Archive for April, 2011

Social Constructs

Most of our reality is created by our thinking. Consider, for instance, the lines on a road. These boundaries, which tell us that different regions of the road are appropriate for different purposes, are artificial boundaries created by our thinking but which have real power and substance as a result of our obedience of this convention.

Consider also money. Money has value only by convention, but as a result of this convention it is a very real thing with which it is possible to get a lot done and exercise a lot of power. The power of money is a reality, but it is a reality created by our thinking.

Similar comments apply to language, legal codes, art, possessions, social roles and social status, social norms, etc. It is not only true that some of our reality is created by our thinking; indeed, it might appear that the majority of our reality is created by our thinking. Most of the external world is like the lines on the road.

This was pointed out by the social constructivists. The social constructivists generally go further in the following way. As has just been pointed out, there is a category of things that are socially constructed and which we know to be socially constructed. There is also probably a category of things that are socially constructed and which we do not know to be socially constructed, but think to be constructed by some force outside humanity.

The position of the social constructivists is, in essence, that this latter category is large, and that we frequently make the mistake of ascribing to forces outside humanity things that are really due to forces within humanity. Without taking this position we can nonetheless acknowledge that most of the daily reality that we navigate is, in a very uncontroversial sense, socially constructed.

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Beliefs Based on Unshared Evidence

If somebody asks me why I believe something, I may be able to give logical justification for my belief. On the other hand, I may be unable to do this, but nonetheless hold that my belief stands on solid ground. In the latter case it would appear that either I am irrational in holding my belief, or that I have some kind of justification for my belief which I am unable to express adequately. Are there cases in which I can rationally believe something, and yet be unable to express an adequate logical justification for that belief?

I suggest that there are such cases. To give a simple case, suppose that I believe “I enjoy The Beatles.” If somebody asked me why I hold this belief, my justification would appear circular and logically inadequate. I could give reasons such as, “on this date I enjoyed this song,” and enumerate many such facts. But this would appear to be merely reiterating the very belief that I am justifying, only in a more detailed fashion. If I was asked to prove that on this date I enjoyed this song, I could not do so, and would probably dismiss my questioner as unreasonable in requiring this type of justification.

It seems that there are certain assertions which we can make, which nobody expects us to justify. These include reports of our subjective experiences. “I am happy,” “I am in pain,” or “I enjoy The Beatles” are examples of such assertions. Rational people make this type of assertion without justification, and accept this type of assertion from others without expecting justification.

We have evidence for these assertions, but this evidence is unshared. If I assert that I am happy, I am making this assertion based on evidence which is available only to me and which I cannot share. This evidence is my subjective experience of being happy.

Let us call an assertion based on unshared evidence a “bare assertion.” Assertions of religious beliefs are frequently bare assertions.

For instance, I believe that:

(H.1) All is one.

I do not believe (H.1) on logical grounds; indeed, it is arguable that (H.1) is not even logically meaningful. My basis for believing (H.1) is that I have had many spiritual experiences whose content was to the effect that (H.1). These spiritual experiences are unshared, and so (H.1) is a bare assertion.

If mathematicalism is true, then all unshared evidence is in principle shareable. Under mathematicalism, every experience and mental state is a mathematical pattern, and this pattern can therefore in principle be captured and shared somehow.

If mathematicalism is false, then there may exist evidence that is in principle unshareable. The distinction is, however, perhaps somewhat academic, in that there is no important operational difference between evidence that is unshared and unshareable by any currently available means, and evidence that is unshared and unshareable by any means.

Beliefs based on unshared evidence form a difficulty in two ways. First, it is difficult to say whether or not these beliefs are rational. The person holding the evidence seems obviously the only person qualified to evaluate the belief, but besides being uniquely qualified they are also uniquely unqualified, due to the bias which they have as a result of the fact of holding the evidence. It may be the case, then, that nobody exists who is qualified to evaluate the rationality of these beliefs.

There is a second difficulty with beliefs based on unshared evidence, which is that which arises when there are disagreements. It is unclear how to resolve these disagreements. For instance, consider:

(H.2) Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior.

People who believe (H.2) usually do so on the basis of the unshared evidence of religious experience. People who disbelieve (H.2) usually do so on the basis of the lack of any evidence for (H.2), and possible counterevidence. The resolution of this debate is very problematic, but only because some of the relevant evidence is unshared. If all of the evidence were shared, then the debate would probably be resolved.

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Physicalism and Mathematicalism

Under physicalism, existence consists of mathematical patterns. Everything that exists is a mathematical object as described by whatever physical theory is a true description of the universe.

If physicalism is true, then everything that exists is isomorphic to some mathematical construct. A mathematical construct is something such as a natural number, a set, a graph, etc.

If physicalism is false, it can still be the case that existence consists of mathematical patterns. Let us call this view “mathematicalism.”

Mathematicalism. Everything that exists is isomorphic to some mathematical construct.

If physicalism is true, then mathematicalism is true. But mathematicalism can still be true if physicalism is false. Thus, for instance, things such as souls, angels, and demons may exist, and be mathematical patterns. It might be that the mind is an entity distinct from the brain, but nonetheless a mathematical pattern like the brain.

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To Philosophize, or Not

I recently made the decision to give up philosophy. I have come to realize that this is the kind of decision that should be made continuously over time, rather than once, and so it seems appropriate to me to set down my reasons for giving up philosophy, and the reasons why I might continue it.

I came to view my interest in philosophy as a form of vice. This is because I enjoy it out of proportion to the extent which I feel it helps others. I feel that the world does not particularly need more philosophy at this time.

I used to feel that I could help others through philosophy, but I now feel that there are other ways in which I can help the world more greatly than I can through philosophy.

I feel that philosophy pushes me away from others. Most people are not interested in philosophy, and I mostly regard other philosophers (along with all academics) as twits.

Since giving up philosophy I have been depressed and have found a lack of meaning in my life. I think that these were problems from which I distracted myself with philosophy. Philosophy not only helps with these problems by sheer distraction, but also by making me feel smart and therefore good about myself.

I hoped that by giving up philosophy I could better learn to love others, or become more spiritual. These rewards have not been particularly forthcoming. Whether or not I give up philosophy, I expect to better learn to love others and become more spiritual as time goes on. I expect to do so faster if I give up philosophy.

Philosophy makes me feel better, but in a fairly self-indulgent way. It enhances my yellow-ray and indigo-ray blockages.

Philosophy might be used as a form of therapy. Can philosophy be used to reduce suffering? Perhaps.

Consider the following. If the universe is infinite, then the universe contains infinite suffering. If the universe is my self (as is thought in Advaitism), then I suffer infinitely. Therefore, nothing I can do can increase or decrease my suffering. By intellectually acknowledging these points, I can become better able to accept my suffering. This strategy has helped me to deal with physical pain.

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A Definition of Underdetermination

In my previous post on underdetermined questions, the distinction between an underdetermined and a non-underdetermined question was somewhat vague and not sufficiently defined.

I suggest that a good metric for underdetermination is as follows. An underdetermined question is one for which there is no evidence sufficient to create consensus. If most people agree on a single answer to a question, then it is not underdetermined. If there is significant division of opinion, then it is underdetermined.

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Cornerstone Trust Propositions

Schools of thought are defined by the sources that they trust.

For example, consider:

(H.1) The Bible is the undistorted word of God.

The propositions of Christianity for the most part follow from (H.1). (H.1) is therefore a “cornerstone proposition.” Accept (H.1), and most of Christianity comes along with it. It provides footing for all of the other propositions of Christianity.

It is possible to formulate a similar cornerstone proposition for the Ra material:

(H.2) The Ra material was communicated by an entity with nearly perfect knowledge of the universe, and this entity did not tell any lies.

(H.1) and (H.2), besides being cornerstone propositions, are also “trust propositions.” They say, in effect, “I trust X.”

We can give further examples of cornerstone trust propositions:

(H.3) The propositions of mathematics are sound.

(H.4) The Buddha was a witness to the true nature of things.

(H.5) String theory is on the right track.

There are also trust propositions which are not cornerstone propositions. An example of such a proposition would be, “I trust my friend Dave.”

There are also cornerstone propositions which are not trust propositions. Mathematical axioms are such propositions.

I suggest that most schools of thought are defined by characteristic cornerstone trust propositions. Each school of thought is defined by one or more sources upon which it uniquely draws, and upon which it bases its characteristic beliefs. I now suggest pairings of schools of thought with sources:

Science : reason and sense data
Philosophy : reason
Christianity : Jesus Christ
Islam : Mohammed
Hinduism : the holy men of India
Buddhism : the Buddha

It may be that many of our differences in beliefs can be accounted for by differences in our cornerstone trust propositions. In other words, we differ in what we believe because we differ in the sources that we trust.

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Underdetermined Questions

I will call a question “underdetermined” if we do not have any certain answer to it. Examples of underdetermined questions include:

(Q.1) Is physicalism true?

Physicalism would be falsified only if it were discovered that there is some type of existing entity which is nonphysical. Physicalism would be proven only if it were proven that there is no type of existing entity which is nonphysical. We have no evidence sufficient to prove the existence or non-existence of such entities. Therefore, (Q.1) is underdetermined.

(Q.2) Does P = NP?

Most people think that P != NP. However, this has not been proven to be true or false. In principle it ought to be perfectly possible to prove either that P = NP, or that P != NP, but this has not yet been done. Therefore (Q.2) is underdetermined.

(Q.3) Will the sun rise tomorrow?

This question is underdetermined because we only have evidence to the effect that the sun has risen at the start of every day up until today. There is no way of proving with certainty, from the available data, that the sun will rise tomorrow. It may not rise tomorrow.

(Q.4) Is mathematics consistent?

This question is underdetermined because it has not been proven either that mathematics is consistent, or that mathematics is inconsistent. It cannot be proven that mathematics is consistent, because any theory which contains a proof of its own consistency is inconsistent. There are consistent subsets of mathematics, whose consistency can be proven within theories which are themselves inconsistent or unable to prove their own consistency.

(Q.5) Is Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior?

It is difficult to imagine what proof that this was true or false would look like. Therefore, (Q.5) is underdetermined.

(Q.6) Are humans in telepathic contact with higher intelligences?

There are various texts which were allegedly received from higher intelligences. Either these are all invalid, or some of them are valid. We do not have proof either that any such text is valid, or that all of them are invalid. Therefore, (Q.6) is underdetermined.

Examples of questions that are not underdetermined include:

(Q.7) What is the sum of two and three?

(Q.8) What am I wearing right now?

(Q.9) Does there exist a mountain surrounded entirely by higher ground?

Now I suggest:

(H.1) There are cases in which it is rational to believe in a particular answer to an underdetermined question.

In other words, there are cases in which it is rational to believe beyond the evidence, or to believe without proof.

(H.1) is suggested by questions such as (Q.3). It seems obviously rational to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, even though (Q.3) is an underdetermined question. If we accept (H.1), then the question arises of when it is rational to believe one side of an underdetermined binary question. I suggest three circumstances:

(C.1) When one side is more probable then the other side.

(C.2) When one side fits with the rest of what we believe, and the other does not.

(C.3) When one side has more utility than the other side.

Thus, for instance:

* It is rational for a scientist to believe in the positive side of (Q.1), because of (C.2).
* It is rational for a Christian to believe in the negative side of (Q.1), because of (C.2).
* It is rational to believe in the negative side of (Q.2), because of (C.1).
* It is rational to believe in the positive side of (Q.3), because of (C.1) and (C.3). (C.1) because the sun has always risen. (C.3) because I have various affairs to which I will have to attend if the sun rises tomorrow, and I would not give these affairs any attention if I believed that the sun would not rise. Because the sun probably will rise, there is utility in my believing that it will do so and arranging my plans according to this assumption.
* It is rational to believe in the positive side of (Q.5), because of (C.3).
* It is rational for a physicalist to believe in the negative side of (Q.6), because of (C.2).
* It is rational for me to believe in the positive side of (Q.6), because of (C.2).

One of the interesting implications of (H.1) is that:

(H.2) Rational people may hold different beliefs.

* Two people may differ in how they evaluate the probabilities of the two sides of an underdetermined binary question. Thus (C.1) leaves room for rational people to hold different beliefs.
* A given belief may have better belief coherence for one person than for another; thus (C.2) leaves room for rational people to hold different beliefs.
* A given belief may have more utility for one person than for another person; thus (C.3) leaves room for rational people to hold different beliefs.

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