[ExI] Increasing coherence over increasing context? Or Truth?

Lee Corbin lcorbin at rawbw.com
Thu May 21 06:03:15 UTC 2009

Jef writes

> On Sun, May 17, 2009 at 9:55 PM, Lee Corbin <lcorbin at rawbw.com> wrote:
>> Here is what the driving analogies are: our models
>> (or theories *about*) physical reality. Suppose that
>> you and I are measuring a temperature or merely the
>> length of a rod. It is EXTREMELY USEFUL, I contend,
>> to maintain that our measurements are converging on
>> something.
> Lee, once upon a time I attempted to convey to you the distinction
> between precision and accuracy.
> <http://lists.extropy.org/pipermail/extropy-chat/2008-October/046099.html>

I do have to study that, thanks, because I so
often mix up the three concepts /reliability/,
/accuracy/, and /precision/ that one of my
best friends is positively annoyed. However,
fortunately for me, I don't think that I used
one of those terms in our exchange.

I also have to remind myself that you are not
exactly an anti-realist:

 >>> My point is not that there is no reality,
 >>> but that the reality which can be expressed
 >>> is not the true reality. [Taken from an
                 earlier post of yours.]

Since you seem to acknowledge that there's
a "true reality" though ineffable, I can't
disagree there. I suppose I could ask you
to keep that concept in mind below.

 >>> And that we would do well to let go of
 >>> early 20th century aspirations toward
 >>> increasing certainty about the Truth
 >>> of the workings of a clockwork universe,

"Increasing certainty", to be sure, would
be an inappropriate goal. We're can never
be certain; all knowledge is conjectural,
as we say in PCR.

 >>> and embrace a pragmatic view of increasing
 >>> instrumental truth (probability) within a
 >>> context of ever-increasing uncertainty
 >>> (possibility.)

I strongly suspect that this doesn't really
harbor any ideas I disagree with. Very possibly
(though I'm sure you won't agree) these are
words and concepts that for all practical
purposes amount to the same kind of realism
we all normally embrace.

Once again, I refer everyone to Chris Hibbert's
great review of Sunny Auyang's book:
Chris covers very well, using Dr. Auyang quotes,
the kind of realism that appeals to many modern
scientists as well as appealed to Kant.

> During my more than three decades in the business of analytical
> instruments, I worked with countless customers who would naively ask
> about the accuracy (veracity, truth) of their instrument.  Nearly
> always, I would have to explain that the instrument performs in terms
> of sensitivity, stability, and... most importantly, precision.  And
> that is all that is needed, entirely useful, for any of their process
> control needs.

Hmm, you were there, but how did you know that
they were not inquiring merely to the reliability
of the instrument in matching, say, an international
standard. Perhaps you can give me a hand, here:

I paid $400 for a high precision thermometer because
I got too interested in the "exact" temperatures of
my various living rooms. It claims to be accurate
(oh, hell, or precise, I don't remember) to one-tenth
of a degree Fahrenheit. Now when I turn it on, and
look skeptically at it as it fluctuates a bit, and
I compare it to my cheaper thermometers, I testify
that I have this in mind: I want to know the average
temperature that the world's greatest scientists
would report if they'd spent billions of dollars
instrumenting the various rooms of my house. Since
I do understand the kinetic theory of gases and
I know that my instrument (and theirs) must vacillate
a great deal, I think I do understand (you may
disagree) the nonexistence of an infinitely
precise temperature (given by some real number r).

I think that you object to the concept of there
being a real temperature at a given point at a
given time. Yet it is *so* useful to be able to
say (for example after a lot of very good
measurements have been taken) "it is completely
false that the temperature has been below 60
degrees Fahrenheit at any time during the last
five minutes here". Which implies that we ought
to embrace some statement like "it is completely
true (given that all knowledge is conjectural)
that the temperature under the conditions just
referred to was at all times between 66 and 70
degrees Fahrenheit".

> If they actually needed accuracy, then it was obtainable by taking the
> measurement results and calibrating them relative to a reference
> standard traceable to NIST or some other institution.

Right. Okay.

> But here's the key point:  If NIST were to arbitrarily modify their
> standard, and everybody recalibrated to it so they again had a common
> basis for comparison, everything would work just as well.  Accuracy
> has NO MEANING independent of context.

The first sentence I grant, of course. It's the
second that troubles me. What does it mean? That
there is a NIST standard somewhere (for this
example)? Is that the sort of context you mean?
I worry that the meaning/word ratio of your
last sentence is pretty low.

>> Something real, i.e., though the measuring rod we
>> know to be a host of dancing sub-elementary particles
>> (again, we "know" as an approximation to something
>> that somehow really does make up the measuring rod),
>> the thing we're trying to measure is on average of
>> our measurements closer and closer to something,
>> and our rod is (can be measured to be) more and
>> more exactly some multiple of the one they keep
>> in Paris.
> What do you imagine is the pragmatic difference between your "closer
> and closer to Something" (implying increasing accuracy relative to a
> Something which you acknowledge is inherently ultimately unknowable)
> and my "increasing precision" within any particular measurement
> context?  Which delivers the better results? [Don't ignore the
> non-negligible inefficiencies and errors introduced by any unnecessary
> process.]

"Pragmatic difference"? Well, I don't really see
any. Both seem to deliver the same results, except
that mine avoids the perhaps tricky word "context"
in this context :) and on the whole my realistic
descriptions are simpler and more intuitive than
are your rather (pardon me) overly elaborate ones.

> Lee, please don't forget that I spent over twenty years successfully
> managing highly technical teams within a highly competitive
> environment.

Arguing from authority never gets anywhere with
me, pal  :)

> I'm not speaking from the ivory towers of academia, nor
> from a background in the Humanities steeped in Postmodernist
> Deconstruction, nor from any vague, mush-headed mystical point of
> view.

That's good. But I don't think that I could have
made much of a case that you were (so speaking).

> My larger point is not that epistemological reductionism is wrong, but
> that as a framework for decision-making it is incomplete, with serious
> ramifications for the rational application of increasing
> instrumentality within an increasingly uncertain world.

Take the temperature example again. Yes, I
can admit that many people have a rather
naive view of what temperature is (never
having even heard any phrase like "mean
kinetic energy" in their lives), but does
it really lead to bad planning, bad investment,
or wrong-headed approaches in practical life?


 > My larger point is not that epistemological reductionism is wrong, but
 > that as a framework for decision-making it is incomplete...

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