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Empiricism
Posted: 05 February 2007 03:26 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I’ve run up against a Christian over at Planet Wisdom who keeps trying to debunk "Empiricism".  He keeps asking me how I can be sure that the evidence of my senses is reliable.  My initial responce was that, even if it wasn’t, how else would you expect to interact with the world?  He said that was beside the point; he wants a detailed, explicit PROOF that the information we get through our senses corresponds to reality.  He also says that once I give him this proof, he will then proceed to demonstrate the huge logical contradiction inherent in the entire atheistic worldview.  Whew!

I think I’m pretty much on top of the argument so far, but I thought it would be fun to float the question here, as well.  How would you respond to the question?  And what do you think he’s getting at about our worldview being inconsistant?

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Posted: 05 February 2007 03:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Re: Empiricism

[quote author=“advocatus”]I’ve run up against a Christian over at Planet Wisdom who keeps trying to debunk “Empiricism”.  He keeps asking me how I can be sure that the evidence of my senses is reliable.  My initial responce was that, even if it wasn’t, how else would you expect to interact with the world?  He said that was beside the point; he wants a detailed, explicit PROOF that the information we get through our senses corresponds to reality.  He also says that once I give him this proof, he will then proceed to demonstrate the huge logical contradiction inherent in the entire atheistic worldview.  Whew!

There isn’t any such proof; indeed, there can’t be. The evidence from our senses is always fallible. We can always be confused, under the thrall of some illusion, or dreaming. This comes straight from Descartes: his arguments are absolutely to the point.

The only sorts of things that stand up to “proof” are logical or mathematical arguments.

But so what?

[quote author=“advocatus”]I think I’m pretty much on top of the argument so far, but I thought it would be fun to float the question here, as well.  How would you respond to the question?  And what do you think he’s getting at about our worldview being inconsistant?

I have no idea what inconsistency he’s after.

But that said, I don’t believe that one can be a 100% empiricist. There are some basic elements to reason that can’t be encompassed solely by reference to “the senses”. E.g., deduction, induction and abduction (inference to the best explanation). And suchlike things. But insofar as you want information about the way the physical world is, there is no other route than by information from the senses and more definitely by well-designed experiment.

Nevertheless, that information is never infallible or “proven”. Science doesn’t work by “proof”, only by preponderance of the evidence.

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Posted: 05 February 2007 05:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I certainly agree with Doug. Our senses are very limited and often unreliable interrogators of the physical world, and insofar as any non-physical worlds might exist, there isn’t much we can say about them through sense experience. The real question is, so what? What’s the alternative? Intuition? Prayer? Doug will correct my amateur philosophy if I’m way off here, but I take the notion of solipsism as a philosophical cautionary tale. It is impossible, I think, to prove conclusively that anything outside of my own consciousness exists, and even the existence of that consciousness is debatable. But if I accept the non-existence of everything, what the hell do I do with my life? So maybe what I understand via empirical methods is wrong. Historical, much of it likely is and will be proven so by subsequent study. But if I want to do anything meaningful in the world, I have to strive for the best, most practically useful understanding possible. A core difference between scientific naturalism and supernaturalism is that the best possible is good enough (for now) for a scientist but only absolute immutable truth is good eneough for the believer, no matter how false or ridiculous that “truth” comes to appear in time. So even trying to prove the absolute truth of our sense experience as a representation of the world misses the point and embodies the mistaken assumptions of supernaturalism.

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Posted: 05 February 2007 12:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Another vote of agreement with Doug.  This person seems to be taking the approach of Bishop Berkeley -  Idealism, the belief that the only things I can be sure of are my ideas.  Nothing external to my mind can be proved or even proved to exist.  Even conversations with others may really be just me talking with myself.  This is a lot of fun to play with, but it’s not productive. 

It’s been thirty years, but as I recall, Berkeley used Idealism as the basis for his “proof” of the existence of god.  Possibly your Christian is trying to get you into that argument. 

Occam

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Posted: 05 February 2007 01:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Does this make it a quorum? Actually even if you could prove your sense data was accurate, you would still have to prove that your mind is correctly interpreting that data.

And upon scrutiny we find that even the Cogito has no proof. It assumes much and confirms little. But in the end it is the best tool an individual has to determine that there is a manifest world to contend with. That world may be an illusion, the matrix does postulate a possibility.

The thing is if this guy believes there is no proof of a real world or that our senses are flawed, why is he talking to you in the first place? Obviously if he is trying to convince you, then he must think there is another “I that thinks” external to his, that needs convincing.

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Posted: 07 February 2007 03:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Good points, all.  About the only thing I could suggest is that our senses evolved for the very purpose of providing us with useful information about the world around us, and for that reason it would be hard to imagine natural selection going out of its way to evolve senses that provided you with inaccurate information.

But apparently he’s had a change of heart.  This morning, he moved on to attacking “Naturalism”.  What do you guys think of this:

Naturalist Metaphysics:

The universe (or matter) is eternal. Or nothing is…we’re not really sure. What we are pretty sure about is that the origin and developing complexity of systems is guided by nonrational processes. This means that even our cogitation about evolutionary hypotheses is predestined by those same non-rational processes that are even now demonstrated in the firing of neurons and the chemical reactions in our brains we describe as ‘thinking’. Everything is inevitable. Thus,

Naturalist Epistemology:

All knowledge is predetermined by antecedent nonrational processes. Even the thinking you’re doing right now to try and refute me is ordained by the same unguided, unintelligent workings of biological and chemical accident. Knowledge and reason are destroyed. So lastly,

Naturalist Ethics:

Since there is nothing in nature on which to ground value, we consequently cannot find the standard in humanity, or even common human experience, because man is a part of nature. Therefore, ethics are arbitrary and unfounded and in the hands only of the powerful.

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Posted: 07 February 2007 03:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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[quote author=“advocatus”]Good points, all.  About the only thing I could suggest is that our senses evolved for the very purpose of providing us with useful information about the world around us, and for that reason it would be hard to imagine natural selection going out of its way to evolve senses that provided you with inaccurate information.

Absolutely. I wouldn’t put it as “hard to imagine”; it is vanishingly improbable that our senses would have evolved to provide us information that was inaccurate about the things that were important for survival and reproduction.

Now, I honestly don’t understand the argument he’s making about naturalism. It sounds like he’s arguing against determinism. But at any rate:

Knowledge and reason are destroyed.

This hasn’t been shown by anything that he mentioned before. Just to take one banal example, my calculator is a deterministic system, and it reasons pretty well about multiplication. So there is no argument here from determinism to lack of reason.

There is similarly no argument from determinism to lack of knowledge. Indeed, to know about something (a table, say) we must have a reliable causal connection to it. I.e. causal determinism is essential to have knowledge about the world.

Also,

Since there is nothing in nature on which to ground value, we consequently cannot find the standard in humanity, or even common human experience, because man is a part of nature. Therefore, ethics are arbitrary [sic] and unfounded and in the hands only of the powerful.

Who said there is nothing in nature that grounds value? Utilitarians, just to take a single example, ground value on pain avoidance and pleasure seeking. Kantians ground value on the concept of being a person. Socratics ground value on enlightened self-interest. These are three grounds of value that are entirely compatible with a naturalist picture, and there are many more.

There is value inherent in a Darwinian selectionist picture, in that it is teleological: organs and behaviors have functions, things they were selected for doing. They can malfunction, as a heart valve can leak blood. These are purely naturalist values.

Further, as we have discussed many times, there are roots to human ethical systems in non-human animals. Ethics did not begin with humanity.

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Posted: 07 February 2007 04:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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[quote author=“advocatus”]

Naturalist Metaphysics:

The universe (or matter) is eternal. Or nothing is…we’re not really sure. What we are pretty sure about is that the origin and developing complexity of systems is guided by nonrational processes. This means that even our cogitation about evolutionary hypotheses is predestined by those same non-rational processes that are even now demonstrated in the firing of neurons and the chemical reactions in our brains we describe as ‘thinking’. Everything is inevitable. Thus,

Naturalist Epistemology:

All knowledge is predetermined by antecedent nonrational processes. Even the thinking you’re doing right now to try and refute me is ordained by the same unguided, unintelligent workings of biological and chemical accident. Knowledge and reason are destroyed. So lastly,

I’m don’t think I would agree with most of this, and believe I have also read plenty of science that seems to challenge some of these assumptions.

Just because science does not postulate a supernatural persona, does not ipso facto exclude a non personal rational process or series of processes. In fact science is quite keen to understand why the universe appears so rational to us. It just attempts to do so without adding unnecessary entities. And appealing to a supernatural cause end all reason to seek the truth. It is simply a way of giving up.

I am also aware that the idea that everything is predetermined falls into a borderlands area. Firstly we know far to little about far too much to be confident of this, but there are also some very interesting ideas about randomness and chaos that seems to have some legs.

And if big bang cosmology is correct then eternal may not be a meaningful word. as time would begin with the bang and end with a collapse. So it is not so much that it is forever, but that the phenomenon of time is created in the process.

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Posted: 07 February 2007 04:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I’ll just add here that determinism itself is false, as we know from quantum mechanics ...

I left that out before because I don’t think it makes any real difference to the arguments. But it’s something that shouldn’t go unchallenged.

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Posted: 07 February 2007 06:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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About the only thing I could suggest is that our senses evolved for the very purpose of providing us with useful information about the world around us, and for that reason it would be hard to imagine natural selection going out of its way to evolve senses that provided you with inaccurate information.

Of course, the system evolved in a specific selective environment, and one of the biggest problems we face as a species is we live in a very different environment, one that changes faster than natural selection can easily accomodate us to. Our senses manufacture much of what we consciously perceive (e.g. edge enhancement for vision) because the resultant constructs and approximations worked well in the environment in which they evolved. They don’t work so well piloting supersonic aircraft or when examining phenomena on the edges or outside our natural range of receptor sensitivities.

As far as the defintions you quote, they are pretty much biased gibberish. Naturalism and determinism aren’t the same thing. Avowed naturalists argue about the meaning or significance of determinism all the time. And even if you accept determinism, it doesn’t negate the meaning of our actions or our ethical decisions. This touches on some of the lingthy discussions going on in the various free will threads, and Richard Dawkins also deals with it in Elbow Room, his book on the issue of free will. It seems to me he’s not really trying to make a reasoned argument so much as set up a straw man, the idea that naturalism destroys any meaning that can be giving to our thoughts or understanding or ethics. And since we all want these things to have meaning, if we accept his definitions we are inclined to abandon naturalism as we would solipsism oir any philosophical idea that negates most of what we think of as real, ordinary living. Clever, but doomed due to your superior wisdom and rhetorical skill, I’m sure   :D

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Posted: 07 February 2007 06:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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[quote author=“mckenzievmd”] ... and Richard Dawkins also deals with it in Elbow Room, his book on the issue of free will. ...

That should be Daniel Dennett. He also has a more recent book out called Freedom Evolves, which I have not yet read, but which looks very good.

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Posted: 07 February 2007 06:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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:oops:  Sorry, terrible with names. I’m sort of a big picture person! :wink:

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Posted: 07 February 2007 12:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]Our senses manufacture much of what we consciously perceive (e.g. edge enhancement for vision) because the resultant constructs and approximations worked well in the environment in which they evolved.

They also filter out quite a lot of what (in evolutionary terms) was noise. So they and the brain again sort of prioritize data and filter out the low priority stuff.

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Posted: 07 February 2007 06:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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[quote author=“dougsmith”]I’ll just add here that determinism itself is false, as we know from quantum mechanics ...

That’s not quite right.  There’s a difference between “there’s no way that anyone can predict occurances” and “occurances we observe were not caused”.

Quantum mechanics doesn’t disprove determinism.  It only shows that we can never know the causes of quantum phenomena.

Occam

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Posted: 08 February 2007 01:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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[quote author=“Occam”]That’s not quite right.  There’s a difference between “there’s no way that anyone can predict occurances” and “occurances we observe were not caused”.

Quantum mechanics doesn’t disprove determinism.  It only shows that we can never know the causes of quantum phenomena.

No, actually, that’s not right, Occam. I suggest you read some stuff by Feynman, for example his book QED or his “Easy Pieces” lectures on QM. Or see HERE , particularly the external link at the bottom re. “common misconceptions”. Number 8 reads:

“Measurement disturbs the system.” In more detail, this misconception holds that each particle really does have definite values for both position and momentum, but these definite values cannot be determined because measurement of, say, a particle’s position alters the value of its momentum.

Also take a look at the odd quantum effects in the two-slit experiment , with the links at the bottom.

The inability to predict the future is actually beside the point. In fact, given what we know of chaotic phenomena, it would be impossible to predict the future even in a perfectly deterministic system, so long as chaotic phenomena are allowed. (Because chaotic phenomena basically end up being amplifiers of extremely small antecedent differences, and we would never be able to measure the position of each atom to the precision necessary to make such predictions to the accuracy necessary to predict the future to an arbitrary distance in time, even in a deterministic universe).

What QM reveals is that on the micro-scale there is no such thing as completely deterministic causation—that is, causation with 100% reliability. All that remains is stochastics. At the foundation of QM there were a variety of options that people considered for so-called “hidden variables”, that is, models on which causal determinism remained true at some smaller or “hidden” scale. None were consistent with experimental results.

So, on the atomic scale, reality is irreduceably stochastic or probabilistic.

This is perfectly consistent with causation being true, and by denying determinism physicists are not denying causation. But causation becomes an irreduceably probabilistic phenomenon. I.e. the state of the world at some time T does NOT completely “determine” the state of the world at some later time T+1. There is an irreduceable element of chance involved.

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Posted: 09 February 2007 02:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]Clever, but doomed due to your superior wisdom and rhetorical skill, I’m sure

One can only hope!  smile

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