Friday, December 28, 2007

TMP 2: From the Beginning of Part I to Empericism Versus Rationality

[Part of The Molyneux Project; read the main critique here]

Moving onto the first part of the body of Stefan's book, I was struck by a bout of unclarity in Stefan's writing. First, on page 22, Stefan tells us that "truth" is a relative term, and proceeds to give three examples of the relative nature of truth. I should immediately suggest that "contextual" or "circumstantial" would have been much better, because Relativism is a well-known concept which Stefan explicitly distances himself from repeatedly. But more worrisome was the fact that I was simply unable to understand what Stefan was trying to tell me.

Stefan claims that the following kinds of scenarios demonstrate the relative nature of truth: (1) Object A is seen as having a relatively high degree of quality P when compared to the members of set X, but A would be evaluated as having a relatively lower degree of P if compared to set Y, whose members generally exhibit high degrees of P; (2) In choosing a tool to perform a simple task, tool A is being chosen because it is easier to use than tool B, but if the task were more intricate, tool B would be chosen for being the more precise tool of the two; and (3) The marginal costs of a particular good increase with quantity, while the marginal benefits diminish, so that obtaining a marginal unit of the good is worth the trouble only below a certain threshold.

Honestly, I'm not completely sure how these relate to each other. I mean, at first glance (1) and (2) seem more similar to each other than (3) is to either. But on further reflection, I think that (1) and (2) are so different from each other that I can't figure out what similarity Stefan is trying to coax out.

I had similar trouble on page 24, where Stefan wrote, "Fundamentally, the laws of logic are derived from the behaviour of matter and energy, at least at the perceptual level. If I tell you to throw a ball both up and down at the same time, I am asking for the impossible, which you can easily test by attempting to fulfill my request. If I tell you to plough both the north field and the south field simultaneously, you will be unable to comply. If I demand that you turn a rose into a donkey, my demand will never be met." It seems to me that these examples are also fundamentally different from each other. And this time, I am certain that only one of them describes what Stefan is seemingly attempting to illustrate.

You can't throw a particular ball up and down simultaneously, because "being thrown down" can be accurately described as being logically incompatible with "being thrown up." But "plowing the north field" is not incompatible with "plowing the south field;" it's logically possible to plow them both at the same time (though perhaps no person could do so on her own, she might be able to do it with the help of technology, or alternatively, a giant might be able to). You could say that "turn to the north and plow the field directly in front of you" is logically incompatible with simultaneously turning in some other direction and plowing the field there, but as stated, the example doesn't make sense. The demand that I tun a rose into a donkey is even more confusing, because I'm not even completely sure that a person couldn't turn a rose into a donkey (the technology to do it doesn't exist, but perhaps it could be done someday). I suppose this is a nitpicky objection...

But continuing with the theme of unclear concepts, on page 25 Stefan writes, "Logic as a discipline arises only as a result of the consistency of reality; empirical observations are also valid or invalid only as a result of the consistent nature of reality." I'm not quite sure what he means by this. He could conceivably be saying: (1) The rules of logic, and the reality of experience, are a consequence of order, and would not be true in an unordered universe; (2) logical and empirical statements could not coherently refer to anything in an unordered universe; or (3) the rules of logic could never be understood, and no one could ever gain knowledge of the world from empirical observations, in an unordered world.

Statement (1) seems obviously false; 1+1 would still equal 2, and I would still directly experience sensations, no matter how unpredictable the universe was. I'm not sure how to interpret (2), since it could refer to a few different views, from Berkeleyan idealism to concept empiricism, but nothing that would make sense for Stefan's viewpoint. I'll just assume that he doesn't mean (2). The last possibility, (3), seems like the most likely candidate for being Stefan's true meaning, and if this is so, then I would reject it simply on the basis that we have no way of knowing whether or not it would be true. Perhaps there are innate tendencies to certain sorts of reasoning which would persist in such a world, and perhaps not; it is not within the realm of philosophy to know.

A final difficulty arose from Stefan's two criteria for measuring truth on page 25. I'm not sure what the difference is between saying that "Truth is a measure of the correlation between the ideas in our minds and the consistency of rationality, which is directly derived from the consistent behaviour of matter and energy in the real world" and simply saying that truth must be internally consistent. If that's all he meant, then there's no problem. But if there's something more that explains why it's stated in such a complex manner, I can't figure it out.

But again, I think all this has been a symptom of Stefan dealing with issues that are not central to his argument. For example, on page 26, his discussion of internal consistency lies in the face of centuries of philosophical thought, but not in any way that has any relevance to this book. Our theories don't need to be based on immutable laws because matter acts according to such laws; we can't possibly know that they do, and our theories only posit the existence of such laws because matter seems to act according to immutable laws. Further, anyone positing the existence of free will from the metaphysical libertarian position (no relation to the normative libertarianism) would fiercely contest the view that everything operates according to immutable laws. If another edition of this book is in the works, I'd suggest recruiting the help of a philosopher of metaphysics and epistemology (sorry, not my specialty!). It would save a lot of grief from people like me who have been trained to analyze these sorts of things to death. I think I'm going to call it quits for now, but the section on Ethics next, so I'm starting to get excited!


statis_intellectual said...

I was most interested in the chapter about how Mr Molyneux was determining objective truths about the world, and more so about objective truths from the scientific method.
I ended up reading about Ayn Rand, and objectivist ethics on wikipedia to get a sense of where he was coming from (I actually found the site searching for economics information, but was interested in the libertarian slant having been hearing so much about Ron Paul).
I think the problem in general with objectivist positions, is that the rationale seems to be along the lines of objective truth exists, and can be determined, and when asked to elaborate the reply is "it stands to reason!" and and further pursuit of that point has led to some tiresome exchanges.

Anonymous said...

I have some nitpicking of my own to do:

"I would still directly experience sensations, no matter how unpredictable the universe was."

I find this patently false (though perhaps I interpret the statement differently from the way you mean it).

The laws of physics are, obviously, what they are, and our very existence depends on them being what they are -- if the laws of chemistry or gravity or quantum mechanics fundamentally changed, the forces holding humans together would change -- if the laws were very much different from how they are, it's unlikely we would exist at all.

If there were some nozzle that you could twist to increase the randomness in the universe, and you twisted it up, the particles that make up you would likely just fly apart randomly.

But, aside from that point, I'm enjoying reading your thoughts.

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