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The sleep of reason brings forth monsters

There is an excellent article in the Times (of London) today about the bitter fruits of relativism, of the pernicious idea, so beloved by our faux sophisticates, that there is no such thing as objective truth. That notion has done enormous damage; far from shielding us from the effects of bigotry and violence, the idea that there are no rights or wrongs has arguably achieved the opposite. Give up reason and respect for evidence, and monsters fill up the resultant gaps. Just look at the wasteland of much of our education system today, for example.

I am reminded of an outburst from a gentleman at a recent talk I attended by the University of Texas philosopher and Objectivist, Tara Smith (a very smart and nice lady, by the way). I blogged about it here. The person concerned – I do not know his name – became incredibly angry that she had dared present any argument that says that there is an external reality outside of ourselves, that existence exists whether we like it or not, that there are laws and principles one can discover, etc. What he did not realise was that his own certainty about his own opinion undermined the notion that one cannot be certain of anything. In the act of attacking certainty, he in fact validated it.

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51 comments to The sleep of reason brings forth monsters

  • What he did not realise was that his own certainty about his own opinion undermined the notion that one cannot be certain of anything. In the act of attacking certainty, he in fact validated it.

    But what exactly was he saying? Was he saying that he is certain that there is no reality outside ourselves, or that we cannot be certain that such reality exists, or that it probably exists but is unknowable to us in its entirety?

  • Excellent article indeed.

  • Actually you cannot be ‘certain’ of anything, the best you can do is form a critical preference for the best theory on the basis of what is known now.

    My critical preference is for the theory that objective reality exists external to my perception of reality 😛

  • Dontmindme

    “Monsters from the Iydd” did for the krell, and they were a lot smarter than anyone living in Islington.

  • John W

    ‘My critical preference is for the theory that objective reality exists external to my perception of reality…’

    Which you may only state as a ‘critical preference,’ that you may only state as a ‘critical preference,’ which you may only state as a ‘critical preference…’ ad infinitum

    And thus the sceptic is reduced to babbling.

    At this point the sceptic usually draws upon some variation of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy in which case see Peikoff’s thorough demolition of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy in the extended editon of Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology(Link).

  • Capitalist

    The left had no choice but to undermine objective truth, because the objective truth that socialism doesn’t work and capitalism does became so patently clear.

    That, and the fact that reason is the most important faculty of the individual, whilst socialism by definition holds collective rights over individual rights.

    Perry, existence exists. You can’t get around that fact so it’s not mere theory.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Well, I know I exist because there’s no way to ask myself if I do and get a credible “no” answer. The rest of you I’m not so sure about, but – fortunately for you – I’m a courteous fellow and assume you do.

    As far as relativism goes, much harm is done by the common confusion of right and wrong with good and bad. Right and wrong are certainly situational but they are situational with respect to applying good and bad, which are absolutes. It’s when you say good and bad are situational that the world turns to moral mush.

    Too abstract? Killing is always bad, but killing to protect someone (Mother Theresa) may be right while killing to protect someone else (Hitler) may be wrong. It’s when we confusedly decide that killing itself may be good or bad depending on the situation that we lose all moral direction.

    Mind you, I’m not saying that any particular notion of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is true, only that generically, good and bad have to be respected as absolute standards for judging the rightness or wrongness of our actions in an imperfect world.

  • Person: so you are saying that killing Hitler is right but not good? I don’t think I get it…

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Alisa: yup, exactly. The right choice is often to do bad, where everything else is worse.

    It’s the fact that we can imagine a better world than we can ever live in that consigns us to the state of perpetual unhappiness that’s traditionally accounted for by “Original Sin.” And in a way, Original Sin’s not a bad explanation, except that it wasn’t Adam and Eve’s disobedience that condemned them (and us). It was their becoming “as gods, knowing good from evil” (paraphrase) in a world where they didn’t have equally god-like powers to do good.

  • It is an interesting article. What follows is a rehash of a comment stuck, perhaps permanently in moderation on the Times thread. I hope you find it interesting.

    The bit I didn’t like was this appeal to God as authority:

    “Religion is like a moral short-cut, providing a template against which you can test moral propositions. Without God, certainty is even harder to come by. Who am I to say what is right or wrong? A little divine back-up would be useful, if only I could find a scintilla of faith.”

    One does not need to look to a God for certainty about an absolute moral good, the good is that which promotes life. The bad is that which damages or discourages life.

    Animals (most of them anyway) lack reason but they are hard-wired by evolution to promote their own life. Participation in a community promotes life and many species act this way. Enslavement to the collective promotes death and robs the individual of the enjoyment of their life. I don’t know of any species that keep sentient slaves except humans.

    Hatred of others promotes their destruction without benefit – except as leader of haters – to your own life so it is not only an absolute wrong (though less wrong than murder) but one that contains nothing that is good. It is pointless destruction. We know this is wrong instinctively. Our emotions – lightning estimates of value – label Nick Griffin a monster because we understand he is living by the destruction of others.

    You don’t need God to judge absolute good just think “does it promote life?”. If God’s word promotes life then use it as a mental short-cut, but don’t suppose that God’s word is not subject to the same test.

    What I find encouraging is that several posters at the Times understood this in different forms.

    Returning to the thread here, that there is an absolute reality should be undeniable, our perception and understanding is flawed but existence exists and doesn’t change without cause. Certainty is difficult for anything even slightly complex, but the cause of uncertainty is not the subjectivity of reality, but of perception.

    Person: I think the issue of killing Hitler or killing to protect him is easy to resolve by applying the “does it promote life” standard.

  • Midwesterner

    Some years ago I was driving on the interstate in the passing lane. Crossing the road still in the travel lane was a pigeon, walking. It was strutting with that pompous certainty and clarity that only very small minds have. It did not miss a step as I drove past it. I had just passed a semi and I looked in my mirror and saw a snow flurry of pigeon feathers. ‘Certainty’ is not an end in itself. Well, unless it becomes your end (if you get my drift).

    John W. It is a truism among lawyers that a lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client. There are similar truisms about celebrities and politicians who believe their own press releases. When one turns their self into a closed system, they are vulnerable to unknown(able) externalities. Your ‘critical preference’ hooey leaves out individual perception and reason. My critical preference is perpetually adjusted by my (presumably external) perceptions and my interpretation of them. The only way to achieve the ‘hall of mirrors’ effect you describe is to reject external perceptions and reason. Critical preferences do not reflect off of critical preferences, they reflect off of perceptions and reason. While I do make decisions based on my perceptions and reason, I retain doubt.

    Capitalist, okay, so existence exists. What existence? Seriously, define ‘existence’. How do you know that you are not a simulation running on some quantum ‘supernatural’ mainframe? In which case, do those other people truly exist? Does the reality that you perceive truly exist? And, ontologically speaking, are you the person you think you are or are you a software program?

    My ‘critical preference’, to use Perry’s term, is a continuously updated product of my perceptions and reason. My perceptions and my reason tell me that reality exists external to me and that I am bound by its constraints. I am aware that my reason may actually be deterministic and choice an illusion but I chose to behave as though choice is genuine. (!?!?) And I am certain that my perceptions are flawed and the only question is by what mechanism(s) and how badly they are flawed, but they are the best information I have available so I act on them.

    ‘Certainty’ and ‘Confidence’ are not synonyms. ‘Confidence’ is adjustable and comes in degrees. It is reasonable to be extremely confident in an opinion but once that opinion becomes absolute certainty, perception and reason depart the process. I have extreme confidence that reality exists as an absolute (and conduct my life on that premise) but abandoning doubts entirely would require me to shut off further perception and reason. I acknowledge my awareness is finite and that therefore doubt is inescapable. Absolutely certain ‘knowledge’ can only be found in religion. Well, and pigeons apparently.

  • What you are talking about, PersonFromPorlock, is the importance of context in directing action according to principles.

    But I think you miscue: nobody is ever faced with a choice of “killing or not killing” without a particular object in mind and context for the action. To speak of the value (whether good or bad) of any particular action without any reference to the context of an acting individual is like talking about the life of a fish without water; it doesn’t have one.

    “Too abstract? Killing is always bad, but killing to protect someone (Mother Theresa) may be right while killing to protect someone else (Hitler) may be wrong.”

    Yes (too abstract) – killing other people as a generalized means of surviving in society is wrong. You can abstract the concept of killing from any particular context, but if you want to start using it, then you’ve got to put it back into some sort of context – even if it is also quite abstract.

    Perry: I very much second John W’s recommendation of that Leonard Peikoff piece by the way – I know my Popper too, but I’m standing with John W on that issue.

  • Perry, existence exists. You can’t get around that fact so it’s not mere theory.

    I have a critical preference for that theory too…

    Which you may only state as a ‘critical preference,’ that you may only state as a ‘critical preference,’ which you may only state as a ‘critical preference…’ ad infinitum And thus the sceptic is reduced to babbling.

    The need for absolute certainly… The Immutable Truth… is a psychological failing, nothing more, and is best described as The Religious Impulse. But neither I, nor Cardinal Peikoff, can actually prove they are not a mollusc from outer space plugged a virtual environment by Zenu cultists and all our thoughts are not computer generated illusions. Personally I prefer less gonzo theories which explain reality more deeply than that but kidding yourself you can ever be (literally) 100% certain beyond any possible alternative explanation is what leads you into irrational religion-like dogmatism.

  • Midwesterner

    Simon, define ‘life’. Presumably a honey bee believes ‘life’ is the collective, AKA hive. A sea tortoise believes ‘life’ is the individual. If you believe humans will continue to evolve and develop, then those two paths become a choice. Morality derives from which choice you make, individualist, collectivist, or denial of change.

  • Tell you what then, I’ll admit that I could be Ziggy Stardust if the rest of you admit that you could be just the Spiders From Mars. Then we can all be rational and non-dogmatic men of critical preference.

    Maybe.

  • My critical preference is that I am probably not a Spider from Mars but could well be a Hippopotamus from Chelsea, but in either case I am not dogmatic because I really do not care for dogs one bit. Or Leonard Peikoff. Beer is good however.

  • John W

    Midwesterner contends ‘When one turns their self into a closed system, they are vulnerable to unknown(able) externalities.’

    Tell me more about this alleged ‘unknowable’ stuff that you…ahem…know; and tell me – how, precisely, do you know it?

    Your ‘critical preference’ hooey leaves out individual perception and reason.

    Au contraire. It is scepticism’s rejection of certainty that necessarily excludes individual perception and reason.

    My critical preference is perpetually adjusted by my (presumably external) perceptions and my interpretation of them. The only way to achieve the ‘hall of mirrors’ effect you describe is to reject external perceptions and reason. Critical preferences do not reflect off of critical preferences, they reflect off of perceptions and reason. While I do make decisions based on my perceptions and reason, I retain doubt.

    Is that a fact? Or a critical preference?

    And by the way, we don’t have external perceptions nor internal perceptions. We perceive existence, nothing more and nothing less.

    What existence? Seriously, define ‘existence’. How do you know that you are not a simulation running on some quantum ‘supernatural’ mainframe? In which case, do those other people truly exist? Does the reality that you perceive truly exist? And, ontologically speaking, are you the person you think you are or are you a software program?

    Existence exists. It is that which is.

    How do I know that I am not a simulation?

    Oddly enough, I’ve never had that problem.

    My ‘critical preference’, to use Perry’s term, is a continuously updated product of my perceptions and reason.

    I already figured you were short of a few updates. Has your ‘critical preference’ theory ever been updated to make it less of a preference and more of a certainty or has always been … well… a dogmatic constant? Be careful now, try to remember that, according to you, you can’t be certain.

    I am aware that my reason may actually be deterministic and choice an illusion but I chose to behave as though choice is genuine. (!?!?) And I am certain that my perceptions are flawed and the only question is by what mechanism(s) and how badly they are flawed, but they are the best information I have available so I act on them.

    (!?!?) Indeed! And I am certain that my perceptions are never flawed.

    It is reasonable to be extremely confident in an opinion but once that opinion becomes absolute certainty, perception and reason depart the process.

    Are you certain ?

    I acknowledge my awareness is finite and that therefore doubt is inescapable. Absolutely certain ‘knowledge’ can only be found in religion. Well, and pigeons apparently.

    And that, in a nutshell, is the source of the problem. You blithely assume that knowledge must assume a supernatural character and when knowledge fails to meet that arbitrary standard you reject certainty, and your epistemology collapses.

  • John W

    But neither I, nor Cardinal Peikoff, can actually prove they are not a mollusc from outer space plugged a virtual environment by Zenu cultists and all our thoughts are not computer generated illusions.

    Pope Perry seems unable to grasp that he exists. Perhaps he will issue an announcement in The Times should he change his mind.

    Personally I prefer less gonzo theories which explain reality more deeply than that but kidding yourself you can ever be (literally) 100% certain beyond any possible alternative explanation is what leads you into irrational religion-like dogmatism.

    … asserted Perry, with irrational religion-like dogmatism.

  • Jim G

    In a simlar vein, when someone says to me, it’s usually a progressive type, that “everything’s relative” I usually just smile and say “Absolutely”

  • Laird

    “It was strutting with that pompous certainty and clarity that only very small minds have.”

    What a marvellous line! Glad to see you posting again, Midwesterner.

  • Pope Perry seems unable to grasp that he exists.

    My reason leads me to prefer the theory that I exist. You on the other hand treat it as an article of faith. As for your collection of strawmen arguments however, I also have the theory you are not worth arguing with as your belief in absolute knowable truth is indistinguishable from religious fervour. My theory is that all theories are conjectural, including that one.

  • Laird

    Alisa, I think that’s my senator (although I can’t be certain, since it’s from the back). But that’s the theory I’m going with, until presented with evidence to the contrary.

  • Midwesterner

    John W., I was going to address your arguments assertions with the weight and respect they clearly deserve but I see Perry has already done so.

    Alisa, probably close kin. That particular combination of brain power and ‘knowledge’ is most prevalent in Hollywood and the District of Columbia.

    Thank you, Laird but I will continue to be hit and miss for the foreseeable future. I just saw your ‘Senator’ comment. Great minds . . . 🙂

  • James Hall

    The need for absolute certainly… The Immutable Truth… is a psychological failing, nothing more, and is best described as The Religious Impulse.

    If you want to discuss psychological failings, here’s a phrase to add to your vocabulary: Self-exclusion fallacy. You’re assuming with absolute certainty that the statement you made is true.

    “I’m absolutely certain that absolute certainty is false.” is a self-contradiction.

    If you think that the statement “I’m absolutely certain that Lenin is no longer alive.” or “I’m absolutely certain that 2 + 2 = 4” * makes one religious, I think your own philosophy needs re-examining.

    But neither I, nor Cardinal Peikoff, can actually prove they are not a mollusc from outer space plugged a virtual environment by Zenu cultists and all our thoughts are not computer generated illusions.

    How many people here would readily sneer at the notion that there’s an invisible man in the sky who is going to send us to hell if we don’t obey him? All of the assertions you’ve made are equally as arbitrary.

    There’s no evidence to suggest that we’re anything besides what we currently perceive ourselves to be. Unless one is under the influence of drugs, there’s no reason to doubt one’s senses and there’s no other way that any of us can gain primary knowledge anyway except through sense perception, so the point is somewhat moot.

    * The notion that 2+2=4 was actually ridiculed by one of Rand’s detractors, Albert Ellis in his book “Are Objectivism, Libertarianism and Capitalism Religions? Yes!” to prove the “religious mindset” of those who believe in absolute certainty. The book also includes other howlers, like the notion that calling Hitler evil makes accuser a religious bigot.

    The book quickly disappeared into obscurity.

  • Midwesterner

    “I’m absolutely certain that absolute certainty is false.” is a self-contradiction.

    Perhaps, but I didn’t hear that said. What I say is that absolute certainty, the absence of all doubt, shuts down further input from perceptions and reason. I do not trust people who have, by whatever path, placed themselves finally beyond reason. And just curious, but why would you assert that someone (presuming you mean me or Perry) who rejects absolute unquestionable certainty has made an exception and has said “except just this once”? As you are not understanding our comparatively simple statements, isn’t it a little dubious that you have absolutely perfect understanding (based on, for example, understanding the capacities of all possible alien life forms) of far more speculative matters.

    If you think that the statement “I’m absolutely certain that Lenin is no longer alive.” or “I’m absolutely certain that 2 + 2 = 4” * makes one religious, I think your own philosophy needs re-examining.

    But I am not certain that Lenin is no longer alive. I have very great confidence that he is not but to rule out to an absolute certainty that there are no space aliens, god, or anything else capable of defying the assertion is not rationally possible. Since you presume an absolute certainty in regard to the ‘God’ question not to mention total knowledge of what space aliens are possible and capable of, it is a religious assertion. But removing the stipulation of absolute omniscience, it becomes a rationally confident statement.

    As for 2+2=4, that is a category error. 2+2=4 because there are a myriad of definitions and rules that make it so. If I were to assert that (1 x some smoke + 1 x some water) + (1 x some smoke) = (2 x some smoke + 1 x some water) it becomes obvious that mathematical statements of certainty are dependent on our rules about what and how things can be counted. Your statement is more one of semantic rules rather than observation of fact. It amounts to a circular assertion that we declare that “since we define that A=A we can be certain that A=A”. Stated that way, the bootstrap circularity becomes more obvious.

    How many people here would readily sneer at the notion that there’s an invisible man in the sky who is going to send us to hell if we don’t obey him? All of the assertions you’ve made are equally as arbitrary.

    Absolutely not. Assertions of unquestionable certainty and assertions of nearly infinite probability are fundamentally different in character. The first one brooks no dissent, just like religion. The second remains founded on perception and reason even after it is made.

    There’s no evidence to suggest that we’re anything besides what we currently perceive ourselves to be.

    There is (this recalls the a/theism debates) a fundamental difference between saying “there is no evidence to suggest [claim ‘A’]” and saying “there is irrefutable evidence to the reject [claim ‘A’]”. Since you have chosen to say “there is no evidence to suggest” rather than asserting certainty of knowledge, you are making a qualified statement that is challengeable and therefore defendable and therefore governed by rational process.

    Most of my discussions are tacitly premised on the existence of reality as an absolute but that premise has to be acknowledged for the working assumption it is when the debate is of the existence and nature of reality itself. Since absolute reality is my presumption, I find little useful in these discussions, but whenever somebody asserts absolute unchallengeable certainty of knowledge and that they are beyond needing to prove their claims, it becomes necessary to review the basis of knowledge. Nobody can safely be allowed to dispense with proof because the truth is obvious to them.

  • “What I say is that absolute certainty, the absence of all doubt, shuts down further input from perceptions and reason. I do not trust people who have, by whatever path, placed themselves finally beyond reason.”

    So what you are saying, Midwesterner, is that just because I do not admit of a doubt that, for example, I could be Ziggy Stardust and the rest of you Spiders From Mars, that I am therefore shutting down all further input from perception and reason and am thus not to be trusted. But what range of situations would this lack of trust extend to? I can’t imagine anyone using questions like that to decide whether to trust… well anyone with anything.

    “Beer is good however.”

    What’s that? This discussion has made even the Grand Hippo Of Chelsea turn to the bottle too?

  • Ed Snack

    Surely, that one does exist is the only 100% certainty you do have. It’s what you exist as where the doubts may begin to creep in.

    Or do you imagine that this experience is not actually existing ?

  • Surely, that one does exist is the only 100% certainty you do have. It’s what you exist as where the doubts may begin to creep in.

    Actually I would agree with that.

  • Capitalist

    The existence of reality is axiomatic – you can’t argue the negative without having to resort to the existence of reality and contradicting yourself.

    It is one thing to say we don’t know everything yet – nobody would deny that. But not knowing everything does not imply we know nothing. Whatever it is we don’t know, we can be certain that it will not contradict the axiom that existence exists.

    Even God, were we to discover evidence that he exists (although there are many logical arguments that prove his existence is impossible), would simply be part of existence and no more supernatural or ‘outside existence’ than everything else.

  • It is one thing to say we don’t know everything yet – nobody would deny that. But not knowing everything does not imply we know nothing. Whatever it is we don’t know, we can be certain that it will not contradict the axiom that existence exists.

    I would agree with all that. But knowing that existence exists still leaves everything else as conjectural. If it turns out that everything is a figment of your imagination (i.e. you are the totality of existence), existence still exists, but so what? Personally I go for the theory that you (or me) are *not* the totality of existence and proceed on that basis (i.e. that is my critical preference). And there is nothing wrong with ‘conjectural’ as that is quite a different proposition to “because theory A cannot be 100% certain, it tells us nothing and we know nothing”. I am just not deluding myself that reason rooted in experience and the limitations of a biological brain can make my theories more than conjectural.

  • Midwesterner

    It is not existence that is in doubt. It is what exactly that existence is. If you cannot be certain of what it is that you are absolutely certain exists, is that really a statement of absolute certainty? When one qualifies the statement to the point that it is “I am absolutely certain that something believes it is perceiving something” I admit, that much appears to be certain. But to actually express any certainty about those apparent perceptions requires presumptions of infallibility of perception and reason. The simple process of using a human brain to conduct the exercise introduces a probability of perfection that is less than infinite.

    The movie ‘The Matrix’ played in a physical way with the idea that humans are programs running in a model. If one were in fact a program running in a model, one might have no way of knowing that, no way of proving it to be the case. In the movie, the script writers introduced software glitches in order to make the nature of the ‘reality’ apparent to the characters. But if the software ran as intended? If it is impossible to prove something is, can one prove that it is not?

    And yes, Mike. That is what I am saying. The point you are missing is that it is not the assertion you are making that I am doubting. It is your ability to eliminate all possible errors of perception and reason. It is like when these criminal DNA laboratories announce that they are certain to one in three billion odds that they have the right person. They fail to include in their calculations the probabilities for effing things up in the laboratory.

    Certainty eliminates the function of comparison. Certainty is a numerator without a denominator. People arguing for certainty are deliberately seeking examples of extreme improbability. But this misses the state of certainty, which exists without something to compare it to. For if you compare two possibilities, whether you realize or not you are introducing probabilities of one or the other. It is impossible to argue with true believers precisely because they are certain. There is no room for comparison within certainty. There is no room for reason when there is nothing to discuss.

    If I extend to anybody (including myself) the status of ‘beyond the possibility of error in perception or interpretation’ how do I keep a grip on reality? I don’t care if you are certain, I reserve the right to demand comparative analysis supporting your assertions before I accept them. It is only by comparing the odds of your being versus your not being Ziggy Stardust, that your assertion acquires rational meaning.

    There are two points I am trying to make here. One, which seems obvious to me but is not so obvious to others, is that any process that relies on the human brain for perfection is doomed.

    The other is more difficult and I am explaining it poorly. Certainty will not tolerate dissent or discussion. Certainty has no alternative, no ‘as opposed to what?’ Certainty is out of reach of reason.

    If one is willing to stipulate the ontology of reality as an absolute that we are each individually perceiving, then we can make absolute assertions about what isn’t. But that stipulation is intuitive. The plerophory of ‘reality as we perceive it’ is unwarranted until/unless someone finds a way to prove perception and reason to be both uniform and infallible.

    Certainty must be intuitive because it is intrinsically and unavoidably misologistic. Once something is accepted to be without alternative, it steps beyond the reach of reason. The hypothetical presumption of certainty is necessary to simplify scientific models and analysis but it can never be less fallible than the person doing the presuming. All theories must begin with a tacit “if we understand our perceptions correctly, then . . . “. Because that preface is both ubiquitous and tacit, it is possible to forget that it is there but it is important to realize that ‘certainty’ in scientific analysis rests on a set of ontological presumptions.

  • Saxon

    So, what do you guys think of the BNP? Are they evil rightwingers, or buffoons, or legit force in British politics?

  • So, what do you guys think of the BNP?

    Collectivist racist statist scum who take the grotesque ‘identity politics’ of the other main parties to even more extreme lengths. What other view would you expect us hold of such people given what we say about the dismal Tories and vile Labour Party?

  • Sunfish

    Certainty eliminates the function of comparison. Certainty is a numerator without a denominator.

    That’s not impossible. After all, Chuck Norris can divide by zero.

  • Millie Woods

    Shades of Bishop Berkeley! Who would have believed it possible?

  • “There are two points I am trying to make here…”

    Well let’s see – the first being about cognitive fallibility and the second having to do with the consequences of this fallibility. Is that about right?

    This discussion quite quickly rocketed to heights of abstraction from which all significant areas of interest (to me) seem like tiny indistinguishable specks of light below.

    My question is this: how does a critical preference epistemology necessarily differ from an epistemology claiming some basic certainties in its’ implications for human action in human contexts?

    The first important thing for me is to clarify the sense in which the term “certainty” is meant. Probability values from 0 to 1 are meaningful because of their implications for human action. If I learn that it might rain this weekend, then I want to know “for certain” which of course means attributing a probability value as close as possible either to 0 or to 1. The kind of resolution in which one would actually question whether a given value was just 0.99…….. or was indeed actually 1 is unnecessary for someone who simply wants to decide whether the camping trip should go ahead or be cancelled. Now while that might be a trivial example, I don’t see why it is any different with, say, a court’s decision in a murder case. I am certainly not claiming that the jury should only convict on a probability value of 1 but not 0.9.

    Now if I say that I am certainly not a cell within an organism called society, but am rather an individual instead – then I am using the concept “certainty” in the sense of having attributed a probability value to the latter proposition high enough to act on. My choice of ethics is based, other constituents aside, on my judgement that the latter proposition crosses a particular (certain?) probability threshold. My understanding is that that is what people generally have in mind with their use of the concept “certain” – i.e. a threshold of probability upon which they may act. All talk of “absolute certainty” is either merely habitual turn of phrase or a monstrous abstraction from any context of human action. Let’s not confuse the two at the drop of hat shall we?

  • Midwesterner

    Not so much the consequences of cognitive fallibility as the structural nature of certainty itself. The badness of certainty is not necessarily in its secondary consequences but rather structural, how it alters the cognitive process. A potential criminal may be in error if he believes in the infallibility of punishment, but in that case I would consider his error to have good consequences. The founders of this country, even the ones that opposed organized religion, believed that a general belief by the public in the possibility of hell in the afterlife had good consequences for society.

    the concept “certain” – i.e. a threshold of probability upon which they may act.

    You mean like the regulators who are acting on their certainty that global warming is anthropogenic? Certainty itself is a problem. Doubt must always be retained even when one is ‘certain’. Certainty structurally removes alternatives from consideration.

    My interest in the distinction between absolute certainty and overwhelming confidence is actually not much greater than yours but I keep it active in my mind for one very important purpose. It is to combat the religification of material/physical knowledge and the inevitable deification of those who control it. It is to pry the concept of absolute truth apart from the conceit of perfect knowledge, which is only possible in religious belief systems. I am not declaring a relativist existence where everything is relative or even imaginary. I am declaring a world where we cannot be infallibly certain of anything. That is an important distinction that perhaps I have not made clear enough. I can readily model and hypothesize certainty; I just cannot declare it.

    I don’t want to address a very significant disagreement I have with why you are an individual as this would be off topic for this thread, but maybe not entirely. Your process as you describe it is to discover whether you are (if I may elaborate, correct me if I misunderstand) a cell in a collective society or an individual in cooperative free association. You are ‘certain’ enough of your conclusion to live according to your discovery.

    Leaving aside the oxymoron of most individualists who, after concluding that they are an individual, proceed to reach the same conclusion on behalf of everybody else, my fault is that you are approaching the question of what you are as a discovery of objective truth. You are making at least two assumptions to adopt that discovery process. First that all humans are the same and no divergence is or can occur. Second, that the difference is beyond your control and only open to discovery.

    Needless to say at this point, I disagree on both counts. First, I believe that not just our societies, but the capacities and proclivities of individuals are growing and developing. Since domesticating fire, developing cutting tools, on through the wheel, bronze, iron, steam, . . . all the way through to Windows 7 (That was a joke, okay? A joke! Sheesh, it’s not like I said S’no Leopard. 🙂 we are becoming enhanced, almost pseudo-cyborg human beings. With information storage, we no longer have to depend on the old wise men singing the stories of the ancient ones. But this changing environment is not in itself compulsive of either individualism or collectivism. The first thing I learned programming back in the, well it had core memory-let’s leave it at that, was that computers and other technology enhances whatever it is applied to. If you have a messed up operation, it will amplify the mess, if you are well and efficiently run, it will amplify that.

    I strongly believe that collectivism or individualism is a personal choice. Collectivists believe it is a collective choice. Thus Stalin’s, Hitler’s and Mao’s millions. But that doesn’t mean that collectivism is not a legitimate course for human development (or devolvement). It does mean that collectivism is my arch nemesis; my ultimate evil. My total enemy. It is a dangerous rational error to conclude (personally conclude, publicly ridiculing is a reasonable tactic) that collectivism is a mistake, a failure trying to achieve our goals. It is not. It is our evil and we are its evil. Individualism and collectivism are matter and antimatter.

    I look at human history and conclude we are in a very rapidly developing phase, diverging at a social/societal level that is already profound on a psychological level and may in a very short geological time frame result in two different beings. Assuming one doesn’t kill off the other. I approach the dichotomy not as an individual discovery process but as an individual decision process. And on a community/societal scale, it is a division process. Reconciliation is impossible.

    Collectivism relies on shutting down debate, doubt and uncertainty. Faith and obedience in the great leaders is the mindset of collectivists. Individualism relies on debate, harbors doubts and achieves only confidence, never certainty. Reason, self control and voluntary consent is the mindset of individualists.

  • “The badness of certainty is not necessarily in its secondary consequences but rather structural, how it alters the cognitive process.”

    Right but that badness you attribute to certainty depends on context as per your examples. Even in this psychological sense, the importance of certainty is relative to a context largely framed by action. Failure to reflect this when pronouncing on the “badness” of certainty is going to go “big confuse” very fast – especially given that the common meaning of “absolutely certain” isn’t quite the same as the mathematical meaning of “absolutely certain”.

    “You mean like the regulators who are acting on their certainty that global warming is anthropogenic? Certainty itself is a problem. Doubt must always be retained even when one is ‘certain’. Certainty structurally removes alternatives from consideration.”

    I don’t think that’s the best example you could have come up with. It assumes a sincerity on the part of politicians and their cadres in the universities that is quite unwarranted. My chief problem with AGW types isn’t their “certainty” per se, but the political actions which they claim their certainty about impending global catastrophe excuses, i.e. their continued corrosion of the market economy. Injecting scientific doubt into the public debate has some combat value, but let’s not kid ourselves that we are fighting a theory about the weather here – we are fighting would-be totalitarianism, albeit by proxy.

    “You are making at least two assumptions to adopt that discovery process. First that all humans are the same and no divergence is or can occur.”

    Well yes, I think all humans are, you know, humans. It’s a conceptual integration. Do I need two rather than one ‘big’ concepts here, say, humans vs commies? Don’t you think that there will be particular dangers attached to this too; “certain” identification or misidentification?

    “Second, that the difference is beyond your control and only open to discovery.”

    The truth of whether a particular person is metaphysically individual or metaphysically cell, does have implications for ethics, but it does not exert any direct control over how this particular person will act, just as the truth about what he may have done does not, of itself, stop him from lying.

    “I strongly believe that collectivism or individualism is a personal choice. Collectivists believe it is a collective choice.”

    I’ll go along with you on your first sentence there. It could be that a Soviet informer for example knew he was really just an individual but chose to act for the values implied by collectivism; bridge to the Soviet superman and all that. But I have serious problems with your second sentence – I know what it refers to, I just find that “it” to which it refers very difficult to conceive. Whereas a cooperative group could make a decision based on the sum of the preferences of its individual members, a “collective choice” – bearing in mind the full implication of force connoted by the term “collective” – would seem to obliterate that premise of individual valuation and decision making. Collectivists wouldn’t even be making a choice, they’d just be following orders or… Even the “leader” could not herself be a “collectivist” but rather merely an individual imposing her will upon a bunch of mindless drones. That really is “inhuman” – a monstrosity.

    “It is a dangerous rational error to conclude (personally conclude, publicly ridiculing is a reasonable tactic) that collectivism is a mistake, a failure trying to achieve our goals. It is not. It is our evil and we are its evil. Individualism and collectivism are matter and antimatter.”

    There are a small number of people I care rather a lot about who disagree with me on issues that typically reveal the individualist-collectivist split. I am “certain” that these people are making a mistake, i.e. I act to persuade them otherwise. There are other people however – we both know who they are – who know exactly what they are doing, and, like you, I have no interest in talk when it comes to them.

  • RJG

    Anyone interested in this debate should check out Logicomix – a graphic novel about Bertrand Russell’s plight around a search for an objective truth in mathematics.

    Very thought provoking and well executed although the logic/madness point is a bit subjective.

  • Midwesterner

    If I am following the substance of one of your arguments, it is that “absolutely certain” should be understood and interpreted to mean “not quite absolute” and “not really certain”. In other words, your are advocating for the relativistic interpretation of word’s meanings. I can not see how assisting that semantic relativism can help at all in fighting relativism on the larger scale. The useful course in a conversation with someone you seek to understand and persuade is to tell them that the words “absolute” and “certain” mean things and they are using them incorrectly.

    AGW is actually a good example because the vast majority of its proponents do believe (on faith) it is certain and the ones in a position to know otherwise believe its ‘truth’ serves a good cause. Truth is relative to these people and allowing them uncontested use of the concept of ‘certainty’ cedes them ground that need not and should not be abandoned. We are fighting would-be totalitarianism, it is by proxy. ‘Truth’ has been religified and our would-be masters are being deified.

    A ‘human’ is a body consisting of a bunch of cells having magnificently diverse possibilities. It is entirely reasonable that a human can be either a ‘commie’ or a freely associating individual. A human is just the apparatus. It is in the nature of humans to alter themselves and their environments.

    Don’t you think that there will be particular dangers attached to this too; “certain” identification or misidentification?

    I don’t understand the question.

    The truth of whether a particular person is metaphysically individual or metaphysically cell, does have implications for ethics, but it does not exert any direct control over how this particular person will act, just as the truth about what he may have done does not, of itself, stop him from lying.

    I don’t understand this either as “metaphysical” can have either of two meanings in this context, one being ‘immaterial’ and the other being ‘abstract or theoretical’. In either case, I believe humans currently (while individually having propensities) choose what they do and therefor, consciously or not, are choosing whether to be collectivist or individualist.

    But I have serious problems with your second sentence – I know what it refers to, I just find that “it” to which it refers very difficult to conceive. Whereas a cooperative group could make a decision based on the sum of the preferences of its individual members, a “collective choice” – bearing in mind the full implication of force connoted by the term “collective” – would seem to obliterate that premise of individual valuation and decision making. Collectivists wouldn’t even be making a choice, they’d just be following orders or…

    Yes. Exactly. That is why I use the term ‘evil’ without qualification.

    Even the “leader” could not herself be a “collectivist” but rather merely an individual imposing her will upon a bunch of mindless drones. That really is “inhuman” – a monstrosity.

    Actually, even the leader is a collectivist, unable to see themselves except through the adulation of the ‘body’. This is most apparent in how collectivist leaders from the SU, to North Korea to Iraq, etc are obsessed with building monuments to themselves. That is not something a true individualist can conceive of. I challenge only the popular use of ‘inhuman’ as being confusing to the debate. It is a monstrosity, but it is a monstrosity that many with the potential to be individuals elect for themselves and, by the nature of the beast, attempt to elect for everybody else as well.

    There certainly are very many, perhaps most people who are doing this by mistake. In their cases it is a mistake because they don’t understand the full scope of the of contest or the true nature of the beast we are fighting. You have my greatest admiration and respect. All I am doing is sitting on my couch and typing to the choir. You are actually working the lines. For my own sake and that of my friends, I wish you the greatest successes.

  • “In other words, your are advocating for the relativistic interpretation of word’s meanings.”

    I can see why you might say that, but I my intention was merely to urge greater care to establish context on your part.

    “…allowing them uncontested use of the concept of ‘certainty’ cedes them ground that need not and should not be abandoned.”

    Agreed – I didn’t reject that, it’s just that I prefer to focus proportionally more attention on the destructive ends for which they employ their “certainty of scientific consensus”.

    “I don’t understand this either as “metaphysical” can have either of two meanings in this context, one being ‘immaterial’ and the other being ‘abstract or theoretical’. In either case, I believe humans currently (while individually having propensities) choose what they do and therefor, consciously or not, are choosing whether to be collectivist or individualist.”

    I don’t sense a major disagreement here. Very briefly: a human being can make a choice as to whether to be an individualist or a collectivist. Both choices are possible given his human “apparatus”. One choice would allow him to make full use of the most important part of his apparatus (his reason), but the other would not – and in this sense would leave him as nothing more than a monstrosity.

    “I challenge only the popular use of ‘inhuman’ as being confusing to the debate. It is a monstrosity, but it is a monstrosity that many with the potential to be individuals elect for themselves…”

    Conceded – see above.

    “You have my greatest admiration and respect. All I am doing is sitting on my couch and typing to the choir. You are actually working the lines. For my own sake and that of my friends, I wish you the greatest successes.”

    Thank you Sir, but I have to say I do feel uncomfortable with your first superlative – especially this being on Perry DeHavilland’s blog (who, along with so many others, has done far more for this value of individualism than I ever have). We all try to do our best in our different ways – but the criticisms from your couch have a certain value to me which I will not have seasoned with modesty.

  • Midwesterner

    my intention was merely to urge greater care to establish context on your part.

    That is a big part of why I am not contributing articles lately. The most difficult thing for me is not the thinking things through part, it is reading what I write from the intended reader’s perspective. It is all I can do to get even a comment into a thread with any clarity. Too many demands from the real world.

    Our DNA is stuffed with the vestiges of abandoned capacities. If a truly collectivist strain advances it will quite likely do it with the vestige of an abandoned capacity for reason in its DNA. Large subsets of our society are already making factual determinations based on polling data. They call it (with a straight face) “the wisdom of crowds“. Knowledge through quantification of collective intuition, sans raison. If enough people hold an opinion, it must be true. We already are governed to a large extent by opinion polls. This collectivist leaders need to read the overnights in order to find out what they ‘think’ the next morning. I so deeply wish collectivism was less plausible than it is, but it is more than plausible, it is probable.

    While I agree with you that a collective humanity is a monstrosity, when I am trying to persuade others of that I try to avoid emotive language and pejoratives, help them build an understanding of the internal dynamics of collectivism, and then let the full horror of its implications dawn in their own mind. I’ve said here many times that the countless millions of unassimilables erased from existence by the collectivists were/are not a mistake or abuse of collectivist principles but are in fact the core feature of its unchecked nature. It is inevitable wherever collectivists gain unrestrained power over individuals that unassimilables and non-contributors are purged. That includes the useful idiots leading the campaign for collectivism. Once they succeed, they better have something else useful to offer or they will quickly join the unassimilables.

    As for Perry’s contribution, let’s not embarrass our host. I have this mental image of him saying “aw shucks” and scrubbing the toe of one boot with the other one. “Twern’t nuthin.” 🙂

  • Midwesterner

    Before anybody who is still reading the thread says that I am misunderstanding Surowiecki’s work, it is not his work that is the problem. Surowiecki presents an good case for the wisdom of independent individuals acting in a free market, particularly, a decision market.

    But instead of titling the work “The Wisdom of Independent Individuals acting in a Free Market”, he called it “The Wisdom of Crowds”. Since some of his work specifically dissects the foolishness of actual crowds (which generally have a group-think, echo-chamber mentality), the title he chose is an appalling semantic failure probably done to sell more books. In any case, while in fact proving the wisdom of free acting individuals to, on average, reach better conclusions than professional decision makers, with his choice of titles he enabled the collectivist belief that crowd rule is wise. How many people read his title compared to how many people read his entire book? Sadly, his legacy is the title.

  • Midwesterner

    And anybody with excessive faith in the consistency of their perceptions may enjoy this article.

  • Paul Marks

    In economics the reasoning of Ludwig Von Mises in “Human Action” destroys the statist fallacies – no effective reply to his reasoning (and the reasoning of others in the Austrian School on these matter) is possible (the word “possible” is deliberate – as the reasoning shows that statism contains errors of logic).

    So how do the left respond?

    Simple, they spit on reason and pretend that everything is “relative” – based on “cultural background” or “class origins”.

    As Mises was fond of pointing out – the left might as well have ranted on about how “Jewish logic” is different from “Ayrian logic”, indeed many collectivists did exactly that.

  • Paul Marks

    Almost needless to say……

    Academics (and those “intellectuals” and media and education system folk influenced by academics) are often (although not always) the most fanatical enemies of reason.

  • james

    The differance between subjective values, and objective facts,eg,Oscar Wilde is having sex with a female gorilla, so say the media of the UK, so says the 3 main political partys of Britain, so say the chattering, know alls,so says the liers that say well must hate the BNP for eternity,subjective values,

    Objective facts are this , 1 Oscar Wilde is dead, 2 He was a homosexal, 3 he never owned a gorilla.4 He never worked at London zoo 5 he was not interested in females of any type,= objective fact

  • james

    A joke about how the BNP thinks , from a member.
    Theirs a right wing christain , entity, walking though the zoo, he see this african lion about to eat this black child in the inclosure, he runs forward stabs the lion in the eye ,with walking stick , reaches, though and pulls the child to safety.objective fact

    The Times , the next day reports , Nazi, racist BNP member, attacts peace loving, imprisoned, african, stabs him in the eye .Not ownly this , this skin head stole, food from the starving, poor beings mouth. subjective values of the UK shit media.