Maybe they didn't think about economic efficiency when choosing the behavior. Easy question to answer, yet somehow Bunge seems to think he's scored a strong point with his rhetorical question that isn't supposed to leave Becker an answer. Finally Bunge asserts without argument (in the form of a question) that Becker was wrong. If you're going to bring up Becker's dissertation, and say it is false and actually racisim is profitable, shouldn't you mention some of Becker's arguments and criticize them?

Also, btw, Bunge's pro-racism views seem to me the kind of thing one should be a bit more catious about. Do you really want to assert racisim is beneficial without careful deliberation and argument? That's the kind of really awful, anti-liberal conclusion I'd want to be thoughtful about.

By the way this whole thing is a bit strange because Becker's conclusion that people did something that wasn't in their interest clearly contradicts the rational choice theory Bunge says he was advocating (which says people always know what's in their interest and do it).

By the way, rational choice theory, in that incarnation, is ridiculous since just plain ignores ignorance including ignorances of not-yet-invented technologies. If it was right I would have invented the iPhone before Apple since it was in my interest to do so. Except Apple would have invented the iPhone earlier too since that was in their interest. And don't forget my neighbor. This thing is quite a mess!

Noretta Koertge / A Popperian Sociology of Science: The Problem of Credit

Belives there is such thing as "epistemic weight" which is justificationist (weight = amount of justification/authority provided). Uses the common technique of discussing arguments other people wrote instead of providing a strong, original thesis. And, as is common, it picks a variety of boring and unimportant arguments to discuss, such as the feminist claim that it's undesirable for science to be objective because science should incorporate progressive political views.

It considers what it'd be like if all academic papers were published anonymously so people didn't worry about credit and fame, only content.

Lawrence A. Boland / Style Vs. Substance In Economic Metholodogy

It says:
One would think that given all the current discussion of Karl Popper's views of the philosophy of science that communication ought to be easy
But that is not what Popper said nor what his views mean. It's a lot closer to the opposite. Communication is hard, hence Popper's view that by an effort we can learn from each other. The effort is required because of the difficulty to communication (and knowledge creation generally).

Ernest Gellner / Promethus Perplexed

Perplexing mix of stuff. Boring for lack of a strong thesis (i.e. lack of a point).

Jeremy Shearmur / Philosophical Method, Modified Essentialism and the Open Society

His comments about how Aggasi's work is hard to understand due to lack of structure were interesting, and apply somewhat to Popper. He made some good points about ways thinkers can go wrong.

Gershon Weiler / Reason and Myth in Politics

Promised discussion about Israel in the introduction but then mostly talked about Plato. I was disappointed.

Jagdish Hattiangadi / The First World War and 1991

Makes the good point that "liberal nationalism" (which apparently Aggasi advocated) is a contradiction. In my words, liberalism is about cooperation and harmony and the resolution of conflicts, and nationalism sets up separate groups with separate interests and thereby irreconcilable conflicts. Hattiangadi points out a different contradiction about how liberalism allows autonomy to individuals and nationalism instead to groups.

Makes several comments about Edmumd Burke which are wrong. One fact they are incompatible with is Godwin's extreme praise for Burke. (This makes a good generic criticism of all wrong-headed attitudes towards Burke. Just ask yourself: if this was true, would Godwin have liked Burke so much?)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

The Most Important Improvement to Popperian Philosophy of Science

Here is (my summary, my words) the most important idea contributed to Popper's philosophy of science by someone other than Popper. It was contributed by David Deutsch in his book The Fabric of Reality:

Most ideas are criticized and rejected for being bad explanations. This is true even in science where they could be tested. Even most proposed scientific ideas are rejected, without testing, for being bad explanations.

Although tests are valuable, Popper's over-emphasis on testing mischaracterizes science and sets it further apart from philosophy than need be. In both science and abstract philosophy, most criticism revolves around good and bad explanations. It's largely the same epistemology. The possibility of empirical testing in science is a nice bonus, not a necessary part of creating knowledge.

In his book, David Deutsch gives this example: Consider the theory that eating grass cures colds. He says we can reject this theory without testing it.

He's right, isn't he? Should we hire a bunch of sick college students to eat grass? That would be silly. There is no explanation of how grass cures colds, so nothing worth testing. (Non-explanation is a common type of bad explanation!)

Narrow focus on testing -- especially as a substitute for support/justification -- is one of the major ways of misunderstanding Popperian philosophy. Deutsch's improvement shows how its importance is overrated and, besides being true, is better in keeping with the fallibilist spirit of Popper's thought (we don't need something "harder" or "more sciency" or whatever than critical argument!).

Emphasis on explanations is a theme with Deutsch. His upcoming book, The Beginning of Infinity is subtitled "Explanations that transform the world".

Another big idea of Deutsch's is that Popperian epistemology is true for all people. It sounds obvious when stated in that form, but it becomes controversial when one mentions that children are included in "all people". I think Popper would have approved of this, but he didn't go through and explain the consequences and implications for education. Deutsch has done so in detail.


In An Introduction To The Thought Of Karl Popper, p 41, Roberta Corvi summarizes Popper, "The practical problem of induction is thereby solved: it is transformed into the problem of testing a theory". This is just the kind of empiricist mistake which Deutsch has improved on. Empirical approaches are insufficient in general because they cannot address philosophy (and epistemology should apply to all knowledge), but even in science when testing is possible, strong empiricism (i.e. we learn primarily using observation) is still a mistake.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (6)

Popper on "Evident" Ideas

An Introduction To The Thought Of Karl Popper, p 151, by Roberta Corvi quotes Popper:
the task of the professional philosopher is critically to investigate the things that so many others accept as evident. In fact, quite a lot of such opinions are mere prejudices, uncritically accepted as evident by very often simply false. And to get away from them, perhaps something like a professional philosopher is required, who will take his time to reflect on them critically.
which is from pages 8-9 of Offene Gesellschaft, offenes Universum, Franz Deuticke, Vienna, 1982

So whenever someone says an idea is too obvious for critical debate, too evident to take seriously disagreement about it, too well established to doubt ... well, that's silly. As Popper points out, people take for granted many false ideas, so the fact that it seems really obvious to you is no guide to its truth.

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The Search of Truth Presupposes Ethics

The fact that science cannot make any pronouncement about ethical principles has been misinterpreted as indicating that there are no such principles; while in fact the search of truth presupposes ethics
From Karl Popper, «Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind», in: Gerard Radnitzky and William W. Bartley, III (editors), Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1987), p. 141., found online at

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How Inductivists Think About Bias

I just saw someone making an argument that something is unbiased because no one tried to bias it or designed it to be biased.

In other words, he thinks that not being biased is the automatic default.

I think this is what many inductivists think: that all the theories they make up and claim to have induced are not just bias talking. And why do they think it's not bias but rather a hint coming from the evidence itself? Because it can't be bias because they didn't intend any bias or do it on purpose. Simple as that.

But actually epistemology/reality is the other way around: everything is biased by default (a lot, not a little), and it is only with great care and effort that we can get anything that isn't biased.

It's as Feynman said: it's easy to fool ourselves, and science is what we've learned about how to not fool ourselves. Or in other words, bias is the default and the scientific method consists of doing everything we know how to in order to reduce bias.

You can tell there is a lot of bias to overcome because of how careful scientists have to be to get good results. It's not that the scientists are bad people or anything like that, it's simply that avoiding bias takes skill and effort not just a lack of bad intentions.

David Deutsch says about this (quoted with permission):
It's the intentional fallacy. If something is bad, a bad person must have done it. If something is biased, a biased person must have done it. And therefore if we are all pure and unbiased, we are infallible.
That reminds me of *early* induction. According to Popper (with textual evidence and good arguments), Bacon's conception of induction was a bit different than what you usually run into today. The main idea was to *purge your mind of bias*[1]. Then you can read nature like an open book and make zero mistakes and finish learning all of science in a few years.

This is (again via Popper) building on the *original* meaning of induction which comes from Aristotle (who falsely attributed it to Socrates) which was about maieutics. The idea is, very roughly, that the truth is trivial (and already inside us, I think) and the only obstacle to the truth is therefore bias.

[1] How do you know what is a bias and what isn't? Easy. It's all bias. Just empty your mind completely. That's Bacon's way.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

Epistemology Without Weights and the Mistake Objectivism and Critical Rationalism Both Made

Objectivists accuse Popperians of being skeptics. Popperians accuse Objectivists of being infallibilists. Actually, both philosophies are valuable and largely compatible. I present here some integrating ideas and then a mistake that both philosophies made.

Knowledge is certain, absolute, contextual, conclusive and progressive. The standard of knowledge is conclusiveness not infallibility, perfection or omniscience.

Certain means we should act on it instead of hesitating. We should follow its implications and use it, rather than sitting around doubting, wondering, scared it might be wrong. Certain also means that it is knowledge, as opposed to non-knowledge; it denies skepticism.

Absolute means no contradictions, compromises or exceptions are allowed.

Contextual means that knowledge must be considered in context. A good idea in one context may not be a good idea when transplanted into another context. No knowledge could hold up against arbitrary context switches and context dropping.

Further, knowledge is problem oriented. Knowledge needs some problem(s) or question(s) for context, which it addresses or solves. Knowledge has to be knowledge about something, with some purpose. This implies: if you have an answer to a question, and then in the future you learn more, the old answer still answers the old question. It's still knowledge in its original, intended context.

Consider blood types. People wanted to know which blood transfusions were safe (among other questions) and they created some knowledge of A, B, AB and O blood types. Later they found out more. Actually there is A+, A-, B+, B-, AB+, AB-, O+ and O-. It was proper to act on the earlier knowledge in its context. It would not be proper to act on it today; now we know that some B type blood is incompatible with some other B type blood. Today's superior knowledge of blood types is also contextual. Maybe there will be a new medical breakthrough next year. But it's still knowledge in today's context, and it's proper to act on it.

One thing to learn here is that a false idea can be knowledge. The idea that all B type blood is compatible is contextual knowledge. It was always false, as a matter of fact, and the mistake got some people killed. Yet it was still knowledge. How can that be?

Perfection is not the standard of knowledge. And not all false ideas are equally good. What matters is the early idea about blood types had value, it had useful information, it helped make many correct decisions, and no better idea was available at the time. That value never goes away even when we learn about a mistake. That original value is still knowledge, considered contextually, even though the idea as a whole is now known to be false.

Conclusive means the current context only allows for one rational conclusion. This conclusion is not infallible, but it's the only reasonable option available. All the alternative ideas have known flaws; they are refuted. There's only one idea left which is not refuted, which could be true, is true as far as we know (no known flaws), and which we should therefore accept. And that is knowledge.

None of this contradicts the progressive character of knowledge. Our knowledge is not frozen and final. We can learn more and better – without limit. We can keep identifying and correcting errors in our ideas and thereby achieve better and better knowledge. (One way knowledge can be better is that it is correct in more contexts and successfully addresses more problems and questions.)

The Mistake

Peikoff says that certainty (meaning conclusive knowledge) is when you get to the point that nothing else is possible. He means that, in the current context, there are no other options. There's just one option, and we should accept it. All the other ideas have something wrong with them, they can't be accepted. This is fine.

Peikoff also says that before you have certainty you have a different situation where there are multiple competing ideas. Fine. And that's not certainty, that's not conclusive knowledge, it's a precursor stage where you're considering the ideas. Fine.

But then Peikoff makes what I think is an important mistake. He says that if you don't have knowledge or certainty, you can still judge by the weight of the evidence. This is a standard view held by many non-Objectivists too. I think this is too compromising. I think the choices are knowledge or irrationality. We need knowledge; nothing less will suffice.

The weight of the evidence is no good. Either you have knowledge or you don't. If it's not knowledge, it's not worth anything. You need to come up with a good idea – no compromises, no contradictions, no known problems – and use that. If you can't or won't do that, all you have left is the irrationality of acting on and believing arbitrary non-knowledge.

I think we can always act on knowledge without contradictions. Knowledge is always possible to man. Not all knowledge instantly, but enough knowledge to act, in time to act. We may not know everything – but we don't need to. We can always know enough to continue life rationally. Living and acting by reason and knowledge is always possible.

(How can we always do this? That will be the subject of another essay. I'm not including any summary or hints because I think it's too confusing and misleading without a full explanation. Edit: here is the follow up essay.)

Knowledge doesn't allow contradictions. Suppose you're considering two ideas that contradict each other. And you don't have a conclusive answer, you don't have knowledge of which is right. Then using or believing either one is irrational. No "weight of the evidence" or anything else can change this.

Don't pick a side when you know there is a contradiction but have not rationally resolved it. Resolve it; create knowledge; learn; think; figure it out. Neither idea being considered is good enough to address the contradiction or refute the other idea – so you know they are both flawed. Don't hope or pray that acting on a known-to-be-flawed idea will work out anyway. Irrationality doesn't work.

That's not good enough. If you discover a contradiction, you should resolve it rationally. If you fail at that – fail at the use of reason – then that's bad, that's a disaster, that's not OK.

Karl Popper made the same mistake in a different form. He said that we critically analyze competing ideas and the one that best survives criticism should be acted on. Again this is too compromising. Either exactly one idea survives criticism, or else there is still a contradiction. "Best survives criticism", and "weight of the evidence", are irrational ways of arbitrarily elevating one flawed idea over another, instead of using reason to come up with a correct idea.

(For some further discussion about weighing ideas, see also the choices chapter of The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch.)

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Induction is Wrong. A lot

There are two particularly hard parts of explaining why induction is false. First, there are many refutations. Where do you start? Second, most refutations are targeted at professional philosophers. What most people mean by "induction" varies a great deal.

Most professional philosophers are strongly attached to the concept of induction and know what it is. Most people are strongly attached to the word "induction" and will redefine it in response to criticism.

In *The World of Parmenides*, Popper gives a short refutation of induction. It's updated from an article in Nature. It involves what most people would consider a bunch of tricky math. To seriously defend induction, doesn't one need to understand arguments like this and address them?

Some professional philosophers do read and respond to this kind of thing. You can argue with them. You can point out a mistake in their response. But what do you do with people who aren't familiar with the material and think it's above their head?

If you aren't familiar with this argument against induction, how do you know induction is any good? If you don't have a first hand understanding of both the argument and a mistake in it, then why take sides in favor of induction?

Actually, inductivists have more responses open to them than pointing out a mistake in the argument or rejecting induction (or evading, or pleading ignorance). Do you know what the other important option is? Or will you hear it for the first time from me in the next paragraph, and then adopt it as your position? I don't recommend getting your position on induction from someone who thinks induction is a mistake – all the defenses I bring up are things I already know about and I *still* consider induction to be mistaken.

Another option is to correctly point out that Popper's refutation only applies to some meanings of "induction", not all. It's possible to have a position on induction which is only refuted by other arguments, not by this particular one. I won't help you too much though. What do you have to mean by "induction" to not be refuted by this particular argument? What can't you mean? You figure it out.

Popper argues against induction in books like LScD, C&R, OK, RASc. Deutsch does in FoR and BoI. Should I repeat points which are already published? What for? If some inductivist doesn't care to read the literature, will my essay do any good? Why would it?

I recently spoke with some Objectivists who said they weren't in favor of enumerative induction. They were in favor of the other kind. What other kind? How does it work? Where are the details? They wouldn't say. How do you argue with that? Someone told me that OPAR solves the problem of induction. OPAR, like ITOE, actually barely mentions induction. Some other Objectivists were Bayesians. Never mind that Bayesian epistemology contradicts Objectivist epistemology. In any case, dealing with Bayesians is *different*.

One strategy is to elicit from people *their* ideas about induction, then address those. That poses several problems. For one thing, it means you have to write a personalized response to each person, not a single essay. (But we already have general purpose answers by Popper and Deutsch published, anyway.) Another problem is that most people's ideas about induction are vague. And they only successfully communicate a fraction of their ideas about it.

How do you argue with people who have only a vague notion of what "induction" is, but who are strongly attached to defending "induction"? They shouldn't be advocating induction at all without a better idea of what it means, let alone strongly.

There are many other difficulties as well. For example, no one has ever written a set of precise instructions for how to do induction. They will tell me that I do it every day, but they never give me any instructions so how am I supposed to do it even once? Well I do it without knowing it, they say. Well how do they know that? To decide I did induction, you'd have to first say what induction is (and how it works, and what actions do and don't constitute doing induction) and then compare what I did against induction. But they make no such comparison – or won't share it.

Often one runs into the idea that if you get some general theories, then you did induction. Period, the end. Induction means ANY method of getting general theories whatsoever. This vacuous definition helps explain why some people are so attached to "induction". But it is not the actual meaning of "induction" in philosophy which people have debated. Of course there is SOME way to get general theories – we know that because we have them – the issue is how do you do it? Induction is an attempt to give an answer to that, not a term to be attached to any answer to it.

And yet I will try. Again. But I would like suggestions about methods.

Induction says that we learn FROM observation data. Or at least from actively interpreted ideas about observation data. The induced ideas are either INFALLIBLE or SUPPORTED. The infallible version was refuted by Hume among others. As a matter of logic, inductive conclusions aren't infallibly proven. It doesn't work. Even if you think deduction or math is infallible (it's not), induction STILL wouldn't be infallible.

Infallible means error is ABSOLUTELY 100% IMPOSSIBLE. It means we'll never improve our idea about this. This is it, this is the final answer, the end, nothing more to learn. It's the end of thinking.

Although most Objectivists (and most people in general) are infallibilists, Objectivism rejects infallibilism. Many people are skeptical of this and often deny being infallibilists. Why? Because they are only infallibilists 1% of the time; most of their thinking, most of the time, doesn't involve infallibilism. But that makes you an infallibilist. It's just like if you only think 1% of haunted houses really have a ghost, you are superstitious.

So suppose induction grants fallible support. We still haven't said how you do induction, btw. But, OK, what does fallible support mean? What does it do? What do you do with it? What good is it?

Support is only meaningful and useful if it helps you differentiate between different ideas. It has to tell you that idea X is better than idea Y which is better than idea Z. Each idea has an amount of support on a continuum and the ones with more support are better.

Apart from this not working in the first place (how much support is assigned to which idea by which induction? there's no answer), it's also irrational. You have these various ideas which contradict each other, and you declare one "better" in some sense without resolving the contradiction. You must deal with the contradiction. If you don't know how to address the contradiction then you don't know which is right. Picking one is arbitrary and irrational.

Maybe X is false and Y is true. You don't know. What does it matter that X has more support?

Why does X have more support anyway? Every single piece of data you have to induce from does not contradict Y. If it did contradict Y, Y would be refuted instead of having some lesser amount of support. Every single piece of data is consistent with both X and Y. It has the same relationship with X and with Y. So why does Y have more support?

So what really happens if you approach this rationally is everything that isn't refuted has exactly the same amount of support. Because it is compatible with exactly the same data set. So really there are only two categories of ideas: refuted and non-refuted. And that isn't induction. I shouldn't have to say this, but I do. That is not induction. That is Popper. That is a rejection of induction. That is something different. If you want to call that "induction" then the word "induction" loses all meaning and there's no word left to refer to the wrong ideas about epistemology.

Why would some piece of data that is consistent with both X and Y support X over Y? There is no answer and never has been. (Unless X and Y are themselves probabilistic theories. If X says that a piece of data is 90% likely and Y says it's 20% likely, then if that data is observed the Bayesians will start gloating. They'd be wrong. That's another story. But why should I tell it? You wouldn't have thought of this objection yourself. You only know about it because I told you, and I'm telling you it's wrong. Anyway, for now just accept that what I'm talking about works with all regular ideas that actually assert things about reality instead of having built-in maybes.)

Also, the idea of support really means AUTHORITY. Induction is one of the many attempts to introduce authority into epistemology.

Authority in epistemology is abused in many ways. For example, some people think their idea has so much authority that if there is a criticism of it, that doesn't matter. It'd take like 5 criticisms to reduce its authority to the point where they might reject it. This is blatantly irrational. If there is a mistake in your idea it's wrong. You can't accept or evade any contradictions, any mistakes. None. Period.

Just the other day a purported Objectivist said he was uncomfortable that if there is one criticism of an idea then that's decisive. He didn't say why. I know why. Because that leaves no room for authority. But I've seen this a hundred times. It's really common.

If no criticism is ever ignored, the authority never actually gets to do anything. Irrationally ignoring criticism is the main purpose of authority in epistemology. Secondary purposes include things like intimidating people into accepting your idea.

But wait, you say, induction is a method of MAKING theories. We still need it for that even if it doesn't grant them support/authority.

Well, is it really a method of making theories? There's a big BLANK OUT in the part of induction where it's supposed to actually tell you what to do to make some theories. What is step one? What is step two? What always fills in this gap is intuition, common sense, and sometimes, for good measure, some fallacies (like that correlation implies or hints at causation).

In other words, induction means think of theories however (varies from person to person), call it "induction", and never consider or examine or criticize or improve your methods of thinking (since you claim to be using a standard method, no introspection is necessary).

For any set of data, infinitely many general conclusions are logically compatible. Many people try to deny this. As a matter of logic they are just wrong. (Some then start attacking logic itself and have the audacity to call themselves Objectivists). Should I go into this? Should I give an example? If I give an example, everyone will think the example is STUPID. It will be. So what? Logic doesn't care what sounds dumb. And I said infinitely many general conclusions, not infinitely many general conclusions that are wise. Of course most of them are dumb ideas.

So now a lot of people are thinking: induce whichever one isn't dumb. Not the dumb ones. That's how you pick.

Well, OK, and how do you decide what's dumb? That takes thinking. So in order to do induction (as it's just been redefined), in one of the steps, you have to think. That means we don't think by induction. Thinking is a prerequisite for induction (as just redefined), so induction can't be part of thinking.

What happens here is the entirety of non-inductivist epistemology is inserted as one of the steps of induction and is the only reason it works. All the induction stuff is unnecessary and unhelpful. Pick good ideas instead of dumb ones? We could have figured that out without induction, it's not really helping.

Some people will persevere. They will claim that it's OBVIOUS which ideas are dumb or not – no thinking required. What does that mean? It means they can figure it out in under 3 seconds. This is silly. Under 3 seconds of thinking is still thinking.

Do you see what I mean about there are so many things wrong with induction it's hard to figure out where to start? And it's hard to go through them in an orderly progression because you start talking about something and there's two more things wrong in the middle. And here I am on this digression because most defenses of induction – seriously this is the standard among non-professionals – involve a denial of logic.

So backing up, supposedly induction helps us make theories. How? Which ones? By what steps do we do it? No answers. And how am I supposed to prove a negative? How do I write an essay saying "induction has no answers"? People will say I'm ignorant and if only I read the right book I'd see the answer. People will say that just because we don't know the answer doesn't mean there isn't one. (And remember that refutation of induction I mentioned up top? Remember Popper's arguments that induction is impossible? They won't have read any of that, let alone refuted it.)

And I haven't even mentioned some of the severe flaws in induction. Induction as originally intended – and it's still there but it varies, some people don't do this or aren't attached to it – meant you actually read the book of nature. You get rid of all your prejudices and biases and empty your mind and then you read the answers straight FROM the observation data. Sound like a bad joke? Well, OK, but it's an actual method of how to do induction. It has instructions and steps you could follow, rather than evasion. If you think it's a bad joke, how much better is it to replace those concrete steps with vagueness and evasion?

Many more subtle versions of this way of thinking are still popular today. The idea of emptying your mind and then surely you'll see the truth isn't so popular. But the idea that data can hint or lead or point is still popular. But completely false. Observation data is inactive and passive. Further, there's so much of it. Human thinking is always selective and active. You decide which data to focus on, and which ways to approach the issue, and what issues to care about, and so on. Data has to be interpreted, by you, and then it is you interpretations, not the data itself, which may give you hints or leads. To the extent data seems to guide you, it's always because you added guidance into the data first. It isn't there in the raw data.

Popper was giving a lecture and at the start he said, "Observe!" People said, "Observe what?" There is no such thing as emptying your mind and just observing and being guided by the data. First you must think, first you must have ideas about what you're looking for. You need interests, problems, expectations, ideas. Then you can observe and look for relevant data.

The idea that we learn FROM observation is flawed in another way. It's not just that thinking comes first (which btw again means we can't think by induction since we have to think BEFORE we have useful data). It also misstates the role of data in thinking. Observations can contradict things (via arguments, not actually directly). They can rule things out. If the role of data is to rule things out, then whatever positive ideas we have we didn't learn from the data. What we learned from the data, in any sense, is which things to reject, not which to accept.

Final point. Imagine a graph with a bunch of dots on it. Those are data points. And imagine a line connecting the dots would be a theory that explained them. This is a metaphor. Say there are a hundred points. How many ways can you draw a line connecting them? Answer: infinitely many. If you don't get that, think about it. You could take a detour anywhere on the coordinate plane between any two connections.

So we have this graph and we're connecting the dots. Induction says: connect the dots and what you get is supported, it's a good theory. How do I connect them? It doesn't say. How do people do it? They will draw a straight line, or something close to that, or make it so you get a picture of a cow, or whatever else seems intuitive or obvious to them. They will use common sense or something – and never figure out the details of how that works and whether they are philosophically defensible and so on.

People will just draw using unstated theories about which types of lines to prefer. That's not a method of thinking, it's a method of not thinking.

They will rationalize it. They may say they drew the most "simple" line and that's Occam's razor. When confronted with the fact that other people have different intuitions about what lines look simple, they will evade or attack those people. But they've forgotten that we're trying to explain how to think in the first place. If understanding Occam's razor and simplicity and stuff is a part of induction and thinking, then it has to be done without induction. So all this understanding and stuff has to come prior to induction. So really the conclusion is we don't think by induction, we have a whole method of thinking which works and is a prerequisite for induction. Induction wouldn't solve epistemology, it'd presuppose epistemology.

What we really know, from the graph with the data points, is that all lines which don't go through every point are wrong. We rule out a lot. (Yes, there's always the possibility of our data having errors. That's a big topic I'm not going to go into. Regardless, the possibility of data errors does not help induction's case!)

And what about the many lines which aren't ruled out by the data? That's where philosophy comes in! We don't and can't learn everything from the data. Data is useful but isn't the answer. We always have to think and do philosophy to learn. We need criticisms. Yes, lots of those lines are "dumb". There are things wrong with them. We can use criticism to rule them out.

And then people will start telling me how inconvenient and roundabout that is. But it's the only way that works. And it's not inconvenient. Since it's the only way that works, it's what you do when you think successfully. Do you find thinking inconvenient? No? Then apparently you can do critical thinking in a convenient, intuitive, fast way.

At least you can do critical thinking when you're not irrational defending "induction" because in your mind it has authority.

EDIT: Some more problems with induction I didn't mention:

"the future is like the past" principle. or "the future will resemble the past". or other similar formulations. the problem is the future always resembles the past in some ways and not others. which are which? induction doesn't tell you which are which. instead it implicitly smuggles in thinking as a prerequisite to figure that out. (so it presupposes, rather than explains, thinking).

Induction is supposed to be a solution to epistemology but doesn't address Paley's problem.

The issue of how we think about abstract non-empirical ideas is not addressed by induction.

See also:

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)