What Do You Believe That You Cannot Prove?

I wrote this for John Brockman’s 2005 Edge Question. Can’t see
any good reason not to blog it as well.


I believe that nature is understandable, that scientific inquiry is
the sharpest tool and the noblest endeavor of the human mind, and that
any “final answers” we ever get will come from it rather than from
mysticism, religion, or any other competing account of the universe.
I believe these things without being able to prove them despite — or
perhaps because of — the fact that I am a mystic myself.

Science may be the noblest endeavor of the human mind, but I believe
(though I cannot prove) that the most crippling and dangerous kind of
ignorance in the modern West is ignorance of economics, the way
markets work, and the ways non-market allocation mechanisms are doomed
to fail. Such economic ignorance is toxic, because it leads to insane
politics and the empowerment of those whose rhetoric is altruist but
whose true agenda is coercive control.

I believe that the most important moment in the history of philosophy
was when Charles Sanders Peirce defined “truth” as “predictive power”
and made it possible to talk about confirmation of hypotheses in a
non-circular way.

I believe the most important moment in the foreseeable future of
philosophy will come when we realize that mad old Nazi bastard
Heidegger had it right when he said that we are thrown into the world
and must cope, and that theory-building consists of rearranging our
toolkit for coping. I believe the biggest blind spot in analytical
philosophy is its refusal to grapple with Heidegger’s one big insight,
but that evolutionary biology coupled with Peirce offers us a way to
stop being blind. I beleve that when the insights of what is now
called “evolutionary psychology” are truly absorbed by philosophers,
many of the supposedly intractable problems of philosophy will vanish.

I believe, but don’t know how to prove, a much stronger version of the
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis than is currently fashionable. That is, I
believe the way humans think is shaped in important ways by the
linguistic categories they have available; thinking outside those
categories is possible but more difficult, has higher friction costs.
Accordingly, I believe that some derivation of Alfred Korzybski’s
discipline of General Semantics will eventually emerge as an essential
tool of the first mature human civilizations.

I believe, but don’t know how to prove, that Julian Jaynes was on to
something very important when he wrote about the origin of
consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind.

I judge that that “dark matter” is no better than phlogiston as an
explanatory device, and therefore believe without being able to prove
it that there is something very deeply wrong with the standard model
of cosmology.

I believe, but cannot prove, that the “knowledge interpretation” of
quantum mechanics is pernicious nonsense, and that physical theorists
will essentially develop some testable form of nonlocal realism.

I believe, but cannot prove, that global “AIDS” is a whole cluster of
unrelated diseases all of which have been swept under a single rug for
essentially political reasons, and that the identification of HIV as
the sole pathogen is likely to go down as one of the most colossal
blunders in the history of medicine.

Much of the West’s intelligentsia is persistently in love with
anything anti-Western (and especially anti-American), an infatuation
that has given a great deal of aid and comfort to tyrants and terrorists
in the post-9/11 world. Besides these obvious political consequences,
the phenomenon Julian Benda famously called le trahison des
clercs
has laid waste to large swathes of the soft sciences
through ideologies like deconstructionism, cultural relativism, and
postmodernism.

I believe, but cannot prove, that le trahison des clercs is
not a natural development of Western thought but a creation of
deliberate propaganda, directly traceable to the successes of Nazi and
Stalinist attempts to manipulate the climate of opinion in the early
and mid-20th century. Consequently I believe that one of the most
difficult and necessary tasks before us in the next half century will
be to banish the influence of totalitarian nihilism from science in
particular and our culture in general.

I know how to prove, or at least convincingly demonstrate, that
open-source software development produces better results than
secrecy and proprietary control. I believe that the same advantage
applies to any other form of engineering or applied science in which
the limiting factor of production is skilled human attention, but I
don’t know how to prove that general principle.

58 thoughts on “What Do You Believe That You Cannot Prove?

  1. Well, I am definitely going to have to look into certain of the philosophical concepts you mention, many of which I was unfamiliar with.

    However, I found Jaynes book to be problematically black and white.

    Nice point on Dark matter, it does have many of Phlogiston’s qualities.

    I think your theory on AIDS is absurd. I, at least, am unaware of the exitence of a single person who has AIDS, but lacks HIV. Serge Lang wrote most of my upper division math books, and used to hang out with my aunt, but he, and Thomas Mbeki, are simply not medical doctors. The politics you suggest seems, to me, to be outrageous.

    And as far the West’s intelligentsia goes, back in the 50s, when we had no idea who the government was overthrowing, the academics of America were LINING UP to help the government defeat Soviet totalitarianism. This simply ended as Viet Nam escalated, and the government has never re-earned the trust of the professors.

  2. Eric,

    Fascinating essay. I’ve learned a fair bit through your blog, especially in the pithy, throw-away observations.

    Can you suggest a reading list that exposits your beliefs? If you care to put up Amazon links, I will purchase through you.

    Thanks in advance.

  3. I agree. A reading list would be great, but meanwhile, I’ll peruse Google. After all, spoon feeding knowlege only takes you so far.

    I believe you could prove the open source approach works with other forms of engineering by relating technological accomplishments in societies and/or work groups with no sharing of knowlege. Eskimos and Polynesian cultures (without books) come to mind.

    More and more, I’m of the opinion that the entire patent system is a cancer. Innovation will be encouraged by laziness and people trying to make a buck. I don’t think patents were necessary, or would have even been helpful throughout most of human history. Copyrights are also problematic. They would have lost us Shakespeare, for starters.

  4. It’s impossible to have AIDS without being HIV positive because the clinical definition of AIDS presupposes HIV infection as a prerequisite. In other words, if you are HIV negative but present all the other diagnostic criteria for AIDS, you will not and cannot be diagnosed with AIDS.

    It is therefore meaningless to say that one is “unaware of the exitence of a single person who has AIDS, but lacks HIV”.

  5. The CRC fudges the HIV-positive issue by creating a category it calls ARC — “AIDS-Related Complex”, for people who have the AIDS marker diseases but aren’t HIV positive. They then lump ARC reports into what they release as AIDS statistics.

  6. You make a pretty clear distinction between belief and proof. Until your first paragraph on “le trahison” and its alleged consequences, which you state as fact. Did you have trouble expressing this part when you tried to say it in a more Korzybskian way? Or did you just not try?

  7. I was thinking of thanking you for the AIDS/ARC explanation, then I found out the government defines ARC differently than you do. Not that the government is a “reliable source,” but anyway.

    I’m trying to find anything with the search “AIDS ARC HIV” that says what you say, but am unable.

    Found a great quote, though, from Melville’s Billy Budd, which also reminds me of Lang’s efforts to apply mathematical certainty, to the medical world where proofs by contradiction are basically impossible.

    “Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colours, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity. In pronounced cases there is no question about them. But in some supposed cases, in various degrees supposedly less pronounced, to draw the exact line of demarcation few will undertake tho’ for a fee some professional experts will. There is nothing nameable but that some men will undertake to do it for pay.”

  8. Interesting stuff here. I’d be very grateful for further posts explaining the things you mention, particularly:

    * Charles Sanders Peirce
    * Heidegger and evolutionary psycology
    * General Semantics

    Oh brother… I was about to list every single thing you mention :)

  9. I thought ARC was HIV positive and having a somewhat compromised immune system with some of the less serious related infections. And this is the government definition according to the web page Josh linked.

  10. Looks like the definition of ARC has changed in recent years. Not surprising; the CDC has changed its statistical categories several times since 1993.

  11. You raise some very interesting points. While my religious beliefs shape my outlook to be different than yours, I still enjoy seeing how others think. Science and culture are now commonly opposing forces, which is very unfortunate. Like yourself, I am convinced of things which I am incapable of proving – but I suppose we all are, in some way.

  12. > I know how to prove, or at least convincingly demonstrate, that open-source software development
    > produces better results than secrecy and proprietary control

    Well, I would say that depends on your definition of better results. What is it? Some metrics of better might include:

    1. Optimize profits.
    2. Optimize income of developers.
    3. Increase productivity (less effort = more functionality, loosely defined to include ease of use, lack of bugs, etc.)

    As you might guess, I’m rather jaded on this idea. And I did read “The cathedral and the bazaar,” and do agree with many of the tenets, having been on the receiving end of corporate non-engineers shoving the IBM waterfall model of software development down my throat on numerous occasions.

    However, I also believe that open source model leads to exactly the totalitarian model you so vehemiantly protest, with “gatekeepers” and the like promoting their own power agendas. And obviously if you can convince a bunch of people to do stuff for free, or do it with taxpayers dollars, then it had better be cheaper for the customer.

  13. hanzie: Unfortunately, the patent and copyright systems are so thoroughly embedded in our legal system that we’re going to be stuck with them for the life of the nation. It’d take a Constitutional amendment to get rid of them, and that’s a complete non-starter.

  14. David: At a guess, I’d say Neal is thinking of people like Linus, Guido van Rossum, Larry Wall, etc. — the founders of the large open source projects, and the ones that often have final say over what ends up going into the “official” codebases.

    I’ll forget for the moment the fact that they founded the projects and (IMO anyway) should therefore have final say over what goes into them. Instead, I’ll say that I think the way most open source projects’ licenses (and indeed, any license conforming to the OSD) allow forking is being ignored. If you think the project leader is too totalitarian for you, then you can always fork the project and start your own version. Whether he actually stifles a lot of useful contributions (or rather merely doesn’t agree with you) will be decided by the rest of the community — if your fork dies due to lack of interest, you may have been wrong.

    (It may also be that inertial effects kept the majority of users using the original project. You must therefore have two things: a reason for forking that’s “serious” enough to overcome the inertia that co-developers and users have built up, and some kind of evidence (or at least credible claim) that your version will be better. One fork that I think achieved this recently is X.org — I think the fork scratched an itch that a lot of people had. They wanted an X server that goes through faster development and more release cycles, and they seem to have gotten it. That’s the kind of thing you need to do if you’re going to “successfully” fork a project, IMO.)

  15. What’s interesting about forks is how few projects stay forked. I made a list once, and by scraping the bottom of the barrel I only got a dozen or so. Either the original dies (as in gcc and X) or the fork dies (most cases, I suspect).

  16. There is a spelling mistake in your text: we say “la trahison” in french (“trahison” is a feminine word).

  17. Kind of weird. Does the stuff one believe in but can’t prove, hold any value? May be it does, but if one also believes that someday, he will be able to prove it.

    Though your first believe would be hard to prove. The quest for ‘final answer’ can be managed in a variety of ways. Scientific inquiry is one of them. So is religion and mysticism.

  18. “I believe that the most important moment in the history of philosophy was when Charles Sanders Peirce defined “truth” as “predictive power” and made it possible to talk about confirmation of hypotheses in a non-circular way.”
    Two thumbs up!
    Although, more reasonably, it would be the moment truth and the scientific method came about- Peirce’s contribution was to sew up all the loose ends- he didn’t make the bulk of the scarf to begin wit.

  19. wrt Gatekeepers
    I’ll forget for the moment the fact that they founded the projects and (IMO anyway) should therefore have final say over what goes into them.

    Right, and this is one place from which they get their power, group thoughts such as these. Due to forces of gravity on the project, and supporters, the dictator can keep dictating so long as he doesn’t too egregiously wield his power.

    Really, I don’t see this as much different from any other dictatorship, just forming around a different economy.

  20. Dictators don’t allow their subjects to opt out of being dictated to. Whereas any open-source “dictator” will have to forego either dictatorial behavior or else the “open source” label and the community of developers that comes with it.

    You _can_ fork a project if you feel there’s no other acceptable choice. And even where there’s a widespread and arguably rational belief that you’re a jerk who forked for bad reasons even though acceptable non-forking choices were available, your fork can still survive and come to coexist peacefully with its parent.

    Not only can you leave any time you get unhappy with the regime (in itself sufficient to debunk the “dictatorship” notion), you get to take the crown jewels with you.

  21. Dictators don’t allow their subjects to opt out of being dictated to. Whereas any open-source “dictator” will have to forego either dictatorial behavior or else the “open source” label and the community of developers that comes with it.

    Millions also left Iraq to flee Saddam Hussein. Dictators also run the risk of being deposed. I mean,why didn’t Saddam Hussein cave in to US demands before the recent war? Probably because he knew he could not and still maintain power.

    Anyway, I think you are missing the point. It’s a different currency, is all, one played out with intellect and geek social rules. At base controlling a large project gives huge power, and I believe it has many analogues to big corporations, just like I believe big corporations (or even small ones) have much in common with dictatorial regimes.

  22. bi, I’d consider that questionable for a number of reasons, starting with vagueness: does copyright law count as “market”? (How much copyright law, and of what sort?) Now, I tend to place the burden of proof on advocates of government force, because it involves threatening to kill people. But that means I ask the question in each specific case. (In the long term, I want to do away with government force, and I think Heinlein proposes a fine starting point in For Us, the Living.)

    I don’t know if I see the relevance of the link. I do agree with it on some points, but for example I would say ‘we can’t prove any moral claim objectively.’ (By objective I mean intersubjective.)

  23. Eric, I’d like to talk with you some time about some of those things you believe but cannot prove; maybe some time with Nancy and/or Pete De Blank. With respect to Jaynes and Korzybski, I would like to know how you interpret their theories and how far you think they should be taken. I have speculated on the memetic origin of the “breakdown of the bicameral mind”, though I think some new conceptual framework may be useful, bearing the relationship to memes that fire bears to living things.
    I am sympathetic to your view on HIV, but would like to discuss arguments for and against it at some length. If true, it essentially amounts to the assertion that the bio-medical community is nearly as corrupted by politics as the sociological community. If that is true, and I have other reasons to suspect that it is, it has significant connotations respecting the organizational structure of science.
    I believe and think that I could convince you that the “trajison des clercs” is actually an outgrowth of deep flaws in the western philosophical outlook, though they need not be fatal flaws. Rather, philosophers and German academics dating from a time FAR prior to Nazism and Marxism used these flaws as an anti-liberal weapon for political reasons. The actual history of the conflict is very interesting. I think that science is the finest endeavor of the Human mind, but transhuman minds may soon develop frames which surpass it, preserving its strengths while re-founding it on firmer foundations, as early 20th century philosophers tried to do with some success. Rebuilding science with human minds would be an endeavor that would take many centuries even if we are fundamentally capable of it, while building transhuman minds is relatively simple.
    I believe, though I can’t prove it, that Sturgeon’s law is a vast understatement with respect to professional endeavor in fields where success cannot be expected to be consistant.

  24. “I believe, but cannot prove, that le trahison des clercs is not a natural development of Western thought but a creation of deliberate propaganda, directly traceable to the successes of Nazi and Stalinist attempts to manipulate the climate of opinion in the early and mid-20th century.”

    I take a more pessimistic view.

    “… the constant stirring up of guilt about the Western past – which is the dominant theme of the modern humanities – is really a kind of flight from the present, a way of proving your morality without the trouble of adopting it.”

    http://www.amconmag.com/01_27_03/review.html

    I think the reviewer identifies an obvious motive there. And I think gradual change in the way people think has simply opened up that emotional possibility, and there are those who don’t mind grabbing it.

  25. neal: you must be seriously deluded to think that escaping from an OSS project is the same as escaping from Iraq or North Korea. When one escapes from Iraq, it’s way tough enough to get past the border controls; and even if that succeeds, one still has to find a country willing to adopt him.

    Omar: right on. The term “market” is so vague that, if something doesn’t work right, capitalist proponents can simply say that it’s not a “true” “market”. That’s even worse than phlogiston.

    Michael Vassar: what “organizational structure of science”? Science is just the scientific method. If it’s not the scientific method, it’s not science (even if it’s done by the so-called biomedical community). If the result of an experiment is ambiguous, the way to clear up the ambiguity is to do more experiments.

    Mad Mike: funny how Roger Scruton paints “the modern humanities” with a broad brushstroke as if all humanities subjects — history, geography, sociology, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, … — all behave the same way.

  26. The Popper/Kuhn debate is basically an example of talking past one-another. Popper was describing the scientific method, e.g. the set of norms that set up a very weak tendency for science and not other institutions to produce an approximation of Bayesian output. Kuhn was describing the much less interesting fact that these are only very weak tendencies, and that for the most part, science is “what scientists do” which is a not very extrordinary subset of “what wealthy educated humans do”.
    The scientific method is not very well defined, and most practicing scientists, even successful ones, don’t think that it is at all easy to elucidate what traits identify potentially useful work as actual science before the fact.

  27. “building transhuman minds is relatively simple”

    What we need is open-source transhuman minds. Eric’s clearly the man to handle (don’t) the sex module. I’ve written a language engine myself, but unfortunately the margin is too small to contain it.

  28. Dunno why I’m bothering as this thread is probably dead as the proverbial, but anyway – I think dark matter is actually the cosmologists’ own way of saying there’s something fairly amiss with the standard model – hey, 95% of the universe is missing! Oops. Korzybski, well, I’ve read *some* of Science And Sanity and while it would be cruel to say I found little sign of either…yes, there are philosophical problems with the word “is”, as Bill Clinton tried to explain, but most linguists I’ve come across reckon people may well be limited by their cultures from thinking certain types of thoughts, their language will adapt if given the chance.

    Anti-Americanism, where to begin…

  29. Dark matter and the Standard Model – recent observations lend more support for the SM (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4161323.stm). I also don’t think it’s comparable to Phlogiston – which was an untestable, unverifiable explanation for something that wasn’t understood, and was claimed as the actual solution. Dark matter / energy may not be understood, but no-one’s claiming they’re the final answer and, more importantly, the proposed solutions can be verified (or at least tested).

    On the other hand, I’m with Feynman whereby science should describe the universe as it is, not as we want it to be, or how we think it should be. I suspect most people’s problem with dark matter / energy is that it doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ that such a huge amount of the universe plays such a limited role (from our point of view), and makes the rest of the universe a pretty small part of the whole; I think most people will continue to dislike this, and find it ‘wrong’ and ‘uncomfortable’, even if an explanation is found (assuming the dark matter / energy doesn’t in fact prove to be ‘non-dark’, for lack of a better term, after all). Quantum entanglement (and more particularly the theoretical possibility of using it for teleportation) tends to have a similar effect (then again, a lot of people might file much of QM itself in that general area!)

    As for the Anti-Americanism bit (and I realise ESR just couldn’t resist adding in his political views), I hear this used more and more often now whenever someone criticises the actions of the US government, or people in the administration, but that appears an extension of Bush’s black-or-white world view (“you’re either with us or against us”). Criticism of the administration is not the same as criticism of the USA.

    Open Source, well, I think you’ve proved it to those already reading from the same hymn book, but I take it that doesn’t include the spam comment blocking you have on your site? (See an earlier blog entry if you don’t get this one) Oh, and no-one mention the open-sourcing of Netscape – what sort of success is it when you end up re-building the entire damn thing?

    I believe, but cannot prove, that ESR has an inflated sense of his own self importance and abilities with a belief of almost always being right and those who disagree with him wrong, who uses rhetoric and demagoguery to continue this, whilst being reinforced by a legion of fan-boys commenting how great and insightful his posts are.

    I believe, but cannot prove, that Al Qaeda are not some vast, world-wide terror organisation with sleeper cells, teams, etc. capable of bringing down civilisation as we know it, but a small, isolated group with limited abilities; in addition, their nature, power and and threat has been greatly exaggerated and distorted by the US and British governments to keep the general population in control through irrational fear. (Think about this before hitting reply! Note that I’m not saying Al Qaeda isn’t a threat, but that they certainly aren’t about to carve an empire out of the West or end our way of life. Irrational fear – remember that ~40,000 US citizens die from automobile accidents every year; no-one suggests not leaving the house do they)

  30. Oh, and no-one mention the open-sourcing of Netscape – what sort of success is it when you end up re-building the entire damn thing?

    It’s more evidence that when software isn’t open-source, it’s more likely to be crap…

  31. I’m curious, why Peirce’s definition of truth over Tarski’s, since the latter keeps truth as a property of formulas and hence distinguises between Apollo joyriding through the sky and the more plausable explanation from astronomy. Further, what predictive power does, say, modus tollens have? If one wants an epistemology without the notion of absolute truth, Quine’s seems far more well-formulated.

  32. Kind of weird. Does the stuff one believe in but can’t prove, hold any value? May be it does, but if one also believes that someday, he will be able to prove it.

    Missed that the first time. Since no one else tackled it: One can only prove things within or about formal systems. Logic, algebra, graph theory, and so on. There are no proofs in science, or anything else falling outside of mathematics and closely related fields because we don’t know all the rules and can’t be certian about the rules we think we know (because certianty requires a proof, and we can’t write a proof without knowing the rules). This is why logicians have a reputation for being slightly paranoid.

  33. Bryan: then how does one explain all the zillions of dead projects on SourceForge? Really, I’m all for open source, but let’s build our advocacy on fact rather than bull.

    b.: well, you can still falsify things with science, and falsification is also a kind of proof, no?

  34. The “zillions” of dead projects are what happens when developers lose interest, or net access, or whatever, and nobody else cares enough about the projects to maintain them anymore. It’s not necessarily because they’re crap (even though a good number of them probably are — they were abandoned early, before they got enough people working on them). It’s because nobody really cares about them all that much — at least, not enough to continue putting work into maintaining them.

  35. Bryan: yeah, and if a project’s still skeletal and buggy after several decades and it’s still being developed, it obviously isn’t yet a failed project, and one day it’ll become a roaring success. (Or the developers will lose interest, whichever come first. Either way, a project can’t fail.)

    Well, I can use the exact same reasoning to justify any software development method whatsoever, including closed-source methods.

    It’s time to see the CatB essay as what it is: a pile of untestable, unfalsifiable bullcrap. Welcome to the Middle Ages.

  36. Oh, and no-one mention the open-sourcing of Netscape – what sort of success is it when you end up re-building the entire damn thing?

    It’s more evidence that when software isn’t open-source, it’s more likely to be crap…

    It’s nothing of the sort – it’s evidence that for one project it was decided a re-build was the best way forward. Whilst in this case the software was “crap”, it does not necessarily follow that this is always the case, nor does one project make a generalisation.

    Besides, this misses the whole point – the open-sourcing of Communicator by Netscape (and its metamorphasis into Mozilla) is often put forward as a shining example of open source and yet this is not the case – as pretty much all the source code was scrapped and re-written, the open-sourcing need not have actually happened!

    It’s also not at all clear how much Mozilla can be regarded a success – on the one hand, they eventually produced a decent product, as well as BugZilla, and other side-projects, all through open-source. Yet on the other there are signs of feature-creep and poor management, and not least the fact it took them four years with much of the development (certainly in the early stages) being done by mostly Netscape employees (or recent ex-employees), which clearly brought a considerable amount of domain-specific knowledge to the project that it otherwise might well not have had.

    Also, it’s not clear that the open-sourcing even helped Netscape – ESR writes in CATB that “As I write in mid-2000, the development of what was later named Mozilla has been only a qualified success. It achieved Netscape’ original goal, which was to deny Microsoft a monopoly lock on the browser market.” Personally, I’m not convinced Mozilla really did deny Microsoft their ‘lock’ (again, the effective non-release of a product for such a length of time) and is 90% (or whatever MS is currently around), with minimal development work to IE, really a denial? (Leaving aside the “has only been a qualified success” comment as well!)

    Further, it could even be argued that the lack of a (decent) release for so long was a real detriment in the long term, allowing MS to effectively stop development on IE with so little to compete with it. Somewhate ironically, of course, it has only been with Firefox (based on the Mozilla rendering engine) that Mozilla (albeit in a different form!) has actually begun to even show signs of Mozilla being little more than an insignificant percentage.

    Thus why I wrote that “no-one mention Netscape” – I just don’t understand how Netscape can be considered an open-source success story, or why it’s so often used as one; and Mozilla is, to my mind, debatable as an open-source success (note the qualifier there), with the sheer slow pace of development being the main point for me – whilst a fantastic product is a good goal, outside of ivory towers there are such things as ship dates and deliverables. In addition, I think the Mozilla project was incredibly lucky that Microsoft effectively stopped development on IE – for example, imagine if they’d continued pouring resources into it adding such things as CSS2 (properly!), CSS3, etc. I personally think the lack of any real competition was the primary reason for Microsoft’s lack of development – there was really no need for them to do anything.

  37. Eric, the root cause of the totalitarian nihilism you so aptly identify is the blind faith in reason/science which you nearly espouse in your opening paragraphs. You’ll notice that the only kids gripped by existential angst are the ones raised in societies which steep their children in materialistic propaganda about the infallability of scientific method. You and I are sophisticated enough to see reason as a tool created by humans for our own benefit; but for too many people, the master and slave are reversed — they make “living” subordinate to “reason” and demand a reason for living, and then this is the root of nihilism. Certainly the marxist/stalinists saw a benefit in tearning down to build up, but this is a common pattern of history (and surprising to see such an anarchist as yourself criticizing such methods). And in large part, the whole “age of reason” crew are to blame for infecting the culture in the first place.

  38. Regarding Sapir-Whorf, I think that is trash science. We create symbols to serve us (and as much for communicative purposes as thinking); not the other way around. I certainly believe that our cognition is limited by many factors, but the richness of our symbols is the least of them. There are several interesting books and research papers discussing the neurobiolgy of the brain (and the whole body, in fact) and the impact on cognition. The way that the brain’s various subsystems interact, the way that we move muscles while thinking, the way that chemical/hormone balances interact — these are all vastly more important. Snow Crash was a fun book, but the premise was hopelessly flawed.

  39. Sorry Joshua Allen, but that was wrong on several levels. First, “infallible” doesn’t mean “complete”, just as a formal logic system may be sound but incomplete. I thought someone who works at Microsoft would’ve known that.

    Second, why do people use the word “propaganda” to describe others’ beliefs, as if their own beliefs aren’t learnt from other people? That’s just stupid.

    Third, “reason” is the wrong term to use, like “rationality”. More precise terms are logic, induction, abduction, etc.

    Fourth, you say they make “living” subordinate to “reason” and demand a reason for living. That’s a prime example of Sapir-Whorf at work: notice that the word “reason” here is used in two different senses!

  40. Mr. Allen: with what do you think Western culture has been infected? What’s wrong with materialism (in epistemology or metaphysics)? Why do you think that living/reason is a dichotomy and how do you define those terms? I seem to recall “the state of the art in any science isn’t certian, it’s just our current best guess” being driven into my skull from primary through high school. This despite never being all that interested in the natural sciences. That being the case, I have to wonder about what “societies which steep their children in materialistic propaganda about the infallability of scientific method” you’re referring to; I suspect that you’ve made too sweeping a generalization.

  41. bi, I expect irrational and defensive responses from people enslaved by the “cult of reason”. That formal logical systems and scientific knowledge are incomplete is exactly my point. It is the height of irrational arrogance for humans to assume that our understanding of the universe is anywhere near complete, or ever will be. At best, we are like the fish in michio kaku’s pond, proud of our own understanding of the physics of underwater life, but powerless to explain the raindrops pattering on the ceiling of our world. Or like the greep philosophers grabbing different parts of the elephant… The counter-argument is, “sure reason and science provide an incomplete picture, but we got lightbulbs out of the deal!”. This proves that science and technology are more useful than superstition for accomplishing certain things, but that is all you can reasonably infer. To look at this 0.001% of the picture and infer that you have found the right way to seek understanding is just stupidity. We have five senses, invented symbols, and can naturally comprehend only 4 dimensions. We are specks of dust power-mad off of some technological parlor tricks. If you think humans will ever master the universe, it is by faith and delusion only.

  42. bi; the dual use of “reason” was intentional on my part. I am a fan of bleeding connotation. You strike me as a person who confuses erudition with understanding. Since science and reason give us at best a 0.00001% of the picture (and could lie), erudition is the fallback of those enslaved by the “cult of reason”.

  43. bi, it was exactly my point that logic and scientific understanding are both incomplete. Where I differ with reason culties is in just how incomplete. I find it the height of irrational arrogance that humans could claim to have anything approaching a complete understanding of the universe in which we live. Everything we think we know could be lies — your estimation of how likely this is depends on how much of the picture you think we have observed and assessed. Considering that we have only 5 senses and naturally understand only 4 dimensions, I think it would be ridiculaous to think that we have observed, measured, or analyzed even 0.0001% of the possible phenomena in the universe. To take such a tiny sample and consider it sufficient for making global theories is just silly. We are just little specs of dust in the universe mesmerized by our ability to do little parlor tricks like create lightbulbs.

  44. Joshua Allen s3z, That formal logical systems and scientific knowledge are incomplete is exactly my point. Well, that wasn’t what you said earlier. See the word “infallibility” in your earlier post? Good.

    Anyway, you’re attacking a straw man. Is there any one on this thread who seriously claimed for certain that all reality can be known?

    And it doesn’t matter whether your dual use of “

  45. Pingback: The Swamp Land

  46. I believe but cannot prove that the entire human experience is dream and that each of us is a god-like creature who is asleep somewhere, sharing a collective hallucination in some type of shared dream world, a collective unconcious playground. We do this simply because being a god, and knowing everything all the time gets really, really dull. The key to waking up as a god again is running out of passion for the illusion. When enough “lifetimes” or stage appearances in this dulusional realm go by, each of us gets less attatched to the dream. Become totally detatched, even for just a second, and you achieve your “original mind”, or rather, you wake up and go back to your timeless, eternal identity. Take it or leave it…it’s all your own choice.
    Also, the only thing that an omnicient being does not know is exactly what it feels like to be ignorant and vunerable. So, by comeing into this human experience “God” is able to complete his/her ‘all-knowingness’. Hang in there folks, this too shall pass.

  47. CG Jung also had much to say about how we think. We must remember that what we think is NOT the world but
    an abstraction. We use words to label things. The word is not the thing. We tend to use primal ideas that
    have been burned into our DNA by natural selection. Heigedder was right…

    airboy

  48. A very interesting list — thanks for the food for thought. My blog (linked above) has a few weak comments on CSP and other related matters; I really should publish more of my private wiki/blog. I’m curious, what you think about a) memetics (Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene” / Blackmore’s “The Meme Machine”) and b) evolutionary ethics (Dennett, “Freedom Evolves”). Amazon links for those books at http://sftower.com/~dhart/default.html

  49. Eric,

    Interesting essay, although I seem to have found it a little late. I am particularly struck by your comment

    … I believe … that the most crippling and dangerous kind of ignorance in the modern West is ignorance of economics, the way markets work, and the ways non-market allocation mechanisms are doomed to fail.

    How would you suggest that an ignorant but motivated person begin learning about these topics?
    I am primarily thinking of a reading list here (I notice others have also requested one),
    although I imagine your link to The Angry Economist
    is relevant as well.

  50. > I judge that that “dark matter” is no better than phlogiston as an explanatory device, and therefore believe
    > without being able to prove it that there is something very deeply wrong with the standard model of cosmology.

    If this paper turns out to be correct, then you might be right on (1) but wrong on (2). It suggests General Relativity adequately explains the behaviour of galaxies without needing invisible ballast:

    http://www.livejournal.com/users/rfmcdpei/996247.html

  51. New to your blog—enjoying it, especially this post. Had the chance to chat briefly yesterday in Toronto with a ‘hot’ philosopher: Dr. Philip Kitcher. I asked him whether he agreed with Peirce’s definition of Truth as being Predictive Power. He said, enthusiastically: “He never said that!” Then he went on to mention that Peirce dwelt on other things such as (JW:I’m paraphrasing) nuances of research, etc.” He lost me quickly.
    Yr opinion encouraged.
    Thank you, ESR.

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