The Nature of Knowledge

A Transcript from The Reasoning Show podcasts.

Copyright April 2007 David Quinn

Guest:    Victor Danilchenko
Hosts:    Dan Rowden, David Quinn


Dan Rowden:   Hello and welcome to The Reasoning Show, discussions of pure reasoning aimed at the very heart of matters.  I'm Dan Rowden, I'll be your host for this our very first show, in what we hope will be a long and auspicious venture.  With me today is Reasoning Show co-host and co-producer, and self-professed sage about town, David Quinn.  Are you there, David?

David Quinn:   Yes.   Hi, Dan.   It's good to be part of this new venture, isn't it?   It's going to be interesting to see how it unfolds, I think.   We haven't really done much of this sort of thing before - podcasting.

Dan:   That's right.   It is our first venture into this sort of thing, so hopefully it'll work out okay.   Before I introduce our guest, and the subject for this particular discussion, I believe that you have a thing or two you'd like to explain about the nature of The Reasoning Show venture?

David:   Yeah, I just wanted to say a couple of things about it.   As the title suggests, The Reasoning Show is going to involve reasoning.    So, we're going to be inviting people onto the program and engaging in rational discussion with them, primarily about philosophical and spiritual matters.   I think one of the things that will distinguish this show from other philosophic shows is that, throughout all the discussions and throughout the shows, the various shows, we as hosts are going to be maintaining a focus on what is ultimately true in life.   So, in other words, we're not really interested in the superficial stuff, like whether instrumentalism is better than scientific realism, or whether Lutherism is better than Catholicism.   We have no interest in that kind of thing.   What we're interested in is getting to the very core of all scientific thought, or all Christian thought, or all Buddhist thought, or whatever it might be.   We want to get to the core of these things, and go beyond them to what is fundamental to Reality.    The other point I want to make is that where this show will be distinguished, from other shows, is the manner in which we treat our guests.   And of course, we're going to be polite, and respectful, to our guests, and we're going to give them ample time to put forward their views and so forth.   What we won't be doing is deferring to them simply on the basis of what qualifications they have, or what books they've published, or how many times they've been cited in a journal, or whether they've been called "Reverend" or "Master".   Again, we have no interest in that kind of thing.   What we will be focussing on is the quality of their thoughts they bring to the program.   So we're going to ignore all the external paraphernalia.    We're just going to focus purely on the words that are presented to the program, and we're going to respond to whatever is rational or irrational in them.   So, I guess what I'm saying is that The Reasoning Show embodies this point, is that we're going to be holding up reasoning and truth as the prime considerations, and it's up to us as guests, and as hosts, to leave our egos aside and participate in this reasoning process as much as possible.   How does that sound to you, Dan?

Dan:   Sounds fantastic to me!

David:   We'll see how it goes.

Dan:   We shall, we shall.   Ok, with all that, I'll just announce the topic, and our guest.   And the topic of today's discussion, put rather loosely, is "the nature of knowledge".   In it, we'll be exploring the differences between the logical and empirical approaches to gaining knowledge of the nature of our world, and the kind of knowledge to which both approaches is best suited.   And, to some extent, where they may intersect or overlap.   Our guest today, who'll be helping us unravel the truths of these issues, is Victor Danilchenko.   Victor is a UNIX systems administrator and database programmer at the University of Massachusetts.   I'm glad I got that out.   He was born in the Soviet Union, has always been interested in the sciences, but became interested in philosophy as soon as he became aware of the issues beyond the mundane aspects of daily life.   Though he says he identifies as a pantheist, I guess more technically and precisely, he's a pragmatic physicalist with a phenomenological bent.    He rejects ontology outright and considers it to be a waste of neural activity.   He says his main guiding interest is knowledge and that epistomology subsumes ontology anyway.   Hello, Victor, and welcome to The Reasoning Show.

Victor Danilchenko:   Nice to be here.   Although that's Master Reverend Victor.

Dan:   [Laughs]   Welcome Master Reverend Victor.   Just to kick-start things off, I wanted to ask you about your personal philosophy.   You describe yourself as a pragmatic physicalist, and I'm just wondering if you could give a brief outline of what that means.   Is physicalism an updated, modernised, more sophisticated version of materialism, or is it something else entirely?

Victor:   Well, it really depends on how you look.   In most common usage, it is indeed a more updated version of materialism, in that it includes, as physical things, entities which aren't "physical" in the common parlance, like for example, "force-fields" or "mathematical structures".   But for me, what is interesting is the methodology, which underlies the physical, both epistemic and rational methodology.   The idea here being that physicalism, if you dig down deep enough, you find as physical those things which interact with other physical entities.    And ultimately, the atomic, physical entity is the self.    So, basically, physicalism is defining the physical - the world and the physical phenomena - in terms of the relationship between those phenomena and the self.   As such, you could actually draw a parallel between physicalism and idealism as well.   Physicalism really transcends idealism and materialism, in that it does not take an ontological stance per se.   Physicalism discards some of those ontological superficialities that both materialism and idealism historically have been burdened with.   When I say "pragmatic physicalism", what I mean is basically pragmatism in the canonical and philosophical sense.   That is, the position that truth is defined not as some sort of ontic veracity, but simply "usefulness".   Usefulness in making predictions.   So, we can speak about truth theories in science, for example, in terms of those theories having predictive power, in as much as, if a theory delivers the goods, [then] it's true, and when it fails to deliver the goods, it's false.

Dan:   David, do you have a thought about this idea, that truths can at one point be true, and at another point not?

David:   Well, it depends on your definition of truth.   I would define truth as something which is necessarily true in all possible worlds, so---

Victor:   That's circular.

David:   Well, it might be circular, but it's a definition that I think is useful to me as a philosopher.   So, I'm interested in those sort of truths which can never, ever be false, no matter what the circumstances are.   But that's something I'd like to touch on later in the program.   I'm more interested, at this stage, on your philosophy.   I'd like to sort of translate your philosophy into simpler, more "layman" terms.   Is it true to say that, when it comes to knowledge, that the only valid means of gaining knowledge is through the scientific method?    So in other words, that could be scientific knowledge, or it could be philosophic knowledge, but the prime, or the only, means of gaining this knowledge, is through the scientific method?

Victor:   Well, I wouldn't actually go this far.   I generally regard knowledge as predictive power.   But there are different sorts of predictions to be made and not all of them are amenable, for example, to interpersonal verification, which is really the quintessence of the scientific method.   I think that the more accurate way to describe it would be to say that the scientific method is the best epistemic methodology we know for learning truths about the world, the interpersonal truths, the kind of stuff that exists outside one's head, as in, if I say that I feel afraid, it is the truth, but it's not the sort of truth that is amenable to interpersonal validation.   I'm not a "science is everything" guy.   I am a "science is everything....in as much as any other epistemic method can deliver the goods, science can deliver them as well or better, provided the goods are of the interpersonal kind" [guy].

David:   Are you dividing "gaining knowledge" into two categories there, in a way?   You've got there the scientific method and then you've have the more introspective method of realising that you're experiencing fear.   What about the role of---

Victor:   I'm not sure that would even be proper knowledge.    This would be a silly terminology debate.

David:   Alright.   What about reasoning outside of science?   So, this is kind of metaphysical reasoning.   I'm using the term "metaphysical" in the sense of "beyond science".   I'm not necessarily talking about reasoning about supernatural things, or anything like that.   I'm just talking about reasoning outside of the scientific endeavour, altogether.   Do you acknowledge that type of activity, and participate in it?

Victor:   I'm not sure that there is such a thing.   If you're talking about what I think you're talking about, then I'm assuming you're talking about analytic a priori?    Willard van Orman Quine has demonstrated that, basically, there is no such thing, that everything is experientially laden and interpreted, that there is no such thing as purely analytic reasoning.

David:   Well, let's take the example of trying to validate the scientific method itself.

Victor:   You can't.

David:   Well, you can't via the scientific method, obviously, because that would involve a circularity.   Any attempt to create an experiment to test the scientific method would be assuming what you're trying to prove.

Victor:   Indeed.

David:   So, there must be some other means by which you have decided that the scientific method is a valid way of gaining knowledge about reality.   How've you done that?

Victor:   Well, I think you're confusing derivation with justification.   First of all, the important point to make here is that the scientific method, in my opinion, is really the distillation of how we humans do acquire knowledge.   Not merely how we should acquire knowledge, but how we do.   In our common, everyday lives, we use something that vaguely resembles the scientific method all the time.   And I would say what happens is that we've been applying this sort of empirical rationality methodology, all the time.   And, that actual use of the scientific method came long before the justification of the scientific method.   Now you're talking about being able to justify it.   But that's quite a different question from being able to construct it.

David:   Well, there's a difference between seeing that science is useful in the sense of technology and practical affairs, and creating predictive models, and so forth, and that of trying to gain real knowledge of the universe..... Reality.   Now, let's take an example...

Victor:   Why's there a difference?

David:   Well, I'll give you an example to illustrate that.   Consider the possibility that everything that we experience, the whole universe, galaxies and whatnot, is a simulation, that it's a virtual reality, if you like, running on some kind of....

Victor:   A brain in a vat.

David:   Could be a brain in a vat, or could be running on some hyperdimensional computer, or whatever it might be.   If that was the case, then all the scientific knowledge that we are gaining, and all our practical knowledge, would be programmed into it, would be part of the algorithms running this program.   And it'd be turning scientific knowledge into an illusion.   All that would need to happen is for the virtual reality machine to be switched off, and then everything that we know, including our science, would vanish.   So, if that situation was true, then all our scientific knowledge would have no more substance than a puff of air.   Do you see what I'm getting at?   So, to the degree that this is true, this possible scenario - and it is a possible scenario, we can't rule that out - to the degree that it's true, and we're not even sure how possible it is, it could be entirely possible or just remotely possible, so, to the degree that it is possible, it casts doubt on the entire scientific method in terms of getting pure knowledge.

Dan:   I'd actually have to jump in there, and side with Victor, slightly, on that point, and say that, in the context of Victor's definition of knowledge, and his non-ontological approach to science, that wouldn't really matter, because it'd still be a question of whether the scientific model works and had predictive power.

David:   Yeah, well, it would have predictive power within a simulated universe, but as a means of gaining something more fundamental, like real knowledge of the universe, it would be nothing.

Dan:   Well, I don't think Victor regards that kind of knowledge as possible, or meaningful.

David:   Well, the reason I bring this point up, is that the meaning that scientists gain from their research, and from their knowledge, comes from a metaphysical belief that these possibilities are impossible to happen.   So, it comes from a belief that science is the only valid means of gaining knowledge.   So, the meaning doesn't actually come from the science itself, it comes from the actual, underlying metaphysical belief.   What do you think of that, Victor?

Victor:   David, what I would like to do here, is to take a step back and to point out that, as far as I'm concerned, the varied example you've constructed is incoherent.   It is really constructed from the point of view of the person outside the simulation.   Somebody who can say, "Here is a simulation, and here is the possibility of it not existing."   Of course, if we are within our simulation, then our entire universe is circumscribed by the fact of the simulation.   And we cannot meaningfully speak about facts outside of this concept.   We cannot speak about something as being true or not true, that is not in any way in principle empirically verifiable.   Now if such empirical validation presents itself, if for example somebody connects a webcam to this hypercomputer and feeds it back into my virtual bedroom and I can observe the exterior world on my screen, and see somebody punching in some keys and a tornado starts in the Caribbean, then yes, that is an empirical validation.   Then we can speak about the contents of our simulation.   But of course, then we also have empirical evidence for it, and we can speak about the empirical, scientific truth of that proposition, rather than as you propose an abstract unscientific ultimate sort of truth.

David:   If we're going to talk about facts, it is a fact that it is a possibility.

Victor:   I don't even accept that.   To say that it is a possibility, means that you can meaningfully, coherently, talk about it being true.   If it's possible that the sun is made of green cheese, that is a possibility.   We being inside a hypersimulation inside a hypercomputer, as a proposition as stated, has no meaning, and therefore cannot be possible, unless you actually qualify how that would be empirically expressed.

David:   Well, through empiricism, I mean it is actually a scientific concept that scientists have come up with, "Virtual Reality".   And in fact, scientists are working on virtual reality machines as we speak.

Victor:   That's right.   Virtual reality.   Well: we're outside the reality.   And the virtual reality is within.   The scientists aren't in the position from which you made the assumption.   What you're trying to talk about as being the contents of this virtual world, and the truth or falsehood of us being in this virtual world, would depend on the perspective outside it: the hyperdimensional computer scientists who are running our simulation.   And that is something you cannot coherently do.

David:   The whole purpose of it is like a thought experiment.   It's a way of getting outside of science, and seeing what's underneath.   But I can use another example that's less science fiction.   Well, it's entirely possible that the world that we're living in, this, with the galaxies, and the immensity of it, is really just a tiny space-time bubble, nestled within countless other space-time bubbles.   And it's possible that each of these space-time bubbles have their own different laws of science and whatnot.   So, if that was the case, then this immense universe that we live in, would shrink down to a tiny infinitesimal point within the immensity of reality, in which case, scientific knowledge would at best be a kind of local knowledge or a nano-knowledge.   It would be utterly insignificant in the greater scheme of things.

Victor:   Why?   It would be significant to us.   Scientific knowledge is our knowledge.   It's to serve our need to make predictions for us.   How large the universe outside of us is, is only relevant scientifically to the extent to which it affects how we make predictions.   That is all.   Whether our universe is the one and only or just one bubble in the infinite multiverse, it does not change the empirical validity or the empirical nature of science in any way, shape, or form.

David:   No, it doesn't.

Victor:   I'm perfectly comfortable being a speck upon a speck in the universe.   I mean, you don't even need to go to the multiverse.   Look!   There are billions and quadrillions and fafillions of stars.   And we're just one tiny little planet next to one very small star.   And you and I are just two tiny, miniscule organisms on the surface of this planet!

David:   It's interesting you say that, because I like the way that scientists - and I do the same - laugh at the Christians, for example, that place the human race, or the earth, in the centre of the universe.    They think that they're more special than everything else.   But in a sense, science is doing the same thing.   It is placing scientific knowledge, the entire scientific knowledge, in the centre of the universe.   Whereas, if we are just one little speck, we are very insignificant.   You're talking about you and I being little specks within this space-time bubble, which is immense, but if you think of ourselves as including our knowledge, and in your case the scientific knowledge, well, your scientific knowledge is embracing this immensity...

Victor:   That's right.

David:   ...Yet it could be just - and it's likely, it could well be - just a very little, insignificant speck.

Dan:   Yeah, I'd like to jump in at this point, actually guys, and offer an alternative example, that I think will get down to the core of what David's talking about.   And my example will be this.   My question is: are empirical models, scientific models, contingent?

David:   What do you mean by "contingent", Dan ?

Dan:   Uncertain.   Open to revision.    Not complete, et cetera.    How do we know that?    Where do we get that knowledge from?    Where do we gain that understanding from?    We don't gain that particular piece of understanding, of the natural and necessary contingency of empirical modelling, from empirical modelling.

Victor:   But I think you're asking the wrong question.    To know that something's contingent is not some objective, all-encompassing piece of logical truth.    It's not an abstract verity.    It's as simple as the fact of saying, "Well, gee, if that contradicts our theories, then we'll change our theories."    And you can try to turn it into an abstract verity, but it's not.    All it is, is to say that what we have right now is not absolute.

Dan:   The only way that you can argue that it's not an absolute point, is if you can conceive of, or argue for, a world in which that's not the case.   But how is that possible?

Victor:   Why would I want to argue for a world in which it's not the case?   I do not need to provide an alternative scientific method that don't give you absolute truths, in order to argue that, in this world for us, it doesn't.   You are trying to redefine the scope of enquiry here.   Scientific method and scientific truths serve a very simple pragmatic purpose: to predict our future perceptions.   And I'm perfectly willing to say that we have models which work, as far as they do, and if the models don't work, then we try to fix them!    That's all there is to it.   And this in no way, shape or form entails that there has to be the viable alternative of the scientific method providing absolute truths.

David:   Well, I think what Dan is getting at is that it's inbuilt.   It's implicit in what you're saying.   So, you're effectively saying that there is no piece of knowledge that can be gained through science, or through whatever, that is absolute, and timelessly true.

Victor:   I've no idea.   For all we know, we might gain a piece of knowledge that will be timelessly true.   Which is to say, it will live forever.   It will never, ever be proven false.   I don't know, and frankly, I don't really care.   I care about the fact that any piece of knowledge if proven false can be changed and revised, or even discarded outright.

Dan:   But those are not the reasons why scientific models are contingent.   That's simply not the reason.   The reason is because doubt necessarily exists.   When you understand that, for instance the point that our senses could be deceiving us in some fashion about our models, that possibility necessarily exists.   And can never not exist.   Therefore, empirical models are, necessarily and in all possible worlds, contingent.   And that's a piece of understanding for which we only need logic.

Victor:   But you see, the logic which you use to construct this type of understanding is itself contingent, based upon our language and our neural development.   This logic is deeply enmeshed in the empirical world.   We do not get this logic from the sky in a perfect and complete form.   We construct it linguistically!   And that itself is an empirical process.

David:   But it's in the very nature of science.   I mean, a scientific theory gets its validity through studying empirical phenomenon, what's there through our senses.   And if it's in the very nature of what we observe through the senses, that it's limited and incomplete and uncertain, then it's in the very nature of science itself that every theory it will create is uncertain and provisional.

Victor:   Of course.

David:   Well, there would count as an absolute truth, that exists in all possible worlds.   Because, it's impossible to get around the limitations of our senses.

[Pause]

Victor:   How do you go about proving this to be an absolute necessary truth?   You'd have to prove that there is no possible world in which it is not true.

David:   Well, it's in the very nature of the senses.   When we see things, we are getting a reduced perception.   Our senses block out.   I mean, for example, we only get a certain spectrum of the wavelengths in the visual sphere, and we're blocking out infra-red and all the rest of it....   That's how our senses work.   I mean, if our senses didn't block out parts of reality, then we wouldn't be able to be conscious.   So, it's the very act of perceiving things, that creates the limitations and therefore creates the certain doubt about all scientific theories.

[Pause]

Victor:   I can conceive of a possible world, just for the fun of it, where for example every perception is absolutely true and no experiential perception is ever contradicted by any other.   In which case, in such a possible world, scientific enquiry - as far as anybody could tell - would be perfect and infallible.   Just for the hell of it, mind you.   I don't of course regard this as in any way approximating reality.   I realise what you're trying to do, you're trying to get to the point of being able to say that the contingency of scientific truth itself is an ultimate truth, and therefore that there are truths which are 'true', so to speak, about the world, but at the same time are not scientific truths.

David:   Yes.

Victor:   And to get away from all the semantic juggling what I’ll say is this: this statement that you are expressing in natural languages is a statement subject to all the vagaries of our experience and thought and communication.    And to say that something is absolutely true in that context is to say that it is true in that context.    But that context itself is deeply variable and uncertain and contingent.

David:   Is that really the case though, Victor, that Truth varies depending on what language structures we use?    You see I would argue that it is the logic underpinning truth which matters and that this is independent of the language structures we use.    For example: if we were omniscient and we could perceive utterly everything through our senses - past, present and future - then we'd have no need of science, or at least that large chunk of science that deals with creating predictive models, and so forth.    Or at least science would be done very differently.    So, it is only because we aren't omniscient, and that our senses are limited, that the very idea of creating predictive theories and testing them through empirical observation makes any sense.    So, what I'm saying is that the very uncertainty of science comes from what science "is" - the identity of science, that we determine it to be.    If there was a race of beings who conceived of science differently, and who practise a very different form of science from what we consider science to be, then yes, different truths would come from that - different truths about what science is.    But, if a race of beings kept science as we know it and practised science as we know it, then it wouldn't matter what language structures it used, the truths about science would still be the same.    My basic point here is that truth always comes from the identity of things, of what actually exists in the world.

Victor:   Yes, the A=A.

David:   Yes, A=A, and nothing else really matters.

Victor:   Well, the point is that you keep stressing the question of language.    The question of language is relevant, but it is really an inference of the larger point, and the larger point is that anything we talk about, any truths we discuss, are deeply contextual.    And in order to establish their analytic status, their analytic a priori status, we need to perform operations which are as complicated as this very act of establishing the analytic status.    Basically you end up - if you are trying to chase complete certainty, the logical certainty regarding empirical statements - you end up chasing yourself in a circle, because in order to be able to do that you need to answer the questions as hard as the ones you are already trying to answer.     Technically, this is an actual and very specific case of begging the question.     So the fact that each time you try and make an argument that purports to establish a strictly logical nature of some proposition or another, its logical certainty, you are begging the question, because you are presuming things which are as difficult to establish, if not more difficult than your conclusion itself.     Language is merely one instance of how this manifests.     Language is one specific case of how uncertainty is introduced into any consideration you could possibly undertake.

David:   Well, if language was a factor then we could consider that the Chinese and the Japanese, and the Indians, and the Italians would have maybe a different conception of science, but the fact that they affirm the same conception of science indicates that the identity of science is independent.

Victor:   It indicates nothing of the sort.     What you're doing right now is performing a very poor instance of induction, and assuming that your conclusion is actually deductively true.    You're taking a small known sample of instances of scientific practice, and not even a very significant sample, and you are saying that this is the necessary nature of the thing or concept in question.

David:   Well, I conceive of language as pointing.     So I don't think of truths as being contained within the language, it's that language can be used to point the mind to the existence of truths that are inherent in the things that we are examining.

Victor:   How do you know that?     How do you establish that?     In order to establish those truths you need to presume things far less certain than your conclusions themselves.   And because logic is what they call in computer science 'GIGO' (garbage in, garbage out): if your assumptions are weak, if your starting points are weak, then your conclusions are going to be equally weak.    And because you always start out with synthetic empirical assumptions, there is no way round it; no conclusions can be stronger than those initial assumptions.     So you can never ever end up with absolute logical truth about anything in the world.

David:   We can be certain, because we create the definition of science.   So, we determine what it is, and we can be absolutely clear about what science is, that is: it is creating predictive models and testing them through empirical observations.   That is putting it at its simplest.    But once we have a clear definition about what science is then we can draw out clear truths about it, such as that it’s uncertain.

Victor:   Again, it is not that simple.     The problem here is to make a distinction between the thing as it is, and the thing as it is defined for the purposes of a specific argument.    As I had mentioned to you before in numerous arguments, what you are basically doing is creating definitions which already contain your conclusions.     So, in fact, you are not reasoning about anything in the world, you're reasoning about symbols that you created yourself, and your conclusions apply only to those symbols you created yourself, and do not apply to the world.

David:   No, because the definition of science that I've been using is the generally accepted definition of science.     Like, there is no science beyond what we determine it to be. It's not something separate from us, we've actually created what science is, and from that we can draw out conclusions from it.

Dan:   Just to break in here for a second, I don't understand where this distinction exists between what we define and what is.     Perhaps Victor can tell me what science is, outside of how we define it.

Victor:   It's not how 'we define it', it is how you define it for the purposes of a specific argument.    The point is that science is a whole bunch of real practices out there in the world, and we describe it in various ways.   But this is actually part of the way that Quine argued; he said that in order to establish the identity of any thing, if we want to establish the identity between our definition and the empirical, observable concept, we need to presume the degree of certainty lower than the one that we hope to achieve.     On the other hand, if you do what you guys usually do, which is to simply create a definition and proclaim that this definition is the definitive single pointer for the concept in question, then what you end up with is a conclusion about your definition itself, but it is not necessarily the conclusion about the thing you are trying to point to.   Because what you have failed to establish is the complete perfect logical correspondence between the thing and the pointer.    All you have done is proclaim that the correspondence exists.    But of course such proclamation, by virtue of being stated, does not establish this correspondence.   And this is actually part of the problem: that you are presuming the certainty of this correspondence, and this presumption itself is less certain than the conclusion you are trying to achieve.

Dan:   The correspondence exists automatically.     It exists.    It's there.    There is no 'what we define' and 'something outside of what we define'.    What you are accusing us of doing is what everyone does.

Victor:   No, no, no.     What everyone does is try to describe things.     What everyone does is look at how science works and says, "Well, this is generally a fairly good description of science".     But nobody looks at science and says "This definition, this one sentence, completely captures exactly what science says".

David:   We could qualify it by saying that, any science that's dependent on empirical observation and empirical testing, is uncertain.     So, that's sort of narrowing it down to a particular form of science and it's generally accepted that this is the ultimate basis of science....    For, that particular conception of science, which covers most of science, generates the truth that any theories that it produces will be uncertain, because what we observe through our senses is fundamentally uncertain.

Victor:   I feel right now that I'm rehashing Quine's argument from "Two Dogmas on Empiricism".    I think this is fairly fruitless.     Any listener can actually read the paper themselves and understand my objections much better, because the objections, in their nature are somewhat technical, and to be honest I'm not doing them justice right now.

Dan:   The contingency of scientific models is not doubtable.     It cannot be doubted.    It's logically impossible to doubt it.    The contingency of a scientific model by dint of the definition, the meaning, of the concept 'model', cannot be doubted.    It's not possible.    When you build a model, you cannot state that logically it is complete.     The only way you can state that it is complete is if it constitutes the Totality, and it is obviously impossible to grasp the Totality in an empirical model.     So we can say with absolute certainty that empirical models are contingent.

Victor:   Look guys.    Like I said this is pointless, because you simply aren't hearing what I'm saying, and I'm not saying it very well because it took Quine a pretty large paper to say it.     But the point here is that, in your argument, when you say that it cannot be doubted, there are numerous steps in that argument which are themselves empirically contextualized, which are themselves contingent, and by dint thereof, they can be doubted.     They may not be doubtable in practice, in the process of normal linguistic discourse, but you’re not trying to establish something that is reasonably certain as far as language carriers are concerned.   You're trying to establish something that is absolutely logical truth.   And in order to establish absolute logical truth, 'something that seems pretty sure to be true' simply doesn't cut it.   You are substituting informal reasoning with formal reasoning, and you are ignoring the difference.   You're ignoring the incertitude and the vagaries that are introduced in this process of substitution.

Dan:   No, there are no uncertainties and there are no vagaries in anything that I just said.    It's absolutely flawless logic, and I don't care whether you want to call it formal or informal.   It's a very, very simple, straightforward point that I made: that empirical models are necessarily contingent.   And if you can give an example of how that can not be so, I'd love to hear it.

Victor:   Ah, but I don't have to.   You see, if this were a scientific process, you could propose a theory, and as long as it's sufficiently affirmed by prior evidence, you could proclaim it to be presumed to be true pending further contrary evidence.   But you're not trying to propose a scientific theory.   You're trying to propose a statement which is absolutely, totally true.   As such, demanding that I disprove it merely shows that even you, in proposing this statement, despite the fact that you proclaim it to be an absolutely logical truth, are presuming it to be an unfalsifiable, synthetic truth.    Even in the very act of asking that question, you've already demonstrated my point.   Even though I don't think you realise it, because you obviously think of these statements as synthetic, empirically grounded statements.   And the truth degree to which you are moving here is an empirical contingent truth.   You call it analytic, uncertain, and undoubtable, but all you're really saying is that you haven't been able to doubt it.   And that is not the same as establishing the analytic certitude of the conclusion.

Dan:   I'm saying doubt would be incoherent, in relation to what I'm talking about.

Victor:   Prove it.

David:   It's just a matter of opening one's eyes and seeing there is no doubt there.   I think you're manufacturing doubt, Victor, through going through the academic process there.   But the logic concerned is very, very simple.   It's as tight as '2 + 2 = 4', so there's no room for doubt there.

Victor:   Are you familiar with non-Euclidean geometry?

David:   Non-Euclidean geometry?   Only cursory.

Victor:   Well, Euclid originally postulated five axioms of geometry.   And you could justify all but one of them, that axiom of - how do you say - parallelicity.   The axiom that, through any two points you can draw two and only two lines which can be parallel.   And of course, it took over two millenia for people to realise that this is actually not an indubitable truth.   And just because nobody could doubt it, didn't mean that it was actually a true, and necessarily true, statement.   And at the end, what ended up being the case was that we have discovered different kinds of geometry: the geometry of curved space, which has actually the same first four axioms but the different fifth axiom - the different axiom about the parallel line.   That is why, merely being able to say you can find no way to doubt it is not enough to establish a logical truth.

Dan:   I'll just recap on what I actually did.   I said any empirical model is not the Totality.   That's my proof.   And if you can doubt that, go ahead.

Victor:   I'm not even sure what relationship that has to anything, or what it means!

Dan:   It shows that all empirical models are contingent, and incomplete.

Victor:   No, it shows that all empirical models are not the Totality.   It doesn't even show that they are infinite, because it's entirely possible for something to be infinite and still be less than the Totality.   In fact, there are infinite concepts which are less than the Totality and still infinite.   And by saying that sentence you've done one thing and one thing only: you have said that sentence.   In order to do anything else, in order to transform it into your conclusion, you have to do the legwork, Dan.   If your conclusion is dependent upon somebody's nebulous understanding, you haven't really established the veracity of what you've claimed to establish.   All you're saying is that your conclusion will be obvious to those who already agree with it.

David:   It's a sign of a good philosopher that he does that, he does clarify in his mind exactly what he's reasoning about.   So that, [he's] coming to the truth that empirical models are limited in the face of the Totality, that [the Totality] doesn't not cover all information in the Universe - all perceived things in the Universe.   So that's a very clear concept.

Victor:   Why?   For all we know, there may eventually be an empirical model that actually covers everything.   Including itself.

David:   Well, strictly speaking, a model that incorporates the Totality would be actually the Totality itself.    And any model within the Totality....

Victor:   In what sense?

David:   In a strict sense.   If we're going to get really strict about it, only the Totality can be the Totality.   And our models - based on concepts, and so forth - they're within the Totality.   So, they have two separate identities.   And it's false reasoning to try to equate the two.

Victor:   It's not a given that a model that predicts everything is the Totality.   Let me give you an example.   You can write out, for example, a Taylor series expansion which is infinitely long, or you can write out the expression for it, which is finite, and incorporates only about four terms or so.   The second completely and totally describes the first.   But at the same time, they're by far not identical.   The theory of series expansion is itself infinite.   And the expression predicting it is not.   You don't even need to go that far.   Take all natural numbers.   The expansion of the set of all natural numbers is infinite.

David:   No.

Dan:   No, it's not.   That's a terrible misuse of language.   It really irks me when people use the word 'infinite' in relation to mathematical sequences.    I much prefer - if you don't mind me changing the language slightly - the term 'transfinite'.   Because there can't be more than one Infinite.   It's absurd.

Victor:   Dan, 'transfinity' and 'infinity' are both concepts which are mathematical in origin, and which - trust me Dan, having had a mathematical education - I am using correctly.   Technically, the set of all numbers, the set of all natural numbers, is countably infinite.   'Transfinity' is a related concept that comes from mathematics, and transfinity relates to different nominalities of infinite sets.   To use it philosophically, you'd really need to explain what you mean.   But to simply proclaim that I'm using the term 'infinity' incorrectly, is frankly ridiculous.

Dan:   Well, philosophically, I don't find any meaning in it, because an endless sequence of numbers is not my big toe.

Victor:   It's not your big what?

Dan:   It's not my big toe.

David:   So, Dan is saying that it has a limitation.

Victor:   Of course it has a limitation!   But it doesn't have an end.   'Infinite' means 'in-finite'.   It doesn't have an end.

David:   If you mean by 'infinite', without limits, then it wouldn't be infinite in that sense.   It just depends on how we're defining these things.

Victor:   Exactly.   You're creating your own definition of the term, that you - and only you in the entire world - use.   Okay?   There's no such thing!

Dan:   Get out of here!

Victor:   No!   I'm serious.   Nobody in the world uses the word 'infinity' the way you do.   Maybe a few people.   'Infinity' doesn't mean without any limits whatsoever.   Infinity means something that doesn't have an end in at least one way.   The set of all natural numbers does not have an end in exactly two ways.   It doesn't have an end in a positive direction, and it doesn't have an end in a negative direction.   That is all.    And that qualifies it for being an infinity.   You still don't like the term, and if you want to invent new words, you're welcome to do it.   But just be aware that that's all you're doing.   You're simply sitting on your butts and inventing new terms for well-known concepts, and then saying that when you're manipulating those words, you're - technically - you're arriving at some conclusions about those concepts which you just five minutes ago misnamed.

David:   Well, this is just a stoush between the scientific community and the philosophic community.

Victor:   No, it's not.   It's a clash between the scientific and the philosophical community and you guys.   Because the philosophical community uses the term 'infinity' in the same way the scientific community uses it, which is to say there can be any number of infinities, which are infinite in different ways.

David:   Well, to myself, and to Dan, we use the term 'Infinite' to mean the Totality of nature.   Because that's what interests us the most.

Victor:   But the Totality of nature is not without limits either.   It just has more dimensions along which it is infinite.   The Totality of nature is finite in other regards.

David:   Well, it's limitless in the sense that there's nothing beyond it, by definition.   You know, everything.   If you define Nature to be utterly everything, then nothing is excluded from it.   So...

Victor:   But you see, just because nothing is excluded from it, does not mean it's not without limits.   You can have something that is very, very finite and at the same time includes everything that exists.   It might have limits without being infinite.   You guys, you're basically just abusing language.   You're making up terms as you go along.   And you're not even properly relating those terms to each other.   That's how you do your reasonings.   You create your definitions and then you assign those definitions to known terms.   You manipulate those terms in ways that you find appealing; you create those definitions to be manipulable in such ways; and then you say that the conclusions you draw are about the things that are commonly associated with terms which you've just redefined.   You argue by definition.   And that is but one way in which you introduce fallacy and uncertainty into your argument.    That's just one reason why you can never achieve the logical certitude of ultimate truth that you seek.

David:   Well, I see it as good philosophy as being able to create your own terms.   Really, that's the only way you can achieve clarity, is by being in total mastery of this conceptualising process.   But I agree with you, that, if our definitions are at odds with the way the world is, then that is a problem.

Victor:   Your definitions cannot be at odds with the way the world is.   Your definitions can simply be disconnected from it.   They can be disconnected from the way the words are usually used.   That's really what happened.   Let's say you take the term 'infinity'.   You give this word 'infinity' a meaning that is radically at odds with the way the term is usually used.    You manipulate your own definition, you arrive at some conclusion, and then you take that conclusion and you speak about it as if it applies to the concept that the term generally defines.   And you ignore the fact that the term as you use it no longer applies to that concept at all: you've redefined it completely.   It's like you redefined 'infinity' as something that is without limits whatsoever.

David:   Well, that's perfectly okay, as long as you make it clear what you're talking about.   Yeah, I agree that there could be a problem, if you don't make it clear what you're [talking about].

Victor:   Why use different words, then?   Why don't you just...   If you introduced new concepts and new definitions, why do you keep using the words which you already have different and established conceptual correspondences and definitions?   Why use the term 'infinity' if what you're talking about has virtually nothing to do with the term 'infinity' as it is used by everybody else in the world?

Dan:   I disagree with that particular statement completely.   I have to say, I think it's absolute rubbish to suggest that our use of the word 'infinite' isn't often and in a great many contexts used in almost exactly the same way that we do.   It might not be used that way in scientific and mathematical realms, but so what?

Victor:   Or philosophical!

Dan:   Well, I dispute that.

David:   At least in non-academic philosophy, it's used in that way, and in eastern philosophy.

Dan:   Eastern philosophy; in theology it's used that way.... It's used that way in a dozen different contexts.   I think it's rubbish to suggest that this use of the concept 'infinite' is unique to us.   I think it's just rubbish.

David:   And in any case, even if we do appropriate a word and change its meaning, I still think that has value, because it helps people break out of their habitual thinking, which I think is a good thing, you know?   Because a lot of people get stuck in very rigid, hard lines in their mind, and it's good to sort of free them up from that.   So, it's a valid philosophic practice, I think.

Victor:   Well, that's actually an interesting point.   So, what you're really saying is that these arguments of yours which are based on radically new definitions of terms are not really aimed at achieving any given conclusion, because the conclusion doesn't matter.   All you're doing is jolting people out of their complacency, kind of like the Zen koans.   It's like the sound of one hand clapping, and all of that stuff.

David:   Well, it's that and the other as well.   It's a multitude of things happening at once.   So, yes, it's a way of taking people out of their comfy mindsets, but it's also pointing to deeper truths.   So that would be good philosophy.   But I just want to go back to one point before, when you were talking about non-Euclidean geometry: You were saying that parallel lines were once thought to never meet, and then two thousand years later, they came up with a different system of thought that shows that they can meet.

Victor:   Or that there can be an infinite number of parallel lines, or that there can be no truly parallel lines.

David:   And also, you were also giving an example of a certain piece of logic: which is '2 + 2 = 4'.   So, I'm just wondering at the consistency of what you're saying here.    We could also apply that same reasoning to '2 + 2 = 4', that, you know, at some time in the future, it may be found that '2 + 2' doesn't equal '4'.

Victor:   When I said that '2 + 2 = 4', I spoke about the assumptions in the meanings of the terms.   I was thinking specifically about the Peano axioms of number theory.    And given the assumptions of the Peano axioms of number theory, given the established meaning of the term '2' as the number that follows '1', and '1' as the number that follows '0', it is possible but purely syntactic manipulation to arrive at the conclusion that '2 + 2 = 4'.

David:   Okay.

Victor:   But you see, the difference here is, when we're talking about Euclidean geometry, 'geometry' is something that is empirical, it's supposed to apply to the real world.   There are actually shapes and lines and figures and angles.   And as long as you relate geometry to the real world, this is what happens: people start out with axioms that they didn't properly support; they cannot contradict it; and then eventually they discover that this axiom is not actually, necessarily true.   That is not the same thing as what is happening with '2 + 2 = 4'.   '2 + 2 = 4' is true strictly by virtue of the definitions of the terms.   But then, that is all the term means.   What we may discover in the future is that the mapping between the concepts and the empirical objects isn't the same.   In fact, we've discovered already, if you mix for example a litre of water and a litre of alcohol, you will not get a two-litre of vodka.   You will get slightly less.   Because when alcohol and water mix, they're not linearly additive.   So, if you attempt to relate this with the empirical world, we've already proven it false.   But as the purely analytic statement, I mean, it's not even strictly speaking an analytic...   It's simply syntactic manipulation.   You're just pushing symbols around according to given rules.

David:   Yep, but....

Victor:   In terms of the definition, in terms of the pushing symbols around by the given rules, '2 + 2' is certain.   But it is only certain so long as it doesn't actually mean anything.   That's my point.   That you can either push symbols around and have your certainty, or you can relate it to the truth about the world and say something useful, and lose the certainty.   You can't have both.

David:   Well, I would disagree with that.   There are cases where you can have the best of both there.   For example, if you take the concept of a 'thing', which I define to be some portion within the whole of Nature/the Totality - so a thing is something that is limited in extent - then we can conclude that everything within the world - all phenomena, clouds, galaxies, people, thoughts, electrons, models, whatever - they're classified as things.   So there is an empirical correlation right there.   And then whatever we conclude about things through a purely logical process applies necessarily to what is in the world.   For example, we can conclude that a cloud is not the totality of all there is.   It's a thing within the totality.   And so there is a definite truth about an empirical phenomenon that's arrived through pure logic.

Victor:   But, you see, again, the conclusion you make is really a purely tautological statement; and the statement is that something that is less than the totality is less than the totality.

David:   Yes.

Victor:   And now try saying something useful about the clouds!   Try saying that a cloud is not infinite.   

David:   Well, a cloud ---

Victor:   Go ahead, try it.

David:   --- a cloud is infinite in the sense that its existence does not extend indefinitely.   It has a beginning and an end.

Victor:   But there are things which are potentially infinite, empirically.   Black holes, for example.   Black holes have certain characteristics which are infinite.

David:   Well, we're talking about---

Victor:   --- My point here is that in making these arguments, you're not really saying anything about the things.   You're saying 'That which is less than the Totality is less than the Totality'.

David:   Well, we can say certain things about it.

Victor:   --- But if you try saying something useful !   Like I said, for example, 'All things are finite'.   In fact, if I got it correctly, that is actually one of the conclusions you have tried to draw a long time ago, a few years ago, that 'all things are finite'.   And I just gave you an example about the moment you try to relate your purely syntactic games to the actual empirical concepts, it immediately falls flat.

David:   Well, no, no.   As long as you are clear about what 'finite' means, so ---

Victor:   Exactly!   And then what you're saying is.... because 'finite' is something that you define as having limits, being less than the Totality, then if you use your own custom definition of 'infinity', then all you're saying is - still ! - a thing that is less than the Totality is less than the Totality!   See, so long as you're using custom definitions, you can have your conclusions!   But they don't actually mean anything!   Because all they are is conclusions about your own definitions.   You aren't really saying anything about the thing!   You're just restating your own definitions in different ways.   You're shuffling ---

David:   Yep.   I understand your point.   If we just focus purely on the form, yes: I agree it's a tautology.   And, focussing purely on the form, a tautology has no meaning.   It's just a restatement.   But, if we ---

Victor:   Well, not quite.

David:   --- If we factor in the content, then it becomes meaningful to us, as living human beings.

Victor:   But that's exactly my point.

David:   So that it's the content that makes tautology meaningful.

Victor:   Tautology, generally speaking, can be actually very meaningful.   Think about it this way: tautology explicates the implicit.   In mathematics, for example, any mathematical theorem is strictly speaking a tautology.   But there are things which are implicit in your assumptions without being obvious.   And it takes a theorem, which is a series of tautological statements, to explicate them.   So, tautology in and of itself is not a bad thing.   Tautologies can be very useful.

David:   Yep.

Victor:   The real problem here is that when you're trying to relate your tautology to the world, you immediately lose the certitude that you were seeking.

David:   Alright, a change of subject.   When I was researching you, researching for this show, I noticed that you went through a New Age phase.

Victor:   Yes, I did.

David:   Can you tell us about that?

Victor:   Well, it's not something I'm particularly proud of.   But, yes, it did happen.    I was pretty heavily into occult in high school.    Among other things, some useful stuff came out of it, I learnt a bunch of psychosomatic tricks.    But other than that, I mean, that's all it was.   For a while, I believed what I wanted to believe, eventually I started studying philosophy, but later I came to the realisation that my beliefs were based on nothing but wishful thinking.   Then I spent a while digging through my head, and discarding everything that I could not properly justify.   And thus, my New Age phase ended.

David:   Did you have a 'conversion experience', like a deep, mystical kind of experience, that put you onto this New Age path?

Victor:   No.   I did have numerous - I suppose you could call them mystical experiences, I think of them as cognitive wierdness - but none of them were the 'conversions'.   I didn't have the 'road to Damascus' experience at any point, either coming to occult or leaving it.

David:   See, I think that can be, and often is, a very important experience for people to have, to awaken themselves out of the conventional, empirical mindset.   That is, an altered state, a deep altered state, that gives you a greater sense of reality.   Like, for example, I mean I've had hundreds of altered states in the past, but there's a kind of a category of them that had a big impact on me, where I'd be engrossed in a line of thought, and then suddenly the world, the entire world, would seem to get dissolved into this intangible, timeless unity.    It seemed very abstract, very hard to describe.   But the---

Victor:   You had a prefrontal lobe seizure, David.

David:   Well, yes, I agree, fundamentally, that it's an illusion.   But, you can still learn things from these experiences.

Victor:   Of course.

David:   So, just to flesh out the experience, because I want to make a point out of it: the experience I had was that it felt as if my entire life, and my entire life on this planet and whatnot, is just like a fleeting piece of nothing, and the intangible unity seemed like infinitely real in comparison.   So, like, my entire life, my momentary distraction from this permanent ---

Victor:   ---Oh, David!

David:   --- reality.   No, well, I agree, I agree that it's ultimately an illusion.   And the way I think of it nowadays is that it's a rekindling of infant - toddler - kind of consciousness.   Because I theorise that when we're young, between say age one to three, when our consciousness is developing and becoming more and more powerful, and yet we haven't yet been trapped inside the rigid, adult framework of society, our minds back then were very, very free and flexible, and we were probably having tonnes of altered states and whatnot.   And subjectively, time would seem very, very different.   I mean, a day would seem like three years, or something.   So, we have this immense subjective experience that we were having.     We've forgotten all about it now, probably, but from a subjective sense, we had this immense amount of time and this very flexible mind, and we would have had a lot of interesting insights into things.   And then, come twenty to thirty years later, if a person has an experience and rekindles this infant consciousness, he gets this sense that, yes, this entire twenty to thirty years is like a fleeting bit of nothing, and that he is 'coming home' in a sense, he has a sense of familiarity about it.   So, in that sense, it's all an illusion.   It's a, as you say, a kind of misfiring of the brain, if you like, or a different form of firing of the brain.

Victor:   A prefrontal lobe seizure.

David:   Yep, okay, but nonetheless, the logical truth contained within that, that the world is fundamentally unreal, is valid.   And so, when you put it into the context of a better intellectual framework, namely, for example that our sense of reality about anything, it does come from our perspective.   So, something that can seem real from one perspective, can seem totally unreal from another perspective.   So ---

Victor:   Oh, absolutely.

David:   So, those sort of experiences, although ultimately an illusion, can be very, very beneficial for people to become more philosophical.

Victor:   [Laughs]   Well, let me make two points.   First of all, what you said about the different perception of time-flow in childhood: that is something that I find very interesting, and I actually have an hypothesis about why that is.   And what I think is this: I think that we perceive time not by its nominal flow, not by seconds and hours and days, but by the flow of nominal experiences.   And the reason time seems to crawl when you're a child and fly when you're old, is because when you're a child, almost every experience is radically new, almost everything is novel, and because of that a year lasts forever, because a year is stuffed to the brim with novel experiences that you've never had before.   

David:   Yep.

Victor:   As you get older, and older and older, the rate of novel experiences slows down, and time seems to fly faster and faster, because things are more familiar and hours just fly away.   The new experiences that anchor them to our life seem to slow down.   And that is why time seems to fly faster.

David:   I would say that you're right there, yep.

Dan:   That seems reasonable to me, because in a sense, an infant's mind is developing memory as well, and going through the process of putting all those new experiences into the hard-drive of the mind, and creating neural pathways and whatnot.   The adult mind doesn't have to do any of that, so all these things just sort of flip by, they don't have to be recalled into memory, because we're aware of them.   So, yeah, what Victor was saying makes sense.

Victor:   But anyway, that was just an aside.    I just thought it interesting.   The reason I laughed was not because I think your point was silly.   I actually pretty much agreed with everything you said.   The reason I laughed is because when I said I have not had the 'road to Damascus' experience, I have had the 'road to Damascus' experience - but not in converting to or from New Age.   And the reason I find it so amusing is because I've had a couple of experiences I consider really profound.   And they, I think, are infinitely more significant than what you just described, because what you have just described, David, about our sense of our place in time and in the infinity of space and the reality of it all..... When I was ten years old, I came to my mother and told her that I imagined earth to be just a tiny juggling ball in the hands of a giant that was striding across the sun.   And this kind of stuff.   I've been thinking about it ever since I was a child.   To me, thinking about our place in the universe, the contrast between the micro and the macro, the time, what it means for something to exist, the flow of it all, it was pretty routine.   My conversion, my 'road to Damascus' experience, was an entirely different sort of thing.   In fact, the one that I remember the most occurred in college.   I was taking an AI class and I was having an argument with my professor.   He was a proponent of 'hard AI', and at the time, I was not.   I was arguing about the possibility of artificial intelligence with him, and I said 'Think about it, if we create AI, all it will be is something that manipulates data in a computer memory.'   And he looked at me and said, 'And what do you think we are?'   And thinking about that, that was something I considered a truly profound experience.   Simply becoming aware of our place within the universe, about the totality, and how insignificant we are, and how related we are to it all, is in my opinion, something that should be pretty routine, even if it isn't.   That's something that a person should be constantly aware of.   It certainly wasn't anything exceptional for me.

David:   Well, yes, if you read science fiction novels, you can get those sorts of insights, for sure.

Victor:   [Laughs]   Yes, of course.

David:   I suppose we should wrap this up, it's getting along.   Just in conclusion, what I consider to be genuine, really interesting knowledge of the universe, is that kind of knowledge which can't be falsified under any circumstances.    So, I like that kind of knowledge where it wouldn't matter if the world was a virtual reality simulation, or whether it was a dream in somebody's head, or whether the laws of physics are suddenly going to change or not.   I like that sort of knowledge which is beyond all that, and can never ever change.   For me that is very interesting knowledge.   So, even though - yes, scientific knowledge is also interesting and I keep up to date with it and whatnot as it's certainly an ever-changing, ever-growing field - still, to have that kind of knowledge underpinning that, this deeper knowledge which can't be shaken, is a truly great thing.

Victor:   Okay, well, like I said, in my opinion, what you're calling this certain knowledge is not knowledge at all.   And I think I've argued today why that is the case.   And I hope that the listeners understand the point I was trying to make.

Dan:   Okay, well, I think we will pull the pin on the discussion at this point guys.   Thanks David, for co-hosting the show.

David:   Thank you.

Dan:   Thank you very much, Victor, for taking the time to be with us.   It was very interesting.

Victor:   My pleasure.

Dan:   Appreciate it greatly.   We'll talk to you again soon.

Victor:   No problem.   Take care.

 


Return to Top      |      Back to  The Reasoning Show      |       Email