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Certainty vs. pragmatism

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In a recent discussion, a friend of mine asserted that it is impossible to be 100% certain that the sun will rise tomorrow. We believe it will, but there is a "0.00000001% chance" (or whatever) that the sun might not rise. I asserted that in order to function in the world we needed to have certainty and absolutes. He acknowledged this but said we still could not "prove" that the sun will rise in the same way we could form a deductive proof. We think the sun will rise because it always has, but there's a chance it might not.

I didn't have a good answer for this. The only idea I came up with on the spot is that even if the sun rising has some element of metaphysical uncertainty, we have to treat the phenomenon as a psychological certainty. But this borders too close to pragmatism for my tastes.

Any better responses?

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What causes certainty about facts not directly perceived is knowing conceptually the identities of the entities involved.

A naive observer that only ever knew what he could witness personally could never be certain the sun would rise tomorrow. An observer knowing that the earth is round and spins, the sun is the center of the solar system, that there is gravity, there is such a thing as mass and inertia, and angular momentum, and conservation of angular momentum, and the sheer size of the Sun and its thermal inertia, can be absolutely certain the sun will rise tomorrow.

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> We think the sun will rise because it always has, but there's a chance it might not.

Chance? calculated by what means? in reference to what facts? Note that such facts must be known with absolute certainty in order to use the calculation in the first place.

Probability and statistics are concerned with situations involving limitations on knowledge about the cause. When we have insufficient information for inferring which particular outcome will happen next time, then it can be useful to employ probability and statistics. We know with dead certainty that a coin can come up heads or tails. Or it can land on its side, but those situations are rarely stable. We know something about *how* the coin behaves in various situations.

Probability and statistics provides tools intended for precisely those situations where we DON'T know enough to generalize to the next level of abstraction. So while probability and statistics have their uses, they should not be confused for means by which we generalize.

> I asserted that in order to function in the world we needed to have certainty and absolutes. He acknowledged this but said we still could not "prove" that the sun will rise in the same way we could form a deductive proof

>

The fact that the sun rises is not a proof for anything in itself.

WHY do we see the sun rise? The sun gives off light. Light will not reach a location if the light's path is blocked by something else. The earth rotates. And so on.

We have knowledge about entities, identity, causality.

We form concepts about what's out there in the world, what they do, how they're related.

These concepts are open-ended. They are not the result of listing examples. Your concept of a coin includes not only all the coins you have seen but all the coins you will ever see.

This is a very important point so I will stop here to let you think about it.

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I didn't have a good answer for this. The only idea I came up with on the spot is that even if the sun rising has some element of metaphysical uncertainty, we have to treat the phenomenon as a psychological certainty. But this borders too close to pragmatism for my tastes.

Any better responses?

You are on the right track, I think. Certainty, in the Objectivist view, can't require omniscience or infallible transcendent knowledge to somehow be in the mind in order to work. Certainty is epistemological, not a metaphysical thing. It arises from applying the appropriate method of thought in a given context of information, and if the necessary evidentiary conditions are met. For details on this see Peikoff, OPAR, chapter 5, section 4, "Certainty As Contextual," p. 171.

As far as your example about the sun, it's true that we can't prove it will rise from deductive arguments, rather that would depend on the validity of induction. It sounds like he's just advancing the ordinary claim that the validity of induction is questionable, that in order to gain the extra 0.00000001% chance we would have to somehow step outside of our bodies or something like that. But the Objectivist view holds that it is valid (in short, by grasping cause and effect, and having the necessary foundation of previous evidence and conclusions, as the previous posts point out. See the entire book Harriman, The Logical Leap, for a more detailed analysis of this problem.)

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The only idea I came up with on the spot is that even if the sun rising has some element of metaphysical uncertainty, we have to treat the phenomenon as a psychological certainty. But this borders too close to pragmatism for my tastes.

Any better responses?

The following is certainly not the official Objectivist stand, but my own.

How will you treat this question, metaphysically or psychologically? your tastes or the truth? Maybe Objectivism resolved that riddle but not explicitly.

Even if by empirical evidence we could be certain about the sun rising tomorrow, the sun is still too close and well understood. We are ignorant of that which exceeds our scale, which may or may not be infinite. the distant past, the distant future, the very small and the very large (Richard Dawkins compares this to viewing from a burka). When thinking/speculating at a scale that far exceeds what humanity will ever get to know, we our confronted by uncertainty.

For all conceivable practical purposes (and Objectivism demands the application of a principle to reality) absolute certainty is applicable.

For Objectivism to be rational it demands to be fallible even if 99% correct. It's it's neither authoritarian (dogmatic/infallible) or mystic (relativistic/ applying uncertainty to the scale humans can indeed control).

Objectivism rightly asserts that the universe is knowable, and it is to a certain extend that is good enough. But if we call this "contextual certainty", we must acknowledge that it plays a (rightful) psychological role - that of focusing on the knowable instead of literally going crazy with the unknowable (unless properly channeled).

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Based on what evidence is making the arbitrary claim that the sun or earth might randomly violate the laws of physics? None.

/ thread

Edited by EC
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Dr. Peikoff mentioned this exact topic in the lecture course "Induction in Physics and Philosophy".

In lecture one he says this about generalizations (from my Notes) :

Definition of Generalization - a proposition that ascribes a characteristic to every member of an unlimited class, however a member is placed in time and space. Format: "All S is P"

'unlimited' is in the definition to rule out simple inventory as an induction. Example: Inspecting every marble in a bag of marbles, seeing they are all red, then stating "All the marble in this bag are red" is not an induction despite the universal format. {this is not an open-ended universal}

side note - metaphysical axioms are not inductive generalizations. 'A is A' is not 'All S is P'.

Generalizations are made possible by man's conceptual faculty. S and P are concepts. {Definition of concept from the Lexicon}

Concepts are tools of knowledge, file-folders. They are not the claims to knowledge, they organize it and integrate it. Higher level concepts can presuppose knowledge but themselves state nothing.

'Table' is not true or false but valid or invalid.

'All S is P' is true or false and belongs in the S file-folder

In lecture two he discusses generalizing about casual relationships (from my Notes):

The primary method of grasping a causal connection is to perceive it. Perception is essential, necessary and sufficient.

Scientific induction relies on indirect perception via instruments.

Thousands of instances of a disconnected regularity establish at most an hypothesis worthy of investigation

Ex. thousands of sunrises are witnessed by primitive man with no clue, inkling or sniff of causality as to why they happen. These observations do not permit a generalization, they are evidence for a gen that would be validated by later methods (Copernicus and Galileo)

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Thanks for all the input. Your comments have given me some more direction. I haven't read "The Logical Leap" yet, but went back to OPAR 5.4 as recommended and have found some additional insights. I think the biggest thing I failed to recognize in the discussion was context. Inability to be omniscient does not mean inability to know what we do know.

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Though the answers given so far are excellent, your friend's specific example could also be addressed from a purely scientific angle: the sun is an average-sized, low mass star, so it isn't going to explode. It will eventually become a red giant and the earth will be vaporized, but we've got another five billion years or so before that happens. Nor is it going to just disappear. So -- these are conclusions based on observable data -- we can know with certainty that the sun will rise.

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Though the answers given so far are excellent, your friend's specific example could also be addressed from a purely scientific angle: the sun is an average-sized, low mass star, so it isn't going to explode. It will eventually become a red giant and the earth will be vaporized, but we've got another five billion years or so before that happens. Nor is it going to just disappear. So -- these are conclusions based on observable data -- we can know with certainty that the sun will rise.

it could be answered that way, but it would only demonstrate inability to understand what the friend was actually asking. Or... it would be like kidding him. He could reply, then what happens after the sun explodes, and if he doesn't need to care because he wont be around by the time, then doesn't that mean that in fact that way of thinking is a psychological manoeuvre to evade the subject of actual uncertainty?

Even if by empirical evidence we could be certain about the sun rising tomorrow, the sun is still too close and well understood. We are ignorant of that which exceeds our scale, which may or may not be infinite. the distant past, the distant future, the very small and the very large (Richard Dawkins compares this to viewing from a burka). When thinking/speculating at a scale that far exceeds what humanity will ever get to know, we our confronted by uncertainty.
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  • 1 year later...

My question is somewhat related to this topic: How do you reach in a point in the study of philosophy where you can derive the answers to situational questions with absolute certainty?

[[An observer knowing that the earth is round and spins, the sun is the center of the solar system, that there is gravity, there is such a thing as mass and inertia, and angular momentum, and conservation of angular momentum, and the sheer size of the Sun and its thermal inertia, can be absolutely certain the sun will rise tomorrow.]]

In other words, what is the equivalent to this knowledge in philosophy?

Is there some sort of knowledge hierarchy you need to get down pat before you can understand how to work through these questions with absolute certainty?

Edited by mdegges
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My question is somewhat related to this topic: How do you reach in a point in the study of philosophy where you can derive the answers to situational questions with absolute certainty?

In other words, what is the equivalent to this knowledge in philosophy?

Is there some sort of knowledge hierarchy you need to get down pat before you can understand how to work through these questions with absolute certainty?

I think understanding that knowledge is hierarchical, which enables abstractions to be validated and be as fully certain as perceptions is the key. For that Ayn Rand's insights on concept formation and how it is definitions that enable putting concepts in their proper order is indispensable. Yet at the same time knowledge is a unity, meaning that because contradictions do not exist physically then contradictory propositions cannot both be counted as knowledge.

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I recently tried to condense this topic for myself, what do you guys think of the following formulation?

Unless otherwise indicated everything can be said to stay the same, to proclaim otherwise is to assume some none indicative form of cognition.

While I was still a skeptic I thought that the argument "I can imagine it to be otherwise" was an valid indication that something could be otherwise.

But the fact that imagination is not a form of cognition goes both ways.

You can't conjure up reasons out of nothing why something is a certain way (a wizard made the sun),

But you also can't conjure up reasons out of nothing for why something could be otherwise (a wizard could make the sun disappear).

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In a recent discussion, a friend of mine asserted that it is impossible to be 100% certain that the sun will rise tomorrow. We believe it will, but there is a "0.00000001% chance" (or whatever) that the sun might not rise. I asserted that in order to function in the world we needed to have certainty and absolutes. He acknowledged this but said we still could not "prove" that the sun will rise in the same way we could form a deductive proof. We think the sun will rise because it always has, but there's a chance it might not.

I didn't have a good answer for this. The only idea I came up with on the spot is that even if the sun rising has some element of metaphysical uncertainty, we have to treat the phenomenon as a psychological certainty. But this borders too close to pragmatism for my tastes.

Any better responses?

The Sun will not last forever. A day will come when the Sun will expand to a red giant and vaporize the Earth. Then there will be no more Earthly sunrises.

ruveyn1

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Considering some of Gibson writings on Segregation in "An Ecological Approach to Perceptual Learning and Development"

A number of experiments have investigated the detection of two objects as segregated or attached in infants of 3.5 to 4.5 months. The typical measure used for an infant's perception of segregation has been a "surprise" response: time of looking at movement of two objects separately, or as a single unit, following familiarization with the pair in a stationary presentation. Looking time is presumably longer, for example, for a pair of objects perceived as a single unit, then observed to move apart separately.

Another example might be of watching a "possible" and an "impossible" event. Being familiar with seeing an egg roll off a table and break on the floor, seeing a film of the event in reverse.

When it is grasped that the earth revolves on it's own axis, that the earth orbits around the sun, that these can be quantified using formulas utilizing properties of mass and distance - one should be "surprised" that the sun would not appear on the eastern horizon 12 hours after disappearing over the western.

Knowledge of an event of the Sun expanding to a red giant and vaporizing the Earth can only be validated and integrated similarly by differentiating other observations and integrating them into a new causal understanding of those observations. At that point, the sun will continue to appear cyclically in the sky until then, or unless another phenomena is discovered that would alter that understanding.

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In other words, what is the equivalent to this knowledge in philosophy?

Is there some sort of knowledge hierarchy you need to get down pat before you can understand how to work through these questions with absolute certainty?

I think the answer is a proper understanding of epistemology, and using that understanding as it applies to particulars. If one follows reason and logic when generalizing one can can be certain(in their context of knowledge) about particulars. Check your premises.

Edited by tadmjones
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Knowledge of an event of the Sun expanding to a red giant and vaporizing the Earth can only be validated and integrated similarly by differentiating other observations and integrating them into a new causal understanding of those observations. At that point, the sun will continue to appear cyclically in the sky until then, or unless another phenomena is discovered that would alter that understanding.

Given, at least implicitly, that one recognizes that new "facts" are possible.

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Thanks, Grames.

I think the answer is a proper understanding of epistemology, and using that understanding as it applies to particulars. If one follows reason and logic when generalizing one can can be certain(in their context of knowledge) about particulars. Check your premises.

Even those who profess to use reason and logic don't reach the same conclusions (look at any thread for an example). I know everyone thinks they're 'right,' but since "contradictions do not exist physically [and] contradictory propositions cannot both be counted as knowledge," then countless people are mistaken about so many different things.

It would be nice to absolutely certain about something. It would also be nice to be absolutely certain about being absolutely certain! What I'm trying to get at is that it's hard to know if your house was built on solid ground. Because if you try to add a second story, and it turns the house was actually built on mud, then the whole house will fall down. (Does that make sense?) Like in logic, if one of your premises is wrong, your conclusion is wrong. But you can keep building and building and building without knowing that your premise is wrong.

I think the best way to avoid this is to build a new house and make sure it's foundation is solid ground. But since that's impossible, you just have to go back to the basics, make sure those are right, and work your way up a little at a time.

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Isn't it an absolute certainty in itself that you can never be certain?

And when you point that they continue that they're not certain of that either.

After that things get awkward.

I've yet to ask one if they think Objectivism "could" be right by their standards then, if they'd admit to that the discussion swings to why they don't think it isn't.

.

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Isn't it an absolute certainty in itself that you can never be certain?

I'm not sure if this is sarcasm or not. If it is, then you can disregard, but this is obviously self-contradictory and thus wrong.

What you are saying is that you are absolutely certain that it is impossible to be absolutely certain.

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It would be nice to absolutely certain about something.

I'm sure there are many things about which you are absolutely certain: The color of the sky right now, your hair color, that you are reading this on a computer, that someone else wrote what you are reading, that we live on earth, that fresh water boils at 212 degrees F at sea level on earth at one atmosphere, that 2 + 2 = 4, virtually an endless list.

What I'm trying to get at is that it's hard to know if your house was built on solid ground. Because if you try to add a second story, and it turns the house was actually built on mud, then the whole house will fall down.

When it falls down you will be certain that it wasn't on solid ground (given everything else was built properly).

I think the best way to avoid this is to build a new house and make sure it's foundation is solid ground. But since that's impossible, you just have to go back to the basics, make sure those are right, and work your way up a little at a time.

I'm not sure why the first sentence is "impossible", your last sentence seems to contradict the first one.

The foundation is that you should be certain that: existence exists, that reality exists and it is the thing we perceive; that you are conscious, perceiving that which exists; that everything that exists exists as something specific, it has identity (that you have never perceived a thing which had no identity)

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