Time Heals All Wounds.. And Then Kills the Patient
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Dusk
Dusk
Tue May 26 22:26:52 2009
Eight Tools for Eight Legs
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As a spider, as a thinker, would you rather construct a framework in place of a void, a spider web, or a human lung? To wit, would you rather build a new framework of ideas in an audience where they had no thoughts on the topic, where they had some strands in a rough order, or in a thick and organic realm full of existing material of varying shapes and densities? In one, your creativity is inherently great and self-reliant, and you must struggle to create anything coherent. In another, you face a steady slanted corruption of your ideas, particularly as they don't conform to where the strands crossed before, as well as a skepticism that anything more substantial can or should be built. In another, you must clear or push existing things out of the way, and the likelihood of becoming lost in the formation of a new symbiant is quite high, although getting started and making an impact, provided you have any merit at all, is not difficult in that rich soil.

In fact, while you largely must target one, you will always be judged on all three.

Mid-term grown doubt: even the most reasoned discussion will converge on truth, even in areas where truth theoretically should exist (assume: theoretical realism with practical antirealism as basic framework of truth - strongly hold that there is theoretical hard truth in there being a natural world with a certain state, and slightly less strongly but still quite strongly that there is theoretical hard truth in the transitions between state of that natural world, and yet hold that those truths are in principle inacessible to humanity and the process of science is to continually build and refine structures that attempt to model reality - our structures cannot even in theory *be* truth in the hard sense, but they stand in as the best we can do and thus for purposes outside of philosophical discussions, calling them truth is acceptable). I have come to conclude that my doubt in the power of argument devolves to a few things:

  1. Accepting the limitations of empiricism - Applied empiricism has assumptions and methods, occasionally refined, that give us tools to better our models. We love these tools, even as we know that we may be able to do better within the empirical tradition - science has many actual methods and tools as a craftsman does, and while we have tools that have served us well for a long time and are the equivalent of a hammer, we have replaced them with other tools for certain circumstances and admit that sometime down the line a similar but better tool may be invented or perfected that makes the hammers of today unnecessary. Attempts to mechanise scientific reasoning may provide this - statistics have already provided some of this. Still, it may be that there are features of the Universe that are too complex to know from the inside, and otherwise there may be areas where we cannot gain enough data for our tools to distinguish competing theories (using history-viewed-through-a-modified-scientific-method hints at this, as there is presumably only so much evidence left by any event, and if it is all gathered and there are multiple theories that fit that evidence well enough, we lack a good way to distinguish them). This does not make alternative paths to a position better - it is easy to adopt a method that willingly "makes stuff up" or uses other methods to arrive at conclusions on matters that are now and may always be beyond the grasp of empiricism, and given a sufficiently large number of people willing to do that and focus on the few who hit a good answer, ignoring the rest, provides a source of frustration towards careful thinkers. It would not, however, be useful in a betting game.
  2. Accepting that philosophical discussions are grossly distorted by taking sides and accusations of backtracking and similar. If someone withdraws from a stance in an argument, but later realises that that withdrawl was in error, returning to it is unsportsmanlike but may in fact be completely appropriate. Rationalisation and thought have a complex relationship (just as being slippery, being careful, and changing one's mind do), but people may be tempted to apply inappropriate standards to these discussions by virtue of the way people normally struggle over matters. Likewise, the degree to which terms and frameworks colour discussions, and the vast space possible for these terms and frameworks make solid ground at least an incredibly bold claim (more likely a pretension).
  3. Doubts on "pure logic" itself - distance between the theoretical truth of the nature of things, which I consider my primary definition of truth, is very different from the term "truth" used in logical systems. Logic/math are useful elements in the service of empiricism, as well as aesthetic structures we may admire for their own merits, but their truth is quite alien to philosophical truth, and so we should distrust, at least a bit, both the empirical systems as a whole and all operations within them, even those that are definitionally true in the system (for the system's notion of true). Their claims to solidity as well as their methods for "proving" solidity should be judged through the empiricist's eye (although those I have been exposed to, e.g. proofs about algorithms, merit a very high confidence, and the more formal and rigourous ones probably in general merit a higher confidence than those less so, although the "in general" admits interesting per-domain nuance).
  4. Belief of defensibility of multiple competing frameworks in many areas of human endeavour. It is not hard to demonstrate some beliefs or frameworks to either be wrong or bizarre/overcomplex ways of looking at the world. Having multiple frameworks that seem to do roughly as good a job in a field is not unknown, and even if we imagined there to be a reachable truth in some areas of inquiry, facing two theories that meet the so-far-available facts well with neither markedly flawed in the other ways we judge theories (Occam's Razor, parsimony with existing frameworks, judgements on the non-predictive parts of the theory, etc) leaves us with a terrible problem. Similarly, there may be (let's dodge for now a discussion on whether these theories "exist" in a platonic sense that might be raised by my use of the phrase "may be") data-so-far twins of many existing frameworks that we might construct but have not - these undiscovered/unconstructed frameworks might merit equal consideration if we were to know of them - there are many ways to be wrong, but not necessarily only one way to be right for our strange definition of right.
  5. The small wedge we might hold that perhaps truth could be equivalent to a theory combined with the small wedge that it might corrispond to a theory that either appears internally inconsistent to our notion of logic or to our data collection which may be systematicaly flawed in ways we cannot see. This wedge is indeed small, but to the extent that we wish to be careful (very very careful, in my case), "in our heart" we view the process of capital-P philosophy (including science and history) as one not so much of carving bits off of an infinity of possibility as adjusting the weight we give those slices so as to have a fairly large part to stand on, subsliced as it may be and with things that seem bad to us given little, perhaps exceedingly small weight. There is an important theoretical distinction between writing off a possibility entirely (which I do not think we should ever do) and writing it off to varying degrees where some of those degrees leave a vanishingly small weight to it.
Newtonian physics amuse me - that humanity had such a strong and simple framework for understanding the world, and it showed to be so accurate for understanding the most human-accessible parts/scales of the natural world. Also, I sometimes wonder if systems like Coq might be beginnings of a kind of transhumanist answer to the problem of growing specialisation in the sciences which will presumably require people to spend more of their careers in the sciences reaching ever-more-distant states-of-the-art - in theory if we could create systems that capture the most fundamentally critical parts of the process of science, those systems could perform the types of reasoning and idea-sythesis today done by academes. The alternative long-term solution would be to find a way to make our scientists both immortal and capable of ever-broader input of information so they can be cutting-edge on a number of disciplines and integrate ideas from them. As we grow further from low-hanging fruit, the scarcity of polymaths becomes an interesting challenge.