Remarks on Empirical vs Ex Cathedra Solutions to Enduring Problems

“Facts and their properties” has occupied my thinking for much of the past year. I suggested earlier that the current term *fact* needs to be supplemented by terms which express the idea that many matters which were once considered as factual have lost their credentials and have since been dishonourably discharged.

A famous example of this was the discovery (c.1886) that eels possess sexual organs i.e reproduced themselves in a “normal” manner by sexual coupling, a discovery consonant with Darwin’s view that fish reproduced sexually and were not worms reproducing through spontaneous generation, which was the view advocated by Aristotle (c 330 BC), two thousand years earlier. This 19th century discovery meant that statements which supported “spontaneous generation” as a mechanism for generating new life-forms were weakened to the point of extinction; such statements therefore joined the ranks of “factoids”, as part of dead-science. In short, spontaneous generation was not an option which could be summoned to account for the emergence of new species.

Here then is a model for the transition of statements which describe the world in empirically false terms and how, at some later stage, such statements are replaced by a new body of statements, by new knowledge. It is a complicated process which often meets fierce resistance that is by those who have been entrusted by their follow citizens to guard our hoard of “knowledge”, like the Nibelungen’s guardian dragons protecting the golden treasure of the Rhine. Old treasured tales do not pass gently into the night but fiercely resist such attempts to demystify them. It isn’t that some newer theory is found to be correct, but that finally someone convinced others of the error of their ways, and the old theory was discovered to be faulty perhaps even in several repeats. Spontaneous generation, the pre-Darwinian theory used to account for new species, was a plausible theory at the time these matter were first discussed – but in the end it was deemed seems to be inadequate and was therefore rejected by the scientific community as a whole, and by those we had entrusted to safe-keep our knowledge.

In summary, the challenge faced by biologists at the turn of the 19th century was to discover evidence which either would suffice to continue it to support an older theory of speciation (as sanctified by Aristotle two thousand years earlier) or to find evidence which contradicted the theory proposed by Darwin and others during there first half of the 19th century, that speciation was an ongoing (contemporary) process powered by a combination of mutations in cells (about which very little was known at the time) and the adaptation of such mutants to their ecological niche. These were different but complementary tasks: (1) find supporting evidence for two conflicting position about speciation and/or (2) find evidence which contradicts one, or both, of the theories proposed to explain the large variety of species observed and the source of their often small inter-species differences. At the time these matters were first debated when both microbiology and especially cell biology were in their infancy, and were still half a century away from the great breakthroughs of the late 1950s. The initial problems were set by conflicting theories which had been formulated when knowledge about these matters was sketchy and mostly conjectural. Historically, here was a case of how these problems were approached and resolved, step by step, often secretively, through empirical investigations.

But the history of our knowledge about the world also records many cases where solution were adopted ex-cathedra, that is, by declaring a solution to a problem which was primarily based on arguments from broadly defined first principles. If there was public disagreements about these, it was based on how well and perfectly deductions had been derived from the assumptions adopted. These first principles, as they came to be known, referred to assumptions which were not themselves directly challenged, but which were assumed to depict and reflect an existing state of affairs on the grounds that these were self-evident to the theorist (the person who mattered) or because these appeared the best ones (as in the most rational) available under the prevailing circumstances to the writer and his friends.

The most persuasive cases cited from the past of solutions which had been reached in this manner were the proofs of Euclidean geometry. These proofs had been available to the educated elite of historical periods who had assumed that space is best represented by a two-dimensional linear surface. Thus, all the conclusion reached by Euclid and his many successors over the next 2,000 years were deemed to hold when applied to what is basically a “flat earth” model of the earth: however, any conclusions drawn did not hold for spaces which were concave or convex, i.e., did not hold for the surface of globes. The assumptions that the earth is flat, that the earth is stationary, that celestial objects move relative to the earth, that the movement of celestial bodies are uninfluenced by their proximity to the earth, that light and sound travel through a medium and specifically that light travels in a straight trajectory etc., were not questioned until the end of the 19th century. When these older assumptions were challenged and exposed to experimental investigations, this change in approach also marked the end of solutions to problems which used the deductive approach.

Of course, deductions from first principles remained valid when done strictly according to a priori rules of logic, but the deduction themselves could not answer questions about what composed the universe to start with, or how things worked during “post-creation” periods! Such questions demanded that one demonstrated that any claim about a state of affairs had been independently demonstrated, that there was a correspondence between a state of affairs as perceived and what was being asserted about it. Under some conditions the meeting of two points in space does not make “sense” and therefore needed to be viewed as an “impossible act” !

Once it was accepted that empirical investigations could reveal new facts it opened the door to the (dangerous?) idea that old existing facts could be tarnished, even faulted, perhaps that new discoveries could be superior to old facts. To which old facts? All, or only to some? Those facts declared to be so were supported by the first layer of assumptions made. It was a dangerous idea.

The history of comets is a case in point. Comets had been reported for thousands of years by both Eastern and Western sky-watchers, but were thought to be aberrations from a pre-ordained order of things, which portended unusual events, like the birth and death of prominent people,(e.g. Ceasar’s death, Macbeth’s kingship, Caliban’s fate — Shakespeare was, as is well known, well-versed in the Occult, as were many in his audience). But where did comets come from, and how did they travel through the (layered) sky? What propelled them and for what goodly reasons did they come menacingly across the sky ? It required special agents to interpret such rare public events. These were furthermore more likely to be messengers from the gods, and were therefore inspired seers and were believed (before the advent of Christianity) to be equipped to find answers to especially difficut questions! Thus if one assumed (as was common for thousands of years) that celestial bodies travelled around the earth on fixed translucent platforms – perhaps on impenetrable crystalline discs, each of which was “nailed” permanently to an opaque or translucent wall in the sky – this belief opened a number of possibilities to previously unanswered questions. (We create worlds for ourselves which make it possible to answer questions which bother us!)

There were other assumptions involved, as for example the assumption that whoever created the world (the great mover, as assumed by some early Greek philosophers) who must also have created everything perceivable in accordance with a perfect plan which employed perfect forms, e.g., perfect geometric forms and patterns. Such assumptions had to be jettisoned before one could consider alternatives which dispensed with the notion (a) that perfect forms existed since even before the world did ab initio or (b) that anything imperfect would necessarily refer to an illusion, a distortion, aberration and was therefore itself unnatural! Comets, according to ancient astronomer or priests and others, were not to be viewed as natural phenomena, but were viewed as unnatural, abberations, beyond what super-intelligent entitites would do, a species which could intervene in the normal, divine order of things! Thus our ancestors provided for the possibility that a construction could arise which was built by following imperfect rules of construction and which could by virtue of this also implode unexpectedly!

The last paragraph illustrates graphically what I have tagged as ex-cathedra procedures and has demonstrated how a naturalistic philosophy, which was based on assumptions that knowledge attained by empirical discoveries was inherently superior to knowledge derived or deduced from first principles. The issue is to justify why any choice would be superior in effect to its alternatives: it has remained a casus belli between different factions of metaphysicians for two and half thousand years – perhaps even longer. We have of course few records, if any, which would support either position wholly or fully. This may perhaps change in future as we inreasingly and assiduously store all earlier findings and speculations regardless of how well supported, and before we undertake the awesome task of assessing each on the strenght of its merits. There are no ultimate judges as far as we know who can undertake this task and also assume responsibilty for any final recommendations they may make!

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The Fictions We Create 7: More on descriptive (empirical) and evaluative terms

This article continues an argument started in article #6 of this series, The Fictions We Create 6: Flawed diamonds —
description or evaluation?

Can *flawed* (in the sense that some items fall short of a proposed standard) and its antonym, *unflawed*, be viewed as descriptive terms? Both are used evaluatively and do not describe in the ordinary sense of that word (referring to features). We may talk about a diamond being “flawed” but mean that the gem has features which make it less than perfect. In the eyes of experts this may degrade its market value, but it does not determine whether the item belongs to the class of diamonds or is cut glass.

Similarly, a farm chicken which has lost its feathers — it was plucked by one of us! — is still a bird, although it is the worse for receiving such uncharitable, cavalier treatment. My argument hopefully is clearly Aristotelean since it starts from the premise that a bird is an object which is defined by a finite list of qualities which make it “bird-like”, which give it bird-status! (This is not how modern biologists view species!)

Admittedly, although “definitions” may be useful tools for sorting a heap of bric-a-brac into smaller managable categories, definitions of names should not be confused with efforts to discover why each differs from others, or what makes a bird different from a rodent! Nor should this be confused with a search for explanations, e.g., why a bird is what it is (or seems to us), how differences between events (and objects) originally arose and have come about, or what caused — in the sense of created — a difference between events.

These questions are historical and therefore should be answered using primarily historical methods. It requires, inter alia, that answers state how different (specificable) states changed over time and circumstances, what it was that specifically promoted such changes. It is a case where we wish to have knowledge about circumstance (specific and in general) which give rise uniquely or in general to such changes, as when we comment that “this stone moved its position since I last saw it!”. The answer to this particular quesion may be “Someone deliberately moved the stone up the mountain” or “It must have fallen or have been washed down the hill during recent rains.” Note, however, that in both cases the question of its change of location was answered by referring to an outside (i.e. external) agent of change — and not by reference to an agent, like some property of “volition” which is assumed to be general to all stones (!) or perhaps only to those stones with special markings! (The stuff of fairly-tales, where apple-pits or stones can turn into genies!)

Historical methods would only indicate how we moved from one conception of a phenomenon to another conception, whereas “causal” methods supposedly focus on how things work or on how things have come to be what they seem to be. Aristotle — and other thinkers of his period, including his students — raised these and related issue partly because they were firmly convinced that “change” in anything, whether of type, or movement, or of contingent features, reflect an unstable universe, that is, an imperfect world, whereas human reason revealed that it was our immediate perceptions that were variable, not the world as such! This was a major metaphysical assumption to make, one he had taken from Plato. Thus, prototypes (ur-forms) were stable whereas much of what we experience was regarded as ephemeral, even as shadows of the “real”, as representations. It reflects a “metaphysical stance”, a position based on our reasoning about matters which are given to us a priori.

The distinction made in earlier blogs between terms which serve to describe features of things and those which are evaluations of a feature of a “thing”, are critical for two entirely different reasons:

(a) Descriptions are used to identify features of events. It is not claimed that these descriptons are complete, and therefore form an exhaustive list, or that these are ordered in importance, but only state that each belongs to a list of attributes ascribed to a named thing. These may include reference to its relative distinctiveness, as when someone mentions that parakeets are “green-feathered all over” or that “Henry VIII in old age was bloated” — an empirical assertion which could be falsified and thereby eliminated from the list of “essential attributes”.

(b) Evaluations used to compare features of events as these stand to each other on some common yardstick. A “flawed diamond” for example selects a quality of a particular stone but does so both in relation to other stones but also by reference to a “perfect” or “ideal” one.

Aristotle suggested that we require a comprehensive inventory of things before we can inquire into the nature of each. He emphasized that things have properties which identify them in two ways: as individual items but also as a member of a class. Thus a thing may be a sample of a class, or it may refer to the class itself. There is a class of “man” but there are also instances, like “Socrates”. A simple but dfferent example: shoes are protective foot wear used by men, women, and children and are produced in all sizes as well as for each class of humans!

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The Fictions We Create 6 : Flawed diamonds — description or evaluation?

Question: Is the universe — as conceptualized by earlier cosmologists — an entity which could be described as either perfect or imperfect? In the former case, it could be referred to as a “flawless” universe, or at least as a universe becoming flawless. Indeed, this is how it was viewed by many Western theologians for the past two millennia. But in as much as the universe was not without flaws, blame was placed on the iniquity of humans, not on its Creator. Not a convincing argument! One could reason that flaws in humans are due to how humans were “designed” (with what potential flaws?), or to the plans prepared for its creation, or to the original designer for having created a flawed species.

The complementary idea that the universe itself had flaws, that it is not perfect, has not been put forward by theologians. How would anyone find out whether this was true, or even reasonable? Assume, for example, that the “world”, or the “universe” was not flawed, but has detectable blemishes! This argument would be based on the premise that the initial forces of creation were faulty, or were deficient in some sense, that its most significant product, humans, were ill-designed — a view which has not found many, if any advocates! However, the notion that humans — or other creatures — were “designed”, is itself contentious and involves an odd use of the term *designed*. It raises the issue whether the term “designed” is appropriate when used in such a general, almost frivolous, and unrestricted manner. Is it not better to remove the use of the term “designed” from its traditional plinth?

Stated differently, the notion that humans were created according to a design has the logical status of an empirical hypothesis. It implies that a design for this particular species preceded its appearance. But this would apply to everything else, too. Evidence for such a hypothesis (or contention) is missing. One would therefore expect the hypothesis to die a natural death. It should be discarded in favour of a better, superior proposal! We have indeed waited already too long for this to happen. There are many now who would argue that it is time to re-state the original question and to do so preferably in a manner which makes it more readily answerable.

What kind of concept is flawed (or faulted)? It is certainly an evaluative term since it judges by referring to a standard. As commonly used, *flawed* is not a property ascribed to an event, but involves a criticism of it. It involves a comparison of two or more similar, related items with respect to a particular feature each of these displays.

A more familiar example than *flawed* is *tall*. It compares objects by appealing to an independent measure of height. *Taller*, therefore, refers to a comparison of the height between different, possibly even unrelated objects, as for example, “this giraffe is taller than this book-case”. It does describe an object, but does so by referring to a relationship between any two or more objects. To give an example: garments cover some of the surface of its wearer but garments need not have colour. Colour therefore is regarded as an “extrinsic feature” of a garment whereas one of its features — that it of covers a body — is part of its “definition” — or specification — as an object!

The comparison makes particular reference to the objects’ functionality, but avoids reference to its purpose, since objects do not necessarily have a purpose in the normal — metaphysically neutral — sense of that term! For example, a bookcase has no purpose, but it serves a need — specifically my need, or that of an organisation, like a public library which was designed and planned to hold and store manusucripts in book form.

On the other hand, a giraffe has neither purpose nor does it fulfill a human need (sic!) in the broad sense of that term. Only items about which we can say that these promote (serve some “self-interest”) and are agents on a mission, are said to have a purpose (in the strict sense of that term). What occurs for other reasons than human self-interest are viewed (by us) as “activated” by instinct, compulsion, destiny, some obscure entelechy, or by physical causes (e.g. a ball rolling down a hill).

Psychoanalysts have encouraged us for the past century and more to think of humans as partly activated by desires of which the actor is not necessarily aware or cogniscnant. Indeed the actor may advance reasons for actions which seem to any impartial outsider irrelevant. Thus, it often seems that actions cannot be explained in terms which the general public will accept!

Some philosophers (e.g. L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1953; and Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, 1949) have argued that we have become increasingly confused by our own rhetoric, that we may say things without meaning them, or that since there is often more than one meaning attached to a word we may be focussed on a meaning which not intended by others! Wittgenstein even suggested that there is a cure for this malady, that a more careful analysis of how each of us uses language in everyday affairs may help us avoid “mental cramps” and dilemmas.

He may have had in mind earlier philosophers who made such outlandish claims as that time is not real, as is the philosopher who is uncertain of his existence and demands a logical proof that ideed he is alive if not necessarily healthy. The trouble is that the proposed remedy — the analysis of how language is used in specific cases — is not always successful in dealing with such philosophical general problems, and hence does not resolve them. It is also true that the counter-method which was designed to restore self-confidence in what one believes, has not been sufficiently and systematically used to have had a measurable effect!

Thus, we simply don’t know whether philosophical puzzles like “is time real?” — whatever these are or how many of these circulate — can be avoided or perhaps even cured by using the methods proposed by some philosophers — or whether such puzzles can be eliminated altogether. Language, it could be argued, is not a precision instrument at all, like a caliper, and therefore should not be used as such. Presumably one can invent, synthesize, and then prescribe a pill which will cure and medicate some mental cramps, but one cannot always persuade others to take the pills voluntarily. The fear of becoming disoriented as a result of accepting a remedial pill is often overwhelming and may block action by those who may benefit!

To return to our original problem which was to discover the meaning of *flawed*. Used descriptively, this word refers to a dimension which runs the whole gamut from “perfect” to “imperfect”. *Flawed* would then be the name of the dimensions itself. It refers to a a graded set of states, a continuous series, whose opposite (antonym) could be perfected. One would then speak about degrees of perfection, or its opposite, the extent to which something is flawed.

The same logic applies to *faulted*. One could add, that something is “greatly flawed”, but that one is thereby pointing to a new dimension — to a way of emphasizing its position within a recognized already existing dimension! *Greatly* — as in *greatly flawed* — would add an evaluative overtone to such judgement. (See my earlier blog in this series on descriptive and evaluative terms.)

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