Part 1: Science does not prove — only declares

Note: Herewith several related comments on the role of “proof” in the contemporary natural and human sciences. A critical comment on the title of a recently-published book by A. Aczel — which carries the confusing title Why science does not disprove God (2014) — is also included. The first of my comment deals with what it is that “scientific activity” produces. The heading “Science does not prove — but only declares” summarises my conclusion. In brief, that the outcome of scientific inquiries are a series of declaration on our current knowledge about “our world” which together constitute a comprehensive representation — a momentarily authentic picture of what the world is like.

columbus-egg 2What is commonly understood by *submitting a proof* and its opposite, *submitting a disproof*? When someone submits a proof they are said to demonstrate to others how a conclusion they themself (privately) reached was obtained. More specifically, how they arrived at the conclusion by entirely logical means, and not by empirically demonstrations.

If they told us that they just “felt that the vase they had unearthed” was a Greek urn which had once contained the ashes of a fallen warrior, we would call it a “guess” but not a true discovery unless the claim was supported by much more evidence or provenance! If they “show” that something they had foretold had materialized, like that a gesture made towards heaven produced a hail of manna, that is not a proof, but only a demonstration: it shows that their prediction on this particular occasion worked! Such predictions were once made routinely by reputed “wise men” but none have been recorded reliably for the past few hundred years.

A proof, on the other hand, refers to a post-facto event which states that whatever was initially said about a matter followed logically from some earlier explicitly-cited assumptions. For example, that 2 of anything added to 3 results in 5 items. In this case there is no doubt about the existence of the numbers cited, or that the number 5 can be generated in a different ways. The assumptions may not be empirically true — often they are not! What we have here is a calculation which involves abstract, not empirically true events. Two goats standing in the meadow and three sheep grazing nearby make five animals. Contrast this to the claim made that “When I put a match to this spout of a bottle a flame will emerge”. The answer to the question “how is this possible?” will require, amongst others, a reference to specific, well-attested laws of chemistry, rules about what substances are flammable and which are not.

A proof, in short, refers to the outcome of clearly-stated logical operations. Such operations are traditionally performed only by humans — although many psychologists and biologists have argued that it is also found in some non-humans, but only in those species whose nervous system have similar features to ours, containing, for example, neural circuits, a hemispheric brain, cortex, areas which have become centres of control for specific outcomes or operations.

Much has been written and speculated about the relation between the brain as an cohesive organ, as a processor of information and how such information may eventuality translate into states of awareness and also of actions — but it is an ongoing, not a completed story — part of a book with many chapters of which only the first few have been written so far. The future, we predict, will surely offer many additional surprises, and these will be related to the fact that with time and much effort we may get to know more and more about the functional and structural properties of the brains of different species.

One enduring (and thus far unsolved) problem has been to account for corrections which are made by an individual member of a species as a result of their experiences in the past — and how this could be forwarded (transferred) to their descendents to facilitate the behaviour of unborn generations. Are there some aspects of our experiences which are coded so as to become transmittable from generation to generation, just as many bird-song do? The empirical answers to such questions will most likely emerge within the foreseeable future, but in the meantime we can only create increasingly better and superior questions and suppositions of what goes on within creatures which reflect changes in their daily lives, specifically how they come to predict some future events on the basis of their earlier experience or perhaps even by virtue of cross generational transmissions. I could imagine, for example, a mechanism whereby a set of experiences could be transmitted to several future generations so that traces of former experiences would wane and disappear. One may need to exclude carry-overs from the immediate past because these changes may only reflect temporary matters, which traditionally were covered by the term *habituations*, i.e. transitional intra-organic changes which left very few — or minimal enduring residues, for transfer to off springs.

When I state — as in the title of this blog — that “Science does not prove but only declare,” I mean that the fruits and outcomes of scientifically conducted investigations take the form of declarations which one has presented to oneself. Modern science is a communal activity whose traces are found in a group of cohorts and which usually demand that anyone who makes and accepts a new claim can and will defend it publicly in person — as at a scientific conference — or by circulating a documentary report of their investigations in a publicly available journal where it can be criticized by others!

One communicates one’s claim by issuing statements, which may contain abstract formulae that summarize both what one has done to secure the information, but also what one has concluded from such earlier work. It is a declaration of the truth as seen by oneself which is made publicly known so that it can be openly viewed and, if so deemed, criticized! The declarer admits that they could be mistaken about some or even all the summary conclusions presented, but hopes that little of what they claimed has to be withdrawn or revised as a result of criticism.

The popular statement that the “proof of the pudding lies in its eating” is therefore incorrect. The proof of an argument in particular lies in the correctness of its logical derivation, something which requires that the steps taken accord to well-stated rules. The rules predate investigations, research. One assumes that all the assumptions made in an extended argument are necessarily correct, and do not contradict other explicitly made arguments. To be correct therefore assumes that what a statement declares is independently defensible, and therefore does not depend on the correctness of an individual’s perception only. It is assumed to rely on the verification by everyone involved or concerned with the argument, that what has been claimed can also be independently supported by applying common method to the claim.

For example, several claims have been made throughout the last 1500 years that the shroud in which Jesus was wrapped after his body was taken from the cross — data which is not doubted by most — was subsequently found and is now available for public display and examination. However, each shroud so far examined (there have been several) has failed to stand up to all the tests applied, including tests of their reputed age. Thus the hypothesis that the original shroud had been found has not been supported, and cannot be affirmed with confidence, but seems to be based on a wish to believe that such a shroud exists.

Of course, such wishes have no permanent place in scientific investigations but have to be abandoned regardless of their origins. (I’m sure the priests in Egypt believed their stories of the origins of humanity, just as the early priests of Judaism believed in their, may I add, fanciful account of the origin of women! Evidence cited to support a “position” is often viewed as a distraction in such cases since nothing is stronger than the wish to believe.

My preference, therefore, has been to view each declaration in Science as a temporary, time-bound claim only. All these and similar claims are ultimately disputable — and are more than likely to be. The claims may therefore need amendment(s) or may de facto be discarded under the heading, “was of one-time interest because its claim accorded with other plausible pictures or representations available at the time.”

The Fictions We Create 2: Totality of Facts

We speak as if the phrase “the facts” or “the totality of facts” suggest that there is (exists) such an entity as a totality of facts on the analogy of “all the king’s men”, not only “some”. There is no evidence to support this assumption. Once upon a time there were registers of men who served in the King’s army, but there has been nothing comparable for the kingdom of facts. However, once upon a time there was such a number of facts in a specific country during a definable period, during say the reign of James II, or Queen Victoria!

We should therefore think of a domain — rather than a collection — of facts, namely all those matters which could be assembled to reflect a present (current, or time-constrained) set of certainties, of strongly confirmed knowledge-claims which we could defend both logically and methodologically at a specific time. There are probably less of these than were once thought!

The expression “totality of facts” therefore refers to a category which has a limited membership compared to a category which is explicitly stated to be without limits, i.e. limitless. My reference it to “a flock of sheep in the field”: the field itself is bounded so it follows that the number of sheep are only those within that field. To talk about “countless sheep grazing in this field” would be an exaggeration since under suitable condition one could count these. At the end of the count there would be a finite number. The phrase “a countless number” therefore means that the number cannot be counted! But, we can also miscount. To over-count would be classed as an error of calculation. Errors don’t count.

A category which has no limited membership — and therefore is without restrictions — is like referring to “children yet unborn”. The phrase suggests that there are members which make-up this category, which belong to it, yet clearly it is only an estimate of a number. Whatever number is then submitted is therefore only conjectured and is not based on an actual count of instances — which is what was wanted! In short, there are things which can be counted up to an agreed (finite) limit, e.g. the current number of toothless men in Uruguay. But there are also entities (open categories) which defy such treatment, namely, the number of adults in Brazil who will die of apoplexy — which is an estimate.

What to do with the widely used expression “the totality of facts”? Should we agree to abandon it from ordinary use on grounds that the expression inevitably misleads, or that there are too many cases when an arithmetic total cannot be gotten? We could substitute something which gives the flavor of the expression, for example, “The sum of the evidence suggests…” or “In general the majority of cases indicate that…”, or “It seem highly likely that…” — that is, change a categorical statement to a probabilistic one.

It seems therefore that to refer to “totals” and to “totalities” is very often most legitimate but — not surprisingly — only in special cases whose character will need to be defined. In short, it is up to us to use these in a manner which could eliminate unnecessary arguments.

Associative Nets (Again)

*Associative nets* is an empirical term. It refers to something which can be demonstrated or illustrated. The illustration used in the earlier blog is particularly useful in showing what this concept refers to and for this reason is repeated here!

One can select any number of terms in our everyday vocabulary and draw a network of how each term is (or is not) related to some (but not all) other terms of the language. By the same token, if you select any term within an extant language you can show to what other terms in that language it is related. One can use distance, as well as the size of the area covered by a term, or the direction of the connecting link to “map” the relationship between different term. However the nets are multi-directional; the space is n-directional. I add another feature: temporality, that is that nets develop over time so that a shift in the net may influence large areas, a kind of ripple effect which spread from an impact point to distant places, yet does not extend over all surfaces.

If this image of an associative net is moderately correct, it should be clear that it is almost impossible to treat a language-in-use as a stable unit. Such a language deserves to be viewed as a river into which one cannot step twice, yet for practical purposes one views it as the same river. If one builds a dam in the river to store its waters, then later converts the dam to also serve as a source of power, the river retains its name and even most of its contours from source to end. One may revise one’s private image of the river, but this is optional and depends on the situation itself. In fact, we are aware that matters have changed and we accommodate our thoughts accordingly. We use our language not as an object made in heaven, but as a flexible tool which will serve our purposes.

No Free Ride to Certainty

Earlier I wrote (Nov. 2013) that,

“Science should not be likened to a bound hard-cover volume, a collection of unchallengeable, incontrovertible truths. It is more like a loose-leaf folder in which our latest insights into nature, into aspects of ourselves and the accumulated wisdom of past learning are stored.”

The implication: science is more like a soft-cover book. A better analogy would be that science has the features of a loose-leaf file which is appropriately date stamped on every page. Its pages can be removed — but not trivially discarded. Continuity is an important factor in understanding!

What I therefore reject is the notion that a record of what we see has especial epistemic validity. Rather, it is a moveable decision that a “claim of particulars ” has been registered; may be only one of an evolving series. Such a claim is in a position to be challenged, and can continue to being challenged for ever and a day. It is a falsifiable hypothesis which could be overturned by a single negative instance. It cannot be reinstated except by re-writing the “terms of particulars”, as when we change the claim “all swans are white” and replace it with “except those (many) which originated in Australasia”.

“Seeing” here refers to a preferred method of personally checking the status of our claim. Reading a dial, or confirming by noting the change of a beep emitted regularly by an auditory monitor, i.e. hearing, is an alternative method. It is not seeing — the visual act — that leads to believing, but it is the testing of a hypothesis which is critical, no matter how done.

There are many other things which could be done to falsify a hypothesis, although we often let some position die through neglect and then no longer defend it. Hypotheses can become trivialized, and lose their interest and sway over us. For example, a dark, black area in the sky is not “empty space” to an astronomer. He may only see black areas — as do others — but these are not necessarily signs of emptiness! The microbiologists is in a comparable position: he may not see anything — but may add that this may be due to the weakness of the current microscope, then get another or invent a new one.

But what is at peril is the idea that belief is based on experience and furthermore that experience does not lie but is sacrosanct. Experience — note — is our way of expressing the idea that our specific claims have risen beyond reasonable doubt. It is however itself a claim, has to be viewed as such and therefore what we see can be doubted.

Nota bene: There is no free ride to certainty. Each of us has to learn how to maintain doubt during our most perilous moments.

Associative Nets

I am most grateful to Brian Kennedy for his detailed and insightful reply to my earlier blog Are there infallible facts. I’ve already followed up with the response Empirical vs. Ex Cathedra Solutions. Here is a second follow-up, selecting other points made by Brian, which certainly have taken the discussion beyond the limits of my earlier piece.

Brian pointed out that I had “exposed… that the noun *claims* is (often) subjected to more weight than it can bear”, but he also rightly pointed out that this is quite common in everyday language. He also makes the valuable point that ordinarily words reach over to connected with others, as when the term *claim* is associated with claimants, liabilities, and assets (especially in a legal context), although it is quite acceptable and common to use each of these terms without making explicit reference to any of these. Elsewhere — and more recently — I referred to this as cases where words are part of an associative-net.

brain-netWe can, for example, ask others to “free associate” by giving a starter-word only and asking someone to come up with as many words as possible for the next few minutes. In many cases the string of words each person presents during such serial association have significant overlaps. Wittgenstein talked about this phenomenon as terms having a “family resemblance”. It underscores that words or phrases should NOT be viewed in the manner suggested earlier, as independent items — a view proposed, for example, by an earlier Wittgenstein (c.1921, the author of the Tractatus) and also by members of the Vienna Circle (later knows as Logical Positivists), but that words reaches out to others, as it were (see Wittgenstein post-1940).

For example, we understand that *claim* as used by lawyers and accountants is viewed as something owed (liability) or owned (asset). Furthermore that where there is a claim there is also a claimant, a party making such a claim, whether as an individual or a group of people. Thus there have been two greatly opposed positions. One states that each word should be viewed as a separate, independent event, an item which is clearly demarcated from others. The second position argues that words, in general, are members of families, have resemblances and acted on behalf of other members of their family. A useful analogy to those of us who have families!

I generally take the position that in ordinary language we are best advised to assume the “family resemblance” stance. Most referential words and phrases follow the prescription that there is more than one meaning to a words and/or phrase, as demonstrates most clearly in any etymological dictionary, or in Roget’s Thesaurus. In current-day formal sciences, however, the rule is that each word or phrase should have a rigid definition (although this rule is often broken within a relatively short time). These two rules clearly conflict. But it is like a tennis player on a badminton court: he either has already learned separate sets of rules and uses these appropriately, as the occasion demands or, if he fails to do so, he will surely be asked to leave the court by some imperious judge!

Let us briefly look at a family of adverb-adjectives which are often reified and which thereby get transformed during this process. Thus *truly*, *true* and *truth* (see example 1 below) represents such a family: these items have family resemblance, i.e., they are related in meaning, but have different grammatical status. However *truth* — the third of these — overarches, literarily speaking: it is an abstract entity relative to the other two terms, and “sits above” them, as it were.

Example 1
Item: truly, true, truth
Over-arching: truth

Example 2
Item: factually, factual, fact
Over-arching: factuality

The further examples that follow are similar but include terms often used in philosophical discussions and are “noun-words”, which appear as if these are names of objects — which they are not.

  • really, real, reality
  • necessarily, necessary, necessity
  • logically, logical, logic
  • infallibly, infallible, infallibility

Why say, “facts [as items] are claims to truth [in the over-arching sense]”? Why not say instead, “truths [items] are claims to factuality [over-arching]”?

How is the *facts/factuality* cluster to be distinguished from the *truths/truthfulness* cluster? Which of these two clusters (if either) is logically/definitionally dependent on the other? In what do these dependencies consist? Do these two clusters constitute a distinction without a difference?

Furthermore, whatever a decision is reached in these matters, one should remember that these have a limited time during which they operate reliably. Our efforts to catch the world as “experienced”, on the fly, is a game with rules that we now know changes as we play.*

*Imagine playing a set of tennis during which the rules change! This has mattered little in the past, when games were long and players generally speaking did not outlast the set, as they do now. And don’t let’s even get started in games which we believe will continue “for all time.”

Facts and the Web of Conceit

Part 1 — Corroboration of Beliefs

When people talk about themselves — about what they saw, how they felt about everyday things, even how they discuss unusual happenings — their utterances could often have been expressed more succinctly, more accurately, with more of a twinkle in their eyes or fervour in the voice. I myself invariably look for “better” ways of describing things, especially personal impressions and experiences. I am acutely aware of the difference between how I think about past experiences and how I report these to others. There is a conflict between the best words which give the most accurate description and to tailor the suit to the wearer.

Sometimes a matter of making things interesting rather than boring. One may take a measure of the other person, of their sensibilities and their sophistication. But one also needs to draw a line,to reach conclusions readily, correctly, avoid dilly-dallying, tell it as it comes even when it is not how things originally appeared, by a good preacher, not a yawning lecturer. Such doubts mostly concern personal experiences and do not apply to reporting “objective” matters.

Thus when I tell you that I flew from Toronto to London on the 8th September, 2011 this report that can be independently supported, that is, corroborated by independent “others”. Corroboration by others supports any beliefs I express on my own behalf.*

Belief, we can conclude, is either something we confirm to be “true” because we trust our personal experience (even when we shouldn’t!) or because we trust others regardless of whether we trust ourselves in a matter. (Was I awake or dozing when I thought I saw a mouse climb up a clock?)

Belief is therefore not a property or quality of an event, but refers to a personal, subjective state to which we have assigned transcendental qualities, namely a quality which cannot be independently verified. We do so on the assumption that it is an act of affirmation which others cannot deny us — even dare not deny us!

When used in the plural, e.g. (a) my beliefs, suggesting that I have several beliefs which together form an entity, often referred as a set of beliefs or that (b) our beliefs, that is a set of individual beliefs each of which is also part of each person’s set of beliefs, there is a problem.

Take each in turn: (a) my beliefs suggests that I am the owner of several belief-items, that each item is, or may be independent of others and that these have no common origin. It is like having individual pearls in my jewellery box, not strung together into a necklace or fashioned into an ornament. Furthermore some pearls may have a different hue than others, or differ in size, features not mentioned or discussed by my statement.

828002.TIFBut beliefs, like pearls, differ in brightness, size, and other properties and some beliefs are more intensely believed than others. Also different beliefs held may be coherent, that is, constitute a web of beliefs and therefore have a demonstrable structure which relate them to each other or which like pearls lie separately yet waiting to be arranged into one or more pieces of jewellery.

It seems more often that the latter describes things best, even though we fantasize otherwise on the assumption that beliefs should form a “configuration”. We may occasionally be able to demonstrate that some belief-items cohere though the wish here may be father to the claim.

Consider the term (b) our beliefs (which I treat as one word referring to one item). This may refer to one of two notions: first, that each person has a set of (independent) foundational ideas, which is referred to as “our beliefs” since it refers to an individual person’s set of individual beliefs. Yet my set of beliefs and yours may differ, so that it it is appropriate to refer to these in the plural form, as our beliefs, your set and mine.

Note, that belief-items may be shared, but that each set is different — that individual belief-item is not necessarily shared (common) by all members of the group of people. It may result in the group being separated into sub-groups, as are those members of a church who hold that only men should be priests, or who hold that only unmarried men should be admitted to priesthood — currently a debating point in several religious communities.

Most often we agree to sort beliefs into those we hold in common with others to form a belief-cluster (or dogma?) which unites us into a group and which therefore leave beliefs which lies outside this shared area as “idiosyncrasies”. It often represents a first step towards open-mindedness. United we stand, cry some! Let anthropologists and sociologists characterize us as best they can.

If we ask, “Can a list of ideas everyone shares with others be given a basket-label?” we come up with two answers, not one! There often is a class of foundational ideas but there is often also a basket of transcendental ideas. Foundational ideas are those which refer to experiences which cannot be destroyed by doubt, ideas which are skeptic-proof.

Descartes (c. 1630) comes to mind as the best known advocate of this position, but also Locke (c. 1690) who claimed that all ideas were experience-based and mediated initially through sense-perception: the slate for Locke was clean but also ready to receive messages, unmistakeable imprints.†

Accordingly, foundational ideas refer to those first impressed (imprinted?) on us and which therefore cannot be eradicated or revised, but only be built upon. Some writers have argued that first-impressed does not mean that what subsequently follows is inevitable since there is no rule which states that such material has subsequently to be processed in a particular manner. Such a claim would be like claiming that given flour, water and a few basic ingredients one can only create one type of bread and no cakes. Tell that to a lover of apple strudel. One may say that the structure of the web is not determined by what the web is composed of — as any graphic artist knows. The relationships between materials used to make a painting is only one of many possible relations.

It is widely held that transcendental ideas are those we use to order our experiences. According to Kant (c. 1800) ordering experience requires concepts of “time” and “space” yet these are entities which are independent of the experience that is being ordered, as are the logical categories which are part of the ordering process. The existence of such ordering ideas have always been presumed as givens (Plato wrote extensively about these).

In principle it would be possible to give each experience its own unique name. Nobody knows how this could work. I see a sheep now and I could assign it a sheep/to-day’s date/present clock-time tag! It is a problem in coding and in handling the codes and book-keeping. The next sheep I encounter would carry the name sheep/current date/present clock-time tag. No person I know would be comfortable in such a world, but would invent short cuts — but machines could function quite well in such a world. In other words, it is possible to conceive and to build devices which operate according to such sets of rules.

We don’t know — before plans are actually laid out — how effective and functional such a device would be, or what it would have to look like. At first glance it may work quite well: known as a robot it would operate according to emerging principles of robotics. I don’t know whether robots have to “feel comfortable”, but I suspect not. Robots do not have beliefs in our earlier sense. Vive la difference. Without beliefs they may not go to war!

A robot then would operate according to emerging principles in robotics. Nevertheless robots could change their actions and adapt to their environment — including their self-made environments — but the operating principles need to be worked out in advance — by us, we who are their originators or creators.

*Footnote: I have written a separate blog on corroboration which will be published soon.

†Footnote 1: There is a modern school of thought which reversed this position and holds that all ideas are influenced by the existence of other ideas concurrently in circulation. Contextualism has its roots in Charles Pierce’s philosophy of pragmatism and its most notable advocate in mid-20th century was W. Quine (c. 1950-1990).
Footnote 2: Contextualism was inherently unfriendly to logical empiricism, as publicized earlier by A.J. Ayers (1936) in his widely influential book
Language, Truth and Logic, a book which echoed many of the positions first espoused by the early L. Wittgenstein and subsequently by R. Carnap and members of the Vienna Circle and after the Anschluss in 1938 by readers of the journal Erkentniss and its USA successors).

Empirical vs. Ex Cathedra Solutions

Blog reader Brian Kennedy began a comment – written in April, 2013 – with an apology for arriving late to the discussion on “fallibility.” It is now my turn to apologize. I started my reply several times but failed to meet self-imposed standards for clarity. My reply is spread over several entries done to preserve the blog-format which insists on short communications! Each reply is separately titled.

eelsFacts and their properties have occupied my thinking for much of the past year. I have suggested that our current term *fact* needs to be supplemented by terms that express the idea that many facts have lost their credentials and have been dishonourably discharged: what these assert no longer is so.

A famous case is the discovery (c.1886) that eels have sexual organs, i.e., reproduce in the “normal” manner! The discovery was consonant with Darwin’s view that fish reproduced sexually and were not worms reproducing through “spontaneous generation,” a view advocated by Aristotle two thousand years earlier. This discovery meant that statements supporting spontaneous generation as a mechanism for generating new life forms were considerably weakened to the point of extinction; these now joined the ranks of “factoids,” a part of dead science. In short, spontaneous generation was not an option to account for the emergence of new species. One-up for Darwin’s wild speculations?

Here then is a model for the transition of statements which describe the world in empirically false terms and how a new body of knowledge takes over. It wasn’t that the new theory was correct, but that the old one was faulty. Let’s not overlook that spontaneous generation was a plausible theory at the time – but in the end it was inadequate and rejected. Time to open a new bottle?

In summary, the challenge faced by biologists at the turn of the 19th century was to discover evidence which either supported an older theory of speciation (sanctified by Aristotle) or to find evidence which contradicted a theory proposed by Darwin and others, that speciation was an ongoing process powered by a combination of mutations in cells (about which very little was known) and the adaptation of such mutants to their ecological niche. These were different but complementary tasks: find supporting evidence for two conflicting positions about speciation and/or find evidence which contradicts one, or both, of the theories advanced to explain the large variety of species found and the source of their often small inter-species differences.

At the time these matters were debated microbiology and especially cell biology was in its infancy, half a century away from the great breakthroughs in the late 1950s. The initial problems were set by conflicting theories formulated during a time of inadequate, sketchy knowledge. We have here a case-history demonstrating how these problems were approached and resolved, step by step, through empirical investigations.

But the history of our knowledge about the world also records many cases where solution were adopted by ex-cathedra means, that is by declaring a solution to a problem which was based on arguments from first principles. If there was disagreement it was based on how well deductions had been made from the assumptions adopted. First principles are assumption which are not themselves directly challenged, but are assumed to depict a state of affairs either on the grounds of self-evidence, or because they appeared the best ones – the most rational – under the circumstances.

The most persuasive case of solutions reached in this manner is given by the proofs of Euclidean geometry, which assume that space is best represented by a one-dimensional linear surface. All the conclusions reached by Euclid and his successors hold when applied to what is basically a “flat earth” model: the conclusions do not hold for concave or convex surfaces, i.e., not for 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 much later.

When these assumptions were challenged one by one, exposed to experimental investigations, it also marked the end of solutions to problems using the ex-cathedra approach. Of course deductions from first principles were valid when done strictly according to the rules, but the deductions themselves could not answer questions about what was in the universe to start with and how things worked in the “post-creation” period! Such questions demanded empirical solutions, the use of investigative methods.

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

cometThe 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,that portended unusual events, like the birth and death of prominent people, (e.g., Caesar’s death, Macbeth’s kingship, Caliban’s fate – Shakespeare was well versed in the Occult), or generally boded good or ill. But where did comets come from, and how did they travel in the sky? This was a specially difficult problems to answer if one assumed – as was common for thousands of years – that celestial bodies travelled around the earth on fixed translucent platforms, perhaps on impenetrable glass discs, each “nailed” permanently to a wall in the sky.

There were other assumptions involved, layered at a different, more basic levels, for example the assumption that whoever created the world (the great mover, as assumed by some early Greek philosophers) this god must have created everything according to a perfect plan, using 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 that (a) there were perfect forms, (b) the creator had to use or was likely to use perfect forms in constructing the world from nothing or very plastic raw material, (c) anything imperfect had to be an illusion, a distortion, aberration and therefore was unnatural! Comets, according to ancient astrolomer/astronomers, priests, and others, were not natural phenomena at all, but a species of divine interventions in the normal, divine order of things. Divine aberrations.

The last few paragraphs illustrate quite graphically what I have tagged as ex-cathedra procedures, and demonstrate how a naturalistic philosophy (based on the assumption that knowledge by empirical discovery is superior to knowledge derived from first principles) works.

The issues have been debated by metaphysicians for two and half thousand years, a period for which we have far from complete records. But I suspect that it is not debate alone that is decisive. As our understanding deepens through debate, we have to remember that, underlying these, we see sizeable shifts in the way we see matters as a whole. Problems once vigorously debated have a history of passing into history and in current terms get exhaustively archived “in the cloud.” Future generation can read all about them, but we in the present can only speculate what such solutions will look like. The past is not a good guide to the future.

Factoids – Old and New

This is part of a series called “Questions of Facts”. Click here to see the first.

The term *factoid* was coined by Norman Mailer to express the idea that many things we believe to be true — and which normally go unchallenged — are products of the public media (radio, TV, newspapers, advertisers). Factoids are therefore statements made by the media and are about states of affairs. The statements are supposedly correct, or largely true. The media who circulate these may have other motives than keeping the public well-informed. According to Norman Mailer, they often (too often) pervert truth and do so for entirely self-serving reasons.

The beneficiary of these so-called news items is usually someone who is selling a product or a service which supposedly “deals” with the problem identified by the factoid. Example: a news item appears which creates a rumor that our waters are being poisoned and are therefore unsafe to drink. This message creates a demand for bottled pure waters! The proposed remedy hardly deals with the problem of how a healthy fresh water supply can be ensured.

Such news items are often couched in convincing words, designed to persuade everyone to accept what they hear or read as being true and trustworthy statements. We — the public — are being “had”!

The word *factoid* itself is a fusion of two sources: the word fact, which derives from the Latin participle factum — “made” — and the Greek ending -oid, meaning “to be like.” *Factoid* therefore refers to a statement which is fact-like, but not a fact. It is faulted as a statement of fact, and therefore not true in the sense that facts supposedly are.

Let’s look at the logic of the term *fact*. It is generally assumed that a fact asserts something that is true. But clearly not all statements are truth-carriers. “To be or not to be” is the expression of a quandary. “Two eggs, sunny-side up” is part of a request. “Two plus two makes four” is arithmetic and follows a rule of logic. “I am a man” is a declaration. “I am feeling happy as a lark” is evocative and an analogy.

But “Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the novel Frankenstein” is a claim to fact — and as far as I know is a justified statement, whereas the claim “Bernard Shaw wrote Lives and Loves of Richard Wagner” is a statement of fact which has not been justified — and is false. He did write The Perfect Wagnerite, which neither deals with Wagner as a person nor is it an adoration of the writer/composer, but an amusing critical appraisal of his music-dramas.

Statements of fact — or factual statements — are always claims made by someone or by a group of persons, and which may result in one of these outcomes:

  1. The statement is justified by the evidence submitted in support of the claim made, or
  2. The claim, as stated, cannot be supported.

But what about claims whose support base has fallen into quick-sand over time — as often happens? Remember the thesis that the earth is stationary relative to its sun, or that light travels through an ether. These two statements are today regarded as “has-been facts.” The evidence for them eroded over time for reasons which can be stated. These represent cases of justified corrections, or as Popper used to say, of falsifications.

Ordinary statements, regarding every day matters, often get corrected in the light of new “revelations”, as when we correct the view widely held that all swans are white. There are to-day an estimated 500,000 black swans worldwide — and they are not an endangered species.

However, statements of fact are either true or false: if true, we continue to call them facts; if false, we discard them, perhaps change their label from *true* to *false*, or employ some other strategy to indicate that what was once thought was a statement of truth is now highly questionable and should be rephrased in a way which preserves its “kernel of truth” or declares these to be outright “fallen”.

I reserve the term *factoid* for a “fallen fact” or, to be kind, for a “retired fact,” but do not call these instances deliberate lies. Honor the fallen, understand why they have suffered their fate, but don’t throw them dishonored onto a dung heap. One can learn much from mistakes honestly made.

Are There Infallible Facts?

“I suppose you could say that, if a fact isn’t infallibly true, it was never a ‘fact’ in the first place! ”comment on previous entry.

Steven Vasta’s comment on my recent blog on Facts — where I argued that facts are claims to truth but that such claims are not necessarily true for all time (as has often been argued) — needs an answer. The idea that something is infallibly true, and that this defined the notion of “fact,” is highly contentious. I don’t know that anyone has actually made this claim. What they have said is that when someone says “This statement describes a fact and you need to accept this judgement because of the authority of the person making the claim,” they are not arguing for the truth of what has been claimed , but for the authority of the person who is making the claim. It is a person who is said to be infallible – not what the person says. In other words, the notion of an “infallible fact” has not been put forward.

Of course I did not use the qualifier fallible or infallible when describing facts, but have written in my blog – and elsewhere – that the claim concerns whether a fact has everlasting life, as has often been supposed. Its duration – its survival – may indeed be influenced by its supporters – but in the long run the life of a fact is limited.

Here are two cases of “factual” claims:

(a) The camel sails across the desert
(b) Muhammad was a camel driver

(a) is surely not literally true: boats sail – not camels. Camels may look like sail-boats from the distance, to an imaginative observer! If one changes the verb from “sails” to “walks”, no one will object, since most people will describe camels as walking or trotting across the desert. Not infallible and not fallible.

(b) is a different description. It refer to a particular individual, identifies him only by one of his names and claims what his occupation was. It could be true, but it could also be false. Investigations will show whether the statement is true, partly true, adequate, or insufficient – there are several options open to us.

Note: It is not the statement that is fallible or infallible, but the person who makes the statement. I personally do not know of anyone who is a specialist in infallible statements – although I know many who ACT AS IF they were. It is a self-description, an affectation at worst. Some people, in moments of hero-worship, may claim that Mr. X or Miss Y is always correct in what they say or claim. But this only passes the buck. The person making such a claim is obliged to demonstrate that the claim itself is always true – that indeed it is they that are infallible in their judgements. It has nothing to do with any particular fact and its truth-value.

Many religious and political groups claim that their leader has a special handle on Truth. These claims cannot be supported to everyone’s satisfaction – which makes the claims open-ended and not final. It is therefore perfectly possible within the bounds of reason that something which has been widely accepted as truthful in the past, for many years and even for centuries, as giving an adequate account of something that has happened, or may yet happen, may turn out to fall woefully short, of missing the mark and of being false. Prophets fall into this class of people.

It is people that are fallible. Their reports and statements about the world as they experience it are as likely to be incorrect, incompatible with other things we know and which we firmly believe to be true. But moments pass — the fact — no matter how fervently it is proclaimed, is then defrocked; facts pass into history.

Aperçu: The limits of facts

fact-stampFacts should carry date-marks so that we can know when and by whom these were approved. This practice — if religiously observed — would remind us again and again that facts are not infallible, not forever, not unchangeable, but bear the stamp of human approval and not divinity. Furthermore facts are subject to change, can become factoids.

Yet be aware of changes and always question why these are proposed, for these may be part of an effort to undermine our confidence in what we do and deprive us of the authority to view matters critically, with fresh eyes and critically.