Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Quotable Chesterton

"A great classic means a man whom one can praise without having read." - G.K. Chesterton

It's virtually a cliche to point out that Chesterton is among the most quotable of authors. But it's easy to misunderstand the Chesterton quote taken out of context. For instance, take the quote above, from his essay "Tom Jones and Morality" in All Things Considered. Our first reaction to it may be to think that GKC is being ironic and taking a swipe at people who talk up a classic without having read it. But in context it is clear that GKC means no such thing and intends just what he says.

Chesterton's point is ultimately conservative in the best sense of the word. A great classic becomes so based on the developed opinion of mankind over many decades or centuries.  We can praise a classic without having read it based on trust in that common, longstanding opinion. I can, Chesterton says, talk of "great poets" like Pindar without ever having read Pindar because "a man has got as much right to employ in his speech the established and traditional facts of human history as he has to employ any other piece of common human information." And the status of great classics is one of those "established and traditional facts.

While GKC defends the right of men to praise a classic without having read it, he disputes a right to condemn a classic without having read it. The reason should be obvious. Praising a classic is submitting to the historically developed consensus concerning a work; condemning one is contradicting that tradition and, so, going it on your own. If you are going to contradict the received opinion, you've got to have some reasons for doing so, and it is hard to see how you could have good ones without having read the work in question.

GKC never wrote pithy quotes for the sake of being quoted. His wit is always a spur to more considered reflection - a reason for us to be careful of a GKC quote absent context.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Science Discovers Socrates

When I first began to seriously read philosophy, and by that  I mean reading Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas directly and not through summaries or interpretations of them,  perhaps the most thrilling discovery I made was the extent to which they anticipated just about every important philosophical position that might be taken. What I had thought were modern views that the ancients were too ignorant or naive to conceive, had in fact been explored by them, and were often treated more intelligently than they were by their supposed modern betters. This is no more true than in Plato.

For instance, the objection that philosophy is just a verbal game that never really proves anything seems like a modern objection based on a review of the long history of philosophy. But we find that this is actually an ancient objection, and in fact was at the heart of the charges against Socrates at his trial. Socrates, it was claimed, just played verbal games making the weaker argument appear the stronger, misleading his young followers. Or the objection that there is no objective morality, and that "right" and "wrong" are in fact defined by whomever is the strongest and able to impose his views. We like to think that it was the naive ancients who believed in things like ghosts and objective morality, whereas we moderns, wiser through science and cultural experience, no longer fall for such things. But the idea that "right" and "wrong" have no objective foundation is a very ancient opinion and is the subject of the Platonic dialog Gorgias, in which Socrates has a spirited argument with a defender of such a view.

I recently had, once again, the experience of reading an intelligent modern author (and scientist) elaborate what he thought was a novel insight but was one which, naturally, had been explored by Plato thousands of years ago. I refer you to Dr. Steven Novella's Neurologica blog, in which he wrote a post discussing Expertise and the Illusion of Knowledge. The post begins with:
In general people think they know more than they do. This is arguably worse than mere ignorance - having the illusion of knowledge.
Anyone familiar with Plato will immediately see that Dr. Novella is practically quoting Socrates in the Apology. But he does not seem to be familiar with Plato, and he goes on to describe the scientific investigation that backs up the assertion of the illusion of knowledge,  as though the possibility of the illusion of knowledge had not already been decisively established for Western culture twenty five hundred years ago in Athens.

Most of his blog post is concerned with the scientific investigation of the illusion of knowledge, and it is only at the end of the post, and almost in passing, that Dr. Novella approaches but never actually raises the truly decisive question:
As always, I encourage my readers to apply these lessons not only to others but to themselves. The Dunning-Kruger effect and the illusion of knowledge apply to everyone, not just to others.
The horrifying thing about the illusion of knowledge is that when you have it, you don't know you do. That is why it is an illusion. And the the question of questions is: How do I know when I truly know something as distinct from when I only think I know it?

It's not enough to merely mention the Dunning-Kruger effect and move on, as though simple awareness of the effect is sufficient to inoculate one from it. The scientists used made up terms and fake concepts (like "annualized credit") to measure the extent to which subjects claimed knowledge they could not possibly have (since there was nothing to know), and perhaps it would be a good start to make sure we ourselves are not trading in deliberately bogus concepts. But that's not really the problem that faces us. The problem for us is that, even trading in legitimate concepts, we can end up believing we know things to be true that we don't.

Before discussing Plato's answer to the question of how we know when we truly know, let's consider modern approaches to the question. Descartes could be said to have launched the modern era by proposing universal doubt as the true way to found epistemology (or, the science of how we know what we know). Doubt all that you know, and what can survive that doubt can be confidently embraced as truly known. Famously, Descartes concluded the one thing that survived universal doubt was the fact of his own thinking - cogito ergo sum. From that nugget, Descartes reconstructed the world of common sense, including the existence of God.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Descartes's procedure wasn't the pure doubt he thought it was. Why, for instance, is thinking the crucial existential act? I dance therefore I am, I pray therefore I am, I eat therefore I am all work as well. In fact, as Kierkegaard tells us, the simple I is sufficient to establish existence. I anything therefore I am works because it is really I am that comes first and anything else comes later. What Descartes's approach does is falsely privilege thought over existence, as though existence were held in suspense until thought ratified it. Instead, the truth of our own existence is immediately known to us, and the conclusion we should draw is not that existence is the one thing thought can safely conclude, but that it was foolish for thought to ever doubt existence in the first place.

This may sound like one of those philosophical points that really has no bearing on anything anyone is really interested in but it is far from that. For the Cartesian move can be summed up in the principle that doubt is its own justification or, in other words, that we are justified in doubting something by the simple fact that it can be doubted. This Cartesian attitude has become deeply embedded in the modern consciousness, not just in philosophers, but in the common man as well. And it has terrible effects because it is false to human nature.

Human nature is incarnate - we existence as embodied beings in time and space. Time starts running for us as soon as we are born and does not stop for us until we die, and every moment of that time existence makes demands on us, whether we doubt those demands or not. As children, we must be fed, kept warm and educated. A child cannot doubt and, in any event, should not doubt what he is presented with. A baby who somehow was able to doubt the value of the food he was given and refused to eat until the nature and necessity of food was established for him would soon die; a child who doubts his parent's admonishments to not wander off with strangers may very likely find himself in an unanticipated but dreadful situation. So by the time a child has grown old enough to learn of Descartes and considers flirting with the process of universal doubt, he has already spent many years not doubting and, in fact, could only have arrived at the position of being able to doubt through that non-doubt (which I will give the name faith for purposes of brevity.) Will he then embrace doubt, including doubt of the very life story that brought him to the place at which he could doubt? This isn't a bold move into sure knowledge, but the deliberate forgetting of that which made us who and what we are; the consequence of which is the tendency of modern man to wander through life not knowing what he is doing.

Really the situation is this: To get through life, we must believe many things, simply to get on with our day. Universal doubt is an existential impossibility and is the arbitrary decision to take one side of the analysis of error  Kierkegaard poses at the beginning of Works of Love: One can go wrong by believing that which is false, but one can also go wrong by failing to believe that which is true. The modern man following Descartes assumes the downside is all in falling into the former error.  But falling into the latter error is arguably worse, Kierkegaard tells us, because through it we close ourselves off to the best things in life, which can only be had through faith.

One way to think of the Cartesian approach is as an attempt to find an absolute starting point for philosophy; a point which can be embraced by any man, anywhere as the start of his thought. Descartes, the mathematician, is naturally thinking of things like geometry, which has an absolute starting point in Euclid's postulates. Anyone, anywhere at anytime who wishes to take up geometry must do it, if he is to do it legitimately at all, with these same postulates. Can the same be said of thought in general? If so, then we could get past the endless dialog of opinion that was characteristic of philosophy and so distressed the founders of modern thought.

The problem, as we've seen, is that we have already embraced many things, things that have made us who we are, by the time we arrive at a place where we could undertake Cartesian doubt. Geometry can start anytime we want, but life has already started and conditioned us by the time we become philosophically aware. And it continues to condition us even as we ponder it. What this means is that, unlike geometry, there can be no absolute starting point to philosophy. The ancient dialog of opinion that characterizes classical philosophy is not a peculiar feature of that philosophy, but is reflective of the substance of philosophy, which is human existence.

When we arrive at the point at which philosophical consciousness is possible, we have already been conditioned by our upbringing and education. We already have a set of beliefs about the world and ourselves, about what the nature of the world is and who we are, about what is good and evil, about what is important and not important. Philosophical awareness, whether of the Socratic or Cartesian variety, can begin to happen when we realize not all that we think we know we do in fact know. The Socratic approach to this realization, unlike the Cartesian approach, is not therefore to throw everything we believe overboard. It is, rather, to understand that human nature is such that we must accept as true many things that have not as yet survived our critical scrutiny. It is to continue to live and commit ourselves in light of those beliefs, and to gradually but methodically subject those beliefs to philosophical scrutiny.

Notice how subjective this process is. By subjective I merely mean that every individual will have had a different experience and be equipped with a different set of opinions by the time he comes to philosophical consciousness. And philosophy for him can only mean working through the set of opinions that are peculiar to him. Thus there is no absolute starting point to philosophy because there is no absolute starting point to life. The only universal starting point was established by Plato and, brilliantly, explored in his writing. By writing his philosophy in dialog form, following the examination of opinion by Socrates, Plato communicates the truth that philosophy can only mean working through the opinions particular to a man - you - and not some abstract set of opinions or truths falsely claimed to be a priori universal.

Some of the conundrums that puzzle we moderns show how far we have strayed from the Socratic viewpoint. For instance, one often hears the assertion: If you had grown up a Jew you would be a Jew now, or you had grown up a Muslim, you would be a Muslim now. The only reason you are a Christian is because you were born into a Christian family. The implication, Cartesian in spirit, is that we can only really find the truth by abstracting ourselves out of the existential commitments into which we are born. But this is simply false. Socrates did not discard the social and cultural obligations into which he was born as an Athenian. In fact, his last words poignantly show that his obligations were on his mind right to the end: "Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius." What he did do was philosophically investigate those commitments as he lived them, as shown, for instance, in the dialog Euthyphro. That I might be a Muslim today were I born in a Muslim country simply shows that - hopefully - I would not think human obligation goes away just because I doubt it even if I were a Muslim.  It is true that I might not have experienced the philosophical freedom I do now were I born Muslim, but this does nothing to undermine the philosophical freedom I do have having been born here. In other words, the fact that I might have been born a Muslim and never really challenged it philosophically does nothing to show that there is anything philosophically suspect in being born a Catholic and staying a Catholic. It might just be - and I think it is - that Catholicism is the one religion that really can withstand philosophical scrutiny.

So what is Plato's answer to the question of how we distinguish what we know from what we only think we know? The answer is that we know something to the extent that we can answer for it; that is, that it can withstand philosophical scrutiny in the form of Socratic cross-examination. This answer is both subjective and not absolute; I know something to the extent that I can provide reasons for it that can withstand scrutiny. And it is not absolute because cross-examination never has an absolute end. Our views can always be subject to further challenge. Put another way: I know something when I can provide a good answer to the question - How do you know that?

Returning to Dr. Novella and his post, his last sentence admonishing his readers to take account of the Dunning-Krueger effect (historically known as the Socratic insight) in their own thinking constitutes a Socratic moment. If we stop and ponder the implications of the realization of our own ignorance, we may find ourselves open to a truly philosophical adventure - one in which there is no absolute starting point but which has an absolute end in the truth. One way to short circuit this adventure is by positing an absolute starting point to thought - be it Cartesian universal doubt, or, as seems to be the case with Dr. Novella, the value of science. But the value of science, and indeed what constitutes science vs. the pseudoscience Novella battles in his blog, are not themselves scientific but meta-scientific (i.e. philosophical) questions. And as such they can only be resolved through the dialog of opinion.

So embrace the Dunning-Krueger effect, but turn to Plato to discover what it truly means.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Relating Ourselves to Indirect Knowledge, Pt. 2

In part 1of this series, I began a discussion of how we can use reason to relate ourselves to indirect knowledge. Indirect knowledge is, briefly, knowledge that we ourselves do not know the immediate reasons for its truth. Instead, someone else knows the reasons, and we are related to that knowledge through them by their mediation. Examples include complicated mathematical proofs (like the one recently demonstrated for  Fermat's Last Theorem). We might not be able to follow the logic, but the mathematicians can, and we can appreciate what the mathematical geniuses have done. Or scientific claims like global warming, in which we cannot possibly conduct or review the science ourselves, but instead must trust what the relevant experts say about it.

Relating ourselves to indirect knowledge is very different than relating ourselves directly to knowledge. The latter involves a consideration of truth immediately in terms of the fundamental reasons for something's being true or not. There is no mediator. In the former, the crucial question is how we judge the mediator, since we must take his word respecting the fundamental reasons for the truth of falsity of something. In my earlier post, I pointed to Socrates as an example of how to evaluate mediators, and used his example in the Apology: We must test a mediator to discover whether he himself is able to separate his knowledge from his opinions, and so give us only his expert knowledge and not also, in addition, his non-expert and perhaps poorly founded opinions masquerading as expert knowledge. I gave Carl Sagan as a classic example of the expert who fails Socratic examination. In such cases, an expert can still be useful, but we must be very careful to separate what he genuinely knows through his expertise (the wheat) versus the mass of non-expert opinion he gives along with it (the chaff).

We may also consider that indirect knowledge can never contradict direct knowledge. There is only one truth and it is the same for us as it is for everyone else. Thus we know 2+2=4 directly, and any purportedly expert theory that ends up contradicting that truth (implicitly as well as explicitly) must be suspect; for whatever the expert knows, he can't know that 2+2 equals something other than 4. That's an obvious and trivial example, and better examples are not hard to find. Let's look at what Jerry Coyne tells us about truth, fact and knowledge on pages 186 and 195 of Faith vs Fact:

(Begin quote)
For consistency, I'll again use the Oxford English Dictionary's definitions, which correspond roughly to most people's vernacular use. "Truth" is "conformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy, correctness, verity (of statement or thought.)" Because we're discussing facts about the universe, I'll use "fact" as Stephen Jay Gould defined "scientific facts": those "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent." Note that these definitions imply the use of independent confirmation - a necessary ingredient for determining what's real - and consensus, that is, the ability of any reasonable person familiar with the method of study to agree on what it confirms... Finally, "knowledge" is simply the public acceptance of facts; as the Dictionary puts it, "The apprehension of fact or truth with the mind; clear and certain perception of fact or truth; the state or condition of knowing fact or truth." What is true may exist without being recognized, but once it is it becomes knowledge. Similarly, knowledge isn't knowledge unless it is factual, so "private knowledge" that comes through revelation or intuition isn't really knowledge, for it's missing the crucial ingredient of verification and consensus...

"I'm hungry," my friend tells me, and that too is seen as extrascientific knowledge. And indeed, any feeling that you have, any notion or revelation, can be seen as subjective truth or knowledge. What that means is that it's true that you feel that way. What that doesn't mean is that the epistemic content of your feeling is true. That requires independent verification by others. Often someone claiming hunger actually eats very little, giving rise to the bromide "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach."
(Emphases in original and end quote).

Socrates once put forward the observation that flute-playing implies a flute player. Similarly, knowledge implies a knower. There is no knowledge without someone knowing that knowledge or, in other words, knowledge is the substance of the act of knowing. What this means is that, contra Coyne, all knowledge is subjective, meaning that all knowledge is knowledge only because it is known by someone, somewhere, at some time. The fact that all knowledge is subjective is a piece of primary knowledge - it is something we can know directly for ourselves simply by reflection on the nature of things. Thinkers like Coyne like to speak of the abstraction "science", as though it is a disembodied process generating results all on its own, but we should remember that science is but the activity of scientists, and to the extent that anything is known by science, it is known by individual scientists here and there.

The "independent confirmation" of which Coyne writes is a useful and wonderful thing, but he fails to realize that it is dependent on the "subjective truth or knowledge" that he disparages. "I'm hungry" is certainly one thing we can say; another is "I hear or have read your experience in confirming my scientific experiment." The latter is as subjective as the former. Coyne claims that the former needs independent verification of its epistemic content (that content apparently being "I need food.")  Well what about the latter? The epistemic content of the latter is that "it is a fact that you have confirmed my scientific experiment." This would seem to need independent verification as well. How will I get it? By listening to something else you say or write, or what someone else has said or written? Then those subjective experiences - which as experiences are also of the form "I am hearing you say that..." - are themselves subject to the same requirement of independent verification. We have an infinite regress here, and for a very good reason. Any contact I have with reality will be subjective, simply because I am me, and science can escape that truth only on pain of indulging in magical thinking. Introducing a radical divide between our subjective experience and its epistemic content destroys not only Coyne's intended target of religious belief, but the very possibility of knowledge.

"I'm hungry" does not always mean that I need food. But in the normal course of events it does; that is why nature gave us the feeling. "I hear you saying that you have confirmed my experiment" doesn't always mean I have heard you say that - I could be dreaming, hallucinating or simply have misheard you - let alone that you have in fact confirmed my experiment. But in the normal course of events it does, and in the normal course of events I might reasonably take for granted that you have in fact confirmed my experiment. Subjective experience is not indubitable; the attempt to make it indubitable (as in the thinking of Descartes) only leads to yet more fundamental and dangerous misunderstandings. But it is literally all we have got.

The only basis from which to critique our subjective experience is through yet more subjective experience. Doesn't this just involve us in yet another infinite regress? No, because this involves us in the philosophical process of dialectic. Subjective experience does not go on to infinity, but turns back on itself, We criticize subjective experience A in terms of experience B and B in terms of A, deciding what makes the most sense based on how our theories make sense of experience comprehensively.

For instance, consider the ancient philosophical question of the difference between sleeping and waking. How do I know I'm not sleeping right now? I notice that in certain cognitive states the question of whether I am sleeping or waking never occurs to me, and seems like it could not occur. These states, of course, are when I am sleeping, and in fact when the question occurs to me as to whether I am sleeping or waking, I know I am in the processing of waking up. So the difference between sleeping and waking seems to be that waking is aware of both itself and the state of sleeping, while sleeping is not aware of either itself or the waking state. Now since I am aware of the distinction between the two states, I must be awake. Thus we have the subjective experience of sleeping (experience A) being critiqued from subjective experience B (waking), with both experiences shedding light on the other (from the perspective of B) leading to a comprehensive insight into both experiences.

Or consider the process of science itself. While flute-playing implies a flute-player, and knowledge implies a knower, science implies a scientist. That is, all science occurs in the context of the subjective experience of a scientist. This is a very valuable piece of direct knowledge that is surprisingly often overlooked. Scientists, being people like you and me, can and must take the everyday world of common sense for granted; not just in their everyday life, but in their scientific endeavors as well. If the microbiologist starts wondering whether he's really looking through his microscope, or the physicist that he's really discussing his results with other physicists and not merely a Matrix-like simulation meant to deceive him, then his science will never get started. There is therefore a dialectic between ordinary experience and the specialized experience of the scientist in the lab.

Coyne seems to be in the grip of a mythical belief that the scientific method allows one, in the moment of science, to transcend human nature itself and reach the otherwise unattainable realm of the "objective." Like all truth myths, it  isn't recognized as such but serves as an unarticulated background assumption.

And the cure for it is philosophical reflection on direct experience.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Recent Supreme Court Actions

While reading Plato's Laws in researching my recent post, I came across a phrase that seemed appropriate to the recent actions of our Supreme Court:

"No human being is competent to wield an irresponsible control over mankind without becoming swollen with pride and unrighteousness."  - Laws, Book IV

Relating Ourselves to Indirect Knowledge, pt. 1

In my last post I brought out the distinction between direct and indirect knowledge, and made the point that we can only evaluate indirect knowledge in light of direct knowledge; here I would like to explore that theme further.

Indirect knowledge is knowledge that we are unable to evaluate in the terms by which it is directly known. For example, it is only the cosmologist who has the time, resources and education to draw scientific conclusions about the physical history of the universe on a cosmic scale. The rest of us, to the extent that we can be related to that knowledge at all, are only related to it through the cosmologist and to the extent that we believe what he tells us about cosmology. The key characteristic of indirect knowledge is, therefore, that it is mediated by another.

Naturally we want to only believe things that are true and avoid believing things that are false. In the case of indirect knowledge, then, this must involve an evaluation of the mediator through which we are related to the knowledge. In direct knowledge, we evaluate the evidential and logical basis for the knowledge ourselves; in indirect knowledge, we evaluate the reliability of the mediator who is, presumably, himself directly related to the evidential and logical basis for the knowledge. (It should be remembered that there might be a chain of mediators; the significant point is that the chain must eventually end in someone directly related to the knowledge. For the purposes of this post, however, there is no significant difference between a chain of one or many so the chain will taken to have only one link for the sake of clarity.)

It would be defeating the purpose, of course, if we tried to evaluate the mediator in terms of a direct relationship to the knowledge itself. For instance, there is no point in me trying to evaluate whether a cosmologist is reliable by reviewing his work in light of an application of cosmological science itself. For if I could do that, I could relate myself directly to cosmological knowledge and wouldn't need the cosmologist in the first place. We only avail ourselves of indirect knowledge when direct knowledge is unavailable to us.

While we can't evaluate a mediator directly in terms of the science he mediates, we can evaluate him in terms of his general human nature as a knower. For the canonical example of how to do this, we turn to Socrates in Plato's Apology. It will be recalled that Socrates was told by the oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest of men. Incredulous at this, Socrates attempted to prove the oracle wrong by finding a man wiser than himself, which he thought would not be difficult to do. Among the individuals he interviewed in this quest were the skilled craftsmen. This is the result:

Last of all, I turned to the skilled craftsmen. I knew quite well that I had practically no technical qualifications myself, and I was sure that I should find them full of impressive knowledge. In this I was not disappointed. They understood things which I did not, and to that extent they were wiser than I was. But, gentlemen, these professional experts seemed to share the same failing which I had noticed in the poets. I mean that on the strength of their technical proficiency they claimed a perfect understanding of every other subject, however important, and I felt that this error more than outweighed their positive wisdom. So I made myself spokesmen for the oracle, and asked myself whether I would rather be as I was - neither wise with their wisdom nor stupid with their stupidity - or possess both qualities as they did. I replied through myself to the oracle that it was best for me to be as I was. (from the Apology, in the Collected Dialogues of Plato edited by Hamilton and Cairns)
What Socrates has noticed is that being in expert in one thing does not make one an expert in everything, which is of course common sense. But he has noticed something else which is more significant, and even paradoxical, which is that being an expert in a field has a tendency to make people think they have a competence in other areas that is undeserved. I say it is paradoxical because one would think that through the process of becoming an expert in one field a man would realize how difficult it is to become an expert in any field, and so would tend to a natural humility concerning knowledge outside his own specialized field. Yet the opposite seems to happen; becoming an expert in one field tends to make one think he is an expert everywhere.

This observation is even more relevant today than it was in Socrates's time. For as I pointed out in the original post, science becomes more specialized the further it advances. That is, to become a scientific expert today means spending an increasing amount of time on an increasingly narrow domain. Scientists are subject to opportunity cost as much as anyone else; a scientist can only become an expert today on early universe cosmology by spending his time studying that and not other things - for instance genetics, chemistry, electrical engineering or botany, not to mention law, economics, history or philosophy. But, just as in ancient Greece, the expert of today will pretend to a competence outside his narrow area of expertise.

How can we use this principle in our evaluation of indirect knowledge? We should not take for granted that an expert is able to distinguish that which he knows through his expertise and that which holds merely by his opinion or ordinary reason. In other words, he may have no clear self-understanding of what he knows and what he doesn't know and why. Thus what we get from him may be a mix of his expert opinion on the subject on which he is competent - what we want - and his opinions on other subjects on which he has no particular competence better than our own - what we don't want. It is up to us to sort out the one from the other. But beyond that, we should be more likely to rely on the expert testimony of an expert who has the self-awareness to distinguish his expert opinion from his merely ordinary opinion. Such self-awareness indicates that the expert is aware of what it means to know, and we can have more confidence that what he is giving us is in fact only that which is justified by his expert opinion.

The classic example of an expert who is the modern equivalent of the craftsmen Socrates encountered in Athens is Carl Sagan. Sagan, an expert in planetary science, wrote a number of popular books on science (e.g. Cosmos) that explored well beyond his particular competence in astronomy. One of his most popular books, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark attempts to trace science as a singular beacon of knowledge in a world haunted by superstition, religion and pseudoscience. The book is of interest here because of a passage on p. 256-257 where Sagan issues some "mea culpas" on instances where he went wrong. The instances include the following: Estimating the atmospheric pressure of Venus incorrectly; incorrectly estimating the water content of Venutian clouds; thinking there might be plate tectonics on Mars when in fact there weren't; attributing the wrong cause to the high temperatures on Titan; overestimating the effect of burning Persian Gulf oil wells on the agriculture in South Asia.

What do these instances all have in common? They are all cases of Sagan admitting error in his particular area of expertise - planetary science. Yet Sagan offered opinions on subjects far beyond planetary science; in the The Demon Haunted World itself he makes assertions about history, religion, philosophy, politics and economics among others. He gives no instances when he was wrong about politics or philosophy. Is this because, bizarrely, he's always right in areas where he's not an expert and only wrong in areas where he is an expert? More likely is that Sagan, in his area of expertise, knows when he is right and when he is wrong, but in areas outside of his expertise, he doesn't really know when he is right and when he is wrong.

And it is not hard to find instances when he is wrong in The Demon Haunted World. He claims on p. 155 that Plato "assigned a high role to demons" and quotes the following in evidence:
We do not appoint oxen to be the lords of oxen, or goats of goats, but we ourselves are a superior race and rule over them. In like manner God, in his love of mankind, placed over us the demons, who are a superior race, and they with great ease and pleasure to themselves, and no less to us, taking care of us and giving us peace and reverence and order and justice never failing, make the tribes of men happy and united.
Sagan gives no attribution for this quote, but a little research shows that it is from Book IV of Plato's Laws. The context of the quote makes clear that Plato is not speaking in his own voice, but is recounting the received tradition concerning how mankind was originally ruled in the ancient, golden age of Cronus. And the continuation of the passage shows that it means pretty much the opposite of what Sagan thinks it means:
So the story teaches us today, and teaches us truly, that when a community is ruled not by God but by man, its members have no refuge from evil and misery. We should do our utmost - this is the moral - to reproduce the life of the age of Cronus, and therefore should order our private households and our public societies alike in obedience to the immortal element within us, giving the name of law to the appointment of understanding.
(My translation in Hamilton and Cairns is slightly different than Sagan's, wherever he got it from.) So while the age of Cronus may have been ruled by benevolent demons, ours is not, but we can imitate that golden age by ruling ourselves through the immortal element within us - which for Plato is the soul and in particular the intellectual element of the soul - the "appointment of understanding." Plato, far from giving demons a "high role", is giving them no role at all and instead is urging us to order our affairs through reason. More deeply, Plato is wisely using the tradition of mythology to support the rule of reason; rather doing a Sagan-like move and dismissing any regard for mythology as foolish, Plato acknowledges the wisdom in mythology but turns that respect for tradition to his own purposes. In the present age, Plato argues, respect for tradition cannot take the form it once did - since the present age is manifestly not a golden age, we obviously are not being ruled by benevolent demons even if we once were - and can only take the form of ruling ourselves by the divine element within us, our reason. Sagan, rather than dismissing Plato, could probably have taken some lessons from him in how to influence people.

The point for present purposes, however, is that Sagan was clearly wrong about Plato, and in a way that a simple reading of the passage in context would have revealed to any intelligent reader. Furthermore, Sagan doesn't know he is wrong, the way he knows he was wrong about atmospheric pressure on Venus. The lesson to take away is to trust whatever Carl Sagan says about strictly scientific issues concerning planetary science, and to take anything else he says with truckload of salt.

The conclusion for now is that the first principle in evaluating indirect knowledge is to consider the mediator in terms of his character as a knower in the general sense: Is he able to distinguish what he knows from what he doesn't know? Does he know the limits of his own expertise, what he really knows through it and what he doesn't? A mediator for whom positive answers can be given is more trustworthy, both in his area of expertise and in the likelihood of not pretending to pass off as expert knowledge that which was not. In any case, it is important to sift through for ourselves what an expert tells us, sorting out what his expertise really justifies and what it does not.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Science, Philosophy, Direct and Indirect Knowledge

For many, including Jerry Coyne, the significant distinction in knowledge is between scientific knowledge and all other kinds of knowledge (if there are any; in his Faith vs. Fact, Coyne can barely bring himself to acknowledge anything other than science.)

But the more important distinction for us is between direct and indirect knowledge. Direct knowledge is knowledge that is known immediately by us and on our own authority. Indirect knowledge is knowledge that we are related to only through someone else; it is mediated by those others and therefore always involves the issue of authority, for it is on the basis of authority that we determine whom to listen to or not.

Examples of direct knowledge include things like the fact that you can't be in two places at the same time, that you are younger than your parents, and that dogs are produced by nature but automobiles are only products of human artifice. Some (but not all) of mathematics is direct knowledge. You don't need an authority to tell you that 2+2=4. And if you can follow Euclid's proof that there are an infinite number of primes. then the fact that there are an infinite number of primes is direct knowledge for you.

Suppose you can't follow the proof. Then you can still be related to that fact as knowledge, but only indirectly through the authority of someone else who can follow the proof. A consequence of this is that the same piece of knowledge can be known directly by some and indirectly by others. Everyone knows 2+2=4 on his own authority; but very few people know that Fermat's Last Theorem is true on his own authority, for its proof is so sophisticated that only the most educated mathematicians can follow it.

It can be seen that indirect knowledge depends on direct knowledge. If I'm taking something on the authority of another, it is not unreasonable for him to be taking it on the authority of another as well, but somewhere the chain has to end with someone who simply knows it directly. Otherwise we have a train with nothing but freight cars and no engine. (An example is a child who believes in the Big Bang on the authority of his teacher, who in turn believes it on the authority of cosmologists. But the cosmologists know it directly because they have gone through and understand the scientific case for the Big Bang.)

What about science? Jerry Coyne tells us on page 187 of Faith vs Fact that "I see science as a method not a profession... Any discipline that studies the universe using the methods of 'broad' science is capable in principle of finding truth and producing knowledge. If it doesn't, no knowledge is possible." So to have "science" in the strict sense we must produce it through the method that defines science. Unfortunately, very few of us - actually no one - has the time or resources to develop his entire base of knowledge through the application of scientific methods. We must, to a great degree, rely on the application of the scientific method that others have performed and take their results as a given; or, rather, we can only be related to their scientific knowledge indirectly through appeal to their authority as scientists.

The irony of the advance of science is that the more it advances, the less it becomes directly available to any individual man. Back in the early days of modern science, an intelligent amateur could keep abreast of, and perhaps reproduce, most of the crucial scientific results. It's not hard to reproduce Galileo's experiments with rolling balls and, if he can get his hands on a telescope, verify the existence and movements of Jupiter's satellites for himself. And he can easily reproduce Franklin's experiments with electricity or Pascal's with atmospheric pressure. But as science advances, it requires increasingly expensive and elaborate apparatus to construct experiments; and those experiments themselves require a much larger base of knowledge to understand. A high school student can be brought to an understanding of Galileo's experiments in acceleration in the course of one day's class. He'll need another four or so years of intensive education, at least, to understand how and why recent experiments have demonstrated the existence of the Higgs boson, assuming he is capable of mastering the relevant material at all. And that student, while mastering physics, will not be spending his time mastering biology and genetic science, so that, however much he might end up directly related to knowledge in physics, he will still be indirectly related to all that genetic science produces, and all that the other sciences produce. So the more science advances, the more all of us are indirectly related to scientific knowledge, including scientists themselves.

It thus becomes crucial for us to understand the distinction between direct and indirect knowledge, how they are related, and how to handle each type of knowledge appropriately. I've already discussed the distinction between the two types of knowledge. How are they related? As pointed out above, indirect knowledge is dependent on direct knowledge, since indirect knowledge is really just direct knowledge removed some number of times from the original source.

But indirect knowledge is dependent on direct knowledge in another way, and that is subjectively. By that I mean the only means we have available to evaluate indirect knowledge is through direct knowledge. When a scientist says that the Big Bang is true, how do I know whether to believe him or not? I could appeal to some other instance of indirect knowledge, for instance that other scientists agree with him, but this only pushes the problem back a step, since I now have to think about how to evaluate that piece of indirect knowledge. Again, at some point I must have recourse to something I simply know directly, through which I can evaluate competing claims of indirect knowledge.

The process of analyzing and appropriating direct knowledge is philosophy. The crucial distinction with direct knowledge is that it is not mediated; that is, it must ultimately be known without reliance on anyone else. Kierkegaard discusses this in his analysis of Socrates in Philosophical Fragments. A true teacher - that is, in my terms, a teacher of direct knowledge - is only the occasion by which someone comes to know, and the process has only completed when the teacher has become dispensable. It is for this reason that philosophy does not "progress" or produce "results" - one of the perennial charges against it. A "result" is knowledge that can be appropriated without reproducing the process by which it came to be known - for example, when an engineer uses the facts about electronic devices to design a system without first proving all those facts scientifically for himself. "Results" are therefore by nature indirect knowledge. Philosophy cannot produce "results" without falsifying itself; and everyone who would make progress in philosophy must reproduce for himself the process by which philosophers have come to know - and in the process, make those philosophers dispensable. There are no "results" that can be handed on from Plato's Republic. But someone who reads it may come to know things for himself that he might otherwise not know.

The fact that the teacher becomes dispensable is one characteristic of philosophy; another is that it appeals to direct experience as its evidential basis, on the eminently reasonable principle that it is the only possible basis. For my own, immediate experience is the only direct contact I have with reality (if in fact I have contact with reality at all); anything else is mediated and therefore a subject of indirect knowledge. This too, like the fact that philosophy doesn't produce "results", sometimes puts people off philosophy, for it makes philosophy seem a matter of purely "subjective" preference. And it is subjective, in the sense that it is only I that have access to my own experience. This is true, necessary and unavoidable, nearly tautological, yet is frequently overlooked. From p. 195 of Faith vs Fact:
"I'm hungry," my friend tells me, and that too is seen as extrascientific knowledge. And indeed, any feeling that you have, any notion or revelation, can be seen as subjective truth or knowledge. What that means is that it's true that you feel that way. What that doesn't mean is that the epistemic content of your feeling is true. That requires independent verification by others. Often someone claiming hunger actually eats very little, giving rise to the bromide "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach."


The fact you feel hungry is a fact concerning reality as much as any other. Whether you really need to eat or not is irrelevant to the truth that you in fact have the feeling . Ultimately, science itself depends on subjective knowledge, because scientists must read meters and look through microscopes - "I am seeing an amoeba through this lens" or "The voltmeter says 5 volts." There is really no way to escape the subjective nature of these experiences. For instance, trying to "independently verify" them as Coyne suggests, for instance, by asking someone else whether they see 5 volts as well, may be a reasonable procedure, but it only works because we take our subjective experience of what someone else tells us - "I am hearing Joe say the voltmeter reads 5 volts" - as itself not in need of independent verification. Otherwise, we are back to the familiar infinite regress that comes up so often in this context.

The philosopher faces the fact that all our knowledge - direct, indirect or otherwise - can ultimately be evaluated only in light of our own personal experience. The philosopher serves as an ultimately dispensable aid in analyzing and discovering the significance and meaning of that experience. The scientist simply takes the meaning of personal experience for granted so he can get on with his science. And he is perfectly justified in this, but he is in danger, like Coyne, of misunderstanding the real relationship between science and philosophy - which is really a misunderstanding of the basic human condition.

Coming next: How direct knowledge is used to evaluate indirect knowledge. Hint: Read Plato's Apology.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Coyne and Scientism

In his Faith vs Fact, Jerry Coyne in passing gives us his definition of "scientism":
In a debate with Steven Pinker about "scientism" - the notion that science often intrudes into areas where it doesn't belong - the New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier...

Of course science can intrude wherever it likes. The problem - the problem of scientism - comes up when scientists (or anyone else) thinks they are drawing a scientific conclusion when in fact they are expressing a philosophical prejudice. An example of this was given in one of my earlier posts on Coyne, where Coyne defines science as involving the exclusion of purpose in its explanatory framework, then later concludes that there is no ultimate purpose in the universe because science has not discovered any.

In his book Coyne often expresses frustration that the average man does not always accept conclusions that are presented to him by the consensus of the scientific community. He cites climate change and evolution among the topics on which there is resistance. The average person - Kierkegaard's "plain man" - is wiser than Coyne gives him credit for. For the average man may not be able to define "scientism", or describe with precision what is going on, but he sometimes rightly senses something amiss in the pronouncements he hears from the scientific community. When he is told that science demands that he accept that evolution has proven that man is purely the creation of blind, material forces, he rebels because he is skeptical that the most important things about man - his mind, his rationality, his ability to love, come immediately to mind - are things that can even in principle be explained by purely material forces. And he is right about that - for the ability to explain the mind in purely material terms is a notoriously difficult, and, in my opinion, impossible philosophical problem.

The standard response to this point is that, while it has not yet been demonstrated how evolution can account for the mind, we can have confidence there will be an explanation sometime in the future. The "god of the gaps" and all that. In other words, the scientist writes the plain man a check he promises can be cashed someday, although the scientist does not yet have the funds in his account to cover it. And the plain man is perfectly within his rights to reject that check until he knows it won't bounce.