Monday, August 22, 2011

White Swans exist too, you know.

Pet peeve day. I just feel like bitching about something that makes me crazy. In the last few years I have been on the frustrating end of discussions with people who insist on instructing me on some basic epistemology I’ll go into below. When they instruct me, they sometimes strike a professorial tone as if everyone who went through high school wasn’t already aware of their point, even if, like myself, they paid little attention there. The nub of it is that you can’t prove anything based on prior experience (nowadays called inductive reasoning), but they express it in different ways – pointing out that correlations don’t prove causation or that you can’t predict anything with certainty because random facts always creep in, that I stated "my truth, not their truth," or that you can believe whatever is best for you because nobody can ever really prove you are wrong.

What they really mean when they raise one of these points is  – your point doesn’t count because you can’t prove it absolutely. Let me introduce you to a friend, who I will call Eddie, to help make my point.

I was reading a book a number of years ago, A History of God by Karen Armstrong, which was passionately praised by Eddie as having a big influence on his thinking. He had come around in the last decade or so to the point of defending any argument by the fact that it confirmed his beliefs or otherwise pleased him. Nothing was real, or if it was could be sufficiently understood with certainty as far as he was concerned, unless he believed it -- so it didn’t matter. I picked up the book, one because it was about a subject that interested me -- religion -- but also because I was trying to understand his frustrating development. It was a “car book” for me, one I read while at red lights, or in parking lots, and, yes – sue me – occasionally while driving. I had just started it one day when I had to leave the car to get my daughter. I threw the book on the seat. When my kid entered the car, unbeknownst to me, and I like to think her, she sat on it soaking wet. The book became saturated. It was readable, but ruined.

So, I did the almost unthinkable for me. I started writing in it myself, underlining and making notes. I’m pretty sure I’ve only done that with one other book in my life, a study of Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy, for much the same reason, although I, not my daughter, was at fault. I still take notes on books I read (“Hi, my name is David and I am a nerd”), and I may, in fact, be a teence obsessive about it. But, I do it on a computer now, which is more trouble than just underlining and making margin notes, but allows for greater detail, is much more useful, and more permanent if you have reasonable back up.

Anyway, I was reading A history of God the next day or so in the car and jotting some notes (but not while driving - I’m not crazy - I never take notes while driving). I’m sitting there underlining and notating away when suddenly I came upon a line that struck me because it summed up what Eddie had loved so much about it.

She wrote in the introduction, “We shall see that it is far more important for a particular idea of God to work than for it to be logically or scientifically sound.”

I furiously scribbled next to it something like – “This is precisely what Eddie finds so satisfying and drives me crazy.”

Not care if it is logical or scientifically sound? What else in life is so important as what is logical or true, I thought? Truth is what lets us discern what choices to make, what to accept and reject, who to befriend and be wary of, how the universe works, the meaning of . . . everything.

Of course, she was right, but it still drives me crazy. Religion can’t be proved and most believers I know don’t care about doing so, but are fine with believing based on faith. What “works” for them has many meanings, from pleasing their parents to making them feel better about dying. That has never “worked” for me, but those like me are a rather small percentage of the population.

Nevertheless, I do know the “the truth” is not that simple. There are many people, of course, who believe there is a cosmological truth written on a stone – that there is an absolute right and a wrong, a code of ethics, winners and losers, and so on, with no or few qualifications. Plato, probably the most influential philosopher in western civilization, believed in ideal absolutes, and that any change was degeneration from the original pure forms. I reject that. To be an absolute truth, it must be perfect and there is no such thing as perfect, as it is a man made concept not found in nature. When I was very young, probably a teen or pre-teen, I was so put off by the kids in my neighborhood not wanting to admit any flaws, that I wrote in some permanent substance on the sidewalk “David is Perfect” just to show them how ridiculous they sounded. Of course, back then I did not blog and explain myself to the world. I also had a ridiculous personal rule of not telling people what I really meant when I was trying to make an ironic point. Not surprisingly, my statement was interpreted in a less than charitable way about me than I had hoped. In fact, it was taken quite literally and my point missed completely, as you can well imagine. Not that it stopped me from similar experiments in the future.

This is one of the problems of having a philosophic cast of mind when young. You are still a kid, and if we are honest, that often means a moron. And, perhaps this is also why my sister still believes I am the most conceited man on the planet.

The issue of whether there is a cosmic truth or not has been well debated, and I’m not going there. I just want to talk about the overuse of what some people call the problem of induction or inductive reasoning/logic/whatever (I'm really just lumping all of this type of argument together whether technically the same or not) in my usual wordy way. I have to stop here for a second and explain something first. Most people who write on this topic suggest the opposite of what I do – they believe people don’t understand the problem of induction. Nicholas Taleb actually wrote a bestseller entitled The Black Swan (you can't say there are no black swans just because you've never seen one, as one might turn up tomorrow), which does nothing more than explain the problem set out by many others before him in a whimsical way. He believes that people don’t know enough about it. I say anyone who is interested enough to pick up his book already knows that you can not come to certainty by any logical route. In fact, as I believe, many of them overdo it.

The problem of induction is that you cannot prove anything based on previous experience (such as A always follows B, because no matter how many times you show that sequence, you can never prove with certainty that one day A will not be followed by C). I get that argument. I agree with it. That’s why scientists now try to refute propositions, or falsify them, rather than prove anything is true. Partially thanks to one of my philosopher-heroes, Karl Popper, this is quite well accepted now. I leave the technical argument to philosophers like Popper, David Hume and others. You can google the “problem of induction” or the like, if you want a primer, but it is fairly self-evident, if you ask me, and one form or another of it has been around since at least the ancient Greeks.

Despite the fact that I deem this true, I find myself faced time and time again with people who misuse it. I find it is especially common of very educated people. My quarrel with them goes something like this - just because you can’t prove something by inductive logic doesn’t mean you can’t make a strong argument anyway, or, that experience has no value. Many things in this world, things turn out precisely as you expect, based on experience.

I am thinking of my friend Eddie again, who often defends what I find to be just preposterous beliefs or attacks things no one would believe untrue with some variation or another of the induction problem.

Here’s an example from a few days ago. Obviously, I have to paraphrase a little, as, though I would like to tape all my conversations surreptitiously, it would probably be a good way to lose all my friends. But this is very close. Probably a lot closer than Plato when he created his dialogues. To set it up, I had just asked Eddie why he didn't do something that seemed pretty obvious in order to solve a problem he had been telling me about.

EDDIE: Won’t work. I’ve come to more and more believe that everything is random.

DHE: What do you mean by random? That there aren’t probabilities something might happen? No cause and effect? I’m talking in the real world, not the quantum world, so don’t even start with that.

ED: Yes, you can’t ever know anything and you can’t really plan anything because it is all random.

DHE: But you often say you are an “incrementalist.” You move one step at a time until you reach your goal. You can’t know a plan is going to work for sure, but you do it anyway because you think it is the best way to get where you want.

ED: I don’t really believe that any more. Now I think it is all random.

DHE: Really? Then let me ask you a question. If you had more kids, would you want them to go to college? (Note: Eddie has multiple degrees and so do his kids – their not going to college was never an option).

ED: Umm, I don’t know. Maybe. I wouldn’t fight them if they didn’t want to go.

DHE: Oh, please. Fine, but you agree that their chances of getting a better paying and more fulfilling job goes up if they do go, right?

ED: Maybe not more fulfilling. They might get a better job, but we can’t know that for sure.

DHE: I didn’t say for sure. But, okay, let me make it easier for both of us. When you go out later, and you cross a busy street, are you are going to look both ways?

ED: Yes.

DHE: That’s because the probability of getting hit goes way down if you look, doesn’t it?

ED: It’s still random. I’m not going to get hit just because I don’t look.

DHE: Yes, but you are much more likely not to get hit if you do.

It went on like that and I know when to punt, particularly with Eddie. If he gets trapped, he just laughs, but never admits the point. I guess it beats yelling at me. There are limits to the effectiveness of the Socratic method unless you also have a gun pointed at the person’s head and I rarely get anywhere with it except occasionally with people who have little or no ego about their debating skills.

I’m not saying he doesn’t have a point. There are many random events we can’t predict. I actually had a weird example of this just yesterday. I was taking my kayak out on Lake Moomaw, a pastel green colored body of water surrounded by a jumble of hills and cliffs tumbling down to the surface. While I was standing on the landing getting ready to leave a family pulled up in their car and unloaded their speed boat in the water. It looked new and fast. Someone in the family joked to me, “Want to race?” I joked back, “You wouldn’t stand a chance in that little boat.” We all laughed. When I returned two and a half hours later, they were standing around the landing. The father said to me, “Well, you had a better day than we did.” I asked him what was the matter and he explained that soon after they took off their motor just conked out and they had to get towed back in. I couldn’t help saying, “So, I guess I would have won the race.”

Who would have thought? It was a random unpredictable event. But, my point – Eddie, and others too numerous to count – is not that it couldn’t happen, but that you’d be crazy to bet on me next time.

Eddie and I had a very similar talk about a related subject not long ago, just to show you this was not a fluke, after I made some scientific point that was about as generally accepted by pretty much everyone as you can get (I know it would be more interesting if I could actually remember what it was, but I was so flummoxed by his argument, I remember that and not what we were talking about).

He couldn’t seriously contest my premise, so he relied on the old favorite:

ED: You can’t prove that’s true.

DHE: Why do I have to prove it? We are having a discussion. Who seriously disagrees with it? Everyone knows it is true because everything would stop working if it wasn’t.

ED: Well I don’t accept it. What you have pointed out is a mere correlation, not causation.

DHE: No kidding. I hate that argument. It’s not like correlations have no value at all. Almost everything we know scientifically is based on correlations. You don’t have to prove every premise in a discussion, particularly when it is painfully obvious.

ED: Yes you do. Just because the sun comes up every day, doesn’t mean it has to and doesn’t mean it will come up tomorrow.

DHE: Okay, I’ll take that bet. A dollar a day for the rest of our lives. In fact, I will give you 10,000 to 1 odds. How about it?

ED: (Chuckles, which is an excellent defense when you have no point)

DHE: When you get up in the morning, you step on the floor, right?

ED: Yeah.

DHE: And you do it without worrying that when you go to step on the floor it’s not going to be there, right?

ED: Yeah.

DHE: That’s because you know it’s going to be there and it's not going to collapse under you. People say it’s just a correlation or you can’t prove causation when they have no evidence themselves. But other than in science and a few things here and there, we use inductive logic for everything.

ED: But, you still can’t prove it that way.

Of course, he’s right I can't prove it, but who cares? Ironically, you can’t even prove that you can’t prove anything with inductive logic, which I guess is one of those paradoxes. And there are times it makes sense to raise the issue, particularly if you are a scientist or discussing a controversial scientific theory or if you are playing the stock market. But, in day to day activities we all rely on experience and almost nothing else. If I see a dog, I decide whether to pet it based on what its tail is doing. It’s just a correlation, but it keeps you from getting bitten.

It is also ironic but I find that many people who use this defense in non-scientific discussions are often willing to believe almost anything, no matter how crazy it seems, based on their belief that since we can’t know anything for sure, one thing is as good as another. There is nothing we can do about this, of course. People believe what they want.

Eddie (who is actually very smart, just sold on a lot of nonsense) justifies his wackier ideas with something like, “That’s your truth, not my truth,” to the point when I pole-axed him one day with “Can I ask you a question? Doesn’t there have to be just the tiniest bit of the truth in your truth?”

Again, he just laughed, and that always works.

But, let me try to defend Eddie for a little. Maybe his crazy ideas are valid from his viewpoint. There was a point in my life (the 1970s), when I loved the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson so much, I was thinking of naming my first boy (yet to be produced to this day) Christopher Emerson Eisenberg. It’s so hard to get anything to go with Eisenberg, and the three names had a ring to it to. Yes, it is true, Emerson is also the name of Keith Emerson, the extraordinary keyboardist for my favorite 70s group, but, it was really for Ralph Waldo my prospective son would have been named. Emerson was a strikingly lyrical writer. Sometimes, I’d read him and go “Wow.” His essays briefly set the world on fire, at least in America, but Europe too. I was re-reading my one volume of Emerson the other day and came across something interesting. One of his most famous essays is Self-Reliance, in which he wrote:

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”

Don’t I wish I could write like that. But, that style is not the fashion anymore and I do not have that kind of lyricism in my own “soul.” More to the point, maybe it means that Eddie is right – he can have his own truth and it is genius because it is his own.

So much for my defense of him. It was still the 1970s when I started to realize that a lot of what Emerson wrote sounded much better at first than when you really thought about it. Then again, that is probably true of every other philosopher I have read since too. I decided that he often saw only the positive side of everything, even once, I recall, the beauty of a corpse in the light. Don’t get me wrong, I’m about as individualistic as they come in many things and what he is writing about here could be a fair summary, at least in part, of why I write this blog. But, sometimes things are just wrong and it doesn’t matter that we thought of them ourselves.

You know who is on my side? David Hume, the guy who, at least in relatively modern times (18th century) most famously presented and discussed the problem (I suppose most people would say I was on his side, rather than visa versa, but like Hume, I will become quite revered once I am gone). But many seem to forget that Hume believed that despite the problem of induction, which, by the way, was not the word he used, we can't ignore the conclusions we come to through our experiences, because almost everything we do in life is based upon it. No, I don’t know for sure that the sun is coming up tomorrow or that when I pull open a door I won’t step into an abyss, but the first is going to happen and the second isn't. We can count on most things we need to happen happening every day, because if it didn’t all the time we wouldn’t be here, would we? I’m willing to take that gamble every day and so is Eddie whether he admits it or not. And, almost always, we win the bet. The way Hume said it in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, after posing the problem in the first place, was this:

“Shou’d it here be ask’d me, whether I sincerely assent to this argument, which I seem to take such pains to inculcate, and whether I be really one of those skeptics, who hold that all is uncertain, and that our judgment is not in any thing possest of any measures of truth and falsehood; I shou’d reply, that this question is entirely superfluous, and that neither I, nor any other person was ever sincerely and constantly of that opinion. Nature, by an absolute and uncontroulable necessity has determn’d us to judge as well as to breathe and feel; nor can we any more forbear viewing certain objects in a stronger and fuller light, upon account of their customary connexion with a present impression, than we can hinder ourselves from thinking as long as we are awake, or seeing the surrounding bodies, when we turn our eyes towards them in broad sunshine. Whoever has taken the pains to refute the cavils of this total sceptism, has really disputed without an antagonist, and endeavour’d by arguments to establish a faculty, which nature has antecedently implanted in the mind, and render’d unavoidable."

In other words, however so much reason leads us to be sure that there is no certainty to be gained from experience, nature has seen to it that we don’t really believe this – it would be impossible. That goes for Hume, me and for Eddie as well. If you didn't, you wouldn't survive a day.

Writers like Nick Taleb, mentioned above, seem convinced we all don’t understand the problem whereas I'm sure we do and should not apply it to real life. Actually, Taleb did understand you can't apply it to everything and so, in The Black Swan, he writes that there are two countries, Mediocristan and Extremistan. In Mediocristan, you can make predictions based on experience and they have a really good chance of being true. In Extremistan, things are more complicated and you shouldn’t, like if you are picking stocks or are a scientist. My problem with Taleb’s book (one of many), is that I don’t think he makes it clear that most things in the world are in Mediocristan. Indeed, a couple of people I have discussed the book with seem to completely misunderstand it. Just because you might find a black swan someday, doesn't mean that most of them aren't white.

Okay, I got this pet peeve off my chest. Based on my experience, some of you will complain you fell asleep before I even got to the point.


  1. Just read this post about your pet peeve. Remind me to tell you about how monthly hormonal variations can effect one's mood. It's very common in a large segment of the population.

    BTW if you ever decide to write about me in a post no pseudonym is necessary.

    Did you feel the earthquake? It seemed to be centered not far from you.


  2. All I ask for is one obsequious reader? Is that so much to ask? I have written about you in a post before, at least once if not more, and I did not use a pseudonym.

    Yes, felt the earthquake fairly strong although one lose things shook. The house was fine.

  3. It's a good thing your readership is highly educated; otherwise they might not know the meaning of obsequious.

    I do remember being mentioned by name. But as I'm not innocent my name need not be changed.

    Glad the house was fine. It is probably a coincidence with the earthquake but for a good part of the evening there were F-16's flying over area low and slow like they were patrolling. Hmmmmmmm.

  4. I cannot explain that to people who do not have the proper security clearance.

  5. Conchis8:02 AM

    Note to self: "Do not recommend books to David."

    The British Empiricists were probably my favorite guys as a philosophy major undergrad. Hume -- the greatest of those skeptics -- was probably the most compelling. The great paradox (to me) is that we fly on airplanes entrusting our lives to immutable laws of physics. But, there's no rational basis for believing in any of them.

  6. That's it! You just reminded me of the ridiculous argument I was having with "Eddie" who insisted that he didn't believe planes could fly, and that there was not "proof" you could, and he raised the inductive reasoning argument. I pointed out that he got on planes all the time b/c experience taught him that they would fly, whether or not there was proof. We don't rely on science to fly. We rely on engineering.


  7. It is interesting to me that one of humanity's common bonds is worship based on faith. The only thing that really changes is the object of the worship. For some (including you) it is logic, for others material success, for narcissists it's themselves, and the religious have their various godheads or totems or whatever. The commonality is beliefs based on experience that form values that inform the object we ALL faithfully worship. So speaks The Bear.

  8. See, experience told me that Bear was going to clobber me as usual and there he goes with a serious remark. A black swan. You never know.

    I would agree with him to the extent that at some level all human non-instinctual knowledge is based on some level of faith that something we can't test is true. I would not use the word "worship" myself here, as it often has religious overtones, but accept it in the non-religious sense of honoring or highly regarding something.

    There is a next step he did not take from his argument, and I don't know if he believes it (and, I don't think so), but many people do - that because some faith is necessary, that therefore everything based on faith is equally valid. That I reject.

  9. Worship was a very deliberate word choice as I knew it would give you goose bumps. That is entirely the point. Rationalists usually have a hard time reconciling the fact that they worship as devoutly as most spiritualists or religious folk. As I said, the only difference is the object of their devotion.

  10. You just have to push it, don't you. If you mean by your last sentence that there is no difference between believing something of which there is no or very little evidence and NOT believing something of which there is little or no evidence, then we disagree (there is, I'm sure, a large gray area too). I have noted that arationalists" (my term - others say irrationalists, but I think there is a difference) are fond of levelling the playing floor between themselves and critical rationalists by stating it is the same thing, but, have a car cross into their lane of traffic, and they will all become rationalists very quickly. Arationalists are often, maybe, usually only so with things that don't matter for their personal safety or which will not have a great negative effect on their material lives. If they don't, both rationists and even many other arationalists think they are crazy (e.g., the parents who try to pray away their child's curable blood disease rather than get a transfusion). When I say that at base all knowledge is based on some kind of faith, I am using it the the way Popper used it - "Although an uncritical and comprehensive rationalism is logically untenable, and although a comprehensive irrationalism is logically tenable, this is no reason why we should adopt the latter. For there are other tenable attitudes, notably that of critical rationalism which recognizes the fact that the fundamental rationalist attitutde results from an (at least tentative) act of faith - from faith in reason." One of the big problems with arationalism is that one belief is as good as another - you can believe in the brotherhood of man or the ascension of a master race just as easily. A critical rationalist sees a difference based on something other than belief. That was almost an entire post, but I love this stuff.

  11. I gotta be me!
    To do is to be - Socrates
    To be is to do - Plato
    Scooby do be do - Sinatra

  12. Oh, now I understand. Good point, Bear.

  13. Conchis11:25 AM

    Actually, I think "I gotta be me" should be attributed to Sammy Davis, Jr.

  14. According to Wikipedia - the source of all knowledge - It was actually a Steve Lawrence hit from a play, Golden Rainbows, he starred in with his wife Eydie Gorme running in '68 & '69 - originally titled "I've Got To Be Me," and actually released as a single the year before the show - '67 - and it made it to number 6 on the Billboard Easy Listening chart. Davis recorded it as "I've Gotta Be Me" while the show was still running and it got up to no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 (his highest ever; another Wikipedia site has it as a number one hit on Billboard's Easy Listening chart). Ironically, it became one of Davis' signature songs (the other being Candy Man, of course) rather than Lawrence's. However, it has also been covered by Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett and The Temptations.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .