Comment 1: Facts and “to factulate”

From fact to factulate; from verb to verbify. Ugly, but legitimate.

It pays to look at what modern dictionaries say about words which are in common and in wide use. Once again I looked up *fact* in the reputable Merriman-Webster Dictionary (on-line edition) and found the following entry:

Fact: noun. A thing that is indisputably the case. Information used as evidence or as part of a report of news article. Synonyms: reality – deed — actuality – truth – case — circumstance.

Note that the dictionary defines *fact* by citing how the word is commonly used but also by citing explicitly some of its synonyms. The effect is to create an environment, i.e. a context, whereby each word is related to all others in the selection by indicating what choices are available on each side of the divide! It leaves the decision of what to do about the choices open to the user: the user therefore remains entirely responsible for making the correct or appropriate choice from the array of “equivalences” offered.

This matter had already been discussed in a different context more than 60 years ago by Lee Cronbach and Paul Meehl (1955) in the context of “psychological measurement” (to which I propose to return in a future article). If one does not understand the positive options offered, one can at least infer the meaning of a particular term chosen by referring and comparing it to what it can not possibily mean! Whittling down a meaning by eliminating those deemed unsuitable? This seems a plausible strategy to success: if one does not know the meaning of a term in advance, it can often be guessed by eliminating it from those one already knows.

What puzzled me about a dictionary definition — but also appalled me — was the suggestion that a fact could be viewed as “part of a report of news articles!” I assume the term “news article” refers to articles published in established newspapers, possibly weeklies? Which? The reputable New York Times, the Guardian or the now ill-reputed Daily Mail (which was recently “banished” by Wikipedia for its habit of publishing unsubstantiated and unfounded “news reports” — as has been done in the UK’s Daily Mirror and News of the World for decades! These are a small selection from a world-wide set of dailies).

My philosophical head also spun when I discovered that far too many of the synonyms listed in the Merriman Dictionary can be “substituted” by changing the meaning of a part of the sentence in which these occurred! It just will not work since the sense of a sentence is then highly compromised — even lost — when this is done. As soon as one recognizes this to be the case, a person will withdraw the particular attempt and will substitute another synonym. I assume that there is experiemental evidence to support my fantasy? What I have described is a process of extremely rapid substitution based on one’s “unconscious recognition” of what is being done.

What seems indisputable, however, is that the word *fact* — a word we all love to use(!) — gets used exclusively as a noun. If, however, it is used as a verb is it referred to as *to factulate*? Has anyone used fact as a verb, on the analogy of changing the noun to a verb, perhaps to the verb *to verbify*? They should feel free to do so — to create what sound like “monsters” — if we claim that people “make facts” or “shape” these from non-factual materials!

There are precedents: *water* is a noun; *to water* is a verb in wide use. Is it an alternative to “spreading or distributing water”? What are acceptable limits to doing so with any noun?

Why not “verbify”?

The Fictions We Create 3: Describing the Inside and Outside

Common sense distinguishes between objects that stand on the “outside” of a room or enclosure, and those located “within” a room, or a box, or a carton or an awkwardly configured shell/enclosure. Thus objects are invariably assumed to occupy space. Amongst their many diverse properties which is that objects are located somewhere, in some place which can itself be described and conceptualized, as “a vessel 20 leagues under the sea”! To be in space assumes therefore that one is located “within” or “outside” an enclosure.

Thinking outside the box

We speak routinely about “locations” but — as we shall see — this is speaking figuratively and metaphorically. By contrast, when we discuss our feelings about an issue — e.g. about a neighbour who has just won a large prize in a lottery, or the person who called the police to report an ongoing burglary of his home, or about the doctor’s report that someone known to us has contracted HIV — we not only report the bare facts of a case, but also refer to how these event affected or influenced us as individuals — specifically, how we feel, or retrospectively felt, about what happened on a particular occasion.

Of course, we usually or normally do not receive two reports, one of a particular event and the other of our feelings about it, although on many occasions we get these “mixed up”. Thus we may say, “I’m sorry that I appear all excited and wound-up but the following happened as I walked to the Forum — Caesar was killed by Brutus, and by a host of others!”

So humans, as a rule, report both what they have experienced but also how this experience may have affected them. In our culture we are also trained to be clear that reports and narratives can be both about “objective events” and about how these events influenced us “personally”! We learn therefore how to present “what has occurred out there, somewhere” and “how we (I) feel about a matter” in a clear, possibly concise, manner. The common distinction is therefore between (a) “objective” events and (b) events which “impact” our feelings and our personal reactions to such events.

We refer to these latter as “subjective reports” — and in this matter ensure that these are excluded from being “objective” or “scientific”! We assign to such events a special status. But there are exceptions, as when a person is totally focussed on events taking place “outside”, even when these are far in the past.

It would be a gross error of judgement to describe such events in “personal” terms, like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 70 AD which destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii. Not quite! It would also be inappropriate for a historian or archeologist to do so, but not for a writer of fiction, a novelist like Lord Lytton, or even of a stray eye-witness. (Were there any surviving witnesses?) In other words, we ourselves choose whether to treat an event as objective or in a personalized manner. In summary, there are times when we have the opportunity and the “right” to choose between these two options, whether to see and present ourselves to others as impartial witnesses, or as involved participants!

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.

The World as a Picture or Collage

In an earlier blog I introduced the term *collage* and distinguished it from related nouns, picture and presentation. A collage, as commonly used, includes recognizable objects but also the arrangements and juxtapositions of items in an unexpected, spurious, curious manner. The collage itself may also include spaces between objects — blank spaces which have no identity except for their hue or lack of form, their formlessness. Look at the sky at night. Twinkles, some larger objects, some streaks of light moving at speed, respectively named stars, planets, airplanes or spacecrafts. Also much darkness, emptiness.

So when we look outside ourselves we invent names for every item we can distinguish from its indifferent (black?) background. We make special efforts to do so, to order and arrange our perceptual world. Whenever we are unwilling or unable to identify a pin-of-light, a manifestation of an object we tend to speak of “the void” — and secretly treat it as an object! But — as we have learned — today’s “void” may be tomorrow’s treasure-chest, filled with fascinating objects which hold secrets to our understanding of our universe!

The history of science illustrates how fickle we are in this regard. The history of ourselves also tells how determined we are to complete a story — a fantasy — once begun. We seek “understanding”, not only recognition. We recognize the latter, but when this fails we create objects, but also we invent processes to help and assist our understanding. This has been the pattern since Aristotle raised “understanding” as our highest goal, the hallmark of our god-like nature.

The objects we distinguish around us may have clear relations to each other. Thus, several philosophers — and more recently some scientists — have urged that we study the act of perception and other attributes ascribes to human (e.g. R.S. Peters: Motivation and D. Armstrong: Perception) more critically than our predecessors since it does not follow that everyday descriptions of ourselves, though old, are necessary faultless or correct. Common sense, it is claimed, is not a good guide in these matters. We have been repeatedly warned not to assume that our current self-descriptions and especially those of our so-called “states of mind” have greater accuracy or authority than our descriptions of “the external world” (G. Ryle: The Concept of Mind) but that these are subject to great hazards. Better to be than certain!

The trend throughout the 20th century has been to view descriptions of the external world as a scaffold which rest on the certainty of our perception of our own inner experiences, but one should remember that descriptions are invariably constrained by limits which reflect the descriptive habits of far earlier periods, periods which have promote their own “wisdom” and “habits of thought” and which are untainted by contemporary knowledge! History is only a record of our past achievements, which includes its failures to describe ourselves and our attributes well. A health system based on well-tried prescriptions from the past, list of uncritically accepted cures?

The world as a picture therefore includes some temporary successes but primarily failures to describe “matters of current interest” in terms of dated concepts. This does not mean that the pictures of the past make sense, but only that some aspects of the composite may. The paintings of Marc Chagall are replete with suggestions of self-contained episodes — and this can also be said of paintings by surrealists, yet we regard each as self-contained, not as an episode of pictures whose outlines have never been seen!

Successful achievements and failures to achieve may just happen to come together — under the same umbrella, so to speak — like pedestrians seeking temporary shelter during a flash rain-storm. In that respect these form a collage. The term *collage*, furthermore, is not currently part of the elaborate vocabulary of philosophy, or of cosmology, but is more at home in the arts than in formal disciplines. It stands for the idea that we normally judge something after “scanning”, that the idea of a moment is imprecise and covers too many judgements based on a succession of temporary impressions and viewed as a composite. In philosophy itself the term “theory” has long been been elevated to a paramount position to contrast with formlessness, with the notion that the pieces in hand cannot be assembles into a whole. The emphasis is on an “integration” of seemingly coherent parts into a wider, more comprehensible position, of bringing “ideas” together (see a classic of the genre, namely, A.N. Whitehead: The Adventure of Ideas, 1933). Perhaps *collage* should become part of the working vocabulary of philosophy?

Philosophers have often claimed that they were concerned with eternal verities, about matters which not confined by the limits of time, matters which have lasting values. As self-declared lovers of wisdom, philosophers are often assumed by others to be priests without a formal religion. They were bound to their own beliefs and therefore carried an obligation to defend these against the multitudes, the “common people”, as well as others equally skilled in handling thoughts and speculations. They were said to theorize, to discuss theories as objects, just as scientists discuss their methods of inquiry and what it is they have already achieved or hope to achieve through the rigorous application of such methods. By common consent these methods were the rewards of discovery. Their methods were viewed as tools of discovery which could be ordered, a process which demands that each move gets evaluated by agreed criteria. For scientists then, the discovery of a method was a “rightful tool” which had as much significant as a miniature screwdriver has for a watchmaker, or a needle for a tailor. (Threads or strands of fibres existed before needles!) Two centuries ago we discovered and developed the tools of statistical analysis, how aggregates of measures of a trend can be used productively and how this helped to change our studies and investigations of “natural” but also of “social” phenomena (appearances). It is useful to keep this analogy in mind whenever we discuss “science” and what it suggests to us about the nature of Nature (Aristotle’s quest).

Philosophers have singled out logic and the analyses of arguments as their primary tools. Logic has been used to analyze the consistency of existing arguments, or of fragments of an argument, especially beliefs widely held by others. It is used to show where an argument would lead to if it were pursued rigorously, or to demonstrate that a particular argument may be itself be based on empirically false premises. For centuries there has been an understanding that sooner or later errors in logical derivations from premises would surface sooner or later, and that this would automatically lead to the rejection of the argument as a whole! This has happened occasionally, but not consistently or always. More recently there have been discoveries of a contradiction which had remained undiscovered but that the argument had terminated too early for the discovery of such contradictions to be made. This potential fault line may have been dealt with by translating any argument into a mathematical form and testing it with the help of high-speed computers. The results to date have only shown that all things considered that the chances of identifying a contradiction are disturbingly high. It means, in effect, that we cannot guarantee — as was initially required — that an argument is logically faultless and was impervious to contradiction. Yet without this the aim of a logical analysis cannot be guaranteed that it is itself faultless — that is represents an unbroken line from given premises to conclusion. A conjecture can be correct even if an argument to support it is faulty.

Many early philosophers, unlike priests, were not inclined to employ arguments to support a viewpoint for which they could not find independent support: their task was being primarily critical. One states the premises and then works out the implications. The model was that an argument starts with some widely held and unchallenged conclusion — e.g., “eating pork is bad for your health” — and then proceeds to demonstrate that the conclusion has been reached by following authorized logical procedures. In this respect philosophers have acted more like teachers and sages than defenders of an official faith — a habilitated-belief — something which might set them on a collision course with a viewpoint of a powerful “establishment”, where official views were backed by an enforcement agency. Habilitated-beliefs are a new concept and will be discussed in a separate blog.

(for Tim)

How To Map a New Word


In a previous blog I suggested that any new English words, or neologisms, could be submitted to a computer search of the digitalized English literature, say from Beowulf onward, in order to discover whether the term of interest had previously been used. In what manner was its earlier use, its context of use, different from what is now proposed?

New words are often proposed as replacements for a current expression on the understanding that this neologism would be accompanied by clear guidelines for its use. Such guidelines are also referred to a definitions, or re-definitions. What was earlier called “a temporary bunch of words” may now qualify as a new single word. Its meaning would then be viewed as the area partially covered by each of the words originally tied together to form a bunch or an expression.

The following example may help: The first letters of each of the following words,“Dependable, Redoubtable, Unimpeachable” spells *dru*. It is a new term. Objects like trees would be automatically excluded as being “inappropriate”, whereas one could for example say, “John Dewey is a dru person”. It would give a reasonably clear image of the kind of person this great American philosopher was! (Of course, the statement may be regarded as a good or a poor description of the person.)

However, a composite word like *dru* should not be viewed (as was done formerly) as a one-dimensional overlap of qualities, like a series of circles which overlap a common area, but as covering a meeting point in multidimensional space, which may also extend over time, in which case one should state the temporal parameters. This is what “mapping a word” is all about.

Conjectures and Neologisms

We are living at a time when we are frequently asked to transcend the limits of conjecture. *Be inventive*, *be creative*, *stretch the envelope* are expressions widely used to refer to this. More and more of our thinking is directed towards situations which need to be described in terms of sequences, or as involving successive different processes, rather than as individual (hence stable) events, frozen in time like pottery in a Victorian display case.

By contrast, many early Greek thinkers — often mentioned as founders of our philosophical tradition — espoused the view that time and change are unreal, that there is indeed a real world from which process and progress are excluded, and belong to a chimaeral world (see Plato’s discussions of these issues in Timaeus).

In our own time the more common view runs in the opposite direction: it is suggested that we are the agents (the guilty party, as it were!) that freeze events. By doing so, we create a notion of change which in turn requires us to invent agents of change. We invent causes when we feel trapped, without explanations for events, and do so in order to account for our discomfort. Not to have an explanation is experienced by many as a deficiency, whereas a process of reification, whereby we impose stability and structure on a world, is often viewed as living in a predictable world! We invent and stipulate (conjecture?) processes which give flesh and bones to events, and often create homunculi with great powers to lift and shift events “out of their orbit” (a pre-Newtonian concept).

Indeed, Western philosophy — under which I include what some Greeks thinkers referred to as *natural philosophy*, or the study of natural phenomena, is haunted by the image of two worlds: a world of nature, which obeys and follows its own eternal rules (discoverable by us), but also a world made by us, one which is mostly beyond and unaffected by naturalistic rules, which are commanded by what Gilbert Ryle referred to as “ghosts in machines”. This world supposedly lacks universal rules but develops from emerging trends, is modish, unpredictable yet yields some of its secrets post-hoc, when we reflect on our past. There is an ever-growing literature which interprets the work of some of our major artists (past and present), a trend which is most likely to continue for the foreseeable future, even by our descendants when living in outer space, off-earth.

The picture is confused but may become more coherent during future discussions, and in step with an increase in our understanding of how human-thinking emerged from simple interacting neural networks to the complex storage and processing organ it has become, whose own limits of growth (internal or external) and capabilities are at present unknown. (Robots could be viewed as external drives, extensions to the living brain.)

There are few (if any) natural phenomena of which it can be said that these remain unaffected throughout the passage of time, or the procession of events. On the contrary: the question is to estimate to what extent events have already changed, although the names of these events have been retained, and to estimate to what extent these events are likely to be transformed in future. Some events appear to remain unchanged over time, whereas others transform. The current debate about *climate change* is an example. To cite a different example: *The Battle of Waterloo* is viewed as a stable event, although writers disagree about what happened on the battlefield, and disagree about details. The Battle of Waterloo is a historical concept, but what is discussed amongst historians are features of this event, not whether the event occurred.

To illustrate the difference between a concept and its meaning I have chosen the term *human family* which serves as the name of a phenomenon but which is also recognized by those working in the area of human relationships and institutions as a moveable feast, something which has changed throughout the course of our history.

The Human Family

*Family* is the name given to a common feature of all human societies. It is a concept which represents an event which has temporal as well as structural and functional properties. The task of any writer/reporter is to create a portrait of the family which permits readers to analyze the relationship between members. A society may prescribe what is permissible or not to those included within a family in contrast to those external to it, e.g., whether members within a family can marry, or whether marriage must necessarily be endogenous. Whatever the rules, these can change and the conditions under which such change occur would then be viewed as factors influencing family structure.

It is important that a structure of an event is correctly portrayed, that it is attributed to an event which occurred as stated earlier. The birth of a male or female child is celebrated differently in most societies and is also influenced by the order of birth — both are structural factors. To what extent does birth order play a role in determining the future of a male? Which son of a large landowner is likely to be encouraged to follow a career in the Church? (Answer: probably the third in Britain throughout many centuries.)

Birth order is a temporal factor whereas male/female is functional, that is, determines what roles will most likely be assigned to a person and when. When? The passage of time is viewed as an independent factor, not as something doled out as fleeting timeless moments, but more like a ceaseless conveyer belt. The term *moments* therefore carries with it interpretative problems, as indeed have such terms as *childhood*.

Admittedly, the above is vague. We do not normally take an arbitrary selection of words, words which are unrelated, then stitch these together: our selection is more orderly, more contrived. What is clear however is that humans appear to be continuously engaged in extending their language, to stretch the limits of what they already have. It is their response to current prevailing circumstances, to being members of a community which appears to seek and build new environments to inhabit, which secures and preserve their existence, extends their survival rather than abandons these. We need to remind ourselves how relatively short has been the past of our species measured against the estimated life of our planet and solar system and how minute has been what we often refer to as “the life of the mind” and how fragile are the conditions which sustain our species.

We introduce new words with increasing frequency. Neologisms may be viewed as transformative tools which in the past have extended our control over many but not every discernible feature of our world. There is of course no guarantee that such creative actions can continue unabated as has happened in our recent past. Our creativity has also produced conditions which threaten our continued existence. Other species have become extinct although (as far as we know) inadvertently, not through self-destruction. Many species have lost control over their environmental niche. Humans, however, have gotten perilously close to doing so, and many now claim that we have interfered with environmental factors to an irreversible extent so that the earth will be unable to support human life.

The meanings of many words are unquestionably related to their effectiveness in identifying events but there is an additional dimension which is related to the historical context of their use, the role a word plays in mapping the world for its current users. Such referential words, new or old, help to define the contours as well as the interior features of our culture, something which applies even to those words which seemingly are entirely referential.

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.

Statements, Meaning, and Analogies

Statement A: The river has crested.

Statement B: The river has reached its highest point.

river-combBoth statements describe the condition of a river. The two statements appear to say the same thing, and therefore — it is claimed — have the same meaning. Even if it is not true that these are equivalent — in statement A, the river may yet run higher, contrary to what is said in statement B — it may be claimed that A is equivalent to B, and vice versa. It is a question of meaning.

In other words, it may be claimed that statements A and B refer to the same situation. As philosophers and commentators, are we required to resolve this issue,? Do we need to ask “what is the difference between reference and meaning”?

I would argue that statements A and B converge in meaning, but also emphasize that this does not make them necessarily equivalent

First, the meaning of each statement depends on the context of its use. Consequently if the context changes, so does the meaning of each statement.

Second, the two statements, when enountered in certain contexts, have a hierarchical relationship to each another. One is more abstract, inclusive, than the other: it is something which has to be evaluated.

In the second case, statement B is an empirical statement, so that the data is determined in a different sense than in statement A. Both meanings are data-determined but in different ways. Each says something different. Statement B is related to data is a more “fundamental” way than statement A, which is mostly analogical. This needs to be clarified (see below).

When I refer to data, I suggest of course that regardless of how things were described, we would most likely agree that there is a phenomenon we are all aware of which is what is being talked about, and that this phenomenon can be identified and mensurated in a manner which allows us to determine properties reflected in both A and B.

To say “the river has crested” is clearly analogical. *Crested* derives from French and refers to (among other things) the comb of a rooster. It refers to form rather than to a (linear) measure and only indirectly refers to how this can be measured. By contrast, B is a reference to some previously adopted perception of scale against which it is being compared. In this sense, statement B is more fundamental. One could also argue that statement A is more abstract than B, that to refer to the river has crested in not only analogical but also represents a more general case and also is more difficult to gainsay.

Conclusion: an analogy represents an attempt to state a current experience (event) as a case of a more general event. In this sense analogies are theoretical. Thus, to assert that A is like B — the form of an analogy — is to construct a theoretical proposition whose falsification becomes increasingly more difficult the more analogical it is.

Analogies like statement A represent our efforts to increasing the stability of our world in the face of experiential diversity and in that sense, analogies have signifiant heuristic value: they reduce variability, change, diversity. One can question the value of a particular analogy, but this in itself in not a test of an implied theory.

In retrospect, the history of human knowledge suggests that we forever seek analogies in the hope that the one chosen is more appropriate than earlier ones, and that the one chosen now will assist us better in unifying the increasing diversity of our experiences of our world.

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 as News Items

Comments and Commentaries: The blogs in this series were written over a period of three years. Many of my ideas shifted significantly during this period but instead of revising everything and forcing it into a common mold, I decided to let matters stand as first conceptualized. All comments are loosely connected by my interest in the idea of a “fact” or “what is a fact,” seen from a historical perspective.

It often pays to look at what a dictionary says about a word, especially one as widely used as *fact*. In my experience a dictionary may carry conflicting meanings, and this – as I discovered – applies with special force to *fact*. The reason is clear: *fact* is a word used on a daily basis to underwrite and support opinions strongly held and presumably as props for opinions which cannot easily be justified by the “common man.” (The *common man* here refers to everyone in their relaxed, uncritical mood.) The reputable, much-used Merriman-Webster Dictionary (on-line edition) has the following entry for *fact*:

Fact: noun. A thing that is indisputably the case. Information used as evidence or as part of a report of news article. Synonyms: reality – deed – actuality – truth – case – circumstance.

The suggestion that fact is a part of a report in a news article came as a total surprise to me. Which part? In a news article, perhaps, as published in a typical daily newspaper? My philosophical head also spun on seeing the synonyms listed, for synonyms cannot automatically be substituted for one other, to serve as alternatives, without changing at least somewhat the meaning of the expression in which they are used. If this were the case, it would defeat the purpose of what most people regard as the primary role of a dictionary: to give a clear explication of a word: no ambiguities, please! What is indisputable about the Merriman-Webster entry is that the word *fact* serves as a noun – but this is not a part of its meaning, and only identifies its grammatical status.

Many, but not all, news articles (whatever these are) report matters that are poorly substantiated and plainly not even truthful. Such articles often omit critical information and may include easily-correctable errors, such as an incorrect date. Since newspaper and magazine publishers are for-profit organizations and are driven by the need to provide an service to an information hungry general public, their dominant goal is profit, not a service to others.

Furthermore the quality of reports may vary greatly over time, as the history of the venerable London Times has demonstrated. Could the Times possibly become part of the yellow press and cease to cater to supposedly well-educated men of industry and senior civil servants in the UK, the empire builders and financiers of yester-year? Not likely. Yet it could certainly change the quality of its reports in order to fit the temper of the times. Indeed it has done so quite deliberately.

And what about those many matters which were once widely and commonly regarded to be well-substantiated, solid facts, but which lost their certainty, and thus their sheen? Facts, as we have learned, can be children of fashion, and fashions change at an alarming rate. Surely readers should be told how and when such changes are made (and they never are!). I would love to see a subheading of a New York Times article say, “Read with a pinch of salt,” or “This item may be too vinegary for some.”

Truth to tell, many journalists invent and fabricate facts – or at least put their own spin on factual raw materials – and the conclusions to be drawn from such imaginary facts. Are there perhaps advanced courses in journalism at universities and business schools which teach people how to turn facts into plausible fictions, and vice versa? Such course may attract large enrolments.

Of course, I am not suggesting that all is rotten in Fleet Street or similar pockets of the news industry. To my delight, I discovered some time ago that in several countries the quality of reporting and the standard of commentaries about newsworthy events continues to be very high. Standards of excellence are also maintained in review articles of books, the theatre, films, art exhibitions, concerts and most certainly in political commentaries, regardless of which side of the spectrum editorial sympathies lie.

Would it be invidious to single out places or specific papers? Most of us confine our news-reading to local papers – many now free and doubly dependent on advertising revenue. These litter public transport, lie around on streets and coffee houses. They are understandably sparse in writings for intelligent people. But cities like in Zurich, Basel, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Prague, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brussels, or Stockholm, to name a few in Europe, continue to value breadth of coverage and quality of writing. Not so throughout the USA, which continues to be poorly served by its daily newspapers but are better served by weeklies and monthly magazines. Different countries, different cultures; different attitudes of what is news, to what the public is expected to know, and what are fair commentaries about events.

Ah well – why complain when more and more of us can access internet services and spend free moments watching awesome “telly” and the products of Hollywood and Bollywood.

In summary: facts are not news-items, but are claims that a statement could be true. It depends on how stringent are the criteria for “referential truth”. This is a topic which will be discussed in more details elsewhere, in other blogs of this series.

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).