Other Opinions #66 – In-Groups, Out-Groups, and the Intellectual Dark Web

https://quillette.com/2018/05/25/groups-groups-idw/

Oh this one is so much fun. Everybody gets to be mad! Libertarian fan of Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris? You’ll hate it. Liberal believer in social justice and structural power analysis? You will not walk away happy.

The real short version is that tribalism affects everyone whether we like it or not.

The slightly longer version is that there is an ongoing societal debate on the internet over… basic philosophy, I guess. Should we evaluate speech claims as isolated factual truths, to live and die on their own based on whether they map to reality? Or should we evaluate them as political acts, intrinsically bound to their context, to society, to power structures, and to the speaker?

Hint: the real answer is “both”.

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

The Ninth Axiom

At the very beginning of this blog, I laid out a set of eight axioms with which I was to derive my philosophy. Since they were spread out across several posts, I will collect them here for convenience:

Axiom 1: Axioms are valid starting points.

Axiom 2: The fewer axioms you need, the better.

Axiom 3: There is some underlying consistent reality that is made up of things.

Axiom 4: I (or the thing that I think of as “me”) exist in some form in that reality.

Axiom 5: Things in reality interact, forming temporal and causal relationships.

Axiom 6: My senses provide me with information that is functionally determined by the underlying reality.

Axiom 7: My memory is usually a reliable and valid guide to my past experiences.

Axiom 8: Logic is a valid form of reasoning.

Although I would probably word them differently now, and there are certainly quibbles to be had, I still think the general intent of these eight form a solid foundation for truth-seeking and philosophy.

However, they are incomplete in terms of actually determining how to live your life. I sort of already came to this conclusion in my previous post based on the Charles Taylor essay, but I want to draw some more explicit conclusions from that:

  • My core eight axioms provide sufficient grounding for determining reality and truth, but not for values or decisions.
  • I currently live my life by a so-far-unexpressed set of values which includes truth, consistency, and something akin to secular-humanist values (though that needs much more elaboration).
  • Arguing one set of value axioms over another is impossible as long as they are all reasonably simple and compatible with the core eight.
  • Adhering rigidly to any single declarable value seems to be a recipe for disaster.

With all that said, I present my ninth axiom:

Axiom 9: I value truth and beauty, not necessarily in that order.

The wonderful thing about “beauty” is that it is deliberately vague. Music can be beautiful and I value that. Human life is beautiful, and I do value that. There is beauty in some efficiencies, and I value that. Truth, though sometimes harsh, is always beautiful. The right lie may also be considered beautiful.

The beauty of beauty is its pragmatism. Plus, who can resist the implicit quark-naming joke?

Reality as a System

(Note: my roadmap originally had planned a post on Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, but that’s not going to happen. It’s a fascinating topic with some interesting applications, but it’s even more mathematically dense than a lot of my other stuff, and isn’t strictly necessary, so I’m skipping it, for now. Maybe I’ll come back to it later. Read the wiki page if you’re interested.)

This post marks the final cherry on top of this whole series on systems theory, and the part where we finally get to make practical philosophical use of the whole abstract structure we’ve been building up. I’ve telegraphed the whole thing in the roadmap, and the thesis is in the title, so let’s just dive right in: reality is a system. It’s layed out almost already right there in axioms #3 and #5.

We can also tie this in with our definitions of truth and knowledge. If the absolute underlying reality of what is (forming absolute truth) is a system, then the relative truth that we regularly refer to as “truth” is just a set of abstractions layered on top of the underlying reality.

Dogs and cats and chairs and tables are just abstractions on top of molecules. Molecules are just an abstraction on top of atoms. Atoms, on top of protons, electrons, and neutrons. Protons and neutrons on top of quarks and other fundamental particles I don’t understand. The absolute true underlying system is, in this view, not possible to know. In fact, since we as persons are inside the system (we can in fact be seen as subsystems of it), then we literally cannot model the entire thing with complete fidelity. It is fundamentally impossible. The best we can do is to model an abstraction within the bounds of the entropy of the system. This is in some distant sense a restatement of the circular trap.

Truth and Knowledge

Truth

While empiricism gives us some probabilistic, mediated access to reality, our senses are frequently consistent with each other. However, we have no way of knowing if this input represents what is or simply some high-level abstract interpretation of a transformed version of what is. Both of these could be called “true” however in normal speech, so I will borrow the Buddhist doctrine of Two Truths. In very brief summary:

Absolute Truth: The underlying reality of what is.

Relative Truth: What we consistently and reliably interpret of what we sense.

Absolute truth might, for example, be nothing more than atoms interacting according to physical laws. Regardless, it is exactly the reality accepted in axiom #3. Relative truth is the world that we construct from empiricism, with tables and chairs and clouds and cats and dogs. Even if, fundamentally, there is nothing that is a dog in the underlying reality, the existence of dogs is still a relative truth, a practical concept useful for navigating the world.

Knowledge

The definition of knowledge is another big problem in philosophy, and is more-or-less the defining question of epistemology. Based on our axioms so far and the previous two posts, I use the following three definitions of knowledge:

True Knowledge: This is the definition of knowledge that pedants like to trot out when arguing for epistemic scepticism. “True” knowledge is knowledge of absolute truth (see above) which is impossible because of the circular trap. We have no way of knowing that the axioms we have taken are correct, thus no way of knowing anything else which we might derive from them. However, this meaning is almost never used in non-philosophical debate.

Strong Knowledge: Strong knowledge is knowledge based on “inviolate empiricism”; facts like gravity1 that consistent across a truly enormous number of observations (all relative truths, of course). Logical derivations from axioms (and from inviolate empiricism) also qualifies of course: knowledge of algebra is strong knowledge. This usage occurs outside of philosophy debates, but mostly in scientific and other formal contexts.

Weak Knowledge: Weak knowledge is knowledge based on probabilistic empiricism. It is reasonable, for example, for me to say that I “know” certain things about Shakespeare, but the chain of actual facts and observations between myself and him is quite long and tenuous. Nonetheless, I say I know these facts because they are still far and away the most probable explanation of all the various things I have experienced. This is the most common usage of knowledge in informal conversation.

(1) Yes, I know, quantum theory and relativity etc etc. What goes up must still come down.