[extropy-chat] The statement that there is no truth, if true, is false (Was Your Mom and the Machine)

john-c-wright at sff.net john-c-wright at sff.net
Fri Apr 1 21:30:02 UTC 2005

Mr. Allbright opines: 
"My point was that "truth" (in scare quotes 
because all knowledge is subjective, approximate and contingent) must be 
grounded in the measurable evidence of our senses (and their 
extensions), and to the extent that any observation is not thus 
grounded, it must be discounted."

I respectfully demur. 
The statement "All knowledge is subjective, approximate, and contingent" is
itself objective, precise and absolute. 

It is a objective statement, since it makes a claim without regard to any
observer or any particular circumstances. Note it does not say "From my point of
view, all knowledge is subjective, approximate, and contingent: seen from
another point of view, all knowledge is not."

The phrasing, at least, is certain, even if this is not the writer's intent.
Note it does not say "Most Knowledge is somewhat close to being subjective,
approximate and contingent, given a certain margin of error, more or less." 

It is an absolute statement, making an assertion about something not dependent
upon another statement. Note that the statement does not say "Knowledge is
subjective, approximate, and contingent when it is empirical knowledge, and not
when it is not." 

Now, perhaps the writer in his short parenthetical simply did not have time to
add all these lawyerly conditions and qualifications. Fair enough. But if these
additional qualifications were meant to be implied by the writer, and we are
supposed to assume them, then the statement should read: "Most knowledge, from
my point of view, under certain circumstances, is subjective, approximate, and
contingent, more or less: but there is other knowledge or other conditions where
this is not the case, perhaps." 

Stated this way, the statement cannot be used as the major premise to support
the surrounding argument. If most but not all knowledge is subjective and
contingent, and if there is at least some objective and absolute knowledge, then
it does not follow that all truths must be grounded in measurable evidence of
our senses: knowledge which is objective and absolute is true regardless of what
the senses report. If you think you see twice two apples equal five apples,
check your eyes, not your math. 

I note in passing that the statement "all truths must be grounded in measurable
evidence of our senses" is offered to us as an absolute and objective principle,
and no experiment or observation is given to support it. This statement is a
principle of Epistemology, and metaphysical statement, and no possible empirical
test can prove or disprove it. 

Ironically, all this is true about EMPIRICAL statements. They are subjective to
the point of view of the observer; they depend on the observed data; they are
approximate to the tolerance of the observer and his instruments.  

One need only try to imagine the conditions under which self-evident statements
are false ("Opposite angles are equal"; "Reality is real"; or "This sentence
contains five words") to realize the logical impossibility of all knowledge
being subjective. Any statement whose denial entails a logical contradiction is
true under all conditions and circumstances, that is, self-evident.  Any
statement whose affirmation entails a logical contradiction is false under all
conditions and circumstances, that is, self-refuting. 

Mr. Allbright says: "universal truth is not realizable."
Or, in other words, "No T is R" which equals "All Not-T is R". This statement is
itself a universal. 

He says: "Note that I am being pragmatic by not postulating a universal morality
." but then continues in a mental exercise where he himself displays the moral
values of truthfulness, prudence and philosophical integrity, even (if he fears
dispute) courage. Whether he is intellectually convinced that there is an
objective morality or not, he, and all other people who honestly discuss this
question, ACT as if there is an objective morality. At may be that, from the
God's eye view, there is no such thing as an objective morality, but if all
rational minds are required to make the categorical assumption that such a thing
exists even to engage in the effort of disputing it, then, for all practical
purposes, morality is objective. 

I note also that writers on morality cannot invent a new moral code any more
than they can invent a new primary color. Moral debate consists of arguing which
of competing principles should be given greater weight, or in coming up with
novel arguments to support moral maxims which are themselves as old as time.   

Mr. Allbright says: "I say that we can all agree that what works over a wider
context is better than what works over a narrower context." 

I am tempted to agree, but I wonder if I know what I am agreeing to. We can all
agree on formal grounds to define "better" to mean "works better", but we must
be very skeptical of each other's definition of "works better." Works better for
whom? Works better with what end in mind?

Achilles chose a short and glorious life over a long and prosperous one. Homer
reports the hero's shade in hell envies the slaves of tenant farmers. And yet
the son of Pelias represents the paramount of pagan excellence and virtue. St.
John the Baptist lived in the wasteland eating locusts, and died in prison,
cruelly slain at a girl's whim, while King Herod wore a crown of fine gold and
was Caesar's friend. If you prefer a pagan example, note that Socrates died
drinking hemlock, whereas Alcibiades never was defeated in combat; but no honest
man would prefer to a life like of Alcibiades the traitor to that of the great
Socrates, wisest of the wise. Whatever it is heroes, saints and philosophers
pursue, self-preservation, or a practical concern for what "works", seems a
secondary consideration. 

My point here is that, unless we assume or deduce a moral order to the universe,
it makes no sense to talk of "better" or "worse". These two values deal with a
comparative as its relates to a standard. Without a standard, there is no
"better" or "worse" any more than there is an East and a West in Outer Space:
without a standard, there is merely change.      

Mr. Allbright comments to me: "it is interesting that you can criticize
empiricism as lacking justification, but claim that a mother's authority stands
on its own.  I acknowledge the dependency of a child upon its mother, but as
mentioned earlier this only works well until the child is capable of

I beg to differ again: the justification for empiricism is overwhelming. My
comment was merely that the justification takes the form of a rational deduction
from self-evident first principles, not the form of an observation with a
yardstick and a stopwatch. Empiricism CONCERNS theories of physics but the
Empiricism NOT itself a theory of physics. Physics is concerned with how matter
and energy behave within the range of our senses. Empiricism is a metaphysical
theory about the nature of that type of knowledge which comes through our senses. 

A child that is not dependant on his mother, but who can fend for himself, is
not really what I would call a child. The child is not the one who chooses to be
born, or who decides the course of his nurture and rearing, any more than our
Jupiter Brain decides who will engineer it and program it. 

When the child is a child, he must accept his parental authority on faith. There
is no escape from this fact. Once the child learns to reason, and has sufficient
experience to form mature judgments, he can examine what he previously took on
faith to confirm whether the axioms are self-consistent (rational) and
consistent with experience (empirical). If the parents have taught the child
well, or the Engineer has constructed the Jupiter Brain with the help of a
Philosopher at his elbow (or his Mom), then the child will internalize what he
has learned, adhering to the principles he was taught out of respect for those
principles, rather than merely respect for the authority who first taught him.
If the philosophy and value being taught are sound, there will be continuity
between the generations: there will be a growth and development of humanity into
a richer and finer form of humanity, machine or biological or both, but not the
sharp singularity some thinkers envision, baffled by the alien demigods on the
far side of the IQ barrier. 

"A greater and more likely near-term danger is that a human individual or group 
will utilize the superhuman cognitive power of such a machine for immoral
purposes (purposes that may appear to work for his own relatively narrow
context, but don't work well over a larger context of actors, interactions, or
time.)  Our best defense in such a scenario will be the wide dispersal of such
intelligence amplification in the service of the broader population."

I agree with this in principle, but would tend to emphasize moral maturity over
intellectual augmentation. 

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