Saturday, June 24, 2006

Don't Forget

Over the last three years, the commonly accepted story of the Iraq War debacle has morphed into a tale about failures of the CIA, or even cherry-picking by the Vice President's war cabal.

The cherry-picking was bad enough, but let's not forget (as I did) what the administration's actions were following the invasion. Weapons sites were left unguarded, even those where WMD components were known to have existed. While nuclear components and hundreds of tons of explosives were looted by insurgents or black-marketeers, the U.S. military secured... the Oil Ministry.

Had the administration actually believed that the weapons existed, its first priority would have been to prevent those weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. So, either the administration is negligent beyond belief, or it knew full well that no weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq before the invasion.

Monday, June 19, 2006

An Illustration of the Link Between Verification and Uncertainty in Meaning

Suppose we assert the proposition "bananas are green, brown or yellow."

Suppose we then discover a natural banana tree that has mauve banana's, but which produces toxic fruit. We may have difficulty deciding whether our proposition still stands. Is such a toxic banana still a banana? Did we mean that only edible bananas are green, brown or yellow? Has our proposition been falsified?

I think that precision in meaning is generally quite good when our proposition has a particular verificationist intent. If we were programming a robot to collect bananas for humans to eat, toxic bananas would not be bananas (edible fruits) for our intended purposes. In that case, our original proposition stands undefeated by the mauve fruits.

On the other hand, if we were categorizing plant species, we might consider toxic mauve bananas to be bananas in good standing* (by morphology, genetic similarity, potential for cross-breeding, etc.), thereby falsifying our original claim.

In these two cases, the intended mechanisms of verification make the clarification of meaning fairly straightforward.

However, things become much more shaky when our goal is extension of meaning beyond verification. If we don't explicitly specify how our proposition should be verified, the meaning becomes more uncertain. Mauve, toxic bananas either are or are not defeaters of the proposition depending on our verification protocols. The blanket statement that bananas are green, brown or yellow is highly uncertain without knowing precisely how we would verify the claim.

*One doesn't often use "bananas in good standing" in a sentence!

Meaning: Complexity, Directness and Possibility

Recently, I wrote about the way that meaning is connected to a set of relevant experiences. I also claimed that those relevant experiences are always properly subdivided by any meaningful claim into consistent and inconsistent experiences.

In the comments, Franklin Mason questioned whether my criteria for meaning meant that meaning was infinitely complex:
The set of possible experiences that might serve as verification of some existential proposition is infinite. Thus if an existential proposition means that set of possible experiences, that proposition is infinitely complex. But if it is infinitely complex, it cannot be grasped by minds such as ours. We do however grasp many simple existential propositions. Thus . . .
The problem with this critique is that an infinite enumeration of cases does not make a proposition infinitely complex.

If I say that X is greater than 3 and less than 4, there are an infinite number of points I could enumerate that would satisfy (or violate) my proposition, but the proposition is not infinitely complex. This is because it is simple to execute the test of the proposition's veracity. The proposition would only be infinitely complex if the execution of the verification test for the proposition were infinitely complex.

Franklin also echoed Bob's earlier comment on what constituted detectability:
When you say 'detectable', to whom do you mean? Only humans? Surely not. What organs of sense can be put to use? Only those we have? Again, surely not. I don't see clearly what a good account of 'detectable' would come to.
As with Bob's criticism, the answer is that detectability does not have to be direct, but must at least be indirect.

I have never seen my friend's girlfriend, but she has been described to me. Thus, I have no direct experience of her, but I have indirect experiences such that propositions about her are verifiable, by other indirect or indirect experiences.

Finally, Franklin asks whether possible experiences are themselves undetectable:
You speak at times of possible experiences. What sense can an empiricist such as yourself make of that talk? Are there possible nonactual things? You seem to assume that there are. But surely such things are undetectable . . .
This critique is more subtle, and it illustrates the way in which meaning can get lost when we try to generalize away from verifiability.

Suppose I say that "Roses are red." I making this claim, I am contemplating several possible experiences. These possible experiences are experienced by me now. Possibilities are themselves actualities in thought. I have created real, mental images of roses of different colors that I will compare with physical roses at a future time. These possible roses exist as models now, before I ever observe a rose in color. So it would be incorrect to claim that, for the purposes of making meaning for propositions, possible experiences are undetectable. Rather, they are the vital actualities upon which meaning is based.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Personal Progress in Philosophical Debate

Philosophy is about finding your deepest assumptions. For most people, these roots lie unexamined. People believe what they believe because of socialization or wishful thinking or isolated personal experiences. Their ideas may not even be consistent.

Philosophical debate forces us to reveal our assumptions and check the consistency of our beliefs. Though debate might never result in one party accepting all of the assumptions of the other, it can reveal what those assumptions happen to be.

Thus, success in persuading others to one's philosophical conclusions isn't the true measure of one's philosophical progress. That progress is measured by the philosophers' deeper insights into eachothers' assumptions and reasoning. In other words, I will continue to find satisfaction in the philosophy game as long as I continue to gain deeper insigt into my axioms and the axioms of the other side.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Non-Existence vs. Total Undetectability

Consider the Principle of Sufficient Reason:
For every event, there is a cause.
We can paraphrase this claim in another way:
For every event, there may be a detectable cause, and if there is no detectable cause, then there is an undetectable one.
The business of detectable causes is quite uncontroversial, so I'm going to focus on the undetectable ones. Here's the relevant corollary:
Principle of Undetectable Causation:
Every event that has no detectable cause has an undetectable one.
The negation of this can be expressed as:
Anti-Principle of Undetectable Causation:
There are some events that have no cause, detectable or otherwise.
The problem with both the Principle and the Anti-Principle is that neither has any epistemic test. No observation can validate either proposition. Seeing caused events backs up neither claim because such evidence concerns detectable causes, not undetectable ones.

Given that the rational mind treats like as like, the philosopher cannot rationally justify acceptance of either the principle or its negation because there is no evidence to support either one.

We should not be too surprised to find that wholesale acceptance of such principles is irrational. The root of the problem is in the definition of existence itself.

If I say that a unicorn exists in Sherwood Forest, I am creating a model of a set experiences that are consistent with my claim. Seeing a unicorn in the London city center is not relevant to my claim. Seeing a horse in Sherwood Forest is not relevant to my claim. But seeing a horse with a horn on its head in Sherwood Forest is relevant and consistent with it. And, there may be still other experiences that are incompatible with my claim.

More formally:
The claim X exists => There is some set of relevant experiences such that the set is divided into two subsets: the subset of possible experiences compatible with the claim, and the subset of experiences incompatible with the claim.
(Note that there might be some experiences irrelevant to the claim.)

Now, what if we should discover a horse roaming Sherwood with a plastic horn glued to its head? Do unicorns then exist in Sherwood Forest? It depends. If by unicorn, I meant a genetic unicorn that grew a horn by virtue of its DNA, then no. If I meant something that merely looks superficially like a unicorn, then yes.

What we see here is that the meaning of the existence claim is precisely that set of experiences that satisfy the claim. The two are intimately connected. Many existence claims are somewhat imprecise for this very reason. As in the case of the fake unicorn, we do not always anticipate or articulate every possible relevant experience, and even the things we mean to say are often imprecise.

Given the relationship between the meaning of a claim and the experiences that satisfy it, we must conclude that any two existence claims that apply to the same set of experiences, and which subdivide that set in the same way, are actually the very same claim.

This sets us up for the final blow: if an existence claim and its negation are relevant to and consistent with the same set of experiences, then the claim has no truth value at all. If it were true, then its negation would also be true because they both mean the same thing.

We can see that this is true of the Principle of Undetectable Causation, and that the Principle can be neither true nor false. As a proposition, the Principle is meaningless. It literally says that:
P = We have some specific set of relevant experiences, and every element of that set is compatible with this statement.
and its negation says the very same thing. If the Principle means something, it is not as a proposition.

Likewise, when we say that "the existence of God is compatible with every possible experience," we actually mean precisely the same thing as "the non-existence God is compatible with every possible experience." So neither "God exists" nor "God does not exist" are meaningful as propositions.

After subtracting out the naughty bits, what is left of the Principle of Sufficient Reason? This:
For every event, there may be a detectable cause.
Hey, I can agree with that!

Fareed Zakaria on Global Competitiveness

I read Fareed Zakaria's articles with some suspicion. Although Zakaria is regularly critical of the Bush administration, he's too lenient on them, and too willing to give them credit where it's not deserved.

However, I do like his recent piece, How Long Will America Lead the World?
So what should the United States do? What has it done in the past? First, be scared, be very scared. The United States has a history of worrying that it is losing its edge. This is at least the fourth wave of such concerns since 1945. The first was in the late 1950s, produced by the Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik satellite. The second was during the early 1970s, when high oil prices and slow growth in the U.S. convinced Americans that Western Europe and Saudi Arabia were the powers of the future and President Nixon heralded the advent of a multipolar world. The most recent one was in the mid-1980s, when most experts believed that Japan would be the technologically and economically dominant superpower of the future. The concerns in each one these cases was well founded, the projections intelligent. But the reason that none of these scenarios came to pass is that the American system—flexible, resourceful and resilient—moved quickly to correct its mistakes and refocus its attention. Concerns about American decline ended up preventing it. As Andy Grove puts it, "Only the paranoid survive."

America's problem right now is that it is not really that scared. There is an intelligent debate about these issues among corporate executives, writers and the thin sliver of the public than is informed on these issues. But mainstream America is still unconcerned. Partly this is because these trends are operating at an early stage and somewhat under the surface. Americans do not really know how fast the rest of the world is catching up. We don't quite believe that most of the industrialized world—and a good part of the nonindustrialized world as well—has better cell-phone systems than we do. We would be horrified to learn that many have better and cheaper broadband—even France. We are told by our politicians that we have the best health-care system in the world, despite strong evidence to the contrary. We ignore the fact that a third of our public schools are totally dysfunctional because it doesn't affect our children. We boast that our capital markets are the world's finest even though of the 25 largest stock offerings (IPOs) made last year, only one was held in America. It is not an exaggeration to say that over the past five years, because of bad American policies, London is replacing New York as the world's financial capital.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Evaluating Non-Falsifiable Propositions

The following is one of my comments in a debate at Tom Gilson's Thinking Christian blog about the Problem of Evil.

To give you a sense of context, it has been argued up to this point in the debate that there is confirmation of God's goodness in certain events (e.g., people who come out of adversity stronger than they went in), but that perceived injustices (e.g., the Holocaust) should not be regarded as falsifying the claim that God is good because we simply lack the ability (omniscience) to know that such injustices aren't for the best.

In my response, I show that consistency and logic demand we evaluate such questions using a scientific method of local testing and prediction.
Assume good and evil refer to our standard intuitions on morality, from our limited, local perspective. For example, we all agree that the Holocaust was evil, and that emergency rescue services are good. This is analogous to our ability to measure conservation of energy, locally. The meaning of good and evil are the relatively clear and familiar ones.

We can then propose that there are global rules about these concepts. For a physics example, I might propose that the apparent increase in energy of my space probe as it slingshots around Jupiter is exactly balanced by a corresponding loss of Jupiter's orbital energy. If I widen my consideration of experimental observations to incorporate Jupiter and the Sun, I can verify that energy is conserved.

By analogy, we might suppose that there is universal justice, and though (like the energy of the space probe) we see an imbalance of justice in the world, we can theorize that, if we could widen our consideration of the facts, there would be global (universal) justice.

Unfortunately, we could do the same with conservation of ice cream. We could propose that an ice cream cone eaten on Earth is balanced by an ice cream cone popping into existence on the other side of the universe.

So what gives us confidence in conservation of energy, but no confidence in conservation of ice cream?

Our ability to test the proposition locally. If conservation of energy were false, it could have been recognized as such in numerous experiments. We have tested the proposition locally, and that gives us our confidence. BTW, notice that a prediction is required for there to be a test.

In contrast, propositions about God's goodness, universal justice and universally conserved ice cream cones are not locally testable as stated. (In fact, the same would even be true of the claim that energy is conserved everywhere in the universe if we did not limit our claim to observable parts of the universe.)

So, if we are to be consistent, we either have to (Type 1) reject the claims of universal justice or the goodness of God if there are no local tests of such claims, or (Type 2) admit all sorts of similar claims about conservation of ice cream cones and the like.

Alas (er, I mean fortunately) Type 2 evaluations have an even deeper flaw.

Under Type 2 rules, you can describe what experiences constitute validation of your proposition, but you cannot describe what experiences would constitute falsification. For example, you point to Solzhenitzin as a confirming case where an evil was redeemed somehow. If I point to some nameless Holocaust victim, you will answer that my example is not falsification because I just don't have all the facts. Initially, you rest assured that your proposition cannot ever be found to be false.

However, if we stick to these evaluative rules, the negation of the proposition ("there is no universal justice" or "God is not good") is as persuasive as the original proposition. We can find confirmations of the claim in observed injustices, and we can reject local justices as anomalies caused by our limited perspective. So, by Type 2 rules, the negation of your proposition cannot be found false either.

We must conclude that if we are going to accept the confirmation but not the falsification of a proposition, then that proposition has no truth value at all, because neither the proposition nor its negation can be false.

This is why local testing and prediction (aka Science) are necessary for knowledge.