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.

Reply to Marc: Facts and Theories

E&E 2
This is my second Elucidation and Exegesis (E&E). In an earlier blog I wrote When we say “This is true” we imply that this statement is defensible, or reliable, therefore should not be questioned. I subsequently received a note from Marc that *defensible,* *reliable* and *unquestioned* do not mean the same. Here is one comment — others may follow.

From Fact to Theory

My earlier statement should be interpreted as saying that if a claim is defensible as well as reliable, it would be counter-productive to question it. What purpose would such a challenge serve?

To demand additional evidence for a claim (1) suggests that the claim — the assertion that such and such is the case — is inadequate and is deemed insufficiently strong, perhaps weak; (2) it also suggests that the case made does not fit snugly into a pre-existing theory. We seem to demand that every new claim falls comfortably into a theoretical place — enlightens but does not disturb our pre-existing vision of the world.

Let us examine each:

(1) Consider first the strength of support for our conclusion “that such and such is the case.” The reason we asked for additional evidence was that the statement went beyond data currently available. One could, in principle, strengthen the data on the basis of which our conclusion was reached by adding to the pile, as it were. But this would be foolish unless we also improved our the method data-collection: a matter of more and better sampling. Data — short for data-points — have to be gathered in sufficient quantity to justify any general conclusions, as for example, “The data can be stated as follows…”. Presenting only a summary of the data assumes that it is the best summary and that a closer examination of the data would not unearth new aspects of events. This assumption has been faulted time and again.

In many cases the strength of support for a conclusion is barely adequate — a discovery often made soon after it was “tabled”. In other cases the method of discovery used may seem “primitive” by current prevailing standards. It happens with alarming frequency, in step with our current technological revolution in the art of measurement. Strong support, on the other hand, leads one to conclude that a claim has sufficient merit — should be considered seriously — may therefore be tagged as factual in the traditional — even, in absolutist — sense. We would then readily concede that whenever a claim is deemed insufficient, adjunctive materials could remedy this and therefore requires to be gotten. If all goes in the anticipated direction — the claim could be moved to the positive side of the ledger. It is all very iffy and tangential. Note: a transition from “perhaps as claimed” to “most likely as claimed” — or some equivalent affirmation — is modal decision — not absolute.

From this perspective stating that “It is a fact that…” — and its milder form, “it could be that…” — reflect different degrees of certainty regardless of whether the method used to establish the conclusions can overcome critical objections. Let us label this our concerns about the adequacy of our investigatory techniques, as when medical researchers are required to run double blind controls to support their view that a drug has the effect claimed for it. Simply to claim that drug x has a lasting effect on the severity of, say, psoriasis is not enough. The claim needs to be underpinned with data gathered in a highly prescribed manner.

Looking over past claims it appears that (a) many, or most, conclusions based on “investigations” remain open to the criticism that the methods used to establish a particular (general) conclusion were inadequate as judged by current standards; (b) that conclusions which appear compatible with an extant theory and which derive their claim from this context operate under a double jeopardy: the one already mentioned (see (a) and the jeopardy that the theory itself may be wrong. To fit snugly into a faulty theory appears to me like catching double pneumonia.

(2) Fitting snugly. A claim, or assertion that such and such is the case has the earmarks of a fact, but it is also a claim that it fits snugly into a pre-existing theory. (Logically, if Tc is a current theory, Tb would be its predecessor. Presumably, the difference between Tb and Tc is noteworthy! If a reason has to be given for changing Tb to Tc it would include that Tc accommodates data which were excluded by Tb and could not be readily accommodated. Indeed — the theory Tc may make up for, or be deliberately used, to handle new data. I will examine this in more detail in a future blog.

Fitting into a Theory vs Finding a Theory to Fit into

If a fact is said to “fit” into a theory this is tantamount to saying that the fact as stated by the proposition p, or set of propositions, sp, is deducible from the premises (foundational base or axioms) of an extant theory. I am careful to distinguish between an extant theory and an ad hoc theory although is not always easy.

An extant theory is one that is in use at the time a particular fact is being accommodated, whereas an ad hoc theory is one that will have to be constructed, or formulated, for the specific purpose of accommodating proposition p into a network. One requires, as a matter of course that the network has some “range,” covers several quite distinct phenomena, otherwise the theory would be solely constructed to accommodate a solitary particular and troubling fact: it is an unacceptable proposal. Even an ad hoc theory is marketed to cover more than one fact, but is so constructed that it aims to bring a particular fact into relation with others. It does so by exclusion: the ad hoc theory usually accommodates some older facts with the new fact, but does so by excluding other facts which appear to be incompatible with the new. It is a matter of compatibility. If a fact is said to “fit” into a theory this is tantamount to saying that the fact as stated, that is, the proposition p, or set of propositions, sp, is deducible from the premises (foundational base, or axioms) of an extant theory.

I draw a distinction between an extant theory and an ad hoc theory by assuming that an extant theory is one that is in use when a particular fact is being accommodated, whereas an ad hoc theory is one that will be constructed, or formulated, for the specific purpose of accommodating p — and related statements — into a network. The ad hoc theory is usually wily — it is deliberately constructed to accommodate some older facts with a new fact, but it does this by excluding those facts which appear to be incompatible with the new. An ad hoc theory invariably creates its own set of facts, and thereby relegates many older facts into the class of “factoids,” that is the class of have-been-facts, a part of “dead science.”

Fitting a finding into a theory is always and inevitably done during the process of publicizing a finding. It is therefore an inevitable consequences of the process of communicating a discovery to others, of stating it, of trying to relate a finding to other matters which are already known, matters which have their establish location in a “knowledge-system” or a “belief system.” One expresses a finding in words and terms which inadvertently position it in a familiar context and in doing so one frames the finding, gives it theoretical relatives.

This description of what happens when a finding is brought to our attention suffers from a major defect: it suggests that a finding is placed into a system, a knowledge or belief-system, like a card placed into filing-drawer, where it has its “proper place.” But — as I shall argue in more detail on another occasion — this is not so: the term “system” is quite misleading and more formal than deserved. It is part of wishful thinking: we like to think of ourselves as “systematic thinkers, as being “well organized,” as knowing where things belong. But this self-image is less true now than ever before: we organize knowledge in many ways, in bits and pieces, as chunks, in conveniently placed separate drawers. A veritable potpourri, but not a system — and we harbour the idea that one day, some day, these different items will all be brought together, like petals of a daisy or cherries on a cherry-tee. No one has succeeded so far, although many have tried: it seems to be a fantasy without end.

Truth and Truth Claims

E&E 1
The epigrammatic nature of my blog post Character of Science calls for elucidations and exegeses — E&Es — this being the first of several.

TruthMy initial comments in Character of Science are about the interpretation of the much used, but greatly abused term *truth* (see this post for the meaning of the asterisks). When we say, “This is true,” we imply that what this statement asserts is defensible, or reliable, and therefore should not be questioned.

The term *truth* qualifies a statement. I wrote as if to suggest that there is a use of *truth* which makes what is claimed incontrovertible, whereas I think this is not so. Claims are always either strong or weak, justified or unjustified, supportable or insupportable. Indeed, every statement which assigns a quality to an object, or which describes an event, does so only to some extent. Even when we don’t make this assumption explicit, we are aware that this is so and that others share this assumption. We therefore should not use the term *truth* in an absolute, unqualified manner but speak only about making “truth-claims.”

*Truth*, I therefore submit, is not an object, not a substance, but refers to the quality of a statement one has made about something, a statement about some object or event.

The statement “elephants are memory deficient” is an example. It describes and assigns a quality to a familiar object, the elephant, and makes a claim which can most assuredly be investigated — although perhaps with some practical difficulty, much patience and considerable ingenuity.

Modern writers often refer to “degrees of truth,” just as they would to “degrees of pain” or “degree of sweetness.” In the example given, any answer to whether elephants are memory-deficient would need to include details of the degree to which this is so, as well as to the procedure used to establish the factual basis of this unusual claim. Therein lies part of the fun of being an investigator, a searcher after “the truth,” a scientist or insatiably curious but not afraid of what one finds.

Seeing is Believing Part 2 – On Plausibility

“Seeing is believing” – or is it?

Remember from Part 1, published a month ago, that my venerable Aunt Ethel claimed, “On my birthday I saw Humpty-Dumpty take a big fall.”

She is not blind, rarely wears glasses, hears quite well, so what did she see? Since none of the witness believe that a person or object corresponding to the description of Humpty-Dumpty exists in the sense that it can be seen wandering around the neighbourhood in the ”real” palpable world, Aunt Ethel’s perception may have played her a trick.

The obvious solution is that she mistook a rather small, round, egg-shaped, bald gentleman ambling around the cricket field as Humpty-Dumpty. Such mis-identifications are common enough. Or perhaps she omitted a word or two and wanted to say, “I saw someone who reminded me of…”

She surely did not mean that there is more than one Humpty-Dumpty since the name is not a tag for a class which has more than one member, but refers to a class which has a defining set of properties which limits it to one member only.

Therefore it is unlike Tweedledum and Tweedledee, which is a class specifically limited to two members. However, the class is defined in a manner which precludes their instantiation. In common parlance, they are fictional characters which have many attributes — in fact, more attributes than may be found in some catalog of attributes but which include that these do not have life-signs, like “amble about of their own free will!” Such attributes specifically preclude that they could be encountered on the street, on a boat, or in an airplane — that is, in living form. We often describe something by stating explicitly what properties it does not have, e.g., an instance of vandalism as being, in part, thoughtless acts, compared to those which were instances of willful destruction.

The general principle is this: There are words and expressions which we use to report to others:

  1. that we have made an encounter of some kind
  2. that what was encountered can be described to others so that others can identify the object of our encounter on the basis of some limited selection of items which we have selected from a larger set than was provided, and
  3. that the identification of the object of the encounter can be facilitated by assigning to it a tag (perhaps a name, like Humpty-Dumpty) by which it then becomes more widely known.

The tag that refers to a class of one only (like Emperor Napoleon I or Emperor Napoleon III or Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein) is all that is needed to enable others to identify the object of my encounter. But what is involved is that the report of my encounter involves a hypothesis to the effect that the encounter has been coded by myself in the hope that it can be readily decoded by others without them making a critical error, a fatal mistake in identification. Since coding means that only some of the attributes of an encounter are contained in the message, the probability of an error in recognition by others is relatively high.

To illustrate this, consider the case where the Mafia boss says “get me Joe Bloomfield” and his henchmen shoot down the hamburger vendor on 10th Street, not the barber on 42nd at Times Square. What the two men have in common is a name, their location in New York City and some other qualities, e.g. gender. So the name served to locate the object or, in this unfortunate case, the target, but the name did not inform whether sufficient attributes were listed to sort it from a mass of other potential targets.

The key issue for discussion is to sort out claims made by others — whether it is the claim made by my Aunt Ethel or by a witness in a court of law — about the relation between what they claim to have witnessed and the plausibility of their testimony. In the case of Aunt Ethel the plausibility of her claim is zero because she failed to acknowledge that she was a witness to “a likeness of” and not a witness to an “encounter with the one and only fictional character described by Lewis Carroll named Humpty-Dumpty.” It is a common enough error made in reporting, but in this case it stands out because the claim is utterly implausible and by inference, also improbable. Aunt Ethel could not have seen what she claimed to have witnessed on the ground of implausibility.

Seeing is Believing — Or Is It?

You don’t see a Belief, but believe what you see — but should you?

“Seeing is believing” — or is it?

“You see one — of many?”

“On my birthday I saw Humpty-Dumpty take a big fall,” says Aunt Ethel, who turned 102 yesterday.

What did she see?

She is not blind, rarely wears glasses, hears quite well. She is acute and astute. We assume that she must have seen something, but did she see what she reported? Since none of her interlocutors believe that a person or object corresponding to the description of Humpty-Dumpty exists in the “real”, palpable world — except in a much-loved story — Aunt Ethel’s perception played her a trick. Or so we conclude.

But if we are wrong, and Aunt Ethel’s sighting can be confirmed, would she be entitled to claim, “I saw a Humpty-Dumpty. Furthermore, there are more Humpty-Dumptys somewhere, in fact, I saw only one of many.”

We are all Aunt Ethels in this respect because we all tend to assume on the basis of one sighting that there are more of the same, unless the sighting has a particularizing, individuating name, or tag. The logic runs: “a class of one is still a class” — call it a sample of a class.

I saw a black swan 10 days ago — ergo, there are black swans, or black swans exist. Not only one, but some (many).

To say “I saw the only black swan 10 days ago” is a very strong hypothesis which runs as follows: “Normally there are no black swans, but I saw one and since I believe what I see, therefore I also believe that black swans exist, but perhaps only one!”

What I have done is to clarify what is meant by holding a belief – by assuming that something which is against the grain can nevertheless be incorporated with a set of expectations which I have come to share – or have unconsciously learned to share — with others.

My Aunt Ethel simply followed a widely-adopted convention when she suggested that seeing a one of something is an acceptable basis for assuming that uniqueness is not “normal” at all, but that a single case is a good and fair ground for assuming that there are more of the same somewhere, some place. Keep counting.