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Can observations justify absolute belief?

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I have a basic question I would like to ask; I am pretty sure this must be covered in either OPAR or IOE, so if you give me any sections to look at I will check there. My question is about ideas that we hold to be absolutely true. For example, there is what is usually called the Law of Causality (though I think that Objectivists may normally phrase it in a different way:)

Every effect has a sufficient cause.

Objectivists (and myself) do not believe in a priori knowledge, so this law must come from observation of reality. However, it is unlike other "laws" I could produce from observation of reality in that I can't think of any way it could be disproved. No matter what evidence you gave me for an event that had no cause, I would always believe that there was indeed a cause that existed, though it may be unknown at that time. This is different, for example, from the statement "The Sun is powered by nuclear fusion," which I strongly believe but could possibly abandon if there were sufficiently strong evidence discovered in the future that would disprove it. The only way I can think of to explain this difference is to say that the definition of effect includes the idea of a cause (i.e. an effect is that which has a cause.) However, if this is true then the Law of Causality doesn’t really tell us much new. This is like if I made a definition

Definition: Objectivists are people who agree with the Objectivist philosophy.

and then made a law

Law of Objectivism: All Objectivists agree with the Objectivist philosophy.

By definition the law would be true, but would contain no new information. Is this making since? I hope I am making my question clear; please let me know if there is any way I can be more specific. Thanks!

P.S. This is different than the kind of absolute belief that I have about statements like "I exist;" the statement that I exist is obviously true and could never be disproved because I couldn’t even make the statement if I didn't exist.

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I have a basic question I would like to ask; I am pretty sure this must be covered in either OPAR or IOE, so if you give me any sections to look at I will check there. My question is about ideas that we hold to be absolutely true. For example, there is what is usually called the Law of Causality (though I think that Objectivists may normally phrase it in a different way:)

I think what you are seeking is the notion of axiomatic concepts, which is the subject matter of Chapter 6 in ITOE. You might also want to look through Chapter 1 of OPAR for more discussion on this.

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Objectivists (and myself) do not believe in a priori knowledge, so this law must come from observation of reality. However, it is unlike other "laws" I could produce from observation of reality in that I can't think of any way it could be disproved.
Classifying knowledge as a priori is not a way of saying that it isn't learned from the observation of reality; the a priori/a posterior split concerns how knowledge is validated, not how it is obtained. Kant held that logical and mathematical truths were a priori, but this didn't commit him to the view that people were 'born' knowing them, rather than having to learn them.

The following definition (from here) highlights how the term is normally used in contemporary philosophy:

The component of knowledge to which the a priori/a posteriori distinction is immediately relevant is that of justification or warrant. (These terms are used synonymously here and refer to the main component of knowledge beyond that of true belief.) To say that a person knows a given proposition a priori is to say that her justification for believing this proposition is independent of experience. According to the traditional view of justification, to be justified in believing something is to have an epistemic reason to support it, a reason for thinking it is true. Thus, to be a priori justified in believing a given proposition is to have a reason for thinking that the proposition is true that does not emerge or derive from experience. By contrast, to be a posteriori justified is to have a reason for thinking that a given proposition is true that does emerge or derive from experience.

The laws of identity/casuality are not justified by experience, hence they are a priori by this definition. Again, this does not mean that people dont come to _learn_ them via experience. They are independent of experience in the sense that (as you noted) no possible experience can disconfirm them - there is nothing that science could ever produce that would convince an Objectivist that identity or casuality do not hold. Any theory which necessitates acasual events or actions would be ruled metaphysically invalid, despite its contents.

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Classifying knowledge as a priori is not a way of saying that it isn't learned from the observation of reality; the a priori/a posterior split concerns how knowledge is validated, not how it is obtained.

That is historically untrue. The a priori is historically rooted in that which is known independent of sense perception, some modern qualifications not withstanding.

Kant held that logical and mathematical truths were a priori, but this didn't commit him to the view that people were 'born' knowing them, rather than having to learn them.
The point is that Kant held these a priori notions as divorced from sense perception.

"Space is not an empirical concept which has been derived from outward experiences.... Space is a necessary a priori representation, which underlies all outer intuitions.... Space is not a discursive or, as we say, general concept of

relations of things in general, but a pure intuition." (Immanuel Kant, Section I Of Space, The Critique of Pure Reason.)

The laws of identity/casuality are not justified by experience

Huh? Identity is a directly perceived self-evident fact of reality. The "justification" for identity is perceptual -- look at reality. How much closer to "experience" can you get?

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That is historically untrue. The a priori is historically rooted in that which is known independent of sense perception, some modern qualifications not withstanding. 
Knowledge that is independent of sense perception does not mean knowledge that is not acquired via sense-perception. 'A priori' has normally been used to mean the former, since Kant. Truths such as those of logic are certainly learned in a similar way to any other truths, but their method of validation is different.

The point is that Kant held these a priori notions as divorced from sense perception.

I can't claim complete familiarity with Kant, but I don't think he is using a priori here the same way he later uses it when discussing propositions. Kant held the categories of intuition such as space and time existed ('known' would be the wrong word here) prior to experience in the sense you claim, but this is a slightly difference usage from when he discusses things such as logic and geometry. As far as I know, Kant claimed that synthetic a priori judgements such as mathematical and logical truths were learned from experience (although not validated based upon experience) - certainly Kant wouldnt have held that a newly born baby knew or even understood the proposition that "47 * 3 = 141". The essential point is that there is a fundamental difference between knowing truths such as 'A is A' or '2 + 2 = 4', and truths such as ' water boils at 100 degrees', namely that there is no observation, no matter how theoretically or arbitrary, that could ever possible contradict the former. We are obviously justified in claiming both certainty and knowledge in both cases, but the nature of the certainty is slightly different.

Huh? Identity is a directly perceived self-evident fact of reality. The "justification" for identity is perceptual -- look at reality. How much closer to "experience" can you get?

If the justification for identity were purely perceptual, then arguments based upon perception that claimed to invalidate identity (such as those put forth by certain proponents of quantum physics) would have to be taken seriously and considered as viable alternatives. This is not the case; science cannot 'disprove' identity, since the truth of identity does not rest purely upon empirical observations (even if this is how we first discovered it).

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Knowledge that is independent of sense perception does not mean knowledge that is not acquired via sense-perception.

That is a nonsensical statement.

'A priori' has normally been used to mean the former, since Kant. Truths such as those of logic are certainly learned in a similar way to any other truths, but their method of validation is different.
Have you read Peikoff's The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy? It is a classic. In my opinion, the best thing he ever wrote.

I can't claim complete familiarity with Kant, but I don't think he is using a priori here the same way he later uses it when discussing propositions. Kant held the categories of intuition such as space and time existed ('known' would be the wrong word here) prior to experience in the sense you claim, but this is a slightly difference usage from when he discusses things such as logic and geometry. As far as I know, Kant claimed that synthetic a priori judgements such as mathematical and logical truths were learned from experience

Continuing on from my prior quotation from Kant, he states the issue quite clearly (which in itself is rather unusal for Kant).

"Geometry is a science which determines the properties of space synthetically, and yet a priori. What, then, must be our representation of space, in order that such knowledge of it may be possible? It must in its origin be intuition; for from a mere concept no propositions can be obtained which go beyond the concept -- as happens in geometry. Further, this intuition must be a priori, that is, it must be found in us prior to any perception of object, and must therefore be pure, not empirical, intuition. For geometrical propositions are one and all apodeictic, that is, are bound up with the consciousness of their necessity, as: for instance, that space has only three dimensions. Such propositions cannot be empirical or, in other words, judgments of experience, nor can they be derived from any such judgments." (Ibid.)

If the justification for identity were purely perceptual, then arguments based upon perception that claimed to invalidate identity (such as those put forth by certain proponents of quantum physics) would have to be taken seriously and considered as viable alternatives.

No. Those are (improper) inferences drawn from experiment. The law of identity is not an inference. It is a directly perceived self-evident fact of reality.

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...The essential point is that there is a fundamental difference between knowing truths such as 'A is A' or '2 + 2 = 4', and truths such as ' water boils at 100 degrees', namely that there is no observation, no matter how theoretically or arbitrary, that could ever possible contradict the former.

Just adding a bit to what Stephen has already said, I wonder what observation could contradict the known boiling temperature of water (whatever that is under specified conditions)?

The only observation I could think of was that your thermometer was broken.

But if you got 2+2=5, wouldn't you also assume your calculator was broken?

The only difference I can think of between the two is that 2+2=4 under any and all conditions whereas water might boil at different temperatures depending on conditions (I'm just assuming that's the case, but the physicists in the group can correct me if I'm wrong). However, I assume that if you knew the conditions and the conditions were such that water should boil at X temperature and it doesn't, you would consider that as odd as your calculator reading "5" when you hit 2+2. Wouldn't you?

After all, A is A, isn't it? Or does the Law of Identity not apply to the physical world but only to the purportedly "a priori mental constructs" in our brains?

Fred Weiss

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The only difference I can think of between the two is that 2+2=4 under any and all conditions whereas water might boil at different temperatures depending on conditions (I'm just assuming that's the case, but the physicists in the group can correct me if I'm wrong). However, I assume that if you knew the conditions and the conditions were such that water should boil at X temperature and it doesn't, you would consider that as odd as your calculator reading "5" when you hit 2+2. Wouldn't you?

Water would boil at about 202F in Denver, and 2+2=11 in base 3 math. So it depends what you mean by "all conditions". Speaking in base 3 arithmetic is a bit peculiar, but then being at the altitude of Denver is also a bit peculiar, though less strange. The only profound difference between the two that I see is what kinds of contexts we are dealing with -- mental contexts vs. physical contexts. But it's much easier to mess with the boiling point of water by e.g. adding salt, changing the atmospheric pressure than it is to "mess with" math.

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Water would boil at about 202F in Denver, and 2+2=11 in base 3 math. So it depends what you mean by "all conditions". Speaking in base 3 arithmetic is a bit peculiar, but then being at the altitude of Denver is also a bit peculiar, though less strange. The only profound difference between the two that I see is what kinds of contexts we are dealing with -- mental contexts vs. physical contexts. But it's much easier to mess with the boiling point of water by e.g. adding salt, changing the atmospheric pressure than it is to "mess with" math.

I don't know what you mean by "mental contexts vs. physical contexts".

But if I had some Dave Odden brew and wanted to be cute, I might say that if you added 2 (men)+2(women), nine months later you might have 6, not 4 people. Does that also work in "base 3 math"? :confused:

However whether you are brewing, basing, or boiling (or making babies) A is A.

Anyway, so much for Kant.

Fred Weiss

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