Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

A dialogue on some topics relating to Plato’s “The Republic”

leave a comment »

Glaucon, I am sure that you know Plato’s “The Republic”.

I do.

Then you have also noted his way of presenting an argument?

I have. I find it most convincing.

I see. Would you agree that our understanding of a matter is improved through critical thought?

Undoubtedly.

And that mindless and uncritical agreement does little to achieve this?

It is so.

Would you further agree that this applies also to the speaker, who might be more stimulated to investigate his own position, deepen his own understanding, and improve his arguments, when faced with some opposition? That there might even be cases, where a speaker comes to reject his old opinion?

You speak the truth.

Then I will also claim that the reader of a dialogue will be better off when this dialogue is not a one-sided presentation of ideas by the first speaker, interleaved with a blanket agreement by the second; especially, in those cases where the claims are specious, simplistic, one-sided, leave out a discussion of special cases, or similar.

Truer words were never spoken.

We might even argue that, unless satirical, a great convincer, or someone with an interest in finding the truth, or someone who respects his audience, should avoid such one-sidedness—even that an argument will often be more convincing when it is given a hard test and survives that test, than when it is left untested.

For sure.

As you agree so far: Would you still consider Plato’s reasoning convincing?

I admit that my faith is weakened, and I will return to his thoughts with a more critical mind.

Your doubts please me. Still, while his reasoning is often weak, there is much reason and many good ideas in his writings.

So there is.

Some, however, I find troubling, be it because of changing times or different preferences.

I, too, have always thought.

Are you not contradicting yourself, Glaucon?

I am indeed.

Any way, consider topics like the formation of opinions in the populace: While Plato makes a great case against lies in general, he appears to make exceptions when it comes to the rulers of a country. He also favors censorship of myths and legends to give the broad masses the right ideals.

This is so.

Today’s leaders are obviously often duplicitous, but they are far from Plato’s ideal.

How so?

Plato has an image of the best of the best being groomed for high office, as philosopher kings, while today’s leaders … Well, you do follow politics?

I do; and I see what you mean.

In fact, Plato seems to see a ladder of decay of government or governance where democracy is just one step short of tyranny as the penultimate stop on the ladder.

He does. But have you not yourself called democracy the least evil among forms of government?

Echoing Churchill—yes. I am not necessarily saying that Plato is right with his hierarchy, but I do find the perspective interesting.

It is indeed.

But to return to my earlier thoughts, it is clear that Plato’s ideas are often dependent on each other and do not necessarily function on their own. For instance, if we had a rule that a philosopher king might be allowed to lie to his citizens, while his citizens would be forced to speak the truth to him, and that rule actually proved beneficial, could we conclude that the same rule would be beneficial when the philosopher king gives way to an incompetent populist?

Certainly not.

Could we conclude that the same rule applies even for a merely reasonably competent politician?

No. I see your point that it has to be the philosopher king, or the rule might prove faulty.

Of course, even with a philosopher king, and even assuming that the rule is beneficial, which would still need verification, there is an ethical problem.

How so?

It juxtaposes a pragmatic benefit with an ideal of how to handle knowledge: At the very core of my beliefs on forming opinions, growing of knowledge, and similar, is the right to do so on one’s own terms, based on own thinking and with free access to information not distorted by others. Indeed, I have used a part of “The Republic” to illustrate this very thing.

Your insight blinds me like the sun does a cave dweller.

But a ruler lying to his people would be exactly such a distortion. So would censoring myths, legends, and tales to change their real or imagined message to something else. So, indeed, could a too one-sided dialogue be.

So it is. I do recall a certain vehemence on your part against distortion of literature.

I am pleased that you paid attention. From another point of view, one of the central ideas of the modern law system is that everyone should be equal in front of the law, and when a ruler is allowed to lie, while his citizens are not, then they are not equal in front of the law.

True.

Similarly, modern thoughts on topics like the Rechtsstaat are steeped in ideas like safe-guards of democracy, use of checks and balances, giving the citizens rights towards the state rather than vice versa, …

Pardon me for disagreeing, but that sounds more like the 18th-century idealism.

Consider yourself pardoned: Unfortunately, proponents of a true Rechtsstaat are rarely heard today and the insight into what is needed has lessened; and many fall into the trap of considering any state that enables their own ideology and politics as an ipso-facto Rechtsstaat, if rarely using that name, while states that do not are condemned irrespective of to which degree they adhere to the ideals of a Rechtsstaat. Still, when we contrast even the 21th-century take with Plato’s times, the world is very different—and there are many of us who do hold and propose strong Rechtsstaatlichkeit.

I see your point. But: If we do have a philosopher king, what would the purposes of safe-guards be? And: Do we really need safe-guards specifically for democracy?

Good questions. The first is likely easier to answer: Such safe-guards, or their presence or absence, must never be based on the assumption of an ideal situation. The situation might or might not be ideal today, but even then there is no guarantee for tomorrow. If I trust all my fellow humans, I could leave my door unlocked or even forego a lock entirely—but I do not. I might know and trust my neighbors sufficiently, but what about the mail-man? The mail-man’s vacation replacement? Guests of my neighbors? All strangers who pass by the house in the course of the day?

It is clear now. You say that the next king need not be a philosopher, despite having been carefully chosen and groomed.

Or that he was a philosopher king and has since succumbed to insanity or dementia, or that the choice was not careful, or that the grooming was flawed, or whatever other complications can occur. Worse, if the philosopher king is seen as a literal monarch, rather than e.g. one of the members of a governing council, then the main difference between him and the tyrant, who is the lowest rung on the ladder, lies in his person—not in the system of government. The later concept of an “enlightened despot” has a great overlap with Plato’s “philosopher king”, and illustrates in its very name how small the difference can be—the one despot happens to be enlightened, the other not.

Quite true.

To turn to the second point, I agree that safe-guards for democracy might seem a bit paradoxical in light of my other writings. The answer falls into at least three parts: Lesser evil, semantic misunderstanding/misuse, and the self-servingness of politicians.

I see what you mean by “lesser evil”, from past discussions, but you have to explain the others.

My pleasure: In terms of semantics, words like “democratic” are often used to imply certain things that are not necessarily relating to democracy. It is, for instance, possible to have a democracy without strong due process and to have due process without democracy; however, due process is often incorrectly seen as a part of democracy. Similarly, it is possible to have freedom of speech without democracy; and while it is arguably not possible to have true democracy without freedom of speech, many self-proclaimed democracies do have strong limits on speech. In such a context, “safe-guards of democracy” could include safe-guards for various civic rights, aspects of the Rechtsstaat, and similar—which I, incidentally, consider more important and beneficial than democracy per se.

That makes sense. What about the politicians?

Here we do not so much have an argument for as much as an explanation of such formulations, or of the safe-guards themselves: Politicians, in the modern sense, are kept in power by what passes for democracy and they are correspondingly set on preserving it…

Very true.

Wonderful. Then this will be a good point to wrap the discussion up, before our dialogue reaches Platonesque proportions.

If it is not too bold, I have some questions concerning the above and the later books of the “The Republic”.

Well, strictly between you and me, I have only read about half of it so far. You know how I tend to have a dozen books open in parallel, often over months, and how that annoying dialogue format makes it hard for me to keep my concentration up. It is true that the preceding might give an incorrect view of Plato’s ideas through this incomplete and unfocused reading, but I thought it better to get this text out of the way now, before I forget what I already wanted to say and before I have so much other material from the rest of the “Republic” that this text would grow too long and chaotic.

A most wise decision.

Glaucon, you are, unless I am much mistaken, a great sycophant.

I regret to admit that this is true.

Advertisements

Written by michaeleriksson

January 13, 2019 at 2:33 am

Follow-up: A few thoughts on what constitutes science

leave a comment »

As a follow-up to a previous text on science (and falsification):

Reading a discussion on due-process problems at Brown University, I see at least one special case where falsifiability can be a very good way of identifying non-science: When the system is rigged so that what a reasonable observer would see as falsification is turned into non-falsification—or even confirmation.

In this specific case, a college-internal sexual-assault proceeding was perverted by “training” given to the panelists, effecting exactly that:*

*Quoted from the linked-to page with changes only to formatting. Bracketed text is by the original author. Smith is a real judge presiding over a subsequent real trial.

After the incident, the accuser told a roommate what a great time she had with the student she’d eventually accuse; post-incident text messages sent by the accuser likewise indicated her having consented to sex. But one of the panelists, Besenia Rodriguez, said she didn’t consider the post-incident texts or conversations because her interpretation of Brown’s “training” suggested that sexual assault survivors behave in “counter-intuitive” ways. Therefore, she reasoned, “it was beyond my degree of expertise to assess [the accuser]’s post-encounter conduct . . . because of a possibility that it was a response to trauma.”

Rodriguez’s contention that her university-provided training shows that essentially any behavior—intuitive or counter-intuitive—proves sexual assault “clearly comes close to the line” of arbitrary and capricious conduct, Smith noted. Yet the training Rodriguez received, and the mindset she reflects appears to be commonplace in campus sexual assault matters.

In effect: How the alleged victim behaves after the alleged assault can incriminate the alleged perpetrator—but can never acquit.

This is the more problematic, because many of the accounts I have read over the years follow a pattern of: Boy and girl have a sexual, romantic, and/or flirting relationship of some duration. An event* takes places. Boy and girl continue their sexual, romantic, and/or flirting relationship. At a later time, sometimes months after the event, boy leaves girl, is caught with another girl, or shows interest in others. Girl immediately goes to college officials and declares the event to have been a rape or a sexual assault…

*I am deliberately vague, because (a) these are typically word-against-word situations, which make it hard to “find the facts”, (b) “finding the (college) law” is often done in a matter that goes well beyond what the regular law, established norms, common sense, whatnot would consider reasonable, e.g. in that even sex with mutual consent is considered a crime when the consent was not explicitly spoken or that of two equally drunk consenting partners, one was considered capable of consent and the other not. Worse examples exists—including here, claims the discussion, “[…]Brown’s current policy, which defines sexual assault as including such behavior as a male student giving a female student flowers, or flattering her, in hopes of getting her to agree to sex.”, which would make any type of courtship a potential sexual assault…

Similar cases (regarding falsification) include claims by self-proclaimed psychics that the presence of skeptics blocks their powers (i.e. “that I failed is not proof that I am wrong—it is proof that there is a skeptic present”); and feminists interpreting evidence in counter-intuitive or implausible ways to fit their preconceived ideas, notably in that signs of sex differences in behavior even in very young children are not seen as a falsification of their “tabula rasa” ideas, instead being proof that the “Patriarchy”, “gender stereotyping”, “structures”, whatnot are even stronger and earlier in their effects.

However, this does not alter the conclusions of my earlier text: The above is normally* not a matter of whether a certain claim/theory/model/whatnot is falsifiable (by a reasonable standard). The problem lies in one party (deliberately/dishonestly or through lack of reason) finding excuses to deny the falsification (by applying an unreasonable standard).

*In theory, it would likely be possible to construct, in advance, a more complex system that would be unfalsifiable for similar reasons—and, if so, the lack of falsifiability could be a strong argument against the status as science. However, even then, I strongly suspect that there would be other avenues to discredit the system, e.g. by pointing to tautologies or to insist upon an investigation of individual claims using system-external methods. (It could even be argued that no system, short of an “explanation of everything”, that alleges complete self-sufficiency could ever be trusted as a model of the real world.) To boot, the instances that I have seen to date have always struck me as fairly obvious “excuse making”, likely also having arisen after a first encounter with a falsification. (This includes all three examples mentioned above.)

Excursion on colleges and quasi-judicial proceedings:
Considering both the extreme problems with due process (and competence, and consistency, and fairness, …) that exist today and the lack of obvious justification for this type of parallel justice system, I strongly recommend that colleges be prevented, if need be by real laws, to hold such quasi-judicial proceedings. Either a crime is alleged (and then the real police/DA/courts/… should handle the issue) or it is not (and then the college has no legitimate reason to call for punishment).* If and when a real conviction follows, the college might** be entitled to apply additional consequences; if it does not follow, the college should let things be. Even when a real conviction does follow, the college must respect the presumption of innocence in the time leading up to said conviction.

*With reservations for matters relating directly to the academic aspects (e.g. cheating on tests), where any other organization would be expected to act (e.g. gross disturbance of the peace), and when an any organization might legitimately suggest a mutual solution without law involvement. However, even here the student (like with conflicts with other organizations) should always have the choice to clarify the issue by criminal or civil law. College-dictated constraints on how students should interact sexually or romantically with each other are certainly not covered by these exceptions—and should not be allowed in the first place.

**Depending on the severity of the crime, potentially negative effects of the punishment or lack there of on the involved parties, etc. I note, however, that e.g. suspending or expelling someone for a parking ticket would be over-kill, while doing the same to someone who is about to go to jail for ten years will usually be redundant. Obviously, a college should not be allowed to e.g. expel someone and keep the full semester fees…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 10, 2018 at 5:31 pm

A few thoughts on what constitutes science

with one comment

I have long been annoyed by some general takes on science, especially with too great a focus on e.g. falsifiability, specific methods, and even, to some part, stringency.

To avoid misunderstandings, I consider these to all be important for science as a whole; however, they are not necessarily that important when we look at whether any given individual theory, hypothesis, experiment, model …, should be considered “scientific” at any given time. Ditto when it comes to the person behind them.

I tend to view science (in very abstract terms) as a combination of two antagonistic/interacting/complementary/whatnot aspects*: The addition of suggested knowledge, e.g. through observation, experimentation, induction, mathematical analysis, and even sheer speculation; and the removal of such suggested knowledge, e.g. through observation, experimentation, induction, mathematical analysis, and even sheer speculation**. In this manner, we have a gradually changing set of suggested knowledge, where the certainty*** ranges from next to nothing to very high, depending on factors like how long a certain item has remained unremoved, how much additional**** evidence has turned up, whether it is compatible with other suggested items, …

*Quite similar to how Evolution can, with some oversimplification, be viewed as the result of the combination of natural variation and natural selection. (I almost wrote “mutation”, but this would have been misleading, seeing that variation also occurs e.g. through genetic mixture in offspring, and at least some degree of Evolution would take place even absent mutation, or possibly further mutation. Instead, I opted for an ad hoc “natural variation”,)

**I am not entirely convinced that the inclusion of “speculation” is warranted in the second list. This could depend on perspective, the details of the matter, and how legitimate the filtering is. I choose to include it for reasons of symmetry, and lacking the reverse conviction that it must be excluded.

***This word should be taken with a grain of salt, as even long accepted “knowledge” can be modified or, rarely, rejected outright. If nothing else, it often turns out that e.g. a certain theory or model only is valid within certain contexts, e.g. sufficiently weak gravitational fields. The above process will (with some reservations for mathematics, formal logic, and similar) never create something true beyond the possibility of change—there is no certainty: What we have is more like a series of (ideally: improving) approximations of the true this-and-that.

****Which I have so far informally considered a part of the “addition” aspect; however, which might be better off in an aspect of its own. (As occurs to me during writing. Note that I am not trying to describe a formal and detailed philosophy of science, but merely my own intuitive and previously unwritten take.)

Consider e.g. the observation that the single apple hanging from a specific tree fell to the ground at sun-rise. We can now make, for instance, the two suggestions that if an apple falls, it will fall towards the ground; and that any apple will always fall at or around sun-rise. This is the addition aspect. To apply the removal aspect, we find another apple tree and watch it for some time. We might now find that no apple fell at or around sun-rise, and we can remove the second suggestion. At the same time, we might have observed that four apples fell at other times, and that these apples did fall towards the ground, thereby strengthening that suggestion. This remains the state of knowledge, well-supported by great amounts of additional observation, for quite some time—then someone brings an apple to a space-station… Observations on the space-station could then invalidate the “apples fall to the ground” hypothesis, but also add sufficient information to suggest a new and better hypothesis. (As can be seen, these two aspects are not necessarily separate phases or otherwise separate—quite often, they go hand in hand. However, the time between them can be long for any given suggestion.)

If we now consider the specific topic of falsification and science, the above did contain falsification—and, indeed, the removal aspect could to some degree be approximated by a pure falsification aspect. However, falsification is, then, at most half of science. Should someone who made the first observation and speculation be considered a non-scientist merely for not having himself performed further observation and experimentation, e.g. leaving it to someone who had a greater interest in the matter? No!* Should a hypothesis that is not falsifiable be considered “unscientific”, solely on the immediate** grounds of not being falsifiable? No—being or not being falsifiable does not alter the potential truth of a claim. We should, obviously, be aware and signal that what we see at an early stage might yet be highly speculative, lacking in independent verification, be poorly tested, …—but that does not automatically make it unscientific.***

*However, if he failed to appreciate the possibility that he was wrong, cf. below, the situation could be very different.

**But see below for why falsifiability is a hard-to-avoid criterion, even when its absence is allowed.

***In contrast, a refusal to consider evidence to the contrary, experimentation that is obviously flawed, conclusions that manifestly do not follow from the given set of observations, an overstatement of certainty, and outright cheating are all examples of things that can earn the label “unscientific” (or e.g. “pseudo-scientific”).

Indeed, to me, the core of being a scientist is simply this: Having a great wish to find out the truth—even should that truth be contrary to one’s own current beliefs, the scientific consensus, the public opinion, the claims of a powerful religion or the government, whatnot. This not necessarily to say that everyone having that core is automatically a scientist*; however, anyone who lacks it does not deserve the title. (In other words, the claim of being a scientist has been falsified for those who demonstrate the absence…) Similarly, the application of that attitude is the sine qua non for calling an activity “science” or “scientific”.

*Defining what makes a scientist, apart from the core, goes well beyond the area where I have a fix opinion. However, I do reject the notions that anyone with a Ph.D., or other specific degree, automatically is a scientist and that anyone without one automatically is not. (I also note that the word “scientist” could, depending on context, be used in a wider or narrower meaning, e.g. in that retirees or non-natural scientists are in- or excluded, or that someone with a certain qualification containing “scientist” or “science” is sloppily included in a blanket manner. These uses do not affect the more abstract concept discussed by me, however.)

Looking at falsification more in detail, there are (at least) two arguments for resp. against it. For it: Firstly, that anything really worth* knowing will have effects and that these effects can be tested against reality**, which opens a door for falsification. Secondly, that many hypotheses can by their nature not be positively proved (even should they be true!), while having a “co-hypothesis” that can be*** (which amounts to falsification of the hypothesis). Against it: Firstly, that falsifiability can usually (cf. the footnote***) only be used in one direction, making it a weak tool that needs other tools to help it. (Or, from another perspective: It only covers one of the two main aspects, cf. above). Secondly, that it often lacks the ability to consider anything but absolute existence/non-existence or another absolute.****

*Whether e.g. the Earth is orbited by a tea-pot is only interesting, beyond sheer curiosity, if its presence or absence has effects. Would it, e.g., double the tidal waves in size? If so, we can use mathematical modeling to to predict what the tidal waves should be with and without its presence. If the waves are not of the height predicted by the model, we can tentatively consider its existence falsified. (This cannot be done with certainty, e.g. because there might be other unknown influences or a modeling error.) On the other hand, if there are no suggested effects, be they tidal or other, it really does not matter whether the tea-pot exists. (As an aside, a reason why non-falsifiable hypotheses have a bad reputation is that exactly the absence of testable effects are used by charlatans to ensure that their claims cannot be repudiated. However, abusus non tollit usum.)

**In principle: It can well be that a practical test is only possible at some future time, e.g. due to restrictions in current technology. (Say, that current telescopes are not strong enough to spot a tea-pot in space.) Another reason could be that the effects that could be tested would only manifest at some point in the future, say that the tea-pot will only turn on its tidal magic ten years into the future (such complications are comparatively rare in e.g. physics, but could be of great interest if we look at e.g. economics).

***Consider again the tea-pot in space (with no “special powers”): In due time, its existence could be proved e.g. by observation from a space-ship, but its non-existence could never be, because we might simply have missed the right part of (enormously large) space: If we see it, we know that its there; if we do not see it, we do not know that it is not there. (This is, obviously, the traditional “black swan” example in a different guise.) In the same way, very many hypotheses are only open to one of proof and disproof—and those open to proof are often so only through the disproof of the co-hypothesis that the original hypothesis is false. Correspondingly, either we try to falsify the hypothesis it self (for a disproof), or we turn the hypothesis around and try to falsify the co-hypothesis (for a proof). (Fellow computer scientists should recognize the same principle in concepts like recursive and co-recursive enumerability; and see the similarity to the logical rules that A -> B and not-B implies not-A, while A -> B and B does not imply A.)

****In the original tea-pot example we have such an absolute—but what if the hypothesis was that tea-pots in space (not just Earth-orbit) are rare? Suddenly, finding that one tea-pot does not falsify the hypothesis. Even finding many millions of tea-pots would not necessarily help, unless they were distributed so that we could speculate (without a “true” falsification) that the density of of tea-pots in space is above some threshold. However, seeing that tea-pots have a connection to Earth, their presence near-by would not necessarily be even a rough indication when we move away from Earth. In contrast, (still non-falsifyingly), we could find that there are no or only very few (relative volume of space) tea-pots close to Earth, then that there are no or only very few tea-pots in increasingly greater and greater areas of space, after which the inductive claim could be made that tea-pots in space are in all likelihood rare, giving support to the hypothesis. If we had insisted on falsification, we could make no claim, not even of likelihood, in either direction; dropping falsification, we at least have something.

Excursion on myself:
Do I consider myself a scientist? Mostly, “no”; for the simple reason that my active* pursuit of truth and knowledge is usually related to areas outside of science. I do pride myself on having the above core, however; and I do have reasonable formal qualifications in form of two master degrees, should someone still use degrees as the main criterion. (I have a semi-finished text on “labels” where I will explore such topics a little further.)

*As in e.g. trying to come up with something on my own, and as opposed to e.g. reading and contemplating someone elses ideas. Cf. the difference between the first two items of an older list/discussion.

Excursion on pseudo-science:
A related problem is the application of “pseudo-science” based on e.g. the contents of what is researched. For instance, if a crypto-zoologist searches in good faith* for a rumored animal for which there are no strong scientific contraindications and whose existence is not obviously unlikely, it is wrong to automatically consider him (or his field) pseudo-science. Indeed, the undue tendency to do so has given crypto-zoologists a good excuse towards much of the (even rightfully) levied criticism of their work—on rare occasions, something new and spectacular has shown up (e.g. the mountain gorilla).** Instead, we should look at how scientific or unscientific his attitude and his methods are.

*As opposed e.g. a search for a hypothesized animal that not even he believes in, with the intent to give him publicity and to increase his book sales.

**And less spectacular new species are discovered quite often.

Similarly, older and now debunked theories, e.g. concerning the aether, phlogiston, or even phrenology, should not be condemned as pseudo-science after the fact. If someone today supports phrenology, that is quite likely to be pseudo-science, because the support will almost certainly require ignoring scientific developments that had not taken place when phrenology thrived. On the other hand, whether phrenology was a pseudo-science should be judged by the attitude and methods of the original proponents.* An area of science does not magically turn into pseudo-science when its ideas turn out to be wrong—it turns into outdated science. A good contrast is homeopathy: Today’s homeopathy is pseudo-science and/or quackery, because it has been continued against all reason; however, the original incarnation need not have been.

*Whether phrenologists (or the earliest homeopaths) would have passed the test, I honestly do not know. However, e.g. aether theories were a part of main-stream science for at least several decades, possibly considerably longer.

Of course, under no circumstances is it allowed to use “pseudo-science” based merely on disagreement with the conclusions or e.g. concerns of political correctness. Consider the common, usually grossly unfair, accusations raised by political activists against e.g. intelligence research as a racist or sexist pseudo-science—which is it self a thoroughly unscientific stance. (The reader might have seen me referring to e.g. gender studies as a pseudo-science. Based on what I have seen so far of attitude and methods, I stand by that assessment.)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 1, 2018 at 12:22 am