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Marla asked

Which philosopher believed we find new laws by guessing?

Answer by Craig Skinner

The name’s Popper. Karl Popper (1902-1994). Born in Vienna, one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of the 20th Century.

He believed that truth is elusive rather than manifest, and that we increase our knowledge not by reaching truth but by avoiding error. We proceed by trial and error. Not random trial and error – we learn from our mistakes.

So we advance by making a guess (conjecture) as to how the world works, and then check it against the world to see if the guess is supported or refuted. If supported we run with it for now. If refuted (falsified) we try again with a different or amended guess, check it, and so on.

In science, repeated application of this ‘conjecture and refutation’ procedure yields scientific laws – conjectures currently accepted because all observations are in line with them and no observation has refuted them. A law is held tentatively because a future observation or experiment may refute it. For example Newton’s Law of Gravitation held for nearly 300 years till Einstein’s theory of gravitation predicted different results, and subsequent observations favoured Einstein. However, Einstein’s theory is incompatible with quantum mechanics, so that one or both of these theories will have to give way to a better theory which unifies gravity and quantum mechanics – current guesses as to the unifying laws include string theory and loop quantum gravity.

Popper felt that refutability of a guess (falsifiability of a hypothesis) was the key distinction between science and pseudoscience. This overstates the case – there is no absolutely clear-cut demarcation – but falsifiability is certainly a key feature of a scientific hypothesis or conjecture.

Appropriately, one of Popper’s famous books on philosophy of science and the growth of scientific knowledge is titled ‘Conjectures and Refutations’, first published in 1963.

His notion of learning by trial and error or conjecture and refutation is a fair description of how organisms with brains live. Thus we constantly interpret our sensory input as a guess as to what’s going on, act accordingly, get feedback, amend the guess if necessary, act again and so on. We proceed by iterated conjecture and testing. We are hypothesis-testing machines. Sometimes called ‘Popperian machines’, as opposed to ‘Darwinian’ ones which act by random trial and error (flexibility but no learning) or ‘Pavlovian’ ones which produce automatic responses to stimuli (no flexibility, no learning).

Finally, Popper thought that induction was a myth. Rather it’s all a matter of conjecture and testing. It’s not that repetition (constant conjunction) induces expectation of more of the same (as Hume suggested was the habit of mind producing inductive inference). We don’t wait passively to let the world impose regularities on us. Rather expectation comes first, we have a propensity to see regularities, a conjecture if you like, which repetition will corroborate (or not). I think Popper is right here. In effect, past regularities have driven the evolution of adaptive hard-wired cognitive strategies, our ancestors have done the induction for us, as it were, we don’t each have to start at square one. Of course the traditional philosophical problem of induction is not about what cognitive mechanisms are behind it, but rather what justifies it, and I won’t go into that. Ultimately Popper accepted a ‘whiff of induction’ otherwise he couldn’t explain why we should prefer a theory with a good past performance (many corroborating observations, none refuting) to one with no corroborating observations.

Sylvia asked:

According to Kant, does the fact that we experience objects through our mental framework mean that we can know only how things appear to us, and not know objects as they are in themselves?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Hi Sylvia, the short answer to this is yes: Immanuel Kant does say that we can only know things as they appear to us, and not as ‘things-in-themselves’. However to look at the issue in a little more depth we should consider how Kant came to this conclusion.

Empiricist David Hume had maintained that it was only the force of habit that made us see the causal connection behind all natural processes. Kant refuted this argument: the law of causality, he held, is eternal and absolute: it is an attribute of human reason. Human reason, he said, perceives everything that happens as a matter of cause and effect. That is, Kant’s transcendental philosophy states that the law of causality is inherent in the human mind. He agreed with Hume that we cannot know with certainty what the world is like in itself, but we can know what it is like ‘for me’ – or for all human beings. We can never know things – in -themselves (noumena), said Kant, we can only know them as they appear to us (phenomena). However, before we experience ‘things’ we can know how they will be perceived by the mind – we know a priori.

Thus, for Kant, the mind contains conditions that contribute to our understanding of the world. As well as the law of causality these conditions include the modes of perception, space and time. Space and time, he says, are not concepts, but forms of intuition. Everything we see, hear, touch, smell, and so on, happening in the phenomenal world occurs in space and time. However, we do not know that space and time is part of the phenomenal world; all we know is that they are part of the way in which we perceive the world. Time and space, he says, are irremovable spectacles through which we view the world. They are a priori forms of intuition that shape our sensory experience on the way to being processed into thought. Space and time are innate modes of perception that predetermine the way we think. It cannot be said that space and time exist in things themselves, things ‘out there’ in the world, rather they inherent intuitions through which we perceive and conceive our world. Time and space, says Kant, belong to the human condition. They are first and foremost modes of perception, not attributes of the physical world. Kant called this approach the Copernican Revolution in the problem of human knowledge. That is, it was just as radically different from earlier thinking as Copernicus’ claim that the earth revolved around the sun.

Drawing from both Empiricism and Rationalism, Kant formed a synthesis between two schools of thought and created his own model. He argued that both sense and reason are integral to our understanding of the world. He accepted Hume’s theory that all our knowledge comes from sensory experience, but he also agreed with the Rationalists that our reason contains certain decisive factors that determine how we see and understand our world. Everything we experience will first and foremost be perceived as phenomena in space and time, and for everything that happens we will want to know the reason for its occurrence: its causality. For Kant these conditions are inherent in our minds (or as you say, part of our ‘mental framework’): they are a priori, and they are what it is to be a human being.

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Yes, that is indeed the case. The whole point of Kant ‘s Critique of Pure Reason was to establish the limits of human knowledge. And this begins and ends with human experience. Kant tells us himself on the first page of his book: ‘That all our cognitions begin with experience cannot be doubted.’

It is by ‘objects touching our senses’ (in the same paragraph) that the world communicates its contents to us. We act and suffer by being in contact with the world of objects and processes, and in doing so we accumulate experiences that are remembered, become knowledge and end up, at an advanced stage in our own evolution, in cognitions.

When we begin to notice how many of our experiences resemble each other, we grow more sophisticated in dealing with our impressions. One difficulty, until Kant appeared on the scene, was to make philosophical sense of our ability to understand resemblance and the many other features of experience that yield knowledge. Kant says our knowledge is the product of our own thinking faculty. This is what had to be unravelled.

Let us suppose that our senses just registered the impressions they pick up and do nothing else with them. We would be overwhelmed by sounds, colours, smells etc., without knowing what they all indicate to us. Let me remind you that people who are born blind and have sight given to them operatively must be assisted for at least a year, so that they learn to ‘filter’ out the meaningless colours from the meaningful visual experiences.

And this tells us something important about our faculties. They are structured in a certain way to enhance what is important to us and to discard what we don’t need.

For example, you recognize a dog as being similar to another dog you saw before. Thus one of the capabilities of our mind is to perceive similarity. Another such capability enabled us group certain objects by recognising that they are not particulars, but collectives, e.g. ash or water or a dune. Kant finds altogether 12 such capabilities (or categories) by which we analyze and understand our experiences.

This is what your question calls the ‘mental framework’. It comprises one aspect of experience by which we acquire knowledge. But this world of experiences is the phenomenal world. The word phenomena means the way things appear to us.

Now it is important to understand that there is nothing wrong with this. We often, and very foolishly, believe this is all sham and want to know what’s behind it all. It is foolish when it carried to the extreme of supposing that the ‘underlying reality’ is deeper, or more meaningful, than appearing reality. But this depends very much on how we handle this ‘deeper’ reality.

Cultures with no science began to create mythologies which explain ‘real’ reality by supposing trees and animals, mountains and streams all to be inhabited by invisible spirits. In a way this is an attempt to explain the causes of natural processes. But when you tell a story like this, you really get nowhere. It explains nothing and appeals only to your capacity for believing stories. The alternative for people with science is to make experiments and see if there are circumstances that repeat themselves. Then we can talk about cause and effect–still a story, because causes and effects are not things or processes, but judgments of our cognition. Still, we can work with this knowledge, and we can understand it because it is repetitive and allows us to call these phenomena ‘laws of nature’. But note that experience is still the beginning and end of it!

Then there are other issues that we know about, and we can’t call them phenomena. Things like the mind which we don’t know what it is; and the way the mind works in giving us a sense of beauty, justice, love, laws of nature, ultimate particles, God etc. None of these are experiences in themselves; they are concepts. When you say, ‘I’ve experienced love’, you are really speaking about your feelings and desires, not about love. But we can talk and reason about love. Also about justice, God, laws and the other metaphysical things. But they don’t appear, because they are ‘noumena’, which translates into English as ‘creatures of reason’.

Now try this on the ‘thing in itself’. Look at a chair and ask yourself, why can’t I experience this in itself rather than as a phenomenon? Well, consider that you cannot push your finger into the wood. But a microbe has a different experience. For the microbe there is no chair, but just a landscape with no chair-like or wood-like qualities at all. The microbe’s world is simply another level of phenomena. The microbe may well ask, why can’t I experience this landscape as it is in itself?

Now you can see the problem. Some of our noumena are phenomena for other creatures. But other noumena would still be noumena for microbes as well, namely those I mentioned before — the real creatures of reason, and especially those we might call ‘metaphysical authorities’.

These were the very noumena that inspired Kant to his work. He was a man of faith, but he realised (as no one else before him did) that you cannot argue about God, Christ, the devil or the angels. Metaphysical authorities are not items of knowledge. They cannot be experienced. So this is what it was necessary to establish.

By this means Kant gave us a new perspective on the fundamental question of how human reason can be understood. The most important issue is, that we are not missing out. Kant himself tells us so by concluding that he has done us a great favor. By clarifying what we can know and cannot know, he opened up a domain of reason that has always been misunderstood.

Namely, that we expect we should be able to experience and understand faith, like we understand how to grow potatoes and know the feel of leather. But God and faith are not knowledge, therefore, (he said) knowledge has to move over and make room for faith, which is in another domain altogether. And the same applies to ethics, beauty, justice, love, laws etc. All these we know to exist, but they are not part of the domain of exact knowledge.

Nkwenti asked:

Using bravery as an example, explain Aristotle’s idea that each virtue is a mean between two extremes.

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Aristotle said, the proper way for man to behave in the moral sphere is in accordance with the mean. E.g. in order to be happy, you must be courageous, liberal, proud, witty, modest, and so on. But all of these virtues, are virtues of moderation: courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness; liberality between prodigality and frugality; pride between vanity and humility, and so forth.

But the means will vary from man to man. For example, he gives the example of eating and points out that starving and over-eating are obviously no good. But an athlete who needs to burn a lot of fuel must eat much more than you. So his mean is your over eating. This is like a pendulum, which swings from very bad to very good, and Aristotle thinks that people can find the Good somewhere close to the middle.

Aristotle says that moral behavior requires moral understanding and all men can hope to achieve this, since what is involved is not a purely intellectual appreciation of absolute moral truths but the kind of practical wisdom and awareness of the need for moderation that I have just described. We must therefore receive a sound training in good habits when we are young , so that when we come to understand what the golden mean is for us we will also have the self-control to follow it.

Aristotle explains his meaning of the Mean in reference to how we live in our daily life. Such as health, exercise, food etc. ‘It is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess’. He then applies this lesson to ‘temperance, courage and the other virtues … which are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.’

What Aristotle is saying is that good and beneficial social habits are acquired in the process of interacting with others–by up-bringing, imitation of role models and by observing the social customs in society.

We learn virtue by doing virtuous acts, just as we learn bravery by doing brave acts etc. And since the same applies to desires and feelings, it is imperative to learn all this when young.

In fact Aristotle recommends that young people should be taught to observe constantly what they are doing, while keeping to the middle of the road in all their behaviours. So that by the time they are grown up, virtuous behaviour will be second nature to them. Aristotle is quite prepared for the criticism that habits are behaviours of which we are not conscious. But he insists that it is better to keep to the mean by habit than to indulge in excesses in full consciousness.

Indeed the word ‘Ethics’ has exactly this meaning. It denotes good social habits. If every citizens develops good habits then society will benefit. Then there is a good chance that the state will be an ethical society.

Christopher asked:

It is sometimes claimed that morality is dependent on religion. Evaluate the claim critically.

Answer by Eric George

The claim itself is quite philosophically regressive. Let me explain further; religion in general, any religious adherent cannot claim that their moral ethics are more superior than the next, because for this to even be thinkable it would have to elevate a particular religion above another within the context of which one is true and the other false. Even then, it gets trickier, because one would have to prove that his or her religion is more moral being true – than another, being false. Trying to accomplish this by using a single religion to differentiate say, good from evil, in contrast to the religion next in line ends up being totally idiosyncratic. Monolithic problems arise when philosophical and theological trends impose the idea that morality began within a religious framework, and therefore this necessarily follows that if for example, religion were to disappear morality would as well, which is totally speculative – based upon conjecture rather than truth. The fact is that generalizations about religion are almost always misleading, for even the most elementary study of the puree of different religions in existence today reveals fundamental contradictions.

Most of the world’s religions have, it is true, developed an ecclesiastical pecking-order of some sort, particular sacred rituals or forms of worship and relative to the topic; less universally, a pattern of moral and ceremonial behaviour to which the collectivity of the faithful are to conform. But this ‘pattern’ is highly irregular, to the point that even the most cursory examination of the theological to moral correlations of any religion push contradiction rather than consensus. For morality to be dependent upon religion, it would mean that ones religious orientation would dictate ones moral ethical duties in expressions of morally sound outcomes paramount over that of a person who is not religiously inclined i.e. agnostics, atheists, nihilists and the likes. This train of thought of course leads to self-defeatist implications, as it cannot solidify such a claim even if it wished to do so.

Christians, for example, truly believed in the religious moral cause of the Crusades during its happening, to reclaim the Holy land (despite thousands upon thousands of innocent people dying because of it). I don’t think any Christian nowadays believes this is still the case, or deems the Crusades a ‘moral incentive’. Belief in a God or Gods to determine ones moral behaviour is to miss the point entirely, that morality and an understanding of it therein can and does exist detached from religion and/or religious orientation completely. Morality therefore, cannot be dependent upon religion, since it can be understood, studied and evaluated outside of religion and separate from it in either case.

Viola asked:

If you cannot be certain on what the truth is, based on experience, can you know anything at all?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

If you wish to do things philosophically, the first rule is: be careful that you actually know what kind of a question you are asking!

If were to ask a computer this question, you’ll find ‘it does not compute’. You’ve not specified precisely what your notions of ‘truth’ and ‘experience’ are.

Philosophy is no different. The answer you receive depends on whom you ask. You can’t expect that everyone knows what’s on your mind when you write those words!

Now we use the word ‘truth’ quite casually every day, and usually we mean the truth of some fact, of which the opposite is misinformation or lies. But this is easily resolved, and a computer can do it too.

But maybe you want something ‘deeper’? The truth of your soul, or scientific proof, or even God’s truth?

Then the question can be answered, at least provisionally.

A scientific proof is grounded in experience, i.e. a theory and experimentation. The outcome of this is usually some form of exact knowledge. But soul and God are beyond us; on these issues we have only the choice between guessing and trusting revelation.

In short: we humans have no other actual access to truth than what our collective experience over many generations conveys to us. But this is not ‘truth in itself’ – it is the sum of judgements made on many disparate kinds of circumstances in which our forefathers and we discern something that may strike us as ‘truth’.

Truth itself cannot be experienced. There is no such thing out there in the world. But you can have an experience that results in some condition that you feel is either truthful or not. So judgement must resolve it. If someone steals your car and is known to be a thief, you will say, ‘it’s in character’. You mean, that’s a truth about that person. But it may change. A thief may get sick of being jailed and stop stealing. Then this former ‘truth’ will turn into something else.

Many truths, especially the ‘higher’ truths, are mere prejudices. They are not based on experience, but on some person claiming to be in possession of some truth, even ‘The’ truth, and inviting or forcing other people to believe it. This is very common, today as it has always been in history.

So to return to your question: It is not a question to which a cut-and-dried answer can be given. The words ‘truth’ and ‘experience’ are welded together in the sense that no truth can be known unless there is an experience behind it, that has been evaluated by a human judgement.

Now this has no effect on the other part of your question, ‘how can we know anything at all?’ All living creatures, including those which can’t think, must evaluate information in order to survive. That’s their truth. Accordingly it is knowledge. If you get it wrong, you become extinct. So survival is the great teacher of knowledge.

We humans have a lot more knowledge than worms, but some of this may not be survival truths, but survival dangers (e.g. nuclear power). So you see, that ‘truth’ is an inherently ambiguous term, because it can mean so many things to many people, and they may all disagree with each other. But as I said, having knowledge has virtually nothing to do with truth. Truth only becomes important when you use this knowledge to act. Then you will find out, in the long or the short run, whether your ‘truth’ is truth or not.

Yeboah asked:

1: who is a philosopher?

2: can anyone be a philosopher?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

This is like asking can anyone be an artist or a musician. Anyone can buy a box of paints or a guitar but that doesn’t make you an artist or a musician.

You become a philosopher by studying philosophy and logic to a high level. Read lots of philosophy books and then read more philosophy books. Philosophy is not about sitting around having deep thoughts. It is about hard study.

One you know about philosophy then you are in some sense a philosopher but that doesn’t mean you will be a great philosopher. Going to art college will teach you to draw and paint but that doesn’t mean you will be a great artist.

To be a great artist you need talent and dedication. The same is true for philosophy. People become musicians because the are compelled to play music. People become philosophers because they feel compelled to study philosophy.

Philosophizer by Geoffrey Klempner

'Philosophizer' by Geoffrey Klempner


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