Saturday, July 17, 2021

Thoughts on Roshomon

 My niece sent me the following TED clip about the Roshomon Effect and the apparent conclusion that we can't know anything for sure.  Talking in absolute terms I would agree (Roland's Flock) but outside of "absolute truths" I think that we are still able to determine true from false, fact from fiction and just because the evidence provided by the various observers is contradictory or possibly mistaken does not, at least for me, mean that all is lost and we have to swim in a perpetual sea of speculation where we can't know anything.


In the clip each observer is describing their experience of the unknown object in terms of known objects so, for instance, the observer that it touching the elephants side knows what the experience of touching a "wall" is and is drawing a comparison between that experience of a known object with the unknown object at hand. When using the word "wall" to communicate what her experience was she is relying on a shared knowledge of what a "wall" actually is and the assumption here is that what is meant by a "wall" is the same to everyone.  This is not necessarily the case but it can be resolved by getting all observers to experience for themselves what the one observer means when describing the experience of a "wall" is.  One could make the remark that this is the same as the conundrum of the elephant and leads to infinite regression but I don't think that this is the case because on the one hand one is describing the unknown (elephant) in terms of the known (wall) whereas on the other hand one is defining what is meant by the experience of touching a "wall". By having a shared experience of a "wall" between the observers each can understand the experience that the one observer had when describing the unknown object as a "wall" or a "spear".

Having a shared vocabulary of what each observer experienced is key because it enables us to use this to at least eliminate things that the unknown object can't be.  For instance, the unknown object can't be a "wall" or a "spear" because we know what a wall and a spear are, by shared common experience, and they are not the same so we can now make the move from the unknown object being either a "wall" or a "spear" to an understanding that it is neither and that what the two observers experienced was simultaneously "like" the experience of a "wall" and a "spear".

This now puts us in the position that we are searching for an object that fulfills all the observers experiences at the same time; a bit like a jigsaw puzzle with one piece missing and hundreds of candidates that may or may not fit and even if one does fit, it may still not be the correct piece because although some properties e.g. it fits in the physical space may be satisfied, the picture on the piece is inconsistent with the pieces surrounding it.

Going through possible options for the unknown object we would be able to eliminate many that don't fit any of the observers experience let alone all of them; for instance we can confidently eliminate "an ocean" or "a sun" and so on that don't have any of the properties that we are expecting the unknown object to have.

We are now left to work through objects that fit one or more of the observers experience but because they don't fit all of them, these too can be discarded as candidates. So for instance an option of a "rhino" may fit most but not all of the experiences the observers had so; close, but no cigar.

Having eliminated these as candidates we are left with objects which fulfill all of the experiences. In this example lets say, "elephant" fulfills all the requirements but is that an "african" or an "indian" elephant; we have no way of knowing from the observers experiences and more experiences would need to be taken into account to determine which species it happened to be.  So we would need to be satisfied with the provisional answer of "elephant" in the absence of any further observed experience.

Finally, the possibility exists that we can't find a known object that fulfills all the requirements. In this case we are left to ask if any of the observers were perhaps mistaken or, if that is not the case, have we simply incorrectly discarded a candidate in the process leading up to this point or are the experiences that of separate objects rather than a single object.  All of these are options that need to be assessed before entertaining the final possibility that this is an as yet undiscovered object having all of the properties experienced.  The previously unknown object now becomes known by common experience as something that has all of the properties experienced and even though we don't know all of the properties of the object we at least know some of them.  This illustrates, at least for me, the constant progression from the unknown to the known even while acknowledging that we don't, and can't, know everything about an object be it a "wall" or a "spear" or the unknown object at hand.

For me the Roshomon example illustrates how we should be wary of our conclusions rather than precluding us from arriving at conclusions at all.  In addition, by illustrating the provisional nature of our knowledge it also points to the repetitive nature of re-visiting previous conclusions as other evidence and experience becomes available.

It is for the above that I am of the opinion that we do not need to swim in a sea of speculatation and that knowledge can can stand on the firm ground of a growing continent even whilst acknowledging that that continent itself is in motion through a sea of speculation.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The myth of "The Truth"

 In conversation the concept of "The Truth" often comes up but when people use it they seem to mean that there is one "Truth" that everyone is searching for but that has not/has/never will be found depending on to whom one is talking.  I think that this view is misleading because true or false only exists in relation to a proposition and since there are many propositions the answers of which are either true or false or unclear if one doesn't want to be digital about answers; there can't be one over-arching answer to all propositions.

There is another sense in which people seem to use "The Truth" such as when searching for the absolute answer to a particular question.  As discussed previously in Roland's Flock even if an absolute answer to a proposition does exist and we even happen know what that answer is we are still left in the position that there is no way for us to know that we know the absolute answer.  Bottom line is that even if there are absolute answers to propositions,  something that I happen to believe to be true, we can't know that we have them even when we do have them so from our limited point view, all answers have to or at least should be regarded as "provisional" rather then "absolute".

Hence, I think, the concept of "The Truth" as the one absolute answer to everything is a myth unless, of course, that answer is "42".

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Believe me, I'm an Expert!

In the definitions that follow I have picked the definitions from the Merriam-Webster that most closely describe the sense in which I understand and use them in the discussion that follows.  In addition, wherever I refer to knowledge in the discourse I am referring to "provisional" rather than "absolute" knowledge which leaves open the possibility that what we as individuals or collectives take to be knowledge may, in fact, be incorrect and not be knowledge at all let alone "absolute" knowledge.  I have discussed the topic of "absolute" knowledge in the post and why, even if it does exist, we are unable to know whether any given proposition is "absolute".  It may be, but we can't be absolutely certain of it which leads to my use of "provisional" knowledge as knowledge that we think or believe to be true but that could ultimately turn out not to be.

Intuition - "the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference"
Imagination - "the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality"
Reason - " a sufficient ground of explanation or of logical defense"
Experience - "the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation"

Having now put these four up in opposition to each other, I am of the opinion that these four basic avenues of arriving at knowledge are not as independent as one may think and, I think, that this makes sense since we as human beings are intuitive AND imaginative AND have the power of reason AND we experience so I think that it is hardly a surprise that each can inform or affect the others.  They are all useful for arriving at knowledge but all of them can be mistaken or malfunction so the the question is, given our not so trustworthy senses, how do we arrive at knowledge.  My view is that one can use any of them but the more support one gets from each mechanism, the more trustworthy the knowledge.

Intuition, although not infallible, is a heuristic for knowledge, a sort of fuzzy assessment of imagination, experience or reason where one "just feels" like something is right or wrong before one can consciously reason or experience whether a proposition is correct or not. For instance is someone was to tell me that 9*Pi is 18 I instinctively know that that just sounds incorrect before I can by reason by using a calculator to calculate the answer and then compare with 18.

Imagination at first seems like a poor avenue to knowledge but I like to think that since it allows us to imagine things that have no basis in reality as well as being able to imagine things that turn out to be real, imagination enables us to be able to explore beyond our physical capabilitites.  Some of that exploration can turn out to be true and can then be regarded as knowledge even though the route that we used started with the imagination.

The above faculties seem to be how we, as human beings, arrive at provisional knowledge on a subjective personal level meaning that it is our own intuition, imagination, reason or experience that we count as knowledge.  The question is whether it is possible to generalise our personal subjective knowledge to being considered to be objective knowledge.  This is where I think that the disciplines of Philosopy and Science come in; they enable us to assess our personal subjective knowledge as to whether it can make the leap to being acknowledged by others as objective knowledge independent of one's self.  So I see Philosophy and Science as a sort of winnowing process whereby personal subjective intuition, imagination, reason and experiences are compared and justified against others' intuition, imagination, reason and experience with the goal of determining what knowledge is real or imaginary, true as opposed to false as well as the boundaries within which the knowledge is valid and beyond which the knowledge is invalid.

Philosophy  - "a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means" which I take to mean that Philosphy is "reason" based rather than experience or intuition based.
Science - "knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method" which I take to mean knowledge gained as a result of both evidence and reason.

There is a further fourth avenue by which we gain knowledge which is by Authority of another person or collective simply because we believe, for our own reasons, that particular person or collective.  Authority is nothing more than believing someone or some collective's account of their Intuition, Imagination, Reason or Experience and as such it would always start out as being, at best, second hand knowledge.  This may become first hand knowledge if one took the time to follow chains of reasoning and personally experienced the actual evidence behind the purported knowledge but that isn't what most of us are capable of or have the time to do.  We are more likely to appeal to "Hume said ...", "The Koran says ..." or "Science says ..." but just because an appeal to Authority is made it does or should not automatically discount the validity of the Authority's knowledge.  Knowledge should be able to stand independently of the Authority providing it.

Authority - "the source from which the citation is drawn" or "an individual cited or appealed to as an expert"

I am of the opinion that, as much as we may not like it, Authority is our primary mechanisms for gaining knowledge and this, I think, is a good thing.  Appeals to Authority is a shortcut to a wealth of knowledge that we ourselves would not have access to were it not for our ability to believe another person or collective's account of their knowledge.  This is not to say that we should believe any people or collective's account of their knowledge just because they have made it available to us to consume.  When our Intuition, Imagination, Reason and Experience are aligned with the received knowledge we readily accept it which, of course, leads some to the issue of only exposing one's self to knowledge from others that one already accepts.  Another issues comes in when received knowledge isn't aligned with our Intuition, Imagination, Reason and Experience and then one starts to wonder whether we ourselves may be mistaken or whether the received knowledge is mistaken.  This, for me, is the point at which we individually should apply the tools of Philosophy and/or Science to be able to determine for ourselves whether the knowledge received from an Authority is to be believed or not.

Of the seven avenues to knowledge I have listed all share at least one property, that of not being infallible and therefore open to revision as better or more accurate knowledge comes along and this is where I think these avenues differ from say, religion, as a avenue to knowledge.  Religions may interpet their foundational texts differently through the ages but they aren't in the habit of re-writing sections of them as their contents become outdated or are found to be factually incorrect or internally contradictory.

P.S In case anyone is in any doubt, the title is very much tongue in cheek!

Saturday, February 06, 2021

So Ms. Atheist, "where is your evidence for the non-existence of god"

 This post comes out of a discussion on OGaP, a whatsapp discussion group, where, fairly regularly, the Theists on the group whom I think are exclusively Christians throw out the challenge to "present the evidence for the non-existence of god".  I think that this is a fairly understandable riposte to the oft repeated challenge of "where is the evidence for the existence of god" from the Atheist position to the theistic position.  It does make sense to me that if one advertises that that one bases one's justified beliefs on evidence and reason then one should not draw a conclusion in the absence of evidence and reason.

I have a few comments on the discussion that unfolded but I think that, in the end, it comes down to what a 'lack of evidence' can say about 'something's' existence. My contention and what I hope to show is that to establish existence one requires evidence but that it does not follow that a lack of evidence leads to a conclusion that 'something' does not exist nor that it does exist.  A lack of evidence actually say nothing about whether 'something' does or does not exist.

  • Example 1 : If 'something' is only the product of one's imagination i.e. it really doesn't exist; the lack of evidence of 'something's existence is due to it really not existing.
  • Exampel 2 : If 'something' is not the product of one's imagination i.e. it really does exist but no evidence of it's existence is available/accessible; the lack of evidence of 'something's existence is not due to it not existing but due to the unavailability/accessibility of any evidence of it's existence.

If one is trying to work out if something really does exist without any evidence there is no way to work out whether, as in example 1, it doesn't exist or, as in example 2, it does exist based on what one has which is a lack of evidence.  See Roland's Razor for reference. 

I am of the opinion that evidence and existence are one and the same thing like two sides of a coin.  One can only have evidence of existence if something really does exist and if something really does exist, there will be evidence. It may not be accessible or available but it does exist. So having evidence one can conclude existence but having a lack of evidence one can't conclude anything.  Seeing evidence and existence as equivalent turns the question "present the evidence for the non-existence of god" into a logical contradiction whereas it does not do the same for "where is the evidence for the existence of god".

My second point is that I don't understand how anyone, Theist or Atheist alike, can draw a conclusion of non-existence of supernatural beings based on the lack of evidence for their existence.  I can see how the Atheist position is more consistent in that all supernatural beings are treated the same way whereas the Theist position is to treat all supernatural beings the same way with the exception of their chosen set in which case the lack of evidence now draws a different conclusion i.e that the supernatural entity does exist.

If I was a Theist, I would counter the above by asserting that my chosen set of spiritual beings do exist because I can see the evidence of their existence.  However, arguing as an Atheist, I would say that if that same set of evidence is used by other people to support different sets of spiritual beings that, at least for me, brings into question whether that evidence really is evidence capable of supporting the existence of any spiritual being. Is that evidence, actually evidence at all?

Some Atheists attempt to show evidence of the non-existence of god(s) but it seems to me that what they are showing, or trying to show, is that a "good god(s)" or a "just god(s)" or, pick another attribute that god(s) are supposed to have, doesn't exist by showing that the attribute or combination of attributes are inconsistent with there being god(s).  This may show that god(s) with those particular attribute or set of attributes don't exist but not that god(s) without those attributes don't exist.  The evidence presented relates to the attributes and not to the god(s) themselves.

So to conclude, all the above is not to say that Theists shouldn't believe in their chosen set of spiritual beings nor that Atheists shouldn't lack belief in their chosen set of spiritual beings which is generally all of them. What I am saying is that when 'belief ' is confused with 'justified belief' or is  taken to mean 'justified belief' then the onus is on the one making the assertion to back the assertion up with evidence, logic and reason.

For an entertaining list of supernatural entities, see 


Sunday, January 31, 2021

 "As John Stuart Mill explained, when a doctrine has been accepted so widely that the people have generally inherited, rather than adopted it, it begins an inevitable decline. Converts bring with them a zeal, but also an intimate understanding of the merits and pitfalls of both the ideology they left behind and that which they have adopted. Their beliefs were formed actively, by wrestling with objections and rebuttals. Those who have inherited the values that shape their lives may never have done this work, and thus may be far more susceptible to the simplest persuasion and emotional appeals."

Saturday, January 16, 2021

On Consciousness

I found the following link on Complexity Theory particularly interesting and enlightening :

One of the statements in the series of lectures is that Consciousness is an emergent property of complexity which, in our case, I take to be the biological complexity of our brains.

In spite of our inability to agree on a definition of consciousness; not to mention our lack of trust in others' answers, it still seems that we know that we are individually conscious.  We may suspect that others are also conscious given that we can ask them whether they are but what we don't know is whether we experience this as an individual or if we are all partaking in a collective consciousness (dualism) which exists independently of our physical form. Furthermore when looking at other species we don't have the luxury of being able to ask them so we try to infer from their behavior whether they are conscious or not.

Thinking of consciousness as being an emergent property of complexity takes it one step away from us as individuals and enables us to think in terms of different species having different levels of consciousness.  So consciousness may not be the binary question that I have thought it to be and by, theoretically at least, being able to measure the biological complexity of a brain, we may be able to determine how conscious a particular species is when full grown.

Not only do we have this problem inter-species but even within a species; as the organism develops from inception to adult at which point does the organism become conscious?  Maybe it is something like a gradual development from not having consciousness at all at inception to knowing that one is conscious when an adult.  Could this be different for different species where some species never attain the complexity required to be conscious whereas others are dimly conscious while others, ourselves included, attain self-awareness that we are conscious?

Does emergence hint at some kind of dualism in that, although dependent on the physical, consciousness exists in a sense independent of the physical?  I would argue that, no, the concept of emergence shows that it is possible for properties that are immaterial to arise from the material and this makes the rationale for dualism difficult to support.

If it turns out that consciousness is an emergent property of material complexity then it would seem that the immaterial would not be capable of being considered to be consciousness in the same way that we consider ourselves to be. (PK)

Lastly, and again, if consciousness is an emergent property of complexity then in the world of AI it would seem that it would be plausible for something inorganic to attain consciousness.  Not only would it be conscious in a way that is fundamentally different to us, we would be able to determine the level of consciousness beyond simply having to ask the AI entity whether it is conscious or not and simply having to believe the answer.

Thanks to Pauk Kotschy for his comments on my article and for sharing the following Scientific American article on much the same topic.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Propositional Relationships

I have been doing some thinking about how we know and what we know especially given my last post regarding "Roland's Flock" and the ongoing debate about "Show me the evidence" in various groups I am in.

Firstly, I would like to view the belief/knowledge divide as a relationship that individuals have with a proposition rather than a property of the proposition itself. Further I would also like to define knowledge as "Justified belief" just so that it can be distinguished from belief without getting into what counts as justification and finally, I would also like to leave the True/False debate alone for a little bit because I think that it is property of the proposition rather then part of the relationship that an individual has with that proposition.

Taking the following statements representing peoples' positions on a proposition which in this case is "Odin exists" : 

  • Person A has a belief that "Odin exists"
  • Person B has no belief that "Odin exists"
  • Person C has knowledge that "Odin exists"
  • Person D has no knowledge that "Odin exists"

Justification, to my mind, may take many forms. It may be evidence, revelation, intuition, reason, logic or anything else that may be regarded as persuasive to the individual noting that what may be persuasive to one individual may not be to another.

Working through some use cases involving the relationship of an individual to a proposition : 

  • Some justification of a proposition is presented to an individual and the individual, after assessing the justification, decides that, for her, the justification is not persuasive so her relationship to the proposition can be categorized as D above. Having decided that it isn't persuasive there is a second step that she undertakes which is to decide whether in the absence of persuasive justification she is going to take the position of person A or that of person B above as her position relative to the proposition. She may choose A in which case she has a belief in the proposition even while acknowledging that the justification that she has isn't persuasive, even to her. Alternatively she may choose to take Person B's position and since the justification available has been found unpersuasive, she simply has no belief in the proposition. 
  • Some justification of a proposition is presented to an individual and the individual, after assessing the justification, decides that, for her, the justification is persuasive so her relationship to the proposition can be categorized as C above. Having decided that it is persuasive there is no second step; by finding the justification persuasive she automatically takes on the stance of Person A in addition to keeping the stance of Person C given that knowledge is defined as "Justified belief".
  • A proposition is presented to an individual without any justification of that proposition. In this case, since there is no justification (evidence, revelation, intuition, reason, logic or anything else), she may choose from Person A's or Person B's position and given the absence of any justification it is simply a choice that she makes as an individual.

Working through some positions and their relationships.

  • Position A is mutually exclusive with Position B; one can't hold both A & B at the same time.
  • Position C is mutually exclusive with Position D; one can't hold both C & D at the same time.
  • Position A may be held at the same time as Position C, Position D or neither Position C nor D.
  • Position B may be held at the same time as Position D or without Position D.
  • Position C implies holding Position A as well.
  • Position D implies holding either Position A or Position B.

When is it valid to challenge anothers' perspective : 

  • Asking an individual holding Position A to justify their belief only makes sense if the individual holds Position C as well. If the individual doesn't hold Position C but holds either Position D or neither Position C nor Position D, the question seems a little moot.
  • Asking an individual holding Position B to justify their no belief only makes sense if the individual holds Position D as well. If the individual doesn't hold Position D as well, the question seems a little moot.
  • Asking an individual holding Position C to justify their belief is a reasonable question to ask.
  • Asking an individual holding Position D to justify their no belief is a reasonable question to ask.

Some might point out that my definition of knowledge as "Justified belief" reduces knowledge to personal interpretation i.e. that knowledge is relative to the person holding that knowledge.  This is indeed the case but I draw a distinction between knowledge as held by an individual with a single perspective and Knowledge as seen from an infinity of perspectives.  Knowledge (absolute) with respect to a proposition can be identical to knowledge (personal) but because an infinity of perspectives isn't available to us; we have no way of knowing if one's own knowledge is in reality Knowledge.  This leads directly to the seemingly obvious position that knowledge (personal) can be incorrect.