2013-07-11

Nothing You Know About Anything Is Certain, Including This Sentence

[A]ll attempts at empiricism are basically bullshit.  Sonic Charmer has argued, persuasively in my opinion, that all large calculations are wrong. Most of the metrics used to measure and test macroeconomic growth are large calculations and predicated on many debatable assumptions and definitions.  Not only that, a lot of big calculations (like BLS figures) are highly subject to political pressures, and therefore may be manipulated at the behest of a politician.  Even moderately large calculations, like the budget sheets of large corporations, may be highly misleading if someone is trying to embezzle the company.
That is Simon Grey in the post I linked to yesterday. Elsewhere, Grey writes:
[S]cientific knowledge simply cannot be trusted.  I make use of Vox Day’s Science/Engineering dichotomy, and would generally assert that once a discipline shifts from a primarily theoretical approach to a set of consistently replicable rules, it ceases to be science and instead becomes engineering, hence my belief that scientific knowledge, as it were, cannot be trusted.
Still elsewhere, Grey writes (emphasis mine):
A thought experiment should suffice to prove the validity of this claim. Ask anyone if it is the earth that revolves around the sun, or if it is the sun that revolves around the earth. Most will answer that it is the earth that revolves around the sun. The simple truth of the matter, however, is that we do not know, and further, are unable to tell. The reason that we cannot honestly say with any confidence that the earth revolves around the sun, or vice versa, is that there is no known fixed object in the universe to use as a guide for determining orbital relations.
Grey's writings on what we might call scientific epistemology are draped in a veil of profound skepticism, and the heart of the matter (or so it seems to me) is that, in absence of direct observation, we have no way of ascertaining the scientific truth. Moreover, in many cases (e.g. social sciences, corporate balance sheets), even direct observation is not enough, due to some combination of faulty data and faulty methodology.

In short, human thought - including scientific thought - is prone to errors serious enough to call even the basics, like which celestial body orbits which, into question.

How Do You Know What You Cannot Be Sure Of?
The cheapest and easiest way to respond to Grey's criticism of human knowledge is to ask him how he's so sure. You might even get a laugh out of that, but after the laughter subsides, you're left with a real question; it's a question that I am not sure science or philosophy has ever considered.

See, philosophy is generally directed toward the truth, and epistemology toward how we know. Epistemological philosophy has been the great, majestic quest to determine how we bald apes are able to know what the truth is, even when presented with seemingly incontrovertible evidence.

To my knowledge, no one has ever explored the question of how we know what we do not know.

Again, this may seem clever, but I'm serious. There is no reason to limit the scope of science and philosophy to the pursuit of truth; we should also shine a light on that which is not true. How do we know that something is false? Call it antiepistemology, if you like. If skepticism of the truth keeps us from making type II errors of human knowledge, then skepticism of falsehoods - even skepticism of skepticism itself - will keep us from making type I errors.

The general pattern of scientific inquiry is to proceed under the assumption that something is false until its truth can no longer be disputed "reasonably" (i.e. within credible probabilistic parameters). Another way to do it might be to do as the theists do and proceed under the assumption that something is true until it is an illusion that can no longer be maintained "reasonably."

The etiquette of logic, of course, is set up to invalidate this particular form of discovery. The burden of proof for any given claim is generally understood to rest with the one making the claim in the first place. Were it not, then I could, for example, claim that you owe me $1,000 unless and until you supply sufficient evidence to the contrary. Indeed, no such evidence exists (few people every draw up contracts that expressly stipulate all conditions that do not exist between parties).

But this really is nothing more than tradition. How do you know that you do not owe me $1,000? Can you point to any substantiable theory, concept, or fact that can conclusively rule out your owing me $1,000?

Forget the legal nature of these questions and focus instead on their epistemological merit. You might suggest that, because neither of us holds a contract outlining the terms it is highly improbable that you don't owe me money; but I have executed many contracts that were never fully drawn up on paper. You might reason that, since we have never met each other in person, it's unlikely that we would have a contract with each other; but again, I have had numerous contracts - including ones bereft of paperwork - with people in far-away places whom I have never met. It is an unlikely scenario, but not so unlikely as to rule out the possibility that you owe me $1,000.

In short, regardless of the legal merits of the case, you have about as much security in your knowledge that you owe me $1,000 as you do that the Earth orbits the Sun.

We don't usually think in terms of what isn't true. As Grey writes, "The current paradigms are so ingrained in our thinking that we don't generally recognize them." Our attitude toward the truth is to wait for it to reveal itself under the supervision of human reason. The possibly profound implication of this is that we are taking falsehood for granted. It's a type I error.

The Dazzling World Of Obliterated Definitions
Let's go post-modern. Perhaps the real problem is in the concepts of "true" and "false." Maybe these terms separate the conditions of the physical universe into a false dichotomy. Suppose we open Schrodinger's Box and discover a cat whose conditions have merely evolved from a state of animation to a state of dormancy. Suppose that the life of the cat has simply been transferred from the cells forming what we conceptualize as a "cat" to the cells forming what we conceptualize as "bacteria, fungus, and flies engaged in the act of consuming a cat." Perhaps there is a Law of Conservation of Life that is fully analogous to that of Matter and Energy, and the inadequacy of human logic merely imagines states of life that merely resemble independent objects.

As one rises in the atmosphere, air molecules become progressively less dense per unit of space. We are accustomed to viewing this as a body of gas that ultimately terminates at the "edge" of the atmosphere, beyond which there is "outer space." What if this, too, is a false dichotomy and the truth is that the density of air molecules merely decreases to the point that it is merely imperceptible? Perhaps a single molecule of Earth's air exists on one of Saturn's moons, imperceptible to human observation and immune to the failures of human reasoning. This may strike you as preposterous, but how can you be so sure?

If one of those lab-coated charlatans further informs you that another such air molecule is embedded in the core of the Sun, you need only remind him that he has no way of knowing. And, by the way, I am willing to accept that $1,000 in installments if you prefer.

And Then They Woke Up, And It Was All A Dream
This is not, in fact, a blog post about Simon Grey. This is a blog post about Sonic Charmer, advocates of socialized health care, deniers of free will [the commenters, obviously, not Landsburg], and perhaps most of all those who declare that consciousness is an illusion.

One of the cheapest tricks in literature is the deus ex machina, that final bit of contrite magic by which an author suddenly reveals that the entire story you've been reading was all a dream, the characters wake up, and everything goes back to exactly the way it was before any of that plot stuff ever happened.

Denying existence, consciousness, free will, and so forth is all a handy bit of deus ex machina thrown at us by philosophers. When they reach the frontier of their own knowledge, of their own reasoning, that is the point at which they declare that nothing further can be known. It is a remarkably grand conceit. Through this conceit, we are informed that it is indeterminable to know that the Earth orbits the Sun, that comparative advantage is an irrefutable point of fact. It is this philosophical plot device that reveals to us that our actions are essentially determined by a mathematical function containing a vector of synapses, one of genetic information, one of personal experiences, and so on.  The deus ex machina reveals that all empirical evidence and even scientific knowledge itself is a silly human pretense.

But, just as one might ask, "What moved the Prime Mover?" so we might ask, "From whence the deus ex machina?" At what point does the skeptic reach a point of skepticism over his own skepticism?

The answer to that question is "never," because the deus ex machina is a plot device deployed to tie up loose ends. Its function is to eliminate the need for additional plot points, "because I said so." Invalidating scientific analysis is only useful when scientific analysis fails to buttress one's claims. Invalidating free will is only useful when one no longer wishes to bear full responsibility for one's actions. And so on.

Thus, Sonic Charmer rejects any CBO analysis that argues against his ideology while his readers deny all a priori justifications for cultural amalgamation. Thus everyone's grandmother takes another scoop of melted cheese while declaring that one day science says that something is good and the next day it's bad, so we might as well eat what we want. Thus the advocates of socialism continue to heap on ever-increasing levels of bureaucracy and taxation, declaring that this time it will work because the previous experiments were thwarted by something other than concrete and unalterable facts about the shortcomings of socialism.

Conclusion
The question of how we know what we know is a real one, and a valid one for philosophical inquiry. But there is a limit to what can be questioned before we arrive at an infantile state, in which the images and sounds that pass across our sensory organs are wondrous, inexplicable phenomena about which we can only say, "goo-goo, ga-ga..."

That is to say, it is always possible to declare that nothing can be known for certain, and this is because no one person has sufficient knowledge about everything to be able to prove everything. But this has precious little to do with the truth.

Steven Landsburg once wrote of mathematics:
Mathematicians care about what’s true, not about what’s provable; if a truth isn’t provable, we’re fine with changing the rules of the game to make it provable. 
That in turn implies that there is such a thing as mathematical truth, independent of what we can prove. There are respectable thinkers who deny this, but they are extremely rare among practicing mathematicians, who encounter mathematical truths every day.
Naturally, the principle applies to non-mathematical truths. Those who wield the power of the deus ex machina might respond that truth exists, but our inability to know what it is gets us into trouble. That may be true, but how do they know? And, as David Lee Roth said, "sooner or later, there's Miller time!"

What I mean is, sooner or later you have to take your knowledge or lack thereof to the bank. Your own understanding might contain the kind of hideous racism displayed by Sonic Charmer's anti-immigration readership, or it might contain the a priori theories of David Ricardo; which one are you going to take to the bank?

Look around you. If what you see are a bunch of innumerate hippies who insist that if all human beings just fed themselves a diet of mealworms and lettuce wraps, we'd all be healthy and live in harmony with the Earth, and that's why socialized medicine works, while on the other side you see health economists and empirical researchers, you still have no guarantee that you're on the wrong side. But what are you taking to the bank? Your views on national borders might put you smack-dab in the middle of a community of hateful racist jerks worried more about their non-existent "culture" than about their ability to expand their production possibilities frontier. You might be right that the CBO has nothing on your boys. But what are you taking to the bank.

For all any of us know, consciousness might be an illusion. Go ahead, bank on it. But sooner or later, it's Miller time.