Anything Can Go – Interview With Paul Feyerabend in English

A quote from Paul Feyerabend‘s Stanford Encyclopedia page, quoted this bit:

“One of my motives for writing Against Method was to free people from the tyranny of philosophical obfuscators and abstract concepts such as “truth”, “reality”, or “objectivity”, which narrow people’s vision and ways of being in the world. Formulating what I thought were my own attitude and convictions, I unfortunately ended up by introducing concepts of similar rigidity, such as “democracy”, “tradition”, or “relative truth”. Now that I am aware of it, I wonder how it happened. The urge to explain one’s own ideas, not simply, not in a story, but by means of a “systematic account”, is powerful indeed. (pp. 179–80).

-Giedymin, J., 1976, “Instrumentalism and its Critique: A Reappraisal”, in R.S.Cohen, P.K.Feyerabend & M.Wartofsky (eds.), Essays in Memory of Imre Lakatos, Dordrecht: D. Reidel, pp. 179–207.

Chartism & Skepticism

Chartism: …Policymakers fall somewhere on the spectrum of pro-chart and anti-chart. Pro-chartists think that data can explain the world, and the more we have the better. But anti-chartists think that relentless data accumulation is misguided because it offers false certainty and misses the big picture interpretation. As the saying goes: “More fiction is written in Excel than Word.”

-David Perell, “Friday Finds (1/29/[21 sic])” Friday Finds. January 29, 2021.

David Perell references Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism as the origin of this idea. It’s interesting, but I think it is largely a false dichotomy. Obviously, data can help explain the world and help us to make better decisions. However, equally obviously, Sturgeon’s Law applies to data, just as it does to anything else, and a lot of data is crap. Or, it is worse than crap because it gives us confidence in ideas, decisions, etc. that we should not be confident in. However, there is a solution to this problem: philosophical skepticism.

It is easy to get lost in the weeds in that Stanford article of belief, justification, and so forth about skepticism. But, the main idea is that everything you know could be wrong. On one level, none of us knows enough to be completely wrong about anything. On another, you could say that we aren’t even wrong because we don’t even know what the basic framework of being right should be. It’s a bit confusing, but skepticism is easier to understand if you tackle it using a specific problem: the problem of induction, which was originally formulated by David Hume in A Treatise on Human Nature in 1739 .

At base, the problem of induction is that our past experiences aren’t really predictive and don’t constitute knowledge. Take an easy example: will the sun rise tomorrow? It has risen all the previous days for billions of years, so it seems we could say that we know it will rise tomorrow too. However, we just know history. Something could change tomorrow. There could be some detail about stars that would make tomorrow’s reality different from our expectation.

In terms of Chartism, we have a lot of data points about the sun’s daily rising. We’ve been able to predict, successfully, the sun’s rise in the past. We may even have some ideas about star formation and other details that would inform our expectations. But do we know that the sun is going to rise tomorrow? No, we don’t.

And once you are willing to question the sun’s rise, you’re on your way. Everything is up for grabs. You can still go about your day thinking certain things will happen. But, you also know that there’s uncertainty there that you were not aware of before. It is one of the principle problems of humanity that we believe that we know things that we don’t. With skepticism, we introduce a little intellectual humility, a quality that never hurt anyone.

The Illusion of Certainty

“Scientists sometimes resist new ideas and hang on to old ones longer than they should, but the real problem is the failure of the public to understand that the possibility of correction or disproof is a strength and not a weakness…

…Most people are not comfortable with the notion that knowledge can be authoritative, can call for decision and action, and yet be subject to constant revision, because they tend to think of knowledge as additive, not recognizing the necessity of reconfiguring in response to new information.”

Mary Catherine Bateson, ” 2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?: The Illusion of Certainty.” Edge.org. 2014.

R.I.P., Mary Catherine Bateson.

One Question, Forty Answers

People want to believe in something, even if it is false. No one knows enough to be completely right (or wrong) about anything. But, how do we judge? If we think of truth as a continuum, where answers are more right and less right, or more wrong or less wrong, compared to other answers. Then, the one mistake that we all make is that we don’t look for enough answers.

We want the answer that is right enough for our needs. But, maybe what we really need is more answers, more points of comparison. With more facets of truth at our disposal, perhaps we will gain a fuller appreciation for the elements of truth that are in each answer. For even the wrongest answer has some truth to it.

So, a modest proposal. Find more answers. Use those to refine your questions. But, never be satisifed with just one answer. Answers are a dime a dozen. Get a quarter to fifty cents worth. It’s worth the expense.

Related: A Day in the Park.

Introduction to Immanuel Kant

“The basic value in Kant’s ethics is that of human dignity – the rational nature in persons as end in itself. A person is a being for whose sake we should act, and that has an unconditional claim on us. This is the source of what Kant calls a categorical imperative: a ground for action that does not depend on any contingent desire of ours or any end to be effected by action set at our discretion. John Rawls corrected the basic and traditional misunderstanding of Kant’s ethics when he said that it is not an ethics of stern command but rather one of self-esteem and mutual respect. To this I would add that Kant’s ethics is also an ethics of caring or empathy – what Kant calls Teilnehmung: sympathetic participation. This is not sympathy merely in the sense of passive feeling for or with others, but instead an active taking part in the standpoint of the other which leads to understanding and concern.”

-Allen W. Wood, “Immanuel Kant: What lies beyond the senses.Times Literary Supplement. February 21, 2020.

Probably the most accessible introduction to Kant’s thought I’ve read. Also worth taking a look at the Five Best Books on Immanuel Kant.

Echo Chamber Test

“[D]oes a community’s belief system actively undermine the trustworthiness of any outsiders who don’t subscribe to its central dogmas? Then it’s probably an echo chamber…

…An echo chamber doesn’t destroy their members’ interest in the truth; it merely manipulates whom they trust and changes whom they accept as trustworthy sources and institutions.

And, in many ways, echo-chamber members are following reasonable and rational procedures of enquiry. They’re engaging in critical reasoning. They’re questioning, they’re evaluating sources for themselves, they’re assessing different pathways to information. They are critically examining those who claim expertise and trustworthiness, using what they already know about the world. It’s simply that their basis for evaluation – their background beliefs about whom to trust – are radically different. They are not irrational, but systematically misinformed about where to place their trust.”

—C Thi Nguyen, “Why it’s as hard to escape an echo chamber as it is to flee a cult.” Aeon. April 9, 2018.

The central idea isn’t that we all need “epistemological reboots”, although it’s often not a bad idea. The central idea is of intellectual humility, such as the possibility that you could be wrong. Philosophical skepticism, like that of Descartes, is taking it to the logical extreme, that not only can you be wrong, you might be wrong about everything. For example, everything we believe is real could be a Matrix-style simulation. We cannot exclude that possibility, even if it isn’t terribly useful in our day to day existence.