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Michael Lackey - African American Atheists and Political Liberation
Posted: 08 October 2008 12:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 31 ]
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Unfortunately, I am grading a ton of papers for the next few days, so I can’t really respond very much, but I do want to respond briefly to the following comments from Doug Smith: “I have the feeling we are agreeing here but using terms in different ways. Let me put it this way, re. the claim that “all knowledge is a human construct.” It is either trivial or false.

Trivially, all knowledge of which we are aware is human, since we are humans and only we have knowledge. (Actually, even this is false since other animals have knowledge; but let’s leave aside that objection as picking nits). Knowledge is made up of concepts, and concepts come from human brains, so knowledge is trivially a human construct.

However, the move that Lackey is making here is not the trivial one. He does not believe that this is a trivial claim. Much the opposite. This is because he seems to believe that anything humanly constructed is a species of fiction. And then we get a claim that is not trivial at all: it is the claim that all knowledge is a species of fiction, a “construct” in the radical sense that it is one way of an infinite number of mutually logically exclusive ways of constructing the world. And this latter claim, while no longer banal, is simply false.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, but let me say only this for now.  I (and many postmodernists, though not all) consider the claim that all knowledge is human constructed of staggering significance.  But why?  It is not because I want to construct an infinite number of ways of constructing the world.  Rather, it is to underscore that whatever construct we have is provisional.  “Women are defective in reason.”  Because so many intellectuals spewed this nonsense, many people (women included) believed it.  Postmodernists retort: this is a constructed fiction about women.  Doug, I suspect that you would say that the claim about women being defective in reason is nonsense.  So you would retort: we can reject this prejudiced view of women.  Moreover, given our more sophisticated methods of science, we can now provide a more accurate (and less prejudiced) definition of a woman’s nature.  The whole idea hinges on a belief, which Balak intelligently articulates: “any argument to the effect that “all knowledge is NOT a human construct” is simply a religious argument, i.e. positing a ‘knowledge’ that exists somewhere suspended outside time, space and human society.”  Indeed, in my book, I take the following claim from Jean-Paul Sartre very seriously: “Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it.”  So the question is this: why would postmodernists insist on calling all knowledge systems fictions?  Fictions, as a system of knowledge, can be extremely effective in making systematic sense of the world in which we live, which is why Barto’s claim about the predictive nature of human systems of knowledge is so important.  But if we acknowledge that the knowledge system is human constructed, it underscores the system’s provisional nature (as DJ points out in the passage I quoted in an earlier post), it encourages us to look at the knowledge system as someone’s construct (just because Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant said or implied that women are defective in reason, it does not necessarily follow that it is true), and it is the logical outcome of an internally consistent atheistic worldview—Nietzsche refers to such atheists as unconditional honest atheists, and I consider myself to be such an atheist. 

Balak, to my mind, Nietzsche’s whole project was an attempt to reject the following claim from Plato.  When discussing the type of knowledge that poets possess, Socrates claims in the Ion: “it is not they [the poets] who utter these precious revelations while their mind is not within them, but that it is the god himself who speaks.”  Therefore, Socrates concludes: “these lovely poems are not of man or human workmanship, but are divine and from the gods.”  For Plato, whenever knowledge is tainted by the human, it ceases to be genuine knowledge.  Knowledge, to be authentic and true, must come from God, which is what Balak was trying to say.  Nietzsche argues that when we admit that knowledge is human constructed, we are implicitly affirming our humanness, our creative impulses.  To suggest that knowledge is authentic and true only when the human does not play a role in its construction would be, according to Nietzsche’s model, an anti-humanist move.  Moreover, to acknowledge that all knowledge is human constructed would be the most radical affirmation of the human and humanism possible.  But just because we acknowledge that systems of knowledge are of human origin, it does not follow that these systems are useless or false.  Only the sloppiest postmodernists make such a claim.  Unfortunately, there are plenty of sloppy postmodernists. 

I have so much more to say, but I really have to get back to grading papers. 

By the way, this is a very useful discussion.

Talk to you later,
m

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Posted: 08 October 2008 02:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 32 ]
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dougsmith - 08 October 2008 09:18 AM

Beliefs become knowledge by their relation to the way things are in the world. While human beliefs are human constructs, only some of those beliefs are warranted enough to be knowledge. That warrant is done by the world.

Clear, intelligent, and short explanation. It doesn’t posit any kind of special knowledge or anything related to God concepts.

Balak - 08 October 2008 08:37 AM

any argument to the effect that “all knowledge is NOT a human construct” is simply a religious argument, i.e. positing a ‘knowledge’ that exists somewhere suspended outside time, space and human society…

This is nonsense, showing a complete lack of comprehension of the above description of knowledge. It is no surprise to me that it has been ignored.

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Posted: 08 October 2008 02:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 33 ]
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Aj - 08 October 2008 02:01 PM
dougsmith - 08 October 2008 09:18 AM

Beliefs become knowledge by their relation to the way things are in the world. While human beliefs are human constructs, only some of those beliefs are warranted enough to be knowledge. That warrant is done by the world.

Clear, intelligent, and short explanation. It doesn’t posit any kind of special knowledge or anything related to God concepts.

Isn’t the requirement for special knowledge exactly the problem with a corresponence theory of truth?  We’re evaluating the correspondence of our knowlege to what?  The world?  Or the world as we know it?

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Posted: 08 October 2008 03:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 34 ]
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the PC apeman - 08 October 2008 02:45 PM

Isn’t the requirement for special knowledge exactly the problem with a corresponence theory of truth?  We’re evaluating the correspondence of our knowlege to what?  The world?  Or the world as we know it?

This is only a problem if you believe we must have “special knowledge”. We don’t. All we have is normal knowledge, and we can be wrong about it. But when we are right, it is because our beliefs are in the right relation to the world.

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Posted: 08 October 2008 03:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 35 ]
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the PC apeman - 08 October 2008 02:45 PM
Aj - 08 October 2008 02:01 PM
dougsmith - 08 October 2008 09:18 AM

Beliefs become knowledge by their relation to the way things are in the world. While human beliefs are human constructs, only some of those beliefs are warranted enough to be knowledge. That warrant is done by the world.

Clear, intelligent, and short explanation. It doesn’t posit any kind of special knowledge or anything related to God concepts.

Isn’t the requirement for special knowledge exactly the problem with a corresponence theory of truth?  We’re evaluating the correspondence of our knowlege to what?  The world?  Or the world as we know it?

Why is this relevant to my post?

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Posted: 08 October 2008 03:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 36 ]
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lacke010 - 08 October 2008 12:46 PM

Indeed, in my book, I take the following claim from Jean-Paul Sartre very seriously: “Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it.”

Here we slip from bad philosophy into pseudoscience. There is plenty of good work, if preliminary, into human nature, in cognitive psychology, sociology and anthropology. Steven Pinker goes into this evidence in some detail in his books. In general I would avoid relying on novelists to do theoretical science work.

The rest of this I’ve already dealt with.

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Posted: 08 October 2008 03:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 37 ]
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dougsmith - 08 October 2008 03:27 PM

This is only a problem if you believe we must have “special knowledge”. We don’t. All we have is normal knowledge, and we can be wrong about it. But when we are right, it is because our beliefs are in the right relation to the world.

I realize this seems veer into epistemology, but how would we know when our beliefs are in the right relation to the world?  Our best stab at what is on the far side of the correspondence is the very thing we’re comparing it to.  To say anything meaningful at all about the far world as it is side of the correspondence without invoking some sort of knowledge of it (or dogma) is a difficult arrangement for me to grasp.  To do so with normal knowledge seems circular.

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Posted: 08 October 2008 03:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 38 ]
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Aj - 08 October 2008 03:28 PM

Why is this relevant to my post?

I was under the impression that Doug was relying on a correspondence theory of truth and that you felt doing so was admirable because it requires no special knowledge.

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Posted: 08 October 2008 03:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 39 ]
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the PC apeman - 08 October 2008 03:39 PM

I realize this seems veer into epistemology, but how would we know when our beliefs are in the right relation to the world?  Our best stab at what is on the far side of the correspondence is the very thing we’re comparing it to.  To say anything meaningful at all about the far world as it is side of the correspondence without invoking some sort of knowledge of it (or dogma) is a difficult arrangement for me to grasp.  To do so with normal knowledge seems circular.

Well, yes, this is epistemology. If you ask how we know our beliefs are in the right relation to the world there are two possible answers, depending on the thrust of your question.

The first answer is the obvious one—the one we’d use if asked this sort of question in daily life. We know our beliefs are in the right relation to the world by attempting to justify them with evidence and reason. Here you would ask, for instance, “How do you know your belief that it’s raining in Toledo is correct?” The answer could be that I know my belief is correct because here I am in Toledo looking out my window and I see drops coming down from the sky. I don’t believe I’m dreaming, and I don’t recall having taken any mind-altering drugs, although it’s certainly conceivable that I could have, in which case I suppose I could be hallucinating. But that’s not very likely.

(This method cannot, repeat CANNOT, provide certainty of anything other than very simple logical formulae. Knowledge does not require certainty).

The second answer is the “philosophical” one, the one that people tend to revert to when they are bullshitting in their dorm rooms. That is, how can you get outside your skin and know that your beliefs are correct, above and beyond your looking at the evidence for them? Now, note that this move is implicitly and illicitly assuming that knowledge involves certainty. It’s looking for a way to be certain—without possible failure—that what you believe is true, by looking at the world in itself and comparing it somehow to our beliefs. Of course, this is impossible. But it also has nothing to do with knowledge, and nothing to do with epistemology. What it has to do with is bad philosophy and a deep confusion about what knowledge is.

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Posted: 08 October 2008 06:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 40 ]
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I realized that I may have been less than clear about the concept of certainty I was referring to in my previous post. Let me explain what I mean by it.

One is certain of X when one’s belief in X cannot be wrong.

This is, of course, the holy grail of many sorts of epistemological programs, e.g., Descartes’s, and the inchoate programs that many folks enter into philosophy looking for.

It is largely an illusion. There is virtually nothing that we can really be certain of.

The only thing that we can be certain of, really, are simple logical formulae of the sort:

If A then B
A————
B

Even slightly more complex logical or mathematical formulae (which in fact are simply concatenations of these if/then statements, hence logically identical to them) are not certain. We can be deeply confused about mathematical proofs, unless we are expert in the system and have studied them deeply.

There is also a more everyday concept of ‘certain’ in which we are certain of plenty of things, e.g., I am certain that it is dark outside now. This is “certainty” in the first sense of “knowledge” I discussed in my previous post. If someone asked me, “Are you certain that it is dark outside?” I would say, “Of course! Just look over there!”

This latter sense, of course, is not the philosophical, dorm room bullshitting sense of the term. (Since it’s possible that I am hallucinating, or dreaming). I like it better for that very reason. But I do understand that many people coming to this discussion may be thinking about it in the harder-edged sense that I have dissected first.

In general, let me be clear, I like to use terms in their everyday sense whenever possible. I do not like that terms such as “knowledge”, “certainty”, “truth”, “fiction”, etc. be given bizarre technical meanings. This does not imply I believe that we cannot analyze them carefully. What it does mean is that any analysis we pursue should be at least tempered by our usage of these terms in daily life.

[ Edited: 08 October 2008 06:15 PM by dougsmith ]
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Posted: 08 October 2008 06:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 41 ]
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the PC apeman - 08 October 2008 03:42 PM

I was under the impression that Doug was relying on a correspondence theory of truth and that you felt doing so was admirable because it requires no special knowledge.

I don’t know if Doug subscribes to that theory and I cannot speak for him. It seems straightforward to me that the text I quoted does not imply an acceptance of the theory. It doesn’t touch upon the aspects of the correspondence theory of truth.

dougsmith - 08 October 2008 03:33 PM

Steven Pinker goes into this evidence in some detail in his books. In general I would avoid relying on novelists to do theoretical science work.

Yes, I have read some of his books they’re very good.

I think the recently released video of Steven Pinker is relevant to this discussion:

Steven Pinker: Chalking it up to the blank slate

One of my favourite episodes of point of inquiry is also relevant:

Ophelia Benson - Why Truth Matters

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Posted: 08 October 2008 07:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 42 ]
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Aj - 08 October 2008 06:53 PM
the PC apeman - 08 October 2008 03:42 PM

I was under the impression that Doug was relying on a correspondence theory of truth and that you felt doing so was admirable because it requires no special knowledge.

I don’t know if Doug subscribes to that theory and I cannot speak for him. It seems straightforward to me that the text I quoted does not imply an acceptance of the theory. It doesn’t touch upon the aspects of the correspondence theory of truth.

Obviously we read it differently.

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Posted: 08 October 2008 07:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 43 ]
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Doug, I don’t think I’m hung up on certainty.  That problem dissolves for me the more I explore coherentism (both as a theory of truth and an epistemology.)  The attraction there for me is the reduced reliance on ontology or other metaphysics.  I still don’t see how one justifies the ontological commitment correspondence requires.  Surely the ability to make such a commitment arises solely from our knowledge.  It’s not that I’m uncertain, I just don’t see the need to make any leap of faith.

[ Edited: 08 October 2008 08:43 PM by the PC apeman ]
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Posted: 09 October 2008 01:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 44 ]
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Tinyfrog:
I’ll simply disagree with one thing: this desire to use the word “fiction” in a way that is completely disconnected from the way the majority of English speakers use it.  You simply can’t use this word to describe what postmodernists think of science unless you mean “untruth”...

lacke010:
To my mind, the real question is this: do postmodernists have a compelling reason for referring to science as a fiction?  And I believe that they do. Why? Postmodernists spend a lot of time explaining how people in power have been able to justify degrading others by virtue of controlling language. For instance, from Aristotle, to Aquinas, to Kant, women have been portrayed as inferior to men. Postmodernists argue that Woman, according to Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant, is not a transcendental signifier (a mind-independent concept), but rather, it is a patriarchal construction.

I see several problems here. I commented on “science as a fiction”. You respond by talking about how some great thinkers came to wrong conclusions about women. Okay. First of all, the men you named are not and were not “scientists”. Second, just because a scientist says or believes something doesn’t mean it is science.  And third, they never even claimed that “science proves that women are inferior”, nor did they provide a line of reasoning or study to support the claim. So, your argument for why “science is a fiction” is reduced to ‘Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant were wrong about women’.

Perhaps the largest problem, though, is the fact that you respond to claims of male superiority by denying the existence of gender as nothing more than a concept. The obvious retort to the claim that women are inferior is to simply say “the idea that women are inferior is a patriarchal construction”, not deny the existence of gender. In fact, I saw this pattern a lot in the podcast - people would say, “the Bible legitimizes racism” or “humanists of the day legitimized racism” and then, instead of tackling the claims themselves and asking whether there’s a clear logical pathway from one to the other (there isn’t), the postmodernists use the nuclear option: deny the existence of everything, claim that everything is fiction. Wow. Talk about throwing out the baby, the house, and the neighborhood with the bathwater.

Further, by labeling everything a fiction, postmodernists do more than blur the lines between truth and untruth, they eliminate it entirely. How do postmodernists describe the difference between science and pseudoscience?  We (not only as skeptics, but human beings) want to know truth from untruth, but referring to everything as fiction, postmodernists are in a very poor position to talk about what’s true and what’s not true, and what is poorly substantiated by science and what is strongly supported by science. It seems like the postmodernists take a blurry-eyed look at science and say, “Some guy in a white lab coat says X. But, I’ve seen guys in white lab coats make major mistakes in the past. We can therefore, treat all pronouncements by men in white lab coats to be no better than stories told by shamans, dreams I had, etc.”  It not only ignores the fact that some pathways are better ways to attain information (and therefore, some knowledge is of higher quality and certainty than others), but throws up it’s hands in surrender at the idea of there even being a difference.  To postmodernists, they’re apparently all “just stories” told by different people.

In many ways, postmodernism would be a reasonable reaction to the science of 500 years ago - when “science” was often astrology, alchemy, and blood-letting.  Those are all “just stories” (i.e. they have no relation to reality, which is very very different than modern science).  Given the fact that postmodernism wants to treat everything as just stories, maybe they’re just really, really behind the times.  Maybe postmodernists should be called “premodernists”.

By calling science a fiction, we humbly acknowledge that the concepts we have are of human origin, and therefore cannot be treated as stable ontological structures.
First of all, it’s not a fiction.  To label it as such is to ignore the fact that all ideas have different levels of uncertainty attached to them.  Putting all ideas and claims at the same level, or treating them as if they are all at the same level is a kind of abuse. In my opinion, it is making postmodernists guilty of the very same thing they complain about in other people: it is using “controlling language”. Calling science a fiction is controlling language.

I can’t help but wonder if postmodernism was a jealous reaction by humanities professors to the difficulty in gaining solid information about the human condition, while the hard sciences made phenomenal progress in the 20th century.  By denying all concepts and ideas as mere fictions, they had effectively brought science down to their level - sort of a “you’re no better than me!” So, calling science a fiction is controlling language used by the humanities to subjugate and repress the respect science has earned. Postmodernism is a tool used by people in power to maintain the existing (humanities-centric) power-structure. It does this by degrading and insulting the “uppity” hard sciences.  Ironically, it does this all while claiming to “[explain] how people in power have been able to justify degrading others by virtue of controlling language”.

Second, you can say that science is always under revision without going to the extremes of postmodernism. Postmodernism is an extreme reaction, and claiming that everyone who recognizes the tentativeness of science is a “postmodernist” is capturing a lot of people who most definitely do not agree with postmodernism (I certainly don’t). It seems that your definition of science is “enlightenment era science” (from several hundred years ago). It is a caricature.

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Posted: 09 October 2008 06:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 45 ]
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I found this thread very interesting.  I was reading Lackey’s response and when he described post-modernists affection toward science because of its accessibility or democracy and I got to thinking.  What makes it accessible to everybody?  To answer my own question, its that we all have very similar brains which allow us to experience the world in a very similar way.  This along with the language we constructed allows us to share experiences and observations (while still knowing that one’s personal experiences can never be shared because we do not share a mind or the same personal history that has brought us to the point in time where we are sharing an experience) be it through a story being told or seeing a movie at the same time or star gazing what have you.

But it is the brain that allows us to share the experience.  And the brain is a part of a physical, dare I say, reality.  It is THIS physicalness that is Truth.  Without this physicalness than there would be no brain to construct the language to share our experiences.  It seems to me then that there is a necessary physical reality before there can be a human construct.  I will believe that science is the study of THIS reality.

Which came first, the brain or the human construct that is the brain?

I think I need a cigarette.

“We believe in nussing, Lebowski.”
-Karl Hungus

“I used to think that the brain was the most incredible part of my body until I realized, look who’s telling me this.”
-Emo Phillips

[ Edited: 09 October 2008 07:17 AM by gransha ]
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