How We Gain Knowledge

Popper and KuhnBefore I disappeared from blogging, I had finished up reposting my Wheat and Tares posts on epistemology (i.e. theory of how we gain knowledge. Good summary of my posts found here. Full series found here, in reverse order of course.) But the truth is that throughout my series, I never really had a single post that attempted to explain what epistemology really is.

Conjecture and Refutation

To summarize how epistemology works, the basic idea is that scientific progress is made through a process of conjecture, criticism, and then refutation. Essentially we see something in the world that we wish to have explained or (even more likely) a problem that we can solve if we can explain it.

Now there is no magic way to come up with an explanation. Coming up with an explanation is really just imagination mixed with faith. It is literally an art in the truest sense of the term. When humankind was young, our conjectures to explain the world were what today we call myths. We saw about us a world that was a strange mix of order and chaos. We imagined that the elements moving around us – the wind, the sea, the earth – were really living things that could make conscious decisions about how to behave. These elements were “gods” to some. We explained the elements’ intemperate nature the same way we explain the intemperate nature of any human being – as an act of agency. The Greek Myths explain why the world based on this presumed explanation.

These myths were our early explanations and were the true beginning of our modern scientific knowledge. There is no hard fast boundary between our myths and our science for the same reason there is no hard fast boundary between higher and lower organisms. We have since replaced such explanations with ones that are far more computationally precise, further reaching, and with greater ability to both explain and predict the world around us.

Progress Through Verisimilitude

But how can we be sure that our explanations are truly “better” than the previous ones? That is to say, how can we be sure we’re really making progress? Kuhn argued that we could not and he thereby denied the existence of any sort of (what I am calling) Scientific Realism. To him, we simply pursued the explanations that we preferred and that served us best.  To him, not only were our conjectures an art, all of science was.

But Kuhn had missed an important point. While he acknowledged that our later explanations were more computationally precise then our older ones, he miss that the real reason this was true was because we were getting increasingly good at explaining reality. Reality had not changed, but our explanations had. We could be confident that so long as we actually test our explanations against reality – through empirical experiment – and that as our explanations were becoming more computationally precise (and still matched reality) that we were indeed getting increasingly good at describing reality.

This principle of being able to get increasingly good at describing reality is called verisimilitude.

Progress Through Competing Explanations

If we have two explanations that are competing with each other and they both make different predictions then it is just a matter of running an experiment on where the two make different predictions to determine which of the two theories has more verisimilitude than the other.

At times it’s not possible to run such an experiment because our technology isn’t yet up to snuff. But it is rare that two explanations make absolutely no different predictions.

Stephen Hawking advocates for the idea that it’s possible to have two models that make all the same predictions, and thus both descriptions of reality are equally “true” in some sense. If two models really did make absolutely no different predictions at all, then between those two models, it would not matter which you used. However, don’t be too fast to accept Hawkins at his word here. As I documented in this post one of Hawking’s own examples of two equivalent models actually did make different predictions and thus it was possible to choose one over the other.

Also, consider what is usually held up as the quintessential example of models that all make the same predictions: quantum physics. In quantum physics the Copenhagen interpretation, the Many-Worlds interpretation, and Bohm interpretation, and Transactional Interpretation are all believed to make identical predictions. And they do make identical prediction for anything that we can currently experiment on with our current level of technology.

But it is not true that they make no different predictions at all. In fact they make some fairly drastically different predictions about things — like the existence of a multiverse. And with the right level of technology, there are ways to test for the existence of a multiverse. (David Deutsch has written about how you might do it by creating a self-aware computer using a quantum computer. This is science fiction right now to be sure.)

Also, there are non-experimental ways to make comparisons between theories. Go back to the Hawking’s example in the link above. (Found here.)  There are non-experimental reasons for one of the models to be preferred over the other. Namely that one of them preserves other physical laws we believe to be true and the other results in a contradiction to our current theories. Experiment and empirical evidence is not necessary to already make an initial judgement about the superiority of one explanation over another.

Likewise, David Deutsch has consistently pointed out that there are non-experimental reasons to prefer the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics over the other interpretations. (This is for reasons too complicated to explain in this post, but I may attempt to explain why in a separate post later.)

The secret to good epistemology has always been our ability to compare one explanation to another. While Kuhn is right that, we being human, this comparison is done through a very imperfect social process, the fact is that reality always prefers one of our explanations over another once we finally come up with the right way to ask her. So the two theories are never truly incommensurable.

It’s a great boon that we do have the ability to determine which of two explanations is better because this means that scientific progress is possible. That is to say, scientific progress is directly tied to the existence of Scientific Realism (which I use to mean there actually being something specifically going on in reality that we can actually explain with increasing levels of verisimilitude”) being true.

But to decide that one explanation is better than another does not thereby mean we then know that the better one is True. Indeed, there is no way possible to ever know (in the sense of absolute knowledge) that one of our explanations is all the way true or not. Instead, we have to content ourselves with the fact that we simply know that the current explanation is better than any other we’ve come up with so far.

This process of comparing explanations and picking the better one is the process of “refutation.” At any given moment we have our current best theories but we never know when someone might at last conjecture something superior to it and “refute” the current theory.

Falsification or Verification?

Karl Popper liked to speak of this process as “falsification” and even went so far as to claim that what separated empirical science from non-empirical science (today people mistakenly call this ‘non-science’) was that empirical science could be ‘falsified.’ Vacuously, Popper was right about this if by “falsification” we mean “falsifying one theory through the existence of a better one.” But in reality, we might as well just call this process “verification” instead. (A point Kuhn makes.) It’s odd, really, that the very thing Karl Popper is most famous for was one of the few things he really didn’t get right.

Further, the existence of theories like String Theory (which wasn’t around at the time of Karl Popper) has forced us to accept that finding evidence predicted by a theory but not denied by its competing theory can be acceptable evidence for preferring one theory over another. So while string theory probably can’t be falsified in the sense of finding empirical evidence against it, it can literally obtain a sort of verification that is nothing like what Popper originally had in mind when he spoke of falsification.

So we do not falsify our theories, per se, but rather we compare theory to theory or explanation to explanation and we pick the better of the two.

Natural Selection of Theories = Growth of Knowledge

Because this process of coming up with conjectures and rejecting the worst of the two theories is how we make scientific process, it’s not hard to see that there is a deep tie between scientific process and “natural selection.” Through our processes of group criticism and refutation (science is always a community activity) only the best theories survive or are selected for continued use. The last explanation standing is the current paradigm only because it’s the best one currently known.

Theories are Always Conjectures

This means that our explanations are forever just conjectures. Yes, they are the best conjectures to survive this process of natural selection. And thus we can rest assured that they have the greatest verisimilitude (closeness to reality) of all currently conceived conjectures. But we can never do more than tentatively accept them. Therefore, there is a sense in which science is not about finding Truth, per se, but merely about finding the best approximations of the truth.

Science as Approximations of Truth

And in fact we often keep ‘refuted’ explanations around precisely because there are circumstances were they work as sufficient approximations of reality.

Newtonian Physics was once believed to be impregnable. Then one day it was refuted in favor of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. I have often seen it said that Newtonian physics was not refuted, but rather Einstein just added to it. But Kuhn leaves no doubt that this isn’t the case. For every Newtonian equation there is an even better Einsteinian one. Because they often make predictions so close together – particularly when moving at slow terrestrial speeds – it’s often easier to use the Newtonian equations which are often simpler to calculate. But Einstein’s physics did not add to Newtonian physics, it replaced it lock-stock-and-barrel.

Embracing Our Approximations of Truth

So proper epistemology is to take the current best theory and to whole heartedly but tentatively accept it. Until something better is discovered, the best theory is the best theory. We do ourselves intellectual harm to not assume it to be fully true and to follow it through to its logical conclusions. If it’s logical conclusions become unacceptable at some point – say because they result in a mismatch from observation – then we have found a problem with the current theory.

You Can’t Falsify Science Through Observation, So We Need Apologetics

Does finding a mismatch from the current theory thereby ‘refute’ it? No, never! (Well, never in the case of any mature theory anyhow.) The only way we can ‘refute’ a theory is by coming up with a better one. We simply live with observational mismatches or we come up with apologetic explanations for them. This makes sense for two reasons. The first is that there is no point abandoning a good theory in favor of no theory. The second is that it’s not really possible to ever be sure a mismatch to a theory is in fact a mismatch.So scientists do not falsify a theory through empirical evidence. In fact, Khun points out that typically scientists find some apologetic way to defend the prevailing paradigm.

These apologetic explanations to shoe horn observations to the explanation are not exceptional circumstances. Kuhn points out that this is really the norm for science. There are so many observation problems that our apologetics for the existing theory more often than not turn out to be right – no matter how far-fetched they initially sound. The existing theory deserves to be rigorously defended in this apologetic sort of way. If everyone just “followed the evidence” (a phrase that should cause everyone to burst out laughing) and assumed that the theory must be wrong because we found a missed observation, scientific progress would probably be impossible for us.

We are, after all, only human so a missed observation could just be a mistake. Or it might require a tweak to the current theory or the introduction of some new error factor. We can never be sure.

Paradigm Shifts Are One Eternal Round

But on rare occasions such an observational mismatch will not yield to apologetics and will eventually become the very problem that forces us to abandon the current theory in favor of an even better conjecture. This is what Kuhn calls a paradigm shift. And the whole process starts over again.

So this is my (relatively) brief summary of what we currently know about how we gain knowledge.

31 thoughts on “How We Gain Knowledge

  1. Huzzah, you’re back.

    I take issue with your statement that we can *never* know that something is absolutely true, though. To reject the witness of the Holy Ghost, the pure strokes of intelligence flowing, as only evidence of the truth and not truth itself requires brain-in-the-box level skepticism.

  2. Adam,

    I just *knew* someone was going to take issue with the post on the basis of revelation. I even thought about naming the post How We Gain (Scientific) Knowledge. But I was convinced that even that would still loead to this complaint.

    I even considered doing a little section about how I’m not talking about revelation. But then the complain would be that I didn’t choose talk about revelation.

    When it came down to it, I finally decided to just concentrate on my topic — which really isn’t relevant to revelation (at least not in this post) — and let the complaint come.

    Bear in mind that this model applies to itself. “How We Gain Knowledge” is itself a scientific theory that only has a certain level of verisimiltude. I do not know how revelation specifically fits into it.

    But presumably even atheists receive certain types of revelation, so you can’t really say “I’m talking about science, not religion.” Yet to try to insert revelatory knowledge (a subject the Popper does take up, but only to use it as a counter point to his theory) into this epistemology isn’t currently possible either. That’s going to be an area for future research, I’d imagine.

    So really, your point if valid. But there was still no way for me to address it that I could think of.

  3. Actually, let me get a bit more specific. Currently our “worldly” understanding of science does not include revelation as one of it’s principles. That is certainly true even if revelation is actually involved in some way.

    So this epistemology, which is built only using the current scientific worldview, wouldn’t be expected to include revelation.

    Given that it doesn’t include revelation, clearly it should be obvious that without revelation it literally is impossible to ever know the Truth with certainty. That *does* require revelation. Even if we came up with some all encompassing model of science that actually did match reality 100%, we’d never actually know that we did until God told us we did.

  4. By the way, the “brain-in-the-box” scenario is very easily resolved via science. I’m not sure why people think it poses some sort of actual philosophical problem. I suppose I can forgive ancient or older philosophers from before modern times for not knowing enough to realize it’s an easily solved problem. But it’s unforgiveable that there are philosophers today that still use it and think it’s a problem worth discussing other than to show it’s not a problem.

  5. “Stephen Hawking advocates for the idea that it’s possible to have two models that make all the same predictions, and thus both descriptions of reality are equally “true” in some sense.”

    Well, wave-particle duality is something that physicists are still grappling with, so I would agree with you on this.

  6. I agree with your response entirely, except for the ‘brain in a box’ part. Would love to see the scientific reason why it can be proved that solipsism is false.

  7. Solipsism and “brain-in-the-box” aren’t quite the same thing. I’d imagine it easier to make up an experiment to test that you’re a brain in the box than the more generic Solipsism.

    Nevertheless, I happen to know a good ‘refutation’ of both, though it’s different than anything you’re imagining. But that is a post for the future.

  8. Even with revelation, there is a need to hypothesize about what that revelation really meant.

    For example, it appears John Taylor asked God if the church could end polygamy. Except he apparently didn’t say “polygamy” or “plural marriage.” John asked if the church could end the New and Everlasting Covenant.

    If you’ve read the revelation John received, it’s almost as though God is hyperventilating. “It’s everlasting! Of course you can’t end it!” But since John thought the N&EC was equivalent to plural marriage, he thought God was saying he (John) couldn’t end plural marriage. John proceeded to show his obedience by marrying yet another wife (much, much younger than himself, given how old he was).

    You article presumes that the evolution of theories is always in a positive direction. However I contend that prior theoretical constructs can be overturned, leading important component theories to be supplanted, even though the original component theories are superior. An example of this would be the theory that anti-bacterial soap is better than good old lye and tallow soap as part of the broader theory that engineered remedies can be more precise than the old snake oil remedies. Or the theory that children are better off being put into day care compared to the old notion that a child is benefitted most by being raised by a nurturing adult who is related to them as part of the broader theory that men can nurture and women can be valuable members of the work force.

    When we allow for social engineering and marketing, the prevaling theories become significantly liable to be driven not by data but by greed. The rush of cities and states to embrace alternate lifestyles relatively uncorrelated with production of children is usually attributed to “doing the right thing” instead of “becoming the preferred location for productive adults with lots of disposable income.” I’ve read other theories that indicate production/nurturing of children is correlated with long-term economic prosperity, which would indicate that the theory of achieving economic prosperity by catering to adults who don’t produce/nuture children is short sighted.

    I do love physics, where the theories have empirical data on which to be based, and where greed-based theories that do not conform to empirical data or are not extensible to future, as-yet uncollected data, are usually counterproductive in a relatively short timeframe.

  9. When it comes to physics, it’s possible to test difference (once we know how to that is) to determine if one of two theories is better.

    This probably holds true down the train quite a bit. Chemistry for example. Probably even signifcant parts of Biology.

    But when you come to social sciences the ‘natural selection’ process takes longer and isn’t as sure and Kuhn’s idea of incommensurability takes hold. And those sciences rarely have a single paradigm because of that and often have to justify themselves as a science in the first place precisely because they lack a good computational paradigm.

    In the case of anti-bacterial soap, I’d argue that in the end nature did pick a winner and it eventually became empirically clear. It does take time for human’s to catch up and read the data. In fact, Kuhn points out that in the past the normal amount of time for a paradigm shift to happen was to wait for the old generation to die out. So even in physics, the process is rather messy and very human.

    We’re actually getting better at not taking that long to accept improved theories.

    But, at least with the hard sciences, it does work over time and we do make progress and once the leap is really made with enough scientists, we can usually produce proof that the new theory is indeed superior.

  10. I think this way of thinking about knowledge is wrong from the very start.

    “When humankind was young, our conjectures to explain the world were what today we call myths”

    The first types of knowledge were not attempts at explaining anything, but were instead attempts at surviving, reproducing and achieving other ends. Furthermore, I don’t believe that the purpose of our knowledge ever changed. All knowledge and science is still aimed at nothing other than accomplishing certain tasks which are in our interest, and verisimilitude is merely a word for how refined the tasks that we can currently accomplish are.

    So, yes, we can have knowledge a plenty on various subjects and the facts that our knowledge changes over time or that our knowledge in certain areas isn’t all that refined are largely beside the point.

    But I’m guessing you could have guessed that I would disagree with this. 🙂

  11. Jeff G, yes, I’ve been looking forward to debating you on this.

    That being said, at least your first paragraph seems to me to be nearly identical to what I said.

    “Essentially we see something in the world that we wish to have explained or (even more likely) a problem that we can solve if we can explain it.”

    “Furthermore, I don’t believe that the purpose of our knowledge ever changed. All knowledge and science is still aimed at nothing other than accomplishing certain tasks which are in our interest”

    A task you want to accomplish *is* a problem to be solved and a problem to be solved *is* a task you want to accomplish.

    Obviously you’re talking about the motivation for wanting to understand something (“is still aimed at noting other than accomplishing certain tasks”) and I’m generalizing “understanding” as “explanation.” Popper, in particular, thought most or all of our explanations came about because we were trying to solve some sort of problem.

    Where we might differ is that somes times the “problem” to be solved and the “task” to be accomplished” is certainly “curiousity about how things works.” In other words, sometimes it’s just pure desire for an explanation. Science is full of both types of problems to be solved, partical applications and also out right curiosity with no real desire to apply it to anything at the time.

    Further, the two intertwine quite a bit. The Laser is totally useful today, so it’s suprising it was invented with not a single application in mind but pure curiosity. (Or so claims NNT in The Black Swan, anyhow.) And Einstein did not have GPSs in mind (one of the few direct applications of his theory that Newton hadn’t already covered) when he came up with General Relativity.

  12. Not much time, but briefly….

    I don’t have any problem whatsoever with science providing explanations for various phenomena. What I object to is the natural inclination to seek *the* explanation for something. Yes, some explanations are better than others for various purposes, but I wouldn’t want to call any of these explanations true in any deep sense. I prefer to think of scientific theories or explanations as being mental tools that are subject to various market pressures. Put this way, I believe that Newtonian physics is no less true than einsteinian physics. In other words, falsification is simply one theory going out of business.

  13. Jeff G,

    It should be obvious from the post that the epistemology I outline does not allow for anything to be true in some deep sense.

    Where we differ is that I really have no doubt that Einsteinian physics is in fact better than Newtonia physics in terms of how closely it fits reality.

    I know you’ve said in the past that we can always fit epicycles to any theory until it fits reality better. So I suspect your going to say that there is a way to take Newtonian physics and cause it to be just as accurate as Einsteinian physics.

    From my post above, it should be clear that if you can in fact make Newtonian physics exactly equivalent to General Relativity, then I’d not argue that one is more true than the other and we’d then probably only choose between them via pure Okham’s razor — which is the simpler? (That was the point of the references to Hawkings positivism.)

    That being said, I a) doubt you can make them *exactly* equivalent, b) if you did, I doubt it would still be Newtonian physics except in name only.

    Just to clarify “a”, I don’t doubt that you could add epicycles to make the two theories match each other on all currently known phenonmenon and applications. What I am doubting is that you can do it in such a way that all future applications will also be equivalent. That’s what I mean by *exactly equivalent.* This truly seems doubtful to me that you could do that via epicycles.

    BUT, you might be right that you could do it and if you did, my epistemology above is in agreement with you that neither has cause to have more claim on ‘truth’ than the other. So maybe we’re not really significantly disagreeing on this point either.

  14. I think a significant part of my objection boils down to a strong rejection of the correspondence theory of truth which your language seems to imply. You want to frame things in terms of their fit or verisimilitude between reality and…. our explanations, I suppose. You then go on to suggest that a true explanation would be a perfect fit with reality, but we can never be sure that any of our explanations actually are that perfect fit. I reject all of this talk.

    My rejection of the word “explanation” was meant to express my rejection that science is in any way mirroring reality in any deep sense, true or other wise. There are no two things to compare and contrast against each other such that we might confirm or falsify one of them.

    In this way, Einstein was not painting a more accurate picture of reality than Newton, since neither of them were painting pictures at all. Each theory still thrives in their particular niches because they are really useful tools for accomplishing different purposes. It might be possible that we could add epicycles to Newton’s physics such that it could accomplish the tasks to which we now put Einstein’s, but to what end? What benefits would justify these costly additions to Newton that we cannot already enjoy from Einstein’s models?

    In this way I reverse the Greek tendency to reduce engineering to the natural sciences in that I see the natural sciences as being no more (and no less) than the R&D department for engineers. They are not chasing any kind of exclusive or universal truth in any important sense at all. Scientists are not honing in on or approximating any unique and hidden target which can be called truth. Rather, they are branching out in their quest for new, useful and marketable ways of construing our world around us.

  15. Response 1: I am presonally uninterested in whether or not the Greek tendency is true or its reverse. That strikes me as a useless question. Whether we want to think of science as primarily being about usefulness or primarily about knowledge doesn’t really make a difference between “usefulness” and “knowledge” go so strongly hand in hand. Undoubtedly sometimes we are primarily after knowledge and then stumble upon uses and sometimes we are after applications and so we seek knowledge.

    Furthermore, it seems to me that “useful” is a vaguish sort of word that could mean a lot of things as does “knowledge.” If I know how to do something useful, that is a type of knowledge. If I have knowledge, then perhaps that is useful to fulfill my curiosity, etc.

    I don’t mind the way you are framing it. I just am not that particularly interested in this part of the philosophical debate.

  16. Hmmm, that strikes me as odd.

    Of I don’t want to force you on any issue here, but I’m surprised that you think that my position is so peripheral to the issues you raise, since it entails a rejection of many of the categories which you rely upon so heavily.

    Anyways, I do not see the difference between usefulness and knowledge that you seem to see, although I do agree that the former becomes very vague when applied to a social context.

    Is our ideas and beliefs are mental tools, then the idea that some particular tool is the “true” one – all other being “false” – just seems like a category mistake. The tools we use can be good/bad or right/wrong, but the idea that tools are true/false or (dis)similar to the reality which they are meant to operate on just seems strange.

    Anyways, even if you don’t see the relevance of my way of construing (scientific) beliefs, I hope my reasons for rejecting your Popperian approach are clear enough.

  17. I think you misunderstand me. It’s not your point of view in it’s entirety I’m disinterested in. I’m just disinterested in whether science begets engineer or vice versa. I can’t really see how the question matters because the answer is so clearly: “It depends on what you mean and differs from case to case.”

    Sorry if I left an impression the disinterest was generalized to your over all view.

  18. Jeff, I was in the middle of a large comment and then you said more… so I’m going to make the comment even though you already said more that I now have to address.

  19. Response 2: Questions for you:
    Okay, so the heart of what we disagree on is statements like this:

    “My rejection of the word “explanation” was meant to express my rejection that science is in any way mirroring reality in any deep sense, true or otherwise. There are no two things to compare and contrast against each other such that we might confirm or falsify one of them.”

    “You then go on to suggest that a true explanation would be a perfect fit with reality, but we can never be sure that any of our explanations actually are that perfect fit. I reject all of this talk.”

    Of course the reason why we know General Relativity is “closer to the truth” than Newton is because there are no situations in which Newton makes more accurate predictions compared to actual observation. Most scientific theories we compare are undoubtedly not this clear cut. That is why this one gets used as an example. General Relativity is superior to Netwon in *all cases* period, if we are talking about prediction vs. observation. That will always be true precisely because General Relativity model *is* closer to reality than Newton. It is the fact that it is closer to reality than Newton’s that causes it to produce more accurate results.

    If we switch to the language of “usefulness” then I can see that Newton is sometimes more “useful” than General Relativity. But I can also see that this additional sort of “usefulness” is constrained to basically only one type of situation: Newtonian physics is faster to compute. Now the reason it’s faster to compute *is* because its model was not as close to reality as General Relativity. You see where I am going. So “usefulness” doesn’t really replace “explanation” nor the concept of “closeness to reality.”

    You are denying this, I get it. But you are not explaining why. Now undoubtedly that would take a post at least as long as mine that I’d then be able to shoot at and vice versa. And you’re only going to do that if you have sufficient interest to try to take up the task. Nor is the most important thing in your life to explain to me where you are coming from.

    But in any case, I understand that you disagree but do not understand what your explanation is for why you feel that the fact that General Relativity *always* produces better results than Newton could be for any reason other than it is a model closer to reality than Newton’s. That is what I don’t understand about what you are saying. Your quotes above both reassure me that this isn’t the case, but do nothing to explain why this is in any way incorrect thinking much less layout an alternative viewpoint for consideration that we can them compare with.

    I am also curious why you are so convinced that there is no underlying reality to compare to. This is not one of those assertions you can just make and hope to have it accepted. I think I could accept the idea that the underlying reality is “infinite” in some way (i.e. requires infinite variables to match it precisely) and that therefore it is impossible to truly ever produce a finite theory that exactly matches it. This seems reasonable enough to me. But in that case there is still an underlying reality that we can compare to and grow increasingly closer to asymptotic-style.

  20. “If our ideas and beliefs are mental tools, then the idea that some particular tool is the “true” one – all other being “false” – just seems like a category mistake. The tools we use can be good/bad or right/wrong, but the idea that tools are true/false or (dis)similar to the reality which they are meant to operate on just seems strange.”

    Okay, that actually helped quite a bit in terms of explaining where you are coming from.

    I suppose that in my opinion, you are making a mistake here. You are confusing the concept of “truth” with “verisimilitude.” Yes, I see why since one is “all the way true” and the other is “increasingly approxominately true.” So you line of thought seems to me to go something like this:

    1. Our beliefs and mental tools are not really either true or false. (Here I agree)
    2. Because they are not true or false, it must be that they are just tools that are useful without any really being “more true” or “less true” (Here I disagree)
    3. Therefore it must be that the whole concept of verisimiltude is incorrect. (A correct conclusion had I agreed with premise 2, but not if I don’t.)

    If I’m right, this means we can really focus in as #2 as our point of departure. Specifically, I do not accept that just because or beliefs and mentals tools are not strictly “true or false” that this therefore implies we can’t (at least in some cases) measure the level of closeness to reality — which, yes, implies that there are cases where we can literally measure which beliefs are “more true” than another. (Though we haven’t any way of knowing “how close to the true” in any absolute sense.)

    So I see that is the point I can’t accept about your view and vice versa. An interesting question is how much difference does it make and when does it make a difference?

    I wrote a post a while back where I said that I’m both a realist and a positivist (using realist in the Popper sense rather than the positivist sense) but never at the same time. In short, I think there is good portion of the time where I do fall back to a positivist view point that is more or less exactly like yours. And I do this precisely because its “useful.”

    But as I said in my previous comment, “useful” and “closeness to reality” are not equivalent concepts. Positivism *is* less true than the epistemology above. But sometimes I’m just not prepare to handle the full baggage of the “more true” explanation and I prefer the one that is simpler (and less true!) in some situations because its good enough.

  21. “there are no situations in which Newton makes more accurate predictions compared to actual observation. ”

    I agree. But there is no job that a jack-hammer can do, that a dentists picks could not also do – ideally, of course. The reason why we are still taught Newtonian science is because there is such a strong market for it still. A similar reason could be given for why Aristotle’s physics isn’t taught very much.

    “I am also curious why you are so convinced that there is no underlying reality to compare to. ”

    I wasn’t denying that there is any reality. What I was denying is that reality has any objective, user-independent categories against which we can compare those which we happen to use at any given time. It is for this reason that to measure categories in terms of their truthfulness or verisimilitude simply makes no sense. Rather, we can only measure the categories we use in terms of the costs and benefits which they bring us.

    It is for this reason that I see the relationship between science and engineering as being important. I don’t think the Greek hierarchy of intellectual endeavors is at all relevant here except as a helpful illustration of the role which scientists and science play in the world. If practical pursuits such as engineering is the base from which science springs, then the idea that scientists discover good ways of thinking about things rather than discover true and false ways of thinking about things becomes a bit more intuitive.

  22. “2. Because they are not true or false, it must be that they are just tools that are useful without any really being “more true” or “less true” (Here I disagree)”

    I disagree with that as well, although it’s easy to see why you would attribute it to me.

    Truth is not something which resides in the beliefs themselves when held up – in some way – against reality. Truth does not lie in any kind of relationship of correspondence between our beliefs and reality.

    Rather, truth resides primarily in our social relations and the ways in which we socially vet each others speech acts and regulate the categories and speech acts of others. Truth/falsity lie in the proper/improper use of categories and words as we triangulate our relationships with each other and the physical world which we share.

  23. Jeff, given your further explanation of your position — whether or not I agree with it — I now see why the question of Engineering bets science or vice version seems import to you.

    It is now also plain to me why it’s not important to me since I do accept we can know with certainty if we are getting closer to reality or not.

    Also, I don’t really disagree with you the reason Newtonian physics is still around is because there is a market for it. Nor do I disagree that the reason there is a market for it is because its useful still. But I can also see that the reason it is useful still is because its “close enough” in many situations while being computationally less intensive and also easier to learn. It is a specific sort of ‘usefulness’ that is specifically unrelated to “closeness to reality.”

  24. “Rather, truth resides primarily in our social relations and the ways in which we socially vet each others speech acts and regulate the categories and speech acts of others. Truth/falsity lie in the proper/improper use of categories and words as we triangulate our relationships with each other and the physical world which we share.”

    I’m pretty sure I won’t agree — but I confess to being intrigued.

    I also confess that this is probably a case where you’re going to have to start me at square one and build me up with the line of thought your using to get to this conclusion. Because, at the moment, I can’t even see how it’s possible to derive it.

    I definitely feel that “more true” when compared to some “ultimate truth” is a very workable and correct concept. But I hope you see that this doesn’t mean I necessarily think your view is “wrong.” In all honest, I’m very likely going to — and you knew this was coming — come to accept it as a useful way of looking at things, even if maybe it’s less true in some way.

    I should also note that in my mind, it might be more accruate to say all out explanations are true, but not equally true rather than say they are all false, but not equally false. I realize that’s more of a cup half full sort of thing, but the specific reason I think that is a better way of looking at it is precisely because I see all of them as useful for the purpose for which they were created. Which sounds a lot like your own position.

    I know you can’t really explain your full view quickly, so I’m fine with defering to later when you want to take more time to write stuff up or point me to past posts that explain your statement above.

  25. Jeff G, thank you for the link. I’ll check it out during vacation.

    And as always, discussing with you is always enlightening.

  26. As a sort of post script, I don’t think that my beliefs are true inasmuch as they are useful to me. Rather, I think that other people will think that my beliefs are true inasmuch as my beliefs are useful to them.

    That’s still pretty rough, but it’s a good start.

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