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Eiuol

Rational Recurrence: Initial Thoughts (Part 1)

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I am posting a paper I wrote for a graduate-level philosophy class that I audited. The course was about using and acquiring evidence, with a lot of discussion about evidence of the senses. It is intended for an academic audience, but I hope it's readable for anyone. I'm interested in comments and objections. I'll be posting it in three parts. For the most part, the paper is about I thought experiment I came up with.

Capacities Meet Evidence and Rationality

If two people hold identical evidence, will they both have only one rationally permissible attitude towards a given situation? Absolutely – it couldn’t be any other way. To hold identical evidence implies that the two people are also identical in all relevant ways. It follows that what’s rational for one is rational for the other with that same evidence. Claiming otherwise is to suggest that sometimes, rationality is an individual decision, a belief as trite as the phrase “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”, ultimately making rationality a subjective matter. This wouldn’t be rational at all, as whim or desire would then determine rationality, when the whole purpose of rationality is to find out what is the case in reality. So much for any philosophical problem.

But such an argument is apparently ignorant of any and all developments of modern epistemology. Isn’t holding identical evidence a matter of the belief in question, not a matter of what type of entity holds the belief? If evidence - some reason to entitle a belief or attitude - is a basis for a belief, then its validity doesn’t depend on where the evidence came from. In this way, evidence is disinterested, necessarily not a consequence of an agent’s perspective. While an agent is able to enjoy the fruits of evidence by means of his nature, the tree of reality from which the apple of knowledge grows is not sustained by anything the agent does. That is, how an agent acquires evidence may lead them to epistemic goods, but evidence itself is separable from the agent. Such theories of epistemology are primacy of evidence, where evidence is considered to be a first consideration and the agent’s capacities at best second [1]. Anyone with a view that capacities are not primary would find my earlier argument to be missing the point, since I am making evidence agent-relative, therefore undermining my own concern over subjectivity. The fact is, because evidence is not determined by a capacity of an agent, being identical in all ways isn’t necessary to hold identical evidence. Stated differently, I’m still not answering the question since there are many ways to hold identical evidence. Accordingly, I still left room for capacities being the very reason multiple rational attitudes may be permissible. They are fallible, so even if they are reliable, they might not be able to apprehend evidence to a degree that is fine enough for a single rational attitude.

I don’t grant this line of argument. My brief argument should be plenty for my conclusion – but only by first changing the notion of what evidence even is. I distinguish my view as one where evidence is created by an agent, not just discovered. When capacities are a more basic consideration than evidence, then there is nowhere else for evidence to arise except for the agent’s capacities built to fulfill his needs. As a consequence, evidence is interested. Interestedness comes from the actor himself, his capacities establishing evidence so that he can act rationally, making evidence itself only ever a product of capacities. But without those capacities, evidence just wouldn’t exist. Agent-relativity of this sort doesn’t result in subjective standards of rationality or truth, so long as the capacities successfully operate in a normative way to strive for orienting the agent to reality, i.e. provide a relation with reality. In fact, it leads to strict normative standards of rationality that specify exactly one rational attitude towards a situation. The reason for this is that capacities by nature provide exactly one attitude for the agent to hold towards a situation that is determinate and never vague or probabilistic. When rationality is a normative standard used by capacities to establish determinacy, and has algorithmic rules, it follows that an agent would only have one permissible rational attitude – a singular rational attitude is present iff a capacity successfully uses rationality.  

Premised on interested evidence, determinacy relies on the agent’s relation to the environment and his needs in the environment. If evidence is primary instead of the capacities, then determinacy can still rely on the agent’s relation to the environment, but the agent’s needs or limitations of his capacities may sometimes be an obstacle to evidence. For instance, if the figure in the woods is in fact a bear walking on two legs, but I mistake it as bigfoot, my evidence of it being bigfoot is absent (it is false that it’s bigfoot, so there will never be real evidence to say otherwise) or indeterminate (I can’t tell one way or another if it’s bigfoot or a bear, so I can’t track the truth well). In both ways, the agent’s capacity limitations prevent attaining evidence at full depth. The evidence is deformed or only a seeming. With a capacity limitation, there is room for multiple rational attitudes, entailing that a capacity can provide multiple valid outputs. The whole picture changes when evidence is interested. When capacities create evidence, it is by using information that a capacity already has, such as a vague figure of bigfoot. The inputs used by capacities are at exactly enough detail to determine which type of attitude needs to be held towards the figure, because evidence is in terms of what I need to accomplish in my environment as I apprehend it through my capacities - whether that goal is to flee, or to find bigfoot and take a picture with him.

However, only one attitude can be chosen at a time by a capacity, so disentangling what may be determined as rational by a capacity from what is chosen as rational is difficult. Historically, Aristotle figured out his theory of virtue by observing people seen as virtuous then analyzing which actions and attitudes make them identifiably virtuous [2]. I want to do a similar analysis, by observing what rational agents do, then analyzing how evidence makes them identifiably rational. But I can’t use observation in as a direct way as Aristotle, since it’s not possible to directly observe a rational agent in repeated identical situations. I want to know if more than one rational attitude is permissible, not just coarse principles of rationality.

            Looking at how capacities function makes it possible to indirectly figure out how attitudes arise. By knowing principles that a capacity uses, I can determine if the capacity really leaves room for multiple rational attitudes. Decision theory and computer science operate on similar methods of taking a procedure and extrapolating how it would operate in contexts that don’t exist yet. The methodology works for proposed situations, not just situations that exist right now. For my analysis, then, I propose a thought experiment where a rational agent faces identical situations.

Vladmir the Soldier

From a distance, Vladmir sees a distant object slowly flying in his direction. His heart begins to beat faster – it might be a missile, and he is the only one able to act fast enough to shoot it down with his anti-missile launcher before it impacts. This is the very reason the warzone brings so much internal conflict in his life, but it is a necessary conflict. Political change wouldn’t be able to happen unless all people supported it.

Being in an area of constant conflict in the Ukraine, he spent a lot of time looking for anything suspicious in the sky, especially missiles. This looks different than a missile, though. Vladmir notices that it isn’t as long as a missile, but the shape is similar. He knows he doesn’t have more than a few seconds to think about it – probably 20 seconds at most. Shooting down a passenger jet would cause an international outcry, when all he wants to do is protect his town. An arbitrary choice wouldn’t help, certainly not when he wants his side to win the war. After all, Vladmir is a rational man; he doesn’t desire to act on mere impulse as a skunk would towards a threatening bear. He reasons that the object would not be a civilian target, nor would it be a missile. It was not operating like either, as it looked like it was starting to fly clockwise, not straight.

There is no maybe for Vladmir. He feels unsure about finer details like precise length and shape, and he can’t identify in words what he’s looking at definitively. But he is absolutely sure that the rational attitude to take is that the object is a real threat. In a warzone, Vladmir knows that only the right attitude can get him out in one piece – physically and psychically. He fires the anti-missile launcher and watches his target explode.

Suppose the events in Vladmir’s life repeated for eternity, identically up to the second paragraph. No changes whatsoever. Being a rational man, would he want to do otherwise – would he still be rational if he reached a different attitude towards his evidence? 

Eternal Recurrence

Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence is first explained at the end of The Gay Science, mentioned earlier in the book only briefly as characterizing the man of renunciation’s values [3] and plays a major role as the main idea addressed in his next book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The aphorism “the greatest weight” [4] explains eternal recurrence as a poetic proposition towards the reader to imagine the tremendous weight he or she would feel if they were told that their life would repeat in every way, great and small; that the hourglass of life would be flipped over and over again and occur just as before, for eternity. Perhaps one would feel dread, or perhaps one would feel a love for their fate, embracing their choices in totality. Nietzsche used the introspective power of this hypothetical to reach towards radically new ways to look at life and morality.

However, it also reflects an epistemological question as well: if a person were to repeat their life, would that also mean every personal attitude would be the same? Whether it is the man of renunciation, the Chinaman of Konigsberg [5] or the ubermensch, Nietzsche seems to think so, and comes up with the will to power as an explanation. But what about the rational man? And more, what options were available to the rational man? These types of epistemological questions are not lost on Nietzsche. In an aphorism not long before the eternal recurrence, he questions that rationality is able to apply equally to all people because no situation can ever truly be exactly the same; every action is done in a unique way [6]. But it is a response to the Kantian categorical imperative’s sense of rationality rather than rationality per se, and Nietzsche still probably wonders what the best type [7] of man would do, which is especially applicable if recurrence happened to him. Nietzsche uses eternal recurrence as a way to look at individuals and their attitudes towards life. If the rational man is seen as a type of man, in terms of the types of capacities he employs, then coarse principles of reason can still result in specific, singular attitudes for his unique situation. No one would hold an identical attitude as another unless they really were exactly the same person, but being a type of individual, the rational man would continually end up with the same attitudes in recurrence.

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Footnotes:

1. Not intended to be equated with evidentialism, the term is only for contrast.

2. Nicomachean Ethics, Golden Mean.

3. The Gay Science, Kaufmann, trans. 285

“[...] you live without a view of mountains with snow on their peaks and fire in their hearts [...]; you will the eternal recurrence of war and peace: man of renunciation, all this you wish to renounce?  Who will give you the strength for that? Nobody yet has had this strength.”

4. The Gay Science, 341

“What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!' Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.' “

5. Nietzsche’s way to make fun of Kant and Chinese philosophy at the same time. c.f. Beyond Good and Evil, Kaufmann, trans., 210

6. The Gay Science, 335

“Anyone who still judges ‘in this case everybody would have to act like this‘ has not yet taken five steps toward self-knowledge. Otherwise he would know that there neither are nor can be actions that are the same; that every action that has ever been done was done in an altogether unique and irretrievable way, and that this will be equally true of every future action; that all regulations about actions relate only to their coarse exterior. [...] Let us therefore limit ourselves to the purification of our opinions and valuations and to the creation of our own new table of what is good.”

 

7. Beyond Good and Evil, 262

“In this way a type with few but very strong traits, a species of severe, war-like, prudently taciturn men close-mouthed and closely linked, is fixed beyond the changing generations; the continual fight against ever constant unfavorable conditions is, as mentioned previously, the cause that fixes and hardens the type.”

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Just reading the first section, it is circumlocutory. Come on, evidence is disinterested, evidence is interested, as if evidence has a mind of its own and can exercise a capacity of interest or lack thereof? Separate the capacities of the agent into the capacity of the senses and the capacity of rationality. After that you might be able to get to:

The task of his senses is to give him the evidence of existence, but the task of identifying it belongs to his reason, his senses tell him only that something is, but what it is must be learned by his mind.

 

Edited by dream_weaver

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2 hours ago, Eiuol said:

In this way, evidence is disinterested, necessarily not a consequence of an agent’s perspective.

 

15 minutes ago, Eiuol said:

Read it as: Interested (for the possessor).

Evidence is disinterested (for the possessor), necessarily not a consequence of an agent's perspective.

Am I to presume that the possessor is the agent, and that the agent's interest/disinterest is necessarily not a consequence of their perspective? If the interest/disinterest is not of the agent's perspective, are we to further subdivide perspective into the how the senses are related by their location to the evidence from the mental perspective, i.e., epistemic judgement of interest/disinterest?

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Interested just means it is -for- something. Evidence is -for- orienting you to reality, and serves an epistemic role. It doesn't exist independent of your awareness, unlike a fact. This is in contrast to how lots of people say evidence shouldn't be for anything, just as Kant did not think morality was supposed to be -for- anyone's good, which would be intrinsicism. 

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So unlike a fact which can exist independently of (y)our awareness, evidence does not exist independently of (y)our awareness of a fact—so the awareness of a fact transforms a fact (somehow) into evidence?

Edited by dream_weaver

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Yes, by a process of reasoning or identification. It's like a concept, in this sense it has to be formed, and there are criteria for it to be objective. Part 2 gets into how evidence is formed.

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I did do a cursory read of the three parts. I consider the questions raised as not answered forthright without the elaboration that we just went through.

The fact that you introduce here the process of identification with forward reference, harkens back to the quote from Galt's Speech as well as my initial questions regarding the ambiguity introduced linguistically.

 

I'll have to jump back into part 2 for how evidence is formed, but off the cuff—at this point in the juncture—I'm not seeing 'evidence' as being formed.  Rather I'm seeing the identification of a fact being formed from the evidence of the senses—via a process of reason. 

Edited by dream_weaver

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I mean, even when you say evidence of the senses, it is implying that evidence is something the senses have, do, or produce. I find this pretty straightforward and the same way Objectivism approaches evidence. The quote you gave literally says senses provide you with evidence. Unless we accept that truth is passively recognized and we'd already know perfectly all relevant facts, what you're provided with is something your mind actively identified. Evidence is epistemic. Even in a court of law, evidence is established as such by first examining facts or objects.

Edited by Eiuol

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So which is it, truth is passively recognized or something your mind actively identified?

I would add that in court, the facts and objects examined are the evidence.

Edited by dream_weaver

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Evidence is support for beliefs or mental states, like saying "microbes on the rock from Mars are evidence of life there". If you weren't aware of that rock with the microbes, it isn't evidence. I'm pretty sure this is well explained, so by now, it would be better to quote the paper.

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One other thought on how to think of it. When it comes to evidence, you need to ask "evidence to whom and for what?" It is the same sense Rand means that value is about interests. It serves someone's ends. The values exist, but not independent of your interests. 

You can say that a bloody knife is evidence of a murder, but it can't serve as evidence until you can establish that it can serve your interests towards supporting or denying a belief or mental state. Sure, the concrete object which you referred to as evidence exists independent of your belief, but it wouldn't make sense to say it is evidence until you know that there is a belief or mental state to support or deny. Overall, I'm getting at how any individual has exactly one rational answer for any choice that needs to be made. I can only do that by defending knowledge and certainty as existing from an individual perspective, not from an omniscient perspective.

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I can appreciate you giving more thought to the matter. The conundrum to me at the moment is availing myself to the five identified senses I have and trying to 'divorce' evidence from the senses here. While there is a definite epistemological aspect to evidence, I'm trying to separate it, or identify the metaphysical basis for it. The epistemological basis has to arise from the metaphysical, else it cannot be validated.

Edited by dream_weaver
Scare qutoes added.

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Well, validating the concept is a different topic, but I think here it is fine to say that evidence comes out of perceiving the world. Perception by nature provides evidence, it shows us how the world is.

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26 minutes ago, Eiuol said:

Well, validating the concept is a different topic, but I think here it is fine to say that evidence comes out of perceiving the world. Perception by nature provides evidence, it shows us how the world is.

And this make me think that the issue we are wrestling with manifests itself somehow (yet to be identified) in different ways. I have not learned how to resolve this yet, but it seems to lie in the realm of concept formation at this point in our juncture.

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2 hours ago, Eiuol said:

Overall, I'm getting at how any individual has exactly one rational answer for any choice that needs to be made.

I don't see how this applies to any real-life situation.  

When solving problems, we typically make some initial decisions/assumptions, rely on feedback, and then make adjustments.  Very few decisions we make are "live or die" "life-boat" decisions.

When designing a building, you first meet with the Client to understand their needs.  You make some initial sketches, show them to your engineers, get their input and make changes.  Then you show the design to the Client, get feedback and make changes.  Once you get approval from your Client, you take it before the Bureau of Development Services and City Planners.  They give you feedback.  You make changes.

Then you present it to the Neighborhood Organizations.  More feedback, more changes.  Then you go in front of the Design Review Board.  More feedback, more changes.

Once you get final approval, you start preparing construction documents and you solicit and get feedback from General Contractors.  More feedback.  More changes.

And on and on and on....

You start with a general goal in mind, but the final product will differ.  Certainly for anything complex.

This holds true for Doctors trying to cure patients, software designers creating new video games.  Musicians trying to write and record new songs. etc.  Just driving to the grocery store entails making multiple decisions unknown before starting out.

 

In a deductive, formal logic system, such as arithmetic, you would be right.  There is only one way to add a column of numbers -- and every time you do so, you will do it the same way and end up with the same answer.  But you also are not learning anything new.  The answer is implicit in the axioms and rules of the system.  But problem solving is not deductive and doesn't work that way.  There are multiple ways to solve the same problem.  And the next time that I try and solve a similar problem, I'll use what I learned in the past.

I hope I don't make the same mistakes each time....

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9 hours ago, New Buddha said:

When solving problems, we typically make some initial decisions/assumptions, rely on feedback, and then make adjustments. 

And you strive to figure out the rational answer to each choice in the process, given your evidence. I mean answer as whether to pick A or B for example, not necessarily deciding what your final product will be.

Edited by Eiuol

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2 hours ago, Eiuol said:

And you strive to figure out the rational answer to each choice in the process, given your evidence. I mean answer as whether to pick A or B for example, not necessarily deciding what your final product will be.

But over the course of the day, we make thousands of decisions - even if they are only very small ones like walking around the cat on our way into the kitchen.  Dogs and cats and other animals also make decisions.

While it may not specifically address your topic, one problem that I have with experiments such as Libet's Free Will study is that he (and other researchers) focus on one-single-decision, and then via reductionism, try and decide at what particular point in time a decision is made.

I see this reductionist approach mirrored  in the quote below:

On 4/2/2016 at 5:33 PM, Eiuol said:

When rationality is a normative standard used by capacities to establish determinacy, and has algorithmic rules, it follows that an agent would only have one permissible rational attitude – a singular rational attitude is present iff a capacity successfully uses rationality.

Day to day reasoning about complex problems does not follow invariant, algorithmic rules - but this does not mean that day to day reasoning does not employ "rationality".

Except for such things as mathematics, or very tightly controlled laboratory experiments, most of the problems that we attempt to solve each day we require feedback as we go along.  We don't have logical omniscience, and we can only see so many steps ahead.  Our working memory is very small.  The externalization of problems via algorithms (math, Mechanics, programming, step by step experimentation, etc.) allows us to expand our capacities to solve problems.

I understand that you have computer programming in the blood.... Are you maybe seeing all of life's problems as subject to the same type of rigorous, formal logic that is employed in programming?  Solving day to day problems can be done logically but thinking logically and deductive formal logic are not the same thing.

Edited by New Buddha

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Did you read the rest of it? I talk about how when we take into account the evidence of everything at the moment, we can decide what to do next, which might include seeking more feedback. When you get more feedback, your evidence changes, which leads to you moving on to your next decision. If you are looking to decide where to place your next building you design, you look at your evidence, then you make a decision about it. You may decide that talking to your client next is best, rather than picking the spot just yet. I'm not focusing on micro decisions, as in the Libet experiments.

It might be too strong to say algorithmic rules. But, there are rules of rationality. You could call them adaptable rules that take into account feedback. The adaptable rules that take into account feedback cannot be deductive. Part two probably has the part you would find most interesting.

 

 

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