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"How do I know I'm not in the matrix?"

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Dr. Peikoff correctly argues that the arbitrary is not to be treated as possible, but to be utterly ignored. The arbitrary is that which could exist, but does not have a shred of evidence to suggest that it does exist. To accept, or even entertain, the arbitrary would be an act of faith, since it would be acting without evidence.

So we don't entertain the "arbitrary" because we would never have enough time to consider all of the possible "theories"? I still don't see how this proves they can't be true. If it were you, would you tell my friend "Yes, you could theoretically be right, just as the spaghetti monster theory could be right"?

And now onto this other aspect of my friend's attack: "There are other forms of knowledge besides perception and reason, such as revalation, the bible, etc."

So then are "revalation" and "the bible" forms of the "arbitrary"?

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I still don't see how this proves they can't be true.

Do you feel the need to disprove something for which no evidence has been offered? Rather than allowing him to offer baseless assertions and taking the ball into your court, place the burden of proof on him.

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So we don't entertain the "arbitrary" because we would never have enough time to consider all of the possible "theories"? I still don't see how this proves they can't be true. If it were you, would you tell my friend "Yes, you could theoretically be right, just as the spaghetti monster theory could be right"?

What RB said. The burden isn't on you to prove it untrue. In order for that to be required, there would have to be at least a shred of evidence to suggest that it was true. And yes, that is what I would tell your friend (to start; I would then go on to explain the full story, as I did here).

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"Arbitrary" is the category for claims that have no evidence for being true, but also cannot be proven false. Dr. Peikoff correctly argues that the arbitrary is not to be treated as possible, but to be utterly ignored. The arbitrary is that which could exist, but does not have a shred of evidence to suggest that it does exist. To accept, or even entertain, the arbitrary would be an act of faith, since it would be acting without evidence.

This is a truly bizarre new definition of the word "arbitrary." If the "arbitrary" is what could exist but there is no evidence to suggest that it does, then it is actually just defining a subset (or perhaps even all) of the "possible."

Remember that the "possible" is simply that which may be; containing all assertions which don't contradict known facts, relations, physical laws, etc. You don't need evidence of something for it to be considered "possible." Likewise to prove something is not possible you have to show either the thing itself is untrue or else the possibility runs afoul of known facts, relations, physical laws, etc.

This new definition of "arbitrary" also is confusing because of the requirement "cannot be proven false." This also seems to suggest that your definition of "arbitrary" merely captures what everybody else calls the "possible" because almost all statements of possibility have unknown truth values at the time they are made. Perhaps you meant to talk about statements which can NEVER be proven false. Even this is unclear as it is hard to say what can never be proven false at some point in the future.

I am honestly not sure why Objectivism has such a love of redefining words with already well-accepted meanings. Because as in this case, it serves only to confuse. If "arbitrary" truly is just some new definition for what everybody else calls "possible" then it is totally bizarre why it is an "act of faith" to entertain the possible. Everybody entertains the possible.

Edited by Vladimir Berkov

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This is a truly bizarre new definition of the word "arbitrary." If the "arbitrary" is what could exist but there is no evidence to suggest that it does, then it is actually just defining a subset (or perhaps even all) of the "possible."

Remember that the "possible" is simply that which may be; containing all assertions which don't contradict known facts, relations, physical laws, etc. You don't need evidence of something for it to be considered "possible." Likewise to prove something is not possible you have to show either the thing itself is untrue or else the possibility runs afoul of known facts, relations, physical laws, etc.

This new definition of "arbitrary" also is confusing because of the requirement "cannot be proven false." This also seems to suggest that your definition of "arbitrary" merely captures what everybody else calls the "possible" because almost all statements of possibility have unknown truth values at the time they are made. Perhaps you meant to talk about statements which can NEVER be proven false. Even this is unclear as it is hard to say what can never be proven false at some point in the future.

I am honestly not sure why Objectivism has such a love of redefining words with already well-accepted meanings. Because as in this case, it serves only to confuse. If "arbitrary" truly is just some new definition for what everybody else calls "possible" then it is totally bizarre why it is an "act of faith" to entertain the possible. Everybody entertains the possible.

I think the reason for redefining words is that many definitions are poor.

In the current case, though, I think there is a subtle difference between possible and arbitrary that you are not taking into acount. ARbitrary has the added nuance that it is disconnected from reality in some way which disallows inquiry. If I were to say that it is possible that there is a book in a box, we could find out if it were true by opening the box. If on the other hand I were to say that it is possible that god exists, or we live in a matrix, or unicorns are somewhere, then it is in the realm of arbitrary as there is no way to find out if the hypothesis was true. Those statements could be changed by saying, there is a Unicorn in my backyard. Now we have a statement which can be investigated...the possible-ness of the statement is derived from the spatial limitation of my actual backyard of course and is not derived from the concept of unicorn.

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That's why I think that the Matrix scenario is of a special sort, as distinct from the God or unicorn examples. The Matrix problem is that the reliability of our faculties of perception depend on its answer. The thing that "arbitrary" seems to be trying to get are things like "invisible monsters" and such. Things which essentially could never be verified in any form regardless of any advance in knowledge, change in geographic location, etc. I would think that a list of such things is necessarily quite small. I would even be hesistant to include God in the list, due to the common theme in world religions of men experiencing or communicating with God in various forms.

To say something is "arbitrary" then, it is something which is possible but which can never be proved to actually exist or occur. This results in the further question of having to determine what counts as something which never can be proved to exist. This is why I think the list is quite short. An arbitrary invisisible monster, for instance, would be something defined like "The invisible X monster lives on the far side of Saturn and can never be seen, sensed or measured in any way at any time." Simply saying that "There is an X monster living on the far side of Saturn" thus isn't making an arbitrary assertion about the realm of the possible, it seems.

Again, I think the whole idea of "arbitrary" is confusing. I think it is must clearre to simply stick with the realm of the "possible" which includes in its definition the requirement of not running afoul of any known facts or laws. Thus to truly be possible, an invisible undetectible monster must conform to the laws of physics, something I doubt any such monster definition can do.

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This is a truly bizarre new definition of the word "arbitrary." If the "arbitrary" is what could exist but there is no evidence to suggest that it does, then it is actually just defining a subset (or perhaps even all) of the "possible."

New? What's your definition? It seems a pretty standard application of the word to the context of epistemology.

I am honestly not sure why Objectivism has such a love of redefining words with already well-accepted meanings. Because as in this case, it serves only to confuse. If "arbitrary" truly is just some new definition for what everybody else calls "possible" then it is totally bizarre why it is an "act of faith" to entertain the possible. Everybody entertains the possible.

I don't know what your objection is. What is your confusion? "Possible" is not the same as "arbitrary." "Possible" is used when at least some evidence suggests something. "Arbitrary" is when no evidence exists to suggest it, or like aequalsa says, could be found.

Edited by Inspector

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Thus to truly be possible, an invisible undetectible monster must conform to the laws of physics, something I doubt any such monster definition can do.

Hmm, you are making one distinction: between that which is unprovable, and that which is simply lacking of any evidence.

i.e. the invisible, undetectable monster on the far side of Pluto versus the evil black squirrel living under my house, who is plotting to overthrow the government. In the latter case, you could check for the squirrel. I mean, you'd have to dig up my house, but you could indeed verify its existence or nonexistence. There's still not a shred of evidence to suggest the existence of the squirrel, so it is invalid, but now I wonder if that would classify as arbitrary, or as something else.

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This thread is in serious need of definitions for the words: "faith," and "arbitrary."

"Faith" is a belief held without reason. To say that we accept the evidence of the senses "on faith" is a stolen concept. Faith would be accepting something without evidence. In the case of the evidence of the senses, well, did you happen to notice that word, "evidence" in there?!?

"Arbitrary" is the category for claims that have no evidence for being true, but also cannot be proven false. Dr. Peikoff correctly argues that the arbitrary is not to be treated as possible, but to be utterly ignored. The arbitrary is that which could exist, but does not have a shred of evidence to suggest that it does exist. To accept, or even entertain, the arbitrary would be an act of faith, since it would be acting without evidence.

Your friend has it completely backwards: he is the one operating on faith, not you.

Exactly what the thread needed. Very nice inspector. The definition of arbitrary also then reigns in the idea of what is "possible". The arbitrary is not "possible". Only that for which there is evidence is possible. This is exactly the problem with many hypothetical though exercises that should be rejected outright. They always insert an element of the arbitrary, and as such, should be dismissed out of hand.

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There is a problem with understanding the distinction between the arbitrary and the possible, especially when you're speaking of the "theoretically possible". The existence of element 117 is (AFAIK) both allowed and demanded by all reasonable physical theories, and these are theories for which there is a good supply of evidence (we're not talking about some hyper-abstract 15th dimensional string-theoretic deduction). This element has never been observed, so the direct evidence that it does indeed exist is null. It would still be wrong to say that the claim for this element is arbitrary (and fortunately, nobody here has said it is), because of how compelling the underlying physical theories are which predict the element. Denying the existence of the element means denying certain general conclusions which are well-supported scientifically. But the denial of an established scientific conclusion must itself be based on the integration of some new truth -- not the arbitrary denial of an existing conclusion. Existing knowledge cannot (assuming a rational epistemology) be cast aside ad libitum just because you can. Thus the grander claim that element 117 exists is not arbitrary, and it is even probable, given the weight of the underlying theory (and its experimental support).

Let us compare this to the BIV. There is no theory which is even in the least supported to the effect that we must be BIVs or that we might be BIVs. We are even aware of the cognitive difference between actual direct experiences of real events and dreams or hallucinations, and we are not aware of being BIVs. Nothing proves, or remotely suggests, that the BIV story is possible at a physical level, so saying that the BIV story is "possible" is an examplar of the arbitrary. Notice Vladimir's statement -- 'Remember that the "possible" is simply that which may be; containing all assertions which don't contradict known facts, relations, physical laws, etc. You don't need evidence of something for it to be considered "possible." ' Okay, now what is the evidence that BIV is compatible with known facts, relations, physical laws, etc? There is evidence that it contradicts known facts, relations, physical laws, and no evidence presented that it is consistent with scientific theories.

Vladmir has proposed that what the category arbitrary "seems to be trying to get at" is the utterly untestable. It's interesting that one of the first examples of the arbitrary mentioned by Peikoff is the convention of Venusian gremlins. This is not a thoroughtly untestable claims, it's simply difficult at present to test the claim. To quote p. 164 "An arbitrary claim is one for which there is no evidence, either perceptual or conceptual. It is a brazen assertion, based neither on direct observation nor on any attempted logical inference therefrom." Thus given his misunderstanding of the concept "arbitrary", I do see how he made the mistake of not seeing that BIV is an arbitrary claim. Once you understand what the concept really refers to, BIV goes into the waste-bin of arbitrary claims.

What about those squirrels and trans-Plutonic monsters? They are both arbitrary claims, but still we can distinguish between different kinds of arbitrary claims. The original squirrel claim is too much like the monster claim, and Inspector, I wonder if you really meant all of those details. An evil black squirrel living under your house plotting to overthrow the government combines the possible and the impossible. The possible is "black squirrel living under your house", but it is not possible for a squirrel to be evil or to plot, or even grasp the concept "overthrow". You can check whether there is a squirrel, but you can't check his morals.

We can compare three things: the trans-Plutonic monster claim, and the Venusian-gremlin claim, and the ordinary squirrel under the house claim. The squirrel claim is an innocent arbitrary claim -- it reflects a low-level of epistemological slackness in asserting something that could easily be true (is consistent with what we know about squirrels and houses), without basing that assertion on appropriate evidence. The Venusian-gremlin claim is a stupid arbitrary claim, because it could, with enormous effort, be verified, but there is virtually no evidence to suggest that it really is true, and you would have to have a really stupid epistemology to say that this state of affairs is "possible". The trans-Plutonic monster claim is an evil arbitrary claim: it cannot ever, in principle, be verified, and only an evil epistemology would allow such a claim to be considered for a nanosecond. The BIV claim is of this third, evil-epistemology type.

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There is a problem with understanding the distinction between the arbitrary and the possible, especially when you're speaking of the "theoretically possible".

...

The trans-Plutonic monster claim is an evil arbitrary claim: it cannot ever, in principle, be verified, and only an evil epistemology would allow such a claim to be considered for a nanosecond. The BIV claim is of this third, evil-epistemology type.

You laid it out very nicely, David. Just one question though. What does BIV stand for?

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New? What's your definition? It seems a pretty standard application of the word to the context of epistemology.

I don't really see the need to use a word such as "arbitrary" in the context of describing the "possible." As I said, "possible" already excludes hypotheticals which confict with known facts or reality. Peikoff's definition of "arbitrary" seems add nothing to what we want to capture by defining the possible with the added problem of complexity and a fuzzy redefinition of a word to a new context.

I don't know what your objection is. What is your confusion? "Possible" is not the same as "arbitrary." "Possible" is used when at least some evidence suggests something. "Arbitrary" is when no evidence exists to suggest it, or like aequalsa says, could be found.

For something to be "possible" it doesn't require ANY evidence to suggest it is true. Possibility only requires no evidence that it is false. It is an negative requirement, not a positive. Something is possible if it doesn't conflict with known facts or reality, in essense. Thus with my box analogy, there need be no evidence of what is inside the box to posit what could is possible to be inside. What possibility would exclude are things which would contradict known facts or reality, for example I couldn't say "It is possible that the Queen Mary is in the box." Such a statement is false not because I lack evidence of the Queen Mary being there, but because for the statement to be true our baseline knowledge about the relevant facts and physical laws would have to be wrong.

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For something to be "possible" it doesn't require ANY evidence to suggest it is true. Possibility only requires no evidence that it is false. It is an negative requirement, not a positive. Something is possible if it doesn't conflict with known facts or reality, in essense. Thus with my box analogy, there need be no evidence of what is inside the box to posit what could is possible to be inside. What possibility would exclude are things which would contradict known facts or reality, for example I couldn't say "It is possible that the Queen Mary is in the box." Such a statement is false not because I lack evidence of the Queen Mary being there, but because for the statement to be true our baseline knowledge about the relevant facts and physical laws would have to be wrong.

Really? How do you know it's not possible for Queen Mary to be in the box? :)

For someone who is a lawyer and has just destroyed the basis of evidence, I'm stunned. How do you know exactly when you have collected enough "no evidence" of falseness to say that anything is false? This is what allowed arbitrary assertions of alternative explanations for the Nicole Simpson murders to be entered into evidence, and what ultimately created enough reasonable doubt to keep O.J. Simpson from the electric chair. You know, that whole "he who asserts the positive" thing.

In fact the distinction between arbitrary and possible are older than Peikoff, and are based in metaphysics. The lack of evidence for something is evidence that it is not.

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I don't really see the need to use a word such as "arbitrary" in the context of describing the "possible." As I said, "possible" already excludes hypotheticals which confict with known facts or reality. Peikoff's definition of "arbitrary" seems add nothing to what we want to capture by defining the possible with the added problem of complexity and a fuzzy redefinition of a word to a new context.

That's because you've mis-defined "possible." The addition of "arbitrary" adds the distinction that David outlined nicely. It is an actual distinction, and it is one that matters.

For something to be "possible" it doesn't require ANY evidence to suggest it is true. Possibility only requires no evidence that it is false.

Basically, that's incorrect; and this disagreement is the source of why Peikoff makes the distinction he does.

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I had a long reply talking about the assertion made about the use of possibility in the law, but the forum died and it was lost. To sum it up, the law doesn't require possibility to be disproved. It only requires the elements of the offense or cause of action to be proved to the legal standard (beyond a reasonable doubt/preponderance of the evidence) any possible alternative explanations posited by the defense are relevant only to the extent they tend to show the offense was not committed and are important to the extent they are believed by the jury.

Inspector, I don't see how I have mis-defined "possible." Here are several relevant definitions entirely consistant with mine from several different dictionaries:

1. That may or can be, exist, happen, be done, be used, etc.

2. That may be true or may be the case, as something concerning which one has no knowledge to the contrary

3. Capable of happening, existing, or being true without contradicting proven facts, laws, or circumstances.

I have yet to find a definition of "possible" which states that something needs positive evidence of its probability to be "possible." Perhaps that is another new definition of Peikoff's?

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Perhaps that is another new definition of Peikoff's?

It is, and that is precisely the point: that philosophy was wanting for the lack of this definition. It is a very important epistemological distinction that he is making, and resolves problems like this BIV thing.

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To sum it up, the law doesn't require possibility to be disproved.
And that is relevant how?

There is a fundamental difference between law and science. When a man is accused of stealing another man's goods, you can't say "I dunno, let me see more evidence". With the law, you must find guilty (running the risk of violating an innocent man's rights) or not guilty (running the risk of perpetuating the violation of the victim's rights). And this is a good thing: with a scientific hypothesis, you can keep trying to prove the hypothesis, experimenting over and over. It's true that the legal system is moving in the direction of allowing repeated trials until a conviction can be secured, but this is not a good thing, IMO, and for the forseeable future, it is unimaginable that the accused could be dragged through a trial for the same offense 20-100 times in his life.

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I was responding to KendallJ's post on the previous page.
I understand that, but principles regarding evidence in law are irrelevant to epistemology and especially science, for the reason that I explained.

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Saying something is possible is making a positive assertion, and all positive assertions need evidence.

I think most people use "possible" to mean even if there is no evidence, a thing is not impossible in logic. But that is an instance of the analytic/synthetic dichotomy which is another thing Objectivists reject.

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Saying something is possible is making a positive assertion, and all positive assertions need evidence.

That is the fundamental observation here, that Vladimir doesn't take into consideration. A statement of possibility is a positive assertion, because all statements of fact are positive assertions. And all positive assertions must have some fact or piece of evidence to tip the balance to their side (otherwise it couldn't be a positive assertion).

An arbitrary statement is outside right or wrong statements; it simply is outside of reality altogether and has no basis on which to even be evaluated. That is the case with the "matrix" scenario -- it is not possible (if it is, show how), but is arbitrary (there is no basis for determining its truth or falsehood, and as such it must be thrown out together with all other infinitely many arbitrary statements). It should be stressed again, that the "matrix" scenario is not wrong, but arbitrary, which are two different things. There is basis on which to consider and evaluate wrong statements; there is none for arbitrary ones.

Edited by Free Capitalist

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Odden, in regards to the law, I don't think we are in disagreement at all. I agree that what we are talking about in this thread has nothing to do with the law. That was why I made the original response to KendallJ.

In regards to "possibility" being a positive assertion which needs evidence, this is half true. When you make a statement saying something is possible you are only need to prove the proposition of possibility, not the truth of the underlying assertion. For example, if I state "It is possible it is raining outside right now" I only need to show that it is not impossible that it is raining outside, and this simply means that I need to show that if the underlying proposition were true it would not be internally conflicting or violate known laws or facts. This is different from proving the underlying assertion that it IS actually raining.

To require positive evidence of the underlying assertion to make statements of possibility you essentially turn possibility into probablity.

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When you make a statement saying something is possible you are only need to prove the proposition of possibility, not the truth of the underlying assertion.
I understand that you're taking a particular position, but this adamant denial of yours is non-productive. All you're doing is repeating a long-standing standard error in epistemology, that of not distinguishing the arbitrary from the possible. Your position boils down to saying that there is no difference at all between a claim that has some degree of support, and a random claim that lacks any support, which has no relationship to man's cognition, and need not even be a claim made by a sentient being.

Use of "possible" in philosophy shows that it really means something like "formally imaginable", otherwise there would be no discussion of possible worlds where a cow can jump over the moon. If one were to rigorously restrict the use of "possible" to that which is known to conform to all existing knowledge, then one might on occasion say "It is possible" in answer to someone's question "Is it raining right now?". But it is intellectually dishonest to make an initial offer of that claim, since failure to explicitly recognize the equal opposite possibility "It is possible that it is not raining right now" is an Gricean attempt to imply that the claim "It is raining" is not actually arbitrary, which it is.

As far as the BIV issue goes, clearly that is not a "possible" claim. If you have some real candidates for "possible" claims which we identify as arbitrary (assuming you understand the concept now) and think that you can prove that there is a good reason to fail to distinguish arbitrary claims from possible claims, I'm willing to invest the effort into demolishing that "proof".

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