Existence and Knowledge

Philosophical musings by a non-philosopher which are meant to be accessible to other non-philosophers.

Ontology is the branch of philosophy that deals with existence. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge.

I submit (with no claim to originality) that existence (what really is) is independent of knowledge (proposition A), but knowledge is impossible without existence (proposition B).

In proposition A, I include in existence those things that exist in the present, those things that have existed in the past, and the processes (happenings) by which past existences either end (e.g., death of an organism, collapse of a star) or become present existences (e.g., an older version of a living person, the formation of a new star). That which exists is real; existence is reality.

In proposition B, I mean knowledge as knowledge of that which exists, and not the kind of “knowledge” that arises from misperception, hallucination, erroneous deduction, lying, and so on. Much of what is called scientific knowledge is “knowledge” of the latter kind because, as scientists know (when they aren’t advocates) scientific knowledge is provisional. Proposition B implies that knowledge is something that human beings and other living organisms possess, to widely varying degrees of complexity. (A flower may “know” that the Sun is in a certain direction, but not in the same way that a human being knows it.) In what follows, I assume the perspective of human beings, including various compilations of knowledge resulting from human endeavors. (Aside: Knowledge is self-referential, in that it exists and is known to exist.)

An example of proposition A is the claim that there is a falling tree (it exists), even if no one sees, hears, or otherwise detects the tree falling. An example of proposition B is the converse of Cogito, ergo sum, I think, therefore I am; namely, I am, therefore I (a sentient being) am able to know that I am (exist).

Here’s a simple illustration of proposition A. You have a coin in your pocket, though I can’t see it. The coin is, and its existence in your pocket doesn’t depend on my act of observing it. You may not even know that there is a coin in your pocket. But it exists — it is — as you will discover later when you empty your pocket.

Here’s another one. Earth spins on its axis, even though the “average” person perceives it only indirectly in the daytime (by the apparent movement of the Sun) and has no easy way of perceiving it (without the aid of a Foucault pendulum) when it is dark or when asleep. Sunrise (or at least a diminution of darkness) is a simple bit of evidence for the reality of Earth spinning on its axis without our having perceived it.

Now for a somewhat more sophisticated illustration of proposition A. One interpretation of quantum mechanics is that a sub-atomic particle (really an electromagnetic phenomenon) exists in an indeterminate state until an observer measures it, at which time its state is determinate. There’s no question that the particle exists independently of observation (knowledge of the particle’s existence), but its specific characteristic (quantum state) is determined by the act of observation. Does this mean that existence of a specific kind depends on knowledge? No. It means that observation determines the state of the particle, which can then be known. Observation precedes knowledge, even if the gap is only infinitesimal. (A clear-cut case is the autopsy of a dead person to determine his cause of death. The autopsy didn’t cause the person’s death, but came after it as an act of observation.)

Regarding proposition B, there are known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, and unknown “knowns”. Examples:

Known knowns (real knowledge = true statements about existence) — The experiences of a conscious, sane, and honest person: I exist; am eating; I had a dream last night; etc. (Recollections of details and events, however, are often mistaken, especially with the passage of time.)

Known unknowns (provisional statements of fact; things that must be or have been but which are not in evidence) — Scientific theories, hypotheses, data upon which these are based, and conclusions drawn from them. The immediate causes of the deaths of most persons who have died since the advent of homo sapiens. The material process by which the universe came to be (i.e., what happened to cause the Big Bang, if there was a Big Bang).

Unknown unknowns (things that exist but are unknown to anyone) — Almost everything about the universe.

Unknown “knowns” (delusions and outright falsehoods accepted by some persons as facts) — Frauds, scientific and other. The apparent reality of a dream.

Regarding unknown “knowns”, one might dream of conversing with a dead person, for example. The conversation isn’t real, only the dream is. And it is real only to the dreamer. But it is real, nevertheless. And the brain activity that causes a dream is real even if the person in whom the activity occurs has no perception or memory of a dream. A dream is analogous to a movie about fictional characters. The movie is real but the fictional characters exist only in the script of the movie and the movie itself. The actors who play the fictional characters are themselves, not the fictional characters.

There is a fine line between known unknowns (provisional statements of fact) and unknown “knowns” (delusions and outright falsehoods). The former are statements about existence that are made in good faith. The latter are self-delusions of some kind (e.g., the apparent reality of a dream as it occurs), falsehoods that acquire the status of “truth” (e.g., George Washington’s false teeth were made of wood), or statements of “fact” that are made in bad faith (e.g., adjusting the historic temperature record to make the recent past seem warmer relative to the more distant past).

The moral of the story is that a doubting Thomas is a wise person.

Mugged by Non-Reality

A wise man said that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Thanks to Malcolm Pollock, I’ve just learned that a liberal is a conservative whose grasp of reality has been erased, literally.

Actually, this is unsurprising news (to me). I have pointed out many times that the various manifestations of liberalism — from stifling regulation to untrammeled immigration — arise from the cosseted beneficiaries of capitalism (e.g., pundits, politicians, academicians, students) who are far removed from the actualities of producing real things for real people. This has turned their brains into a kind of mush that is fit only for hatching unrealistic but costly schemes which rest upon a skewed vision of human nature.

Time and Reality

There’s an argument that time is an illusion. There’s nothing but the present — the now — or, rather, an infinite number of nows. In the conventional view, one now succeeds another, which creates the illusion of the passage of time. In the view of some physicists, all nows exist at once, and we merely perceive them sequentially (or so it seems).

A problem with the conventional view is that not everyone perceives the same now, according to Einstein’s special theory of relativity. A problem with the view that all nows exist at once (known as the many-worlds view), is that it’s purely a mathematical concoction.

Oh, wait, that’s also true of the special theory of relativity, though the underpinnings of the theory have been proven experimentally. But, as I understand it, the Lorentz transformation enables one to reconcile the various nows of special relativity, that is, to stand in the place of an omniscient observer. So, in effect, there really is a now — or an infinite series of nows, perceived sequentially.

This leads to the question of what distinguishes one now from another now. The answer is change. If things didn’t change, there would be only a now, not an infinite series of them.

What happens between one now and the next now? Change, not the passage of time. What we think of as the passage of time is really an artifact of change.

Time is really nothing more than the counting of events that supposedly occur at set intervals — the “ticking” of an atomic clock, for example. I say supposedly because there’s no absolute measure of time against which one can calibrate the “ticking” of an atomic clock, or any other kind of clock. (See Einstein’s special theory of relativity.)

In summary: Clocks don’t measure time. Clocks merely change (e.g., “tick”) at supposedly regular intervals, and those intervals are used in the representation of other things, such as the speed of an automobile or the duration of a 100-yard dash.

Time is an illusion. Change is real. But change in what — of what does reality consist?

There are two basic views of reality. One of them, according to Bishop Berkeley and his followers, is that the only reality is that which goes on in one’s own mind. The other basic view, held by most people (including most scientists), is that there is an objective reality out there, beyond the confines one’s mind. How, after all, can so many people agree about the existence of certain things (e.g., Cleveland) unless there’s something out there?

Over the ages, scientists have been able to describe objective reality in ever-increasing, ever-minute detail. But what is it? What is the stuff of which it consists? No one knows or is likely ever to know. All we know is that stuff changes, and those changes give rise to what we call time.

Pardon my seriousness. Someone must have put something in my soup.

 

 

 

 

Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare

This post could be subtitled: “Or, why the left — Democrats and so-called liberals and progressives — enjoy a rhetorical advantage over libertarians and fiscal conservatives.” (Other kinds of “conservatives” — those who are simply in a war with the left over the spoils of political rapaciousness — are on their own.)

Leftists are  kind, caring, and generous — because they say they are. Conservatives and libertarians are none of those things — because the possession of such traits is a question of behavior, not rhetoric.

Leftists dismiss human imperfection, while finding perfection in their vision of the world as they want it to be. Conservatives and libertarians understand human imperfection and offer only a vision of betterment through striving.

The rhetoric of leftism — when it is not downright hateful toward non-leftists — has wide appeal because to adopt it for one’s own and to echo it is to make oneself feel kind, caring, generous — and powerful — at a stroke. It matters not whether the policies that flow from leftist rhetoric actually make others better off. The important things, to a leftist, are how he feels about himself and how others perceive him.

It is easy for a leftist to seem kinder, more caring, and more generous than his conservative and libertarian brethren because a leftist focuses on intentions rather than consequences. No matter that the consequences of leftist dogma could match their stated intentions only if Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy ruled the world.

In the leftist’s imagination, of course, government is Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. Government, despite the fact that it consists of venal and fallible humans, somehow (in the leftist’s imagination) wields powers that enable it to make “good” things happen with the stroke of a pen and at no cost.

Or if there is a cost, it is to be borne by those despised “rich,” who dare to acquire more than their “fair share” of income and wealth. Leftists seem know who is “too rich” and what is a “fair share” by mysterious intuitions that are inaccessible to mere mortals. Leftists seem to have acquired a fine knowledge of what others deserve to earn, though that knowledge seems not to have kept many a leftist from scrambling up the ladder of material prosperity. It’s all right to be “rich” if you proclaim your heart to be in the right place.

By the same token, it is all right to dictate the terms and conditions of human striving– what is made, how it is made, whether it is made, how much of it is made, how much of it may be consumed, etc. — as long as one’s heart is in the right place. The leftist, you see, is compelled to protect mere mortals (the unwashed masses) from themselves. That is because the leftist cannot grasp the the concepts of personal responsibility and betterment through (sometimes) bitter experience.

Such realities have no meaning for the leftist. For him, human progress is attained by the magical powers of government, which can raise up the impoverished, cure the stricken, and banish strife from the land. It is up to government to do such things because, in the view of a leftist, nothing that happens to anyone (or to anyone who is on the left’s list of favored groups) is his fault — it is the fault of “society” or the uncaring, unkind, ungenerous exploiters who (in the left’s imagination) control society. (The ultimate irony is that the uncaring, unkind, and ungenerous exploiters are the leftists who, when not held in check, write the rules by which we mortals live.)

In sum, the true nature of leftism is a blend of Utopianism and power-lust. Thus, in the left’s view of things, human wants can be met, but only without mussing the face of the Earth; people can live and work wherever they choose, as long as it is in compact cities in which government owns the only means of transportation; people can say what they want and associate with whom they please, as long as they say nothing to offend certain kinds of persons and are forced to associate with them, like it or not. (The list goes on, but that is more than enough to make my point.)

The idea of allowing individuals to make their own way (and sometimes to fail in the process of trying), to become sick and die because of the “lifestyles” they prefer, and to avoid one another (usually for very good reasons) is beyond the ken of the leftist. Imperfection — in the mind of a leftist — is impermissible. Individuals must not be allowed to fail, to become ill, or to harbor ill feelings (except toward the enemies of leftism). The antidote to failure is to arrange our lives and business affairs as the leftist would like to see them arranged. All in the name of kindness, compassion, and generosity, of course.

The ideal person — to a leftist — is not a human being but a cog in the left’s design for the world.

Related posts:
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Penalizing “Thought Crimes”
Parsing Political Philosophy
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Left
The Divine Right of the Majority
I Want My Country Back

The Unreality of Objectivism

Charles Murray, in a review of two biographies of Ayn Rand, says that

Objectivism takes as its metaphysical foundation the existence of reality that is unchanged by anything that an observer might think about it—”A is A,” as Aristotle put it, and as Rand often repeated in her own work. Objectivism’s epistemology is based on the capacity of the human mind to perceive reality through reason, and the adamant assertion that reason is the only way to perceive reality.

Objectivism is just a refined form of bunkum, which can be shown by examining its four Randian tenets (in italics, followed by my commentary):

1. Reality exists as an objective absolute — facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.

It is true, and tautologous, to say that reality exists; that is, the real has “verifiable existence.” But there are many conceptions of reality, some of them based on identical observations of the physical world. (Read about physical cosmology and quantum mechanics, for example.) There may be an objective reality, but it is trivial to say so. The reality that we perceive depends on (a) the limitations of our perception (e.g., the degree to which telescopes have been improved), and (b) the prejudices that we bring to what we are able to perceive. (Yes, everyone has prejudices.) And it always will be thus, no matter how many facts we are able to ascertain; the universe is a bottomless mystery.

In my experience, Objectivists flaunt their dedication to reality in order to assert their prejudices as if they were facts. One of those prejudices is that “natural rights” exist independently of human thought or action. But the concept of “natural rights” is an abstraction, not a concrete, verifiable reality. Abstractions are “real” only in a world of Platonic ideals. And, then, they are “real” only to those who posit them. Objectivism is therefore akin to Platonism (Platonic mysticism), in which ideas exist independently of matter; that is, they simply “are.”

It would be fair to say that Objectivism is a kind of unreality.

2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

Reason operates on perceptions and prejudices. To the extent that there are “real” facts, we filter and interpret them according to our prejudices. When it comes to that, Objectivists are no less prejudiced than anyone else (see above).

Reason is an admirable and useful thing, but it does not ensure valid “knowledge,” right action, or survival. Some non-cognitive precepts — such as the “Golden Rule,” “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” and “talk softly but carry a big stick” — are indispensable guides to action which help to ensure the collective (joint) survival of those who observe them. Survival, in the real world (as opposed to the ideal world of Objectivism) depends very much on prejudice (see Theodore Dalrymple’s In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas).

3. Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

This dictum is an attack on the straw-man concept of altruism, which has no basis in reality, as I explain here and here. All of us are individualists, at bottom, in that we seek our own happiness. It just happens that some of us correlate our happiness with the happiness of (selected) others. Rand’s third tenet is both a tautology and a (lame) justification for behavior that violates social norms. Objectivists (like anarcho-capitalists) seem unable to understand that the liberty which enables them to spout their nonsense is owed, in great measure, to the existence of social norms, and that those norms arise (in large part) from observance of the “Golden Rule.”

4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

Here, Rand shifts gears from preaching the bed-rock prejudices and tautologies of Objectivism (tenets 1, 2, and 3) to the “ought” of Objectivism. It is hard to distinguish Rand’s fourth tenet from the tenets of libertarianism, which makes me wonder why some Objectivists scorn libertarianism (e.g., go here and scroll down). It is not as if Objectivism is reality-based, as opposed to libertarianism. In fact, consequentialist libertarianism (anathema to anarchists and Objectivists, alike) has the advantage when it comes to defending laissez-faire capitalism. The facts of history and economics are on the side of laissez-faire capitalism because it yields better results than statism (see this and this, for example).

I will not bother, here, to dismantle the jejune rejection of preemptive self-defense: the so-called non-aggression principle, which I have addressed in this post (and in several of the links therein). Nor is the notion of complete separation of state and church worth more than a link this post (and the links therein) and this one.

In sum, Objectivism reminds me very much of a late-night, dorm-room bull session: equal parts of inconsequential posturing and uninformed “philosophizing.” Sophomoric, in a word.

Related post: This Is Objectivism?