Humans have suffered three thousand years of philosophy now, and it’s time we took stock.

Explanations. A successful explanation decomposes a complex question into its constituent parts. You ask why blood is bright red in the air and the arteries and darker red in the veins. I tell you that arterial blood has more oxygen, which it collects from the lungs and carries it to the heart, than venous blood, which does the opposite circuit. Then I tell you that blood contains iron, which bonds to oxygen to form oxyhaemoglobin, which is bright red. I can demonstrate by experiment that these are facts. I have offered a successful explanation.

Of course it is incomplete. I haven’t told you how I know the blood circulates, what oxygen is, how chemical bonding works, or what makes red red. But I could tell you all of these things, and even if I don’t you know more about blood than you did when we started.

The explanation succeeds largely because the question is worth asking. You notice an apparently strange fact that you do not understand. You investigate, and if you are lucky and intelligent, maybe you get somewhere. Philosophers, by contrast, when they sit down to philosophize, forget, as a point of honor, everything they know. They begin with pseudo-questions like “Do I exist?” (Descartes) or “Does the external world exist?” (Berkeley and his innumerable successors), the answers to which no sane person, including Descartes and Berkeley, has never seriously doubted. Kant, the great name in modern philosophy, is the great master of the showboating pseudo-question. The one certainty about questions like “how is space possible?”, “how are synthetic judgments possible a priori?”, and, my favorite, “how is nature possible?,” is that you will learn nothing by asking them, no matter how they are answered. Kant rarely bothers to answer them and such answers as he gives are impossible to remember in any case.

Explanations would seem to be philosophy’s best hope, but its track record is dismal. There has been the occasional lucky guess. Democritus held, correctly, that the world was made up of atoms. Now suppose you had inquired of Democritus what the world-stuff was, and he told you “atoms.” Would you be enlightened? In any case he couldn’t prove his guess, or support it, or follow it up in any way. Atoms had to wait 2500 years for Rutherford and modern physics to put them to good use. If you asked Parmenides how a thing can change and remain the same thing, he would have told you that nothing changes. It’s an explanation of a sort. But would you have gone away happy? Grade: Two C’s, two D’s, and an F. Congratulations Kroger, you’re at the top of the Delta pledge class.

Predictions. To be fair, predictions have been the Achilles’ heel of many more reputable disciplines than philosophy, like economics. Human beings have a nasty habit of not doing what the models say they should, and most philosophers retain enough sense of self-preservation to shy away from prediction whenever possible. Still, a few of the less judicious philosophers of history, like Plato, Spengler, and Marx, have taken the plunge. Spenglerian cycles of history take a couple thousand years to check out, fortunately for Spengler, but Plato’s prediction of eternal decline and Marx’s of advanced capitalism preceding communism were — how shall i put this politely? — howlingly wrong. The very belief that history has a direction is a prime piece of foolishness in its own right.

Brute matter is more tractable. Einstein’s equation for the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, which Newtonian mechanics could not explain, is a classical instance of a successful prediction. Although the precession was a matter of a lousy 40 seconds of arc per century, Einstein wrote Eddington that he was prepared to give up on relativity if his equation failed to account for it. Ever met a philosopher willing to throw over a theory of his in the face of an inconvenient fact? Me neither. Grade: No grade point average. All courses incomplete.

Tools. OK, there’s propositional logic, for which Aristotle receives due credit. But really that’s more mathematics than philosophy, Aristotle’s version of it was incomplete, and it took mathematicians, like Boole and Frege, to make a proper algebra of it and tighten it up. With this one shining exception philosophy has been a dead loss in the tools department. Probably its most famous contribution is Karl Popper’s theory of falsifiability, which turns real science exactly on its head. Where real science verifies theories, Popper falsifies them. Most of us consider “irrefutability” (not “untestability,” which is a different affair) a virtue in a scientific theory. For Popper it is a vice. Mathematics, which is obviously not “falsifiable” and equally obviously “irrefutable,” supremely embarrasses Popper’s philosophy of science, and Popper takes the customary philosophic approach of never mentioning it.

Far from supplying us with tools, philosophers have taken every opportunity to disparage the ones we’re born with. According to Berkeley things do not exist outside of our mind because we cannot think of such things without having them in mind. According to Kant we are ignorant because we have senses. I cite these arguments not because they are bad, which they are, but because they are the most influential arguments in modern philosophy.

To modern philosophy in particular also belongs the unique distinction of making the ad hominem respectable. According to Marx we reason badly about economics because we are bourgeois. According to the deconstructionists we are racist, being white; sexist, being male; and speciesist, being homo sapiens. Grade: Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.

Advice. Moral advice from philosophers divides into two categories, the anodyne and the dangerous. Under the anodyne begin with Plato and “know thyself,” which is to advice what “nothing changes” is to explanation. Kant recommends that we treat our neighbor as we ourselves would be treated, which works well provided our neighbor is exactly like us, and sheds little light on the question of how we would wish to be treated, and why. Rand counsels “rational self-interest,” which might be helpful if she told us what was rational, or what was self-interested.

Under dangerous file Nietzsche’s “will to power,” just what a growing boy needs to hear. (Yes, he is tragically misinterpreted, and no, it doesn’t matter.) But utilitarianism, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” with its utter disregard for the individual, is the real menace. Occasionally some poor deranged soul actually tries to follow it, with predictable consequences. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the consistent utilitarian, the unblushing advocate of infanticide and cripple-killing, Mr. Peter Singer. The sad fact is that your moral intuition, imperfect though it is, gives you better advice than any moral philosophers have to date. G.E. Moore, confronted with this fact, responded with “the naturalistic fallacy,” from which it follows that the way we do behave has nothing to do with the way we should behave. Well George, natural selection, which largely governs our behavior, has seen us through for quite a long time now, which is more than I can say for moral philosophy. Grade: Zero point zero.

One loose index of the value of a discipline is whether it helped humanity out of the cave. Mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and even a few economists have all made their contributions. As for philosophy — we programmers have a term to characterize a programmer without whom, even if he were paid nothing, the project would be better off. The term is “net negative.”

Is it too late to start over? Tomorrow we will consider a better approach.

(Update: Bill Kaplan notes in the comments that I had the Einstein-Eddington story backwards, which reflects no credit on Einstein but, alas, none on the philosophers either. Umbrae Canarum comments. Colby Cosh wittily points up my debt to David Stove, to whom I owe some, though not more than 95%, of the argument. The original draft contained an acknowledgement of Stove, which was inadvertently omitted in the final version thanks to a transcription error by one of my research assistants. I recommend Stove’s The Plato Cult to anyone with even a mild interest in the topic. You skinflints can find a few of his greatest hits here. Ilia Tulchinsky comments. Jesus von Einstein comments. Ray Davis comments.)

Aaron Haspel | Posted August 12, 2004 @ 10:56 PM | Alpha Theory,Philosophy

93 Responses to “The Disconsolation of Philosophy, Part 1”

  1. 1 1. Bourbaki

    This seems to have morphed from a diconsolation of philosophy to a consolation of your world view.

    If there are new capabilities to discuss, I’m in. Otherwise, let’s retire to the symposia and eat free cake.

  2. 2 2. Bill Kaplan

    Hey Jim, you know Nagle? He was a student in a class with me taught by Ronald Dworkin. I always thought he was a prick.

  3. 3 3. Jim Valliant


    Nagel was one of my profs at NYU. His ‘Philosophy of the Mind’ course left an impression that remains vivid in my memory. Out of respect for an old teacher of mine, I will, at least here, say only that I frequently disagreed with his approach. But that’s what makes him one of my favorite authorities in contexts like this.

  4. 4 4. Colby Cosh

    I’m now willing to put a hard endpoint on the "immortal man" test: let’s make it the day ("tomorrow", and tomorrow) that Aaron finally gives us the second half of this entry…

  5. 5 5. Bourbaki


    I fear I have no names to drop. My meager education only left me with a rusty toolbox. But perhaps we can challenge Mr. Haspel’s position on immortality by making an appeal to infinity?

    We do have many options to explore the immortal assertion including angels (what could be more beautiful?) and the infinite powers of God (what could be more important?)

    I’ll need some help with these new concepts. Ideas have consequences? I thought actions had consequences. This all very new to me but I admit I’ve been unaware of these techniques. Perhaps I did not pay enough attention in class.

  6. 6 6. Kev Mulcahy

    Excellent post altogether [although maybe in your rejection of Berkeley and Kant you might have been accepting Rand more than you think].

    But to my point: (such as I have one) Why should philosophy be any different from say, literature?

    Oh, and as to Popper. I would simply suggest you might misunderstand Karl a bit. Bring in Kuhn’s paradigm shifts, presupposes a method which can falsify its theories.

    And who said mathematics is the same thing as science?

    But – just a great post [I found you through]

  7. 7 7. Bourbaki

    (Note: I do not personally know any of these people.)

    Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter comment on Nagel’s essay in their anthology The Mind’s I. Hofstadter, with characteristic playfulness (must philosophy be joyless and touchy?), condenses Nagel’s rather awkward phrase "a thing that it is like something to be" into "be-able thing", or BAT.

    So what do we get from knowing about BATs? Where does this sort of analysis pan out? Forgive me if I’m reminded of my pre-naptime activities in preschool where I imagined what it would be like to be a fire engine or a teapot

    More of Thomas Nagel’s musings:

    Suppose, as seems likely, that I taste the smoke of my cigar when and only when my brain is in a certain physical state. What gets in the way of the thought that the experiential state of which I am introspectively aware is the physical state? The problem lies in the lack of any conceivable internal connection between a modification of my subjective point of view and a modification of the physico-chemical activity of my brain. The two may correspond extensionally as exactly as you like, but identity requires more than that. If they are the same state, it must be impossible for the one to exist without the other. And while we may have good empirical reasons to believe that that is true, the understanding of such an impossibility requires that the necessity of the connection between the two become intellectually transparent to us. In the case of conscious states and physiological states, it isn t just that we don t see such a necessary connection: it seems in advance that a necessary connection between two such different things is unimaginable. They seem logically unrelated.

    The *other* Nagel (Ernest), comments on our certanties:

    "It is tempting to suggest at this point that we can be sure of the consistency of formulations in which non-finite models are described if basic notions employed are transparently ‘clear’ and ‘distinct’. But the history of thought has not dealt kindly with the doctrine of clear and distinct ideas, nor with the doctrine of intuitive knowledge implicit in the suggestion.

    In certain areas of mathematical research in which assumptions about infinite collections play central roles, radical contradictions have turned up, in spite of the intuitive clarity of the notions involved in the assumption and despite the seemingly consistent character of the intellectual constructions performed.

    Such contradictions (technically referred to as "antinomies") have emerged in the theory of infinite numbers, developed by George Cantor in the nineteenth century; and the occurrence of these contradictions has made plain that the apparent clarity of even such elementary notions as that of ‘class’ (or aggregate) does not guarantee the consistency of any particular system built on it"

    [class is another term for a ‘set’ or ‘collection’]

    Ernest Nagel, James Newman, pp21, Godel’s Proof (Rev. Ed.)

    And, finally, from Linus Pauling

    As I try to remember the state of my development at that time, I am led to believe that this desire was the result of pure intellectual curiosity, and did not have any theological or philosophical basis. I was skeptical of dogmatic religion, and had passed the period when it was a cause of worry; and my understanding of the experiential world was so fragmentary as to be unsatisfactory as the basis for the development of a philosophical system. I was simply entranced by chemical phenomena, by the reactions in which substances disappear and other substances, with strikingly different characteristics, appear; I hoped to learn more and more about this aspect of the world.

    By far the most powerful consideration Pauling brought into structural chemistry from physics was the idea of resonance. It had been established that atoms composing molecules tend to arrange themselves in the way that is most stable, and this conformation is the one that requires the least energy. After all, once a molecule falls into its least energetic conformation, work is required to push it into any other state. Note, this path is not unimpeded, as many creationists would argue, because of activation energy.

    The principle of resonance states that a molecule can be arranged in either of two energetically equivalent ways, then the molecule is to be considered as existing in both arrangements simultaneously.

    The likelihood that any philosopher would be able to come to such a completely unintuitive model about CPPD properties of the world is vanishingly small–and even if he did, it would be still a guess. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to remember how we thought prior to some great discovery so we quickly lose the lessons taught by journeys on previous intellectual dead ends.

    So, as we await Mr. Haspel’s next post, I leave with a quote from Boorstin:

    The greatest impediment to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.

  8. 8 8. Kev

    p.s. You forgot Empedocles under ‘prediction’.

    p.p.s. Actually, Aristotle’s logic was more tautological than mathematical. Be that as it may, Russell and Wittgenstein merit a mention as to advancing Aristotle’s propositional logic!

  9. 9 9. Neocon

    The essay reflects a total misunderstanding of philosophy. To some extent this is understandable, because philosophy was intermingled for many centuries with what we call science. Nevertheless, it is a distinct enterprise. Philosophy is how we treat of those issues which are not, in fact, subject to rigorous scientific treatment, but are important to the conduct of human enterprises. For example, it is through philosophy that we address the question of what is scientific validation. We do not merely rely on the practice, which is a circular investigation and cannot clarify why we rely on reproducibility, predictability, and so forth. We have to think about it, clarify it, and critique it.

    In the case of Descartes, in fact, mechanism does deny that there is a "self", deeming the self to be an evanescent by- product of the human mechanism. Descartes, then, points out that the only thing we can be sure exists is the (thinking) self, not the body. Of course, the mechanists come back with the objection that the act of questioning only proves that there is something which questions, not whether it is a thinking substance, rather than a cerebral event. But even if that is true, Descartes has already managed to cast into doubt the privileging of mechanistic interpretation.

    Moving ahead to Kant, the issue underlying the Critique of Pure Reason is whether synthetic a priori judgments are possible. The short answer is yes, because we ourselves synthesize experience according to the forms of our understanding, or, in other words, we can only experience things that fit into the configuration of our minds, and therefore we know certain rules of phenomena, such as that everything has a cause, that qualify as synthetic a priori judgments.

    The import is two- fold: to validate the idea that phenomena are subject to exhaustive scientific investigation, and, on the other hand, to admit that science does not know everything there is to know about the actual objects that underlie phenomena. Thus, for example, it is possible to affirm universal causality, and to admit that some of the objects themselves might possess free will. (Acts of will merely are absorbed into the causal matrix seamlessly, when observed). Thus, Kant creates space for an understanding of morality and religion which is compatible with the rise of Newtonian mechanics, basically, a form of Deism.

    Of course, Hegel and others were dissatisfied with Kant’s solution. For one thing, it is evident that the phenomena reveal something about the things in themselves, and therefore the distinction seemed too abrupt. For another, someone like Nietzsche wondered why not question the way in which the individual mind might conform the material of experience to its needs, why assume that we merely invented experience according to rational rules, rather than to psychological imperatives?

    I am just showing some of the interesting questions which could arise, of course. The fact that many people consider them unresolved, or that, even among those embracing a solution, there is often disagreement, does not obviate the intense interest of many of these questions, and it cannot be ruled out that there are solutions, either inadequately attested to, or not quite found.

    The main problem, frankly, is underlying and perennial. Either there is an underlying order to the universe, or there is not, and if there is, either it best undertood as a kind of impersonal unfolding plan, or as a God who cares about the outcome of creation. Following this, of course, are various ways of understanding, above and beyond consensual morality, the best way to live. For this reason, there is an personl intense interest in philosophical speculation, even to deride it. People’s strongest preferences and choices may be affected. This inhibits agreement.

    The value of existentialism was to step back, acknowledge that reason and choice would interact on many of these issues, and to consider philosophy mainly, though not exclusively, a means of clarifying the large issues of human life. Whether or not there were rational resolution, at least one could better understand what choices were offered and what they entailed.

    Thus, even if philosophy never has the explanatory of power of science, it will still provide useful insights and will still help us towards a more profound understanding of the choices that confront us as human being with a sense of transcendence.

  10. 10 10. David Airth

    Mr. Haspel talks of philosophy as though it were an end for understanding and explaining the world and that it hasn’t done a good job at it. Instead, it’s one means of understanding and explaining it. Without it, because its the originator, we wouldn’t have the other disciplines we use to understand and explain it, like science, history and religion. Philosophy now is often the lubricator of and go between these others.

    From what I read, Haspel believes
    philosophy is unnecessary, and we could have done better without it. As I see it, philosophy is basically practical, a tool for application. Everything in the social, political realm is a construct of philosophy. And it’s philosophy that updates that construct and keeps it going.

  11. 11 11. Aaron Haspel

    Much as I hate to add to the thread that won’t die, I feel obliged to express my gratitude to Neocon and David Airth for setting me straight.

    I used to think that all disciplines, philosophy included, justified their existence by contributing to knowledge, i.e., by telling us something about the world that we didn’t already know. Philosophy, I now understand, must be granted a special exemption from these strictures. It corroborates nothing, it prescribes nothing, predicts nothing, and describes nothing: but all of this pales next to its actual purpose, to "raise interesting questions," to "cast into doubt the privileging of [name your poison]," to "lubricate" and "go between" other, less exalted disciplines.

    I simply cannot imagine how, without Karl Popper’s "lubrication," physics managed to muddle along for three hundred years. And thank God for Immanuel Kant, who cleared "a space for an understanding of morality and religion which is compatible with the rise of Newtonian mechanics"! Before reading Neocon’s and Mr. Airth’s remarks I was retrograde enough to skip the space and take the mechanics.

    How can anyone be so silly as to expect philosophy to solve problems when "people’s strongest preferences and choices may be affected"? These preferences and choices stymie even science, to which the still-raging controversy over Copernican astronomy testifies eloquently.

  12. 12 12. David Airth

    Aaron Haspel, thank you for your comments of my comments. However, I don’t know if your are complementing Neocon and me for being so insightful or are your remarks a put down. Perhaps its your style of philosophizing that confuses me.

  13. 13 13. Jim Valliant

    Neocon and Airth defend philosophy by admitting that it is useless. Dad tells us that its value is as an embryonic form of science and (one presumes) hopefully will evaporate entirely one day. Bourbaki starts at the highest and most refined pinnacle of philosophy and then declares the rest of the mountain to be useless. Aaron, ever the gadfly, declares the entire field, after only a little philosophical reflection, to be a ‘net negative.’

    While I have to agree that the vast bulk of it stinks and is worse than useless (esp. Kant and Hegel), philosophy has one advantage over every other discipline: everyone has a philosophy. A review of this very thread makes this conclusion inescapable. This is true even for folks who don’t have the first clue about the other sciences. Indeed, the other sciences are, in an important sense, merely the ‘handmaidens’ of philosophy, the expressions of deeper assumptions. (Viz: ante.)

  14. 14 14. David Airth

    For what it’s worth I will throw out this essay I wrote:

    Isaiah Berlin said that philosophers are adults who persist in asking childish questions.

    So does that mean that adults who asks childish questions are philosophers? Not necessarily. For one to be a philosopher, childish questions should be followed by reflection and possible explanations. For example, Albert Einstein is considered a philosopher because he answered his own childish questions. One of the biggest childish questions he asked was, Did God have any choice in how he created the world? All his life Einstein developed thought experiments and theories that showed reasonably well that God did not have a choice if the world was to be the way it is.

    Ive asked childish questions. In my attempt to answer them I havent necessarily become a philosopher but I did turn to philosophy to answer them. What philosophy offers to an inquisitive person like myself is a toolkit of ideas and methods for understanding. One thing I know is that many of the childish question asked dont have simple answers. Sometimes they have multiple, contradictory answers. Philosophy helps put the contradictions into perspective and sort out the confusion that can arise from them. In the process philosophy helps develop a lucidity in ones thinking and an ease of thought that never existed before.

    One of my big childish question was, Why is the world the way it is? I didnt ask it in the wonderment of its physical nature as Einstein did, but in the wonderment of its social evolution. I was thinking about its politic and economic development. I wanted to know why humankind organizes and governs itself the way it does? I saw a singular, standard system of human organization and governance emerging. I wanted to know why.

    I say my question was a childish one because in a sense it was like asking why the sky is blue. The standard answer to that question usually is, Because, thats the way it is. However, with me, as is often the case with children, that was followed by, But why?

    I cant think of a childish question Berlin may have asked. I know that he was deeply against the idea of determinism, the philosophy that believe that there is a particular social determining force in the world. He saw that historically this philosophy often led to human subjugation. For instance, both Hitler and Stalin believed in social determinism which they formulated into totalitarianism and the subjugation of their people. Furthermore, people who didnt fit into their deterministic schemes were often imprisoned or completely eliminated. Perhaps the childish question Berlin might have asked is, Why has humankind been so brutal and insensitive to itself?

  15. 15 15. Neocon

    Heidegger once defined philosophy as that which makes milkmaids laugh. Apparently, milkmaids do not have a monopoly on tittering.

    If one thinks that I was calling philosophy useless, one has a reading deficiency. I started by noting that philosophy is the very thing which validates the scientific method, or explains the role of postulates in mathematics, or otherwise establishes the foundational framework, whether controversially or in a settled manner, for any number of disciplines. Further, even in instances which remain highly contentious, it has an immensely useful function is clarifying the fundamental choices presented us as human beings, and in identifying and giving some insight into question whose resolution is open- ended.

    As I said:

    I am just showing some of the interesting questions which could arise, of course. The fact that many people consider them unresolved, or that, even among those embracing a solution, there is often disagreement, does not obviate the intense interest of many of these questions, and it cannot be ruled out that there are solutions, either inadequately attested to, or not quite found.

    Thus, even if philosophy never has the explanatory of power of science, it will still provide useful insights and will still help us towards a more profound understanding of the choices that confront us as human beings with a sense of transcendence.

    The silly thing is, of course, that philosophy is something we all "do", whenever we argue over the foundation, or lack thereof, of morality, or whether science exhausts all knowledge claims. The difference really is between those who repect the investigations of those who made the most profound contributions to philosophy, such as Kant and Hegel, and those who think that superficiality is a virtue.

  16. 16 16. Solon

    Some interesting comments here. But the antagonism between science and philosophy is quite artificial.

    Yes…it is surely true–philosophy has no verifiable answers. Philosophy does not know the beginning, it does not know the end, and it does not know the middle.

    So what does philosophy know? Good question! Now you are practicing philosophy! Philosophy is not about answers…philosophy is about questions.

    Philosophy is Man trampling his ignorance and exploring all the mysteries of existence. Philosophy is the simple act of thinking in the abstract. It is the mysterious art of seeking to know (or to create) the structure that informs the universe and the meaning that illuminates Humanity.

    Science is about answers. Science is about survival. Science is about answering the questions of existence. But the questions come first. And philosophy is the art of asking questions.

    Philosophy is the path we walk. Philosophy is the thought and the wonder that must exist before all experiments and before all inquiry.

    No great philosopher claims to have the answers. He/she only claims to seek the Truth of things. And science seeks answers because we have questions. And we have questions because we are philosophers…one and all.

    It does not matter if one agrees with Kant, Rand, or Plato. It is our prerogative as philosophers to argue, dispute, agree, and disagree. It is our opportunity as human beings to honor the ability of these wonderful people–these pillars of human thought–and to appreciate their incredible efforts to enlarge our thought and to expand the universe of our mind.

  17. 17 17. Neocon

    I would not quite go so far as Solon in asserting that philosophy has no verifiable answers, although I think he gets right some of the appeal of philosophy.

    Everyone coming after Kant, for example, has to admit his argument on the "constructedness" of experience, and the difference between phenomena and noumena. In other words, he may not be beyond criticism in respect of what he did with the analysis, but the analysis itself was sound, and must be taken into account by any subsequent philosopher.

    Similarly, Hegel was surely right to note that the noumena must be manifested somewhat in the phenomena, and to wonder that if nature demonstrated some kind of order, perhaps history, as the manifestation of spiritual noumena, might reveal a pattern or theme as well. Whether one finds what he did with the idea compelling, it has been productive for looking at the resolution of social tensions as one of the primary motors of history, and for looking at a variety of cultural products as reflecting the mentality prevailing at any given place and any given time.

    These are just a couple of examples of lasting insights which endure even without the full embrace of the system in which they were embedded.

  18. 18 18. Bourbaki

    Mr. Valliant

    As promised, feel free to continue your epistemic debate in this thread. From mathematics to neuroscience, you’re making broad claims that are either out of date or supported by little (if any) evidence. Please re-read your last post on the other thread; you migrate from cognition to belief to verification to knowledge as if they were all equivalent.

    Let’s see, do babies even know that the world does not go away when they close their eyes? No, they learn that one.

    Where do newborn babies learn this?

    Newborn babies prefer to look at attractive faces, says a UK researcher, suggesting that face recognition is hardwired at birth, rather than learned.

    Alan Slater and his colleagues at the University of Exeter showed paired images of faces to babies as young a one day old and found that they spent more time fixated on the more attractive face.

    "Attractiveness is not in the eye of the beholder, its innate to a newborn infant," says Slater. .

    Similar results were found when music was played forward and backward or with the introduction of atonal notes. Other animals exhibit similar behavior rooted in genetics. Why should humans be any different?

  19. 19 19. Jim Valliant


    Yes, I think it is clear that babies are automatically drawn to faces as such, and, from your study, I am willing to believe that they prefer certain types of faces. Innate in all humans, I have long believed, is the native ability to use language, that this skill is , to large extent, "hard-wired" into our brains, especially our ability to vocalize. Certainly an attraction to certain sounds, smells and colors has long been known to exist in babies (and, heck, I feel many of those even now. It is my long-standing belief that even woman are–or should be–naturally attracted to breasts, damn it!) Following birth, and for many months thereafter, certain automatic behaviors are certainly engaged in by babies. Especially in the first weeks after birth, all babies have a repertoire of activities, and reactions, most definitely "hard-wired," and without resorting to the recent "face" studies. Babies will suck. Babies will start looking for something like a human face, I am sure, interestingly, especially when feeding (a fact that I have observed myself), and no doubt start imprinting the repeated faces as quickly as possible. In a predictable evolutionary development, babies will not crawl over transparent surfaces, however solid they are in fact.

    Unfortunately, this is not innate "knowledge," even though it is sometimes called "instinct." (I do not like that vague term.) Certain sense-perceptions STILL automatically give me great pleasure, e.g., sex, prime rib, etc., while some sense-perceptions automatically give me pain, e.g., a poke in the eye. These in-built carrots and sticks seem to govern mammal behavior quite a bit. But this kind of "knowledge" my body seems to possess may be dead wrong. I will eat to much sugar if given the oppotunity and I go by simply my pleasure-pain mechanism. It doesn’t really "know," it evolved.

    A system of in-built reactive behavior to pleasure or pain does, indeed, appear to be far more elaborate in animals (and even babies) than it does in language-using human beings. Indeed, when I am awake, my consciousness feels to be in control of my arms, legs and mouth (and mind), not any in-built repertoire of behavior. Unless practiced in bio-feedback, certain other activities of my body are completely automatic. You don’t call the automatic functioning of my stomach "knowledge", do you?

    I do not call any of this baby behavior knowledge. Knowledge is not the patellar reflex or any analogue thereof. It is a state of consciousness, and it is awareness of the nature of something, not merely a physical reaction, and it is certainly not automatic behavior. It is awareness about the world. Genes (or any other innate mechanism) cannot produce this, only contact with the world and logical consideration of that contact. Babies like faces but do not know that they are "faces" or what that concept actually means. Fire burns my hand, whether I yet have a concept for "fire" or not, and, since other things can burn my hand, its not even an analogue of the concept. Knowledge is a state of consciousness, not merely a behavior. To get the "warm fuzzy" when looking at an attractive or inviting face, a baby still has to open its eyes first and see something like a face. Until the baby gets concepts, that "warm fuzzy" functions in their place, but it is little more than a pleasure/pain reaction. Of note, it is a reaction, a kind of "guided" sense-perception itself, requiring sense-perception to be activated. But, alas, those "guides" do not give us a head start with concepts.

    In terms of KNOWLEDGE, we are born really, really stupid, as I have indicated. The least Mom Nature could have educated me about, one mighta thunk, was sex, but noooo, we all have to learn where babies "come from." (Of note, some animals, though not most, must "learn" this, too.) Or, maybe, she could’ve let us know the difference between poison and food? Not a chance. Language, concepts? Well, every single one of those concepts has to be learned, and in the language of one’s culture no less, and only after some considerable mental development, and only by considering the evidence of perception.

    Anyone who has observed the heroic discovery of language by a single child can testify that the concept themselves are anything but innate. Ayn Rand loved the play, The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller for making this very point. Miss Sullivan, her teacher, knew that if she could get a single concept through to Helen, the entire universe could open up to her through concepts. So, over and over, using the sense of touch, she associated the concrete instances of the concept to the name of the concept. Imitation was soon achieved, but understanding was a heroic struggle. (Insightfully, Rand regarded Helen’s real life experience as a refutation of Kant.) We are, all of us, even dumber than the young Helen Keller, apart from what we abstract from the senses. (Mathematics was obviously miles away for the Helen who had yet to learn "water" and "teacher.")

    I invite you to tell the seven year old Keller, or her equal, all about the vast array of her "genetic knowledge" apart from sense-perception.

    While, in general terms, the discovery of a world that doesn’t go away when the baby closes his or her eyes happens at roughly the same stage of development, it is not a predictable thing. Moreover, it is clearly a discovery, as many developmental psychologists have long recognized, and one that I have witnessed myself in babies/toddlers. It is a LEARNED thing, learned from experiencing the absolute condition of existence (in contrast to the control the child has over its own consciousness. This is the child’s first and crucial grasp of what Rand called "the Primacy of Existence.") Of course, the whole realm of the conceptual is learned, and it is not learned from something we just "know" genetically or recollect from our "instincts." It take seeing and experiencing to construct the most basic of concepts.

    And, as I say, even if my body could be said to make me "believe" something about the world, why should it be true any more than my tongue’s innate lust for sugar? Evolution might suggest that this belief is helpful to survival, assuming this "knowledge" isn’t a new mutation (and how would I know this?), such an innate belief need not correspond to reality at all. I would have to verify it, anyway, and then, wouldn’t this verification n be the source of real knowledge, i.e., awareness of the world, i.e., consciousness?

  20. 20 20. Jim Valliant

    Forgive the multiple typing lapses.

  21. 21 21. Bourbaki

    I will even forgive your multiple lapses in reasoning. Somehow you’ve managed to cleanly separate the nature of consciousness into instinct and knowledge by using, by your own account, vague terminology.

    I would have to verify it, anyway, and then, wouldn’t this verification n be the source of real knowledge, i.e., awareness of the world, i.e., consciousness?

    Mr. Valliant, I find it ironic that your call for verification comes with an endless stream of assertions with no external references. It turns out that not only is your position out of date and presented without reference to any evidence, it is also out of scale. Consider the following.

    In the 1800s mathematicians produced a particular certain differential equation. The problem was one of pure mathematics: nobody could think of any practical applications for it. In 1864, James Clerk Maxwell laid down a number of equations to describe electrical phenomena. A simple manipulation of these equations produced that differential equation. This led Maxwell to predict the existence of electrical waves. In 1888, Hertz confirmed Maxwell’s predictions experimentally by detecting radio waves in the laboratory. In 1896, Marconi (or Tesla, if you prefer) made a radio transmission.

    This sequence of events is typical of the way pure mathematics becomes useful.

    Observe the time scale.

    – the wave equation to Marconi: 100 years
    – differential geometry to the atomic bomb: 100 years
    – Cayley’s first use of matrices to economics: 100 years
    – Courant and Hilbert’s integral equations to quantum theory: 30 years
    – Quantum theory to ???

    Please keep in mind that writing longer articles doesn’t make your position any more valid. But it certainly makes it more disturbing:

    (and, heck, I feel many of those even now. It is my long-standing belief that even woman are–or should be–naturally attracted to breasts, damn it!)

    Indeed. Although this is consistent with Mr. Prescott description of Rand:

    Then there was my attitude toward new ideas and alternative points of view – an attitude that was, in a word, unreceptive. I had become inflexible, intolerant, narrow in my outlook, with ready-made opinions set in stone. Rand had explained the world with such clarity, in such bright colors and vivid images, that I could see no merit in any contrary opinion. I became judgmental, stubborn, and a bit self-righteous – hardly qualities likely to "win friends and influence people." But of course an Ayn Rand hero – or Ayn Rand herself – would have had only contempt for that Dale Carnegie phrase. Ayn Rand never won any popularity contests, and never wanted to.

    I’m still curious to discover if there are limits to your fanaticism or if you drank the entire pitcher of Kool-Aid.

  22. 22 22. Jim Valliant

    You persist in failing to address my point, a point that a number of smart people have read here and grasped, even some who don’t agree with Rand or my point. Please do read what I said, perhaps all of my entries, over again. That’s all I can advise. (Evading this won’t help your case with those who might agree.) I have said, and will continue to say, that math need not be currently applicable to be valid. "Valid deduction from the truth always leads to truth." In the absence of application, or a clear derivation from the empirical, however, it remains pure theory that may or may not actually refer to reality. How else would we actually know? I’m still waiting for that one.

    I don’t agree with him on some very important things, but, I wonder, have you read The Evidence of the Senses, by David Kelley?

    As for being out of date, you have failed to cite a single previous thinker, other than me and Rand, who took the position we take, much less its refutation.

    I differ with Rand on a great many things, but none of these differences strictly belong to the science/pitcher of "philosophy," I think. The disturbing thing about your ideas is that you don’t even know the Kool-Aid you’ve already fully digested.

  23. 23 23. Bourbaki

    Mr. Valliant

    "Valid deduction from the truth always leads to truth."

    Circular reasoning does not explain what truth is. And I don’t believe anyone challenged the validity of logical reasoning.

    But I digress. Let’s clarify. Are we discussing truth, belief, knowledge, deduction, information, instinct or cognition?

    If you would indulge us with a clear premise, perhaps we could start somewhere?

  24. 24 24. Jonathan Vos Post

    "could one falsify the proposition that the angles of a triangle sum to 180 degrees?"

    Yes. That’s what Spherical Trigonometry does. And then Einstein discovered that space-time is curved by gravity, and so actual triangles — as defined by the centroids 3 galaxies picked at random in the cosmos — form a triangle (of geodesics) whose angles sum to more than 180 degrees.

  25. 25 25. Jim Valliant

    Sound deduction from the factually, i.e., empirically, true always yields truth, and it helps draw out latent implications of that truth. Math’s basic tool is deductive logic. Deductive soundness doesn’t suffice for you, it doesn’t generate its own premises? Right: new knowledge requires the empirical.

    I talk about all of these things, and all at once, and use the standard definitions: a belief that corresponds to reality is the truth. It is also knowledge. Deduction is the method of inference from universal premise to application or specific instance, just as induction is inference from particular instances to abstract principle. Information is knowledge, and it does not actually reside in books or computers except by analogy. A book contains information or data only insofar as a consciousness is around to "retrieve," interpret, and use it. Cognition is the act of conceptual thought, it is the act of acquiring knowledge beyond that provided by sense-perception. Instinct is misused and there is almost no standardized definition. For some, it means innate knowledge, for others it is conditioned reflex, etc. My favorite use is the Olympic coach who once said that athletic performance is "trained instinct," i.e., what Aristotle called the "second nature."

  26. 26 26. Bourbaki

    Sound deduction from the factually, i.e., empirically, true always yields truth, and it helps draw out latent implications of that truth.

    It looks like Mr. Valliant is invoking deduction (logic) and empiricism — the tools that were mentioned a while back in the form of their practical consequences: logic (prediction and prescription) and empiricism (description and corroboration).

    This question was asked before with no response. Perhaps he will address it now?:

    Is there anything else that can be used to demonstrate knowledge that does not depend on these principles?

    Even within this framework, a rigid notion of truth can’t accommodate the subtleties of all our logical and empirical information. Sometimes there are hard limits.

    For example, the second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of a system and its surroundings always increases. In 1893, Henri Poincare and Ernst Zermelo proved a mathematical theorem showing that any closed mechanical system must eventually return to its starting point. The reconciliation between Poincare’s theorem and the second law hangs on probabilities.

    To make the point specific, the approximate time that a simple system of about one cubic centimeter of gas at room temperature would take to return to its initial state is measured in years by a number with trillions of digits.

    Which position is "true"? The second law is still CPPD consistent and affords capabilities (e.g. kinetic theory of gases) that are not possible without invoking it. Nevertheless, any demonstrable reconciliation of the two positions is impossible.

    I talk about all of these things, and all at once […]

    And not just these items but much more e.g. beauty and importance. And that’s the problem.

    If an assertion is logically and empirically consistent but "feels barren" or does not seem "beautiful", what does it mean?

    Democritus argued that we ought to understand the universe first and worry about our place in it afterward, rather than adjust our view of the universe for the sake of our own peace of mind. The boundaries between fields of scholarship are a convenience not a rule. According to Democritus, Part 2 can very readily be considered in the context of philosophy.

    So far, the content of Part 2 are the only truths that have been asserted. Mr. Valliant, you are free to challenge them or to parallel an alternative here.

    If there is no answer to the question in bold, then we have taken a circuitus route back to where Mr. Haspel began.

  27. 27 27. Jim Valliant


    It is clear that you have not been paying much attention: it is what YOUR principles "depend upon" in order to be grasped and retained in the first instance that is what I am talking about. Please forgive the repetition:

    I have already said that your theory is a decent go at the conditions of advanced knowledge. I have indicated that your CPPD is in no way required for simple assertions, e.g., "There is a table here." It is such simple abstractions that form the necessary building blocks of your CPPD. And your CPPD cannot be grasped without them. Concepts like deduction and truth are necessary prerquisites for the relatively sophisticated concepts that comprise your CPPD, as I have repeatedly shown. Your CPPD depends, as I have also already said, on the validity of concepts and concept-formation generally. These, for example, are far more fundamental than any part of the CPPD. I have already shown here the dependence of your CPPD on simpler concepts, and, indeed, sense-perception itself. These things come first and cannot be doubted without ipso facto doubting the CPPD itself.

    Or, are you saying that the concepts in the CPPD were genetically implanted in your brain? Perhaps they are Kantian categories? Were you born knowing them? Why did it take so long for you to recollect this knowledge? And, wow, it sure took a lot of education and thought and consideration, I’ll bet, for you to be convinced of their power. What method did you use to achieve this comfort?

    If you are stuck with probabilities, Bourbaki, then that is all the truth you have so far gleaned. You don’t know the truth of the matter with certainty yet. So what? A specific instance of your ignorance is no argument in metaphysics. I will repeat: physics can have absolutely no bearing on philosophy, for physics depends on philosophical beliefs in order to get started. Omit certainty in epistemology and you have omitted even he possibility of probability in physics.

    I can keep distinct my values from my facts. I recognize my values and can therefore account for them, including my inevitable biases. This helps the objectivity of my thought. I hate to name the obvious, but you have not avoided these concepts that you despise. They cannot really be avoided, and, thus, you are their slave, and without even knowing HOW.

  28. 28 28. Bourbaki

    "There is a table here."

    Interesting. You’ve overlooked that to point to a table, you must first be able to describe it, and then corroborate its presence by viewing it. The simplicity of the task doesn’t obviate the need for these tools.

    So it appears that your answer to the question in bold, however roundabout, is ‘no’.

    I will repeat: physics can have absolutely no bearing on philosophy, for physics depends on philosophical beliefs in order to get started.

    I was not aware that there was such broad consensus about anything in philosophy and that you were in a position to speak for all of it.

    At the very least, Democritus appears to disagree. Unless you consider CPPD to be philosophy. Your trivial example did nothing to offer up any more fundamental alternatives.

  29. 29 29. Jim Valliant

    I don’t even need to know what "description" means or what "corroboration" is to have a perfectly valid concept of "table"–muchless to simply point to it. I was able to point to tables and isolate them perfectly well from all other objects long before I knew much about those other concepts. But concepts they all are and concept-formation they all rely upon. If I couldn’t get at "table" that easily, what chance would I ever have with "corroboration"?

    Truth has little to do with consensus or opinion polls. If some knowledge is not "demostrated" with sense-perception, I could never have reached your ideas in the first place. (Yeah, the early Greeks did jumble every subject together into philosophy, and subject-matter distinctions are definitely only the human perspective on a world of facts that are all simultaneous. But isolation is almost as important a mental process as integration when it comes to focused study.) Are you really constitutionally unable to address my point? Just once, maybe? I may indeed have to revise my understanding of human knowledge…

  30. 30 30. Bourbaki

    You are confusing a process with its definition. One does not need to know "cognition" to be able to think.

    In order to demonstrate knowledge of a table, you must be able to describe it. How will anyone else know what you are point at? The surface, the legs, the chairs?

    Are you really constitutionally unable to address my point?

    Which is what, exactly?

    I may indeed have to revise my understanding of human knowledge…

    Here you are correct — there appears to be some critical confusion your Objectivist epistemology.

    This confusion of meaning with reference is also at the core of Peikoffs argument against the analytic-synthetic distinction. Since one way of expressing that distinction is by way of the claim that some truths, the ones that are analytic, are true by virtue of their meaning alone, while others, the synthetic truths, are not, but depend also upon the referents of synthetic claims (compare, e.g., all bachelors are unmarried and some bachelors are lonely), identifying meaning with reference surely rules out the possibility of an analytic-synthetic distinction. If, however, that were the only way to avoid the sharp analytic-synthetic distinction, then the right thing to do would be to accept the distinction, since the identification of meaning with reference is demonstrably untenable. (In fact, it is not the only way to avoid the distinction, and there are good reasons for rejecting it, but those reasons are at best obscured by the standard Objectivist approach.)

  31. 31 31. Jim Valliant

    Who ARE you talking to?! I had long ago made the point that one need not know what cognition is to engage in it. Don’t you recall?? Indeed, that’s a crucial part of my point, and I’m glad you’re catching up a (very little) bit.

    But, if concept-formation is not itself valid, however, then none of your CPPD elements ever could be. If certain simple concepts that give meaning to–and make possible–the very identification of each of the concepts in your CPPD are not first known, how could you ever start to use your CPPD? If the CPPD itself is needed to validated the CPPD, then let me also say that MUCH MORE IS NEEDED, TOO. I do get pissed off when you throw up straw man after stupid straw man (straw men I was the first to cut down!) in your endless failure to address the point.

    I will not address any new points until you fairly address the one already on the table. Meaning and reference is an old discussion in my circles, and I have many interesting things to say about it, but I refuse to discuss something with someone who won’t ever address anything I say and who appears to be ignoring what I say to the point that he accuses me of saying something I had earlier dissociated myself from.

    New topic: why should I?

  32. 32 32. Bourbaki

    You’re confusing idea formation with knowledge verification. I explicitly referred to the demonstration of knowledge.

    I had long ago made the point that one need not know what cognition is to engage in it.

    That is not consistent with your assertion where you claim that there is no implicit role of description or corroboration when someone states an observation to be true:

    I don’t even need to know what "description" means or what "corroboration" is to have a perfectly valid concept of "table"–muchless to simply point to it.

    You don’t need to know it but you are engaging in it.

    If you notice in my previous post, I’m focusing on the demonstration of knowledge not idea formation itself nor the nature of creativity.

    In Newtonian mechanics, the concept of "mass" and "force" are not defined independently from directly measurable quantities, but achieve definition only through the laws they enter into. In other words, a mass can be defined from the force needed to move it, but forces themselves are defined according to their ability to move mass. Philosophers (Mach, et. al.) found this reasoning circular and unacceptable and provided "alternatives" that have all been forgotten.

    Newton’s laws do contain a degree of circularity, but the success of these laws is not that they are somehow self-evident, or can be derived from some more fundamental laws, but that they in effect define the subject they aim to describe. This is not a weakness but a strength.

    Newton showed not that mass and force could be independently defined in some unarguable way, but that the mass and force implied by his laws has universal applicability. This is circular but it had to be — he was erecting a theoretical construct where none previously existed.

    CPPD is a fundamental collection of tools for knowledge verification — I have no way of knowing what is going on in your mind — but I can evaluate the veracity of what comes out of it using these tools.

    CPPD is composed of two parts, logical and empirical, that reinforce each other. In cases where they are in conflict (eg Poincare and the Second Law), we tend to favor the position that gives us greater capabilities (eg kinetic thoery of gases).

    Perhaps that clarification might yield a clear articulation of Mr. Valliant’s more fundamental alternatives to CPPD with new capabilities or greater explanatory power?

    That would be preferable to yet another tantrum or confusion arising from implicit smuggling of the tools in "simple" cases but I suspect no clear listing of alternatives will be forthcoming.

  33. 33 33. David Airth

    Jim Valliant,

    From what I read earlier of your comments, you are critical of philosophy and believe it’s basically useless. However, you are philosophizing when you are speaking here. You will probably disagree with me, but your are philosophizing here. All I want to know is if your not using philosophy to make your points, what are you doing and relying on to make you points.

  34. 34 34. Jim Valliant

    Mr. Airth,

    While it is true that I don’t agree with most of the philosophers of the past, I thought that I was DEFENDING philosophy from Aaron’s critique of it. I may be wrong, but I think even Aaron believes that there is such a THING as philosophy, though it has really failed to–and needs to–provide us useful tools and explanations. I was going so far as to defend some of philosophy’s previous practitioners, like Aristotle, Locke and Rand. Let me assure you, philosophy is very important in my view, the most important subject of study that there is, in fact. I even believe it to be inescapable, and I eagerly concede that philosophy is what I am doing with gusto!

  35. 35 35. David Airth

    Jim Valliant,

    Thank you. I needed to hear that from you.

  36. 36 36. Jim Valliant


    I don’t mean to imply that our understanding of concept-meaning is unrelated to the "stolen concept" fallacy, it’s very much related. It really is an issue of "meaning." But if a concept does not mean its referents, then it must mean something like its "essence" or definition or the like. (Or do you have some other candidate?) Under this understanding of meaning, I think, the stolen concept fallacy is still more apparent. If a concept means its definition, then its meaning actually includes other concepts. Abstract concepts need other concepts just to be defined. But, of course, such theories of "essence" are the truly "untenable" approach. My concept means what it refers to, the actual content being integrated by the concept. It is not merely its definition (which may change over time, while the referents remain the same), nor some elusive metaphysical "essence." Concepts are mental integrations, they are not a window into another realm of "formal" substances. But under either theory of meaning, a concept cannot be divorced from the context which gives it meaning. For example, let’s say for current purposes that the definition of "man" is "rational animal." If so, then any questions regarding the validity of the concept of "animal" or "rationality" would throw the whole concept of "man" into an identical inquiry by that very fact. Rand would not say this at all. If we learn that some men do not possess "rationality" at all, our definition, our understanding of "man"’s essence, might have to change, but not its content. She held that a valid concept of "man" may have been formed without either of these other concepts, and, hence, there is NO "stolen concept" relation between them in this instance. I can isolate and understand what I refer to as "man," for example, without repairing to a sophisticated understanding of the difference between plants, animals and viruses, or what "reason" is vs. "instinct" or conditioned reflex. That’s just nonsense. A child’s definition, or understanding of "essence," so long as it clearly isolates all men and only men (within the child’s range of things), is a pefectly valid one in the child’s context of knowledge. But it’s the "essence" crowd that would really be paralyzed by the "stolen concept," for each of their concepts must rely on a specific set of other concepts to give it any meaning. Definitions, of course, are vital, especially when we try to integrate all of our concepts to one another, but definitions hardly exhaust meaning.

  37. 37 37. Bourbaki

    I had to re-read that last entry several times–to untangle it, we might want to investigate category theory.

    Category theory challenges philosophers in two non-exclusive ways. On the one hand, it is certainly the task of philosophy to clarify the general epistemological status of category theory and, in particular, its foundational status. On the other hand, category theory can be used by philosophers in their exploration of philosophical and logical problems.

    Unfortunately for philosophers, it’s almost too easy to poke fun at gulf between their aspirations and their demonstrable achievements. Knowledge based on tools employing mathematical logic and empirical causality have steadily refined–at least partly–the nature and extent of this gulf.

    Yet this has somehow manifested in modern philosophy that the pursuit of mathematical or specialized knowledge is subordinate to or disconnected from the true aims of philosophy. Fields of philosophy have fallen out of step with developments in other areas of scholarship. I have read few, if any, philosophers that mention the limitative theorems developed (and verified) over the last 100 years (e.g. Goedel, Chaitin, etc.) Yet philosophers wish to talk about proof or truth or the limitations of mind.

    Let’s give philosophers the benefit of the doubt and suppose their unapologetically anthropic approach holds promise. At the very least, we should expect their positions to be the result of familiarity and informed criticism of current subject matter. For instance, consider the astrologer who rejects cosmology without understanding Newton, Einstein and Hubble and, instead, asserts that stars exist to guide our personal destinies.

    History shows that a less dogmatic style of thinking that emphasizes capabilities rather than presumably infallible a priori principles is more fruitful. No one has been able to formulate a philosophy of science that is consistent or logically complete but that failure is now seen as a liberating consequence of the creative and adaptive nature of discovery.

    During the 20th century, physicists imagined particles such as neutrinos, positrons and quarks, on only later obtained experimental evidence for them. Such proposals were controversial but not rejected dogmatically as philosophers often did right up until the early 20th century. Today, cosmologists debate what the universe looked like when it was less than a trillionth of a second old and far tinier than an atom. Theorizing of this sort may seem extravagent, but is not dismissed out of hand as unscientific. They employ tools that evade any explicit fidelity in sense-perception.

    This is the legacy of science’s protracted (and forgotten) victory over philosophy. To some extent, the debate continues today but mostly from the sidelines. Do physicists who explore the idea of superstrings in eleven dimensions stray into speculative models that can never be tested? Perhaps–but the debate is no longer about whether this sort of theorizing is philosophically legitimate, but whether it is useful and whether it offers explanatory power.

    The aim to theorize in this way is what scientists fought for throughout the 19th century–in the face of derision from philosophers. Scientists judge theories by what they explain, what capabilities they provide and what further thinking they engender–not by their conformity to some idealized version of common sense. Even in the highly idealized world of numbers, Russell, Godel and Chaitin proved that there are suprises that slip through the most ambitious attempts at philosophical consistency.

    In strictly anthropic realms like emotions and happiness, where philosophy can play a very therapeutic role, it is, nevertheless, science that will provide the unifying principles and prescriptive therapies.

    Aquinas argued that semen is caused by excess food. What condemns his position is not only that he was wrong but that the methods and tools he adopted to answer questions are unsuitable to the task. It seems that philosophers today are in no better position: namely, even if they are right on some issue or another, their methods and tools are suspect if they can be defined at all. Looking back, the disputes between philosophy and any field of scholarship are never resolved by philosophy because each side judges ideas by different standards, one pragmatic and the other hopelessly ideal.

    This is unfortunate because philosophy has something to contribute. It can maneuver outside the arbitrary and increasingly fractured lines drawn in modern academics. History has shown that this elbow room, on occasion, provides opportunities for inventiveness that lead to real progress. It’s discouraging that each side is taking the worst from the other–philosophy is increasingly fragmented while specialized fields of scholarship grow ideological.

    I believe we have agreed on tools to our mutual satisfaction and, as far as my interest in philosophy is concerned, that is all I need to continue with Mr. Haspel’s next installment.

  38. 38 38. Jim Valliant


    "Anthropic," in the sense you mean, epistemology is doomed to be, forever and ever, unless you have found a way to transform me and my means of knowledge into something else. True, all of our knowledge must be integrated into a consistent whole, including the most current science, but the heirarchical order of knowledge cannot be revoked or altered by any new discovery. It makes that discovery possible. (For instance, I’m not sure what you mean by "evading explicit fidelity" to sense-perception. Of course, s.-p. cannot be contradicted or ignored, but it can certainly be transcended.)

    But I will promise not to do physics or math, if you promise not to do philosophy. (And if you can get the whole German populace to make the same promise…)

  39. 39 39. Bourbaki

    Agreed. I applaud the continued search for the holy grail of epistemic purity in the face of the limitative theorems. I admit my interests are weighted toward capabilities rather than philosophical consistency.

    A collection of common tools is all we need and I believe we have them. In that respect, it doesn’t matter to me if they are considered mathematical or philosophical.

  40. 40 40. david stove


    your previous two posts are fabulous. i read some stove after you said 95 % of what you said was him.

    here is something i have compiled for you from a paper he wrote to tell you what is wrong with the thoughts of the greatest philosophers of human thought.

    he says: I have been saying that we need a nosology of thought, and that it would not be – various things. What it would be, I have admitted I do not know. My main object, however, is to convince you that no one knows: that the nosology which we need has not yet even begun to exist: that thoughts – as distinct from sentences, or inferences, or character, or information – can go wrong in a multiplicity of ways, none of which anyone yet understands.

    and i think this is the most brilliant thing he has ever said because you should note the way he bases an entire book on this sentiment, and that his conclusion is derived from an obvious, to him, and he loves to say how obvious it is, but an obvious lack of nosology of thought.

    well, he didnt actually even know what nosology is. see, isn’t that brilliant.

    he means nosology the way one would mean pathology in a sense of catalogued and classified and decompressed (not "decomposed" as you say in your explanation of what happens during an explanation)parts of a whole that, unto themselves, signify a step by step structure of present and actual verity.

    i know you don;t know what nosology is (your starff prolly hasn’t told you) so i will tell you:


    Pathology \Pa*thol"o*gy\ (-j[y^]), n.; pl. Pathologies (-j[i^]z). [Gr. pa`qos a suffering, disease + -logy: cf. F. pathologie.] (Med.) The science which treats of diseases, their nature, causes, progress, symptoms, etc.

    Note: Pathology is general or special, according as it treats of disease or morbid processes in general, or of particular diseases; it is also subdivided into internal and external, or medical and surgical pathology. Its departments are nosology, [ae]tiology, morbid anatomy, symptomatology, and therapeutics, which treat respectively of the classification, causation, organic changes, symptoms, and cure of diseases.

    he of course was refering to a disease of thought? but a disease is

    A pathological condition of a part, organ, or system of an organism resulting from various causes, such as infection, genetic defect, or environmental stress, and characterized by an identifiable group of signs or symptoms.
    A condition or tendency, as of society, regarded as abnormal and harmful.

    so, of course, his idea for their being a lack of nosology may just come from the fact that people, other than him, do not see in thoughts a condition or tendency that is abnormal or harmful, in and of themselves, only in such a way that they express something, disregarding of course what they express, which, as he says, is immaterial, focusing as he does on what they are expressions of….

    you are stupid

    thanks for deleting my last posts

  41. 41 41. Bourbaki

    Mr. Whigham,

    I have been saying that we need a nosology of thought, and that it would not be – various things. What it would be, I have admitted I do not know.

    If the deceased Stove was looking for anything more than a catalog of bad logic, your Australian friend was chasing his own shadow. His aim, a corollary of the halting problem, is forever futile.

    Or maybe he was indulging Pascal’s observation: "To poke fun at philosophy is to be a true philosopher"? In any case, he seems to have never outgrown the realization that it is easier to be the rock than the window.

    Name your new pet turtle "Achilles" and you, too, can continue the proud tradition. But you might want to slow down the pace and keep the metaphysical comments on this thread and leave Part 2 for thermodynamics.

  42. 42 42. phlos04

    Actually, all this "he should read this philosopher, or that philosopher…" is misplaced. My experience has shown that sterotypes such as his are produced by people who have a distanced knowledge of the population so typed. Thus, he ought to actually spend times with some real philosophers (prefereably living ones!) at a university. Become friends with them, sit at lunch and talk with them. I think he’d see his exageration of the ‘theory-practice’ dichotomy much overstated. Philosophical concerns are human concerns, and philosophy is just worrying taken to a technical level, and we philosophers do deeply feel the consequences of what we do and are driven by deep desires to know, to understand anc change the world for the better, so we can lead a good life. No Ivory Towers here. It’s easy to spout in a blog, but to sit with a philosopher and talk… well, his articles would be much shorter after that. I’d even invite him to my school to rub shoulders with some real philosophers, if he could.

    Take heart ye with philosophobia – there has been progress in philosophy (logic is a prime example, and it’s not "juts mathematics" obviously); and recall that progress in science is predated by a progress in philosophy since the former rests on the latter. The distinction between science and philosophy is not at all clear as some would have you think.


    P.S. The talk of Godel is somewhat amusing – theer are several consistent statements of his finding stated in different ways here! The concept is pretty easy really, and it has deeper consequences for science and math than philosophy.

    Cheer, cheers.

  43. 43 43. RobertB

    "could one falsify the proposition that the angles of a triangle sum to 180 degrees?"
    >>>By drawing the triangle on a convex or concave surface…Reimannian or Lobachevkian geometry..

Add a Comment

Basic HTML acceptable. Two-link limit per comment.