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Internal Contradictions

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I was a little nervous about labeling this post The Defense, Part 11, because I want to start with a few comments in general about the comments.

And me being me, that could easily take up such a big whacking hunk of the post, that there will be no room left for the main point.

There is this, however:  the answer to one of those comments is a perfect lead-in to what comes next. 

So I think I’ll just get started and see where this goes.

The first thing is to answer the question of why I would bother to do this if I didn’t intend to “win” the “argument,” by which I think is meant to come to some place where the people who disagree with me are forced to bow to my superior…something or the other.

Quite frankly, I don’t get it.  To me, these things are interesting in and of themselves.  They are worth talking about and thinking about and writing about just because they are.   I don’t want to propse or implement policy, although I’d be happy if some things came about and less happy when they didn’t. I don’t want to change anybody’s mind, although I’d be happy if some minds were changed.

I find these things intrinsically interesting and intrinsically important.  Talking and thinking and writing about them helps me understand my world and myself, but even if it didn’t, I’d still be interested.

Talking and thinking and writing about these things just makes me happy. 

Knowledge pursued for it’s own sake–that’s the very definition of education, as opposed to training.

As for the rest of it:  what always gets me about determinism as applied to human (and possible most mamailian, or maybe even simply live) minds isn’t the implications for morality, it’s the internal contradiction.

The reason AB’s cloud doesn’t qualify as a “choice event” is that it lacks that very lived experience that we have when we decide what blouse to wear in the morning.

AB says this  lived experience is just an illusion, nothing real.

But if what our minds tell us is an illusion, then why isn’t it an illusion that we know anything at all, ever?

Once we have declared that our minds are inherently and fundamentally untrustworthy–not simply unreliable a little imprecise and wobbly so that we need to take care about how we use them, but untrustworthy at their very core–

At that point, our “knowledge” that all things are determined is just as much an illusion as our experience of choice.  Hell, our “knowledge” of EVERYTHING comes down to illusion.  Science is discovering more and more causal paths every day?  Is it?   How?

It can’t be that we’re studying it, observing it, and then coming to reliable conclusions.  We can’t come to reliable conclusions.  We have no way of knowing if any of our conclusions are reliable or not.

Even consistancy–all of us apparently coming to the same observations and the same conclusions from those observations–won’t give us that.

We may be having a mass delusion (which is what “your experience of choice is an illusion” is), or maybe there is no “we” and I am deluded that other people exist at all.

The declaration of determinism on this level and on these grounds is a disguised version of subjectivism, and it has the same problems that all subjectivisms have.

The lived experience of choice is part of the data set.  If you are going to defend determinism in a way that doesn’t end you up pretty much declaring that nobody can ever know anything, then you must account for that part of the data in a way that doesn’t land you in a nihilistic soup.

Personally, though, I don’t understand why it’s so incredibly hard for people to accept that we just don’t have an explanation of that particular datum yet.  We don’t know.  That’s really all we can say about it.

And, while we say it, we can work with what we do know:  that it’s demonstrable that people who think they have choice and control behave differently from people who think they don’t,  and the observable results of that difference (in life outcomes, for instance) are largely in favor of the acceptance of choice.

Which brings me to the thing that leads into the next part of this exposition.  I haven’t decided if I’m going to get to it today or not.

Robert asks when we first see evidence of people in Western Europe challenging the ideas in Aristotle’s Physics. 

That’s an interesting question on several levels.

First is this–no complete copy of Aristotle’s writings on the natural world existed in Western Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and around 1100–and I think that date is early. 

What’s more, the early exponents of liberal education were not entirely sure anybody should bother studying things like physics, chemistry and biology at all.  John of Salisbury wrote two books on education–here’s another man who actually founded and ran schools in the Middle Ages–and in neither of them are the physical sciences mentioned except to question whether students should be asked to waste their time studying them.

To John and the men of his era, there seemed to be no practical use for such study.  They saw no results possible from such study except maybe collecting a lot of random facts that would have no impact on your life in this world and no impact on your life in the next.

In one of John’s books, he produces an entire chapter on the different ways in which Scripture and Greek Learning should be taught, including basic rules on critiquing Greek Learning to show where it is false–and he says not a word about Greek learning in the physical sciences.

It seems so obvious to us that knowing the hard sciences produces practical benefits (vaccines, the nuclear bomb), that the attitude of the early Medieval world seems massively impossible, but it is what it is.

As for when, after Aristotle’s works on the physical sciences had been re-introduced into the West, people began to criticize them–I think the better formulation of the question would be at what point people felt they could take those works, start from their premises, and proceed by doing better and learning more.

Newton would later say that he stood on the shoulders of giants. He would find no contradiction in feeling this way at the same time he also believed that he had not only improved on Aristotle’s ideas about mechanics, but proved many of them wrong.

So, to answer–people started testing Aristotle’s ideas about physical science and determining that some of them might be wrong as soon as they got hold of the works to study.  They started to make significant progress in or around the early 14th century.

The more interesting thing is how they went about it.

AB made allusion at one point to the Middle Ages accepting and teaching the Organon as Scripture–that is, teaching Aristotle’s logic as if it was a Sacred Book.

Any foray into the work of actual Medieval philosophers–before and after Aquinas, as well as of Aquinas himself–will make it immediately clear that they did not accept Aristotle’s work on logic as the last word in logical reasoning, and Aquinas himself, the great Aristotlean himself, never relied on syllogisms in his life.

What the Medieval philosophers did do was to put an enormous emphasis on the reasoning process itself.  And they reasoned from all starting points, and often brought several different ones to bear on the same question.

The process bears an eery resemblance to Hegel and Marx:  thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

In Aquinas’s On The Teacher, for instance, he attempts, in the first article, to prove that it is possible for human beings to teach each other anything at all, against the objection of some that Scripture says that this is not possible, that teaching is the province of God alone.

He begins by outlining the several arguments on the subject, including the bases on which they make their judgments.

In some cases the basis is scripture directly, in others it is Pagan philosophy or the writings of Christian philosophers from previous eras.

A lot of what he does is almost purely definitional–an attempt to understand how the people writing (in or out of Scripture) define words like “teach” and “learn” and “know.”

When he is finished outlining his opponent’s arguments, he gives a short section outlining his own.

Only then does he start actually arguing his point–this out the short section as literally an outline–and when he does that he uses…


He talks about interpretation.  He does logical analysis on his opponents’ arguments.  He compares his opponents’ claims about how human beings learn to his own lived and observed experience as a student and a teacher. 

The manner of argument in that third section would be immediately recognizable to anybody who has ever read Hume, or even Kant. 

We give different emphasis to different data now than we did in Aquinas’s day, but we’ve changed our method of argumentation virtually not at all.  

We’ve even got a fair number of people who resort to claims of “science” exactly the way men of Aquinas’s time resorted to claims of Holy Writ–as something that is accepted on faith and that we cannot question.

I will never forget the day that a member of one of those Internet discussion forums I was talking about first spent several days berating the religious members of the list for being “sheeple” who couldn’t think for themselves because they just took everything the Bible said as fact when obviously the Bible was wrong and evolution was true…

And then ended by saying that, well, okay, he didn’t actually understand evolution, but he knew that it was true because science said so.

I really wish I was making that up.

And that gets us where I was going, and obviously I’m not going to get there.

So next time, I hope,

I just want to make one point–

I am not claiming that a true liberal arts education has never existed or never been tried.

I think it has existed several times over the centuries, and that the at  least society wide effects have been demonstrable.

But then there’s the question of why such results are inherently unstable.

And we’ll get there.

I’m going to change the title of this a bit and go have tea.

Written by janeh

October 9th, 2011 at 10:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Internal Contradictions'

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  1. “…the early exponents of liberal education were not entirely sure anybody should bother studying things like physics, chemistry and biology at all. John of Salisbury wrote two books on education…and in neither of them are the physical sciences mentioned except to question whether students should be asked to waste their time studying them.”

    OK, but what happened to the liberal education as something understood for thousands of years? We’re not just talking about throwing a couple more books on the pile, here, but a whole major area of study necessary for that completely developed mind, like exercising all the muscle groups for the body.

    Back to Aristotle. The Poetics would raise a different set of questions about authority, but I mentioned physics because it’s so terribly vulnerable to actual experience. Aristotle makes a simple observation and prediction: that heavy objects fall faster than light ones. If we THINK about this–OK, feather, stone–he sounds quite reasonable. If we TEST this–go to the blacksmith’s shop, borrow small hammer and sledge and drop both from the roof in front of witnesses–it has a life expectancy of 15 minutes, mostly spent finding a ladder. Finding another system might take centuries, and did, but that’s another matter.
    My understanding is that one reason blowing up the old system took so long was that even the early experimenters proceded from the assumption Aristotle was correct. Decades went by with inclines and clocks trying to measure how much faster a heavy weight fell than a light one before anyone was willing to say they couldn’t measure the difference because it wasn’t there to be measured.

    Not, of course, that any modern academic would base his research on an unexamined truth and then have a hard time reconciling honest results with his underlying theory, but still…

    Reason without experience takes you some very strange and dangerous places.


    9 Oct 11 at 11:40 am

  2. The claim that the liberal arts have remained constant (within broad outline) for a couple of thousand years remains intact.

    The quadrivium was made up of arithmatic, geometry, music and astronomy–

    The scholars of the middle ages saw clear practical uses for astronomy, like being able to navigate on the open ocean and predicting eclipses.

    And they did in fact make significant headway in the study of astronomy throughout the middle ages. They didn’t rely on ancient texts treated like Gospel and they didn’t fail to make their own observations from experience.

    But not only did they not think that physics was worth studying, I think you underestimate the extent that their everyday experience would seem to validate Aristotle’s conclusions rather than the real ones.

    Heavy objects and light ones fall at the same rate–in a vacuum.

    In the everyday world, there are various other factors to be accounted for, facts that the middle ages knew very little about.

    If it had been a feather–and not a differently weighted ball–that had been taken to the top of the tower of Pisa (or, okay, wherever. I don’t really remember), the experimenter’s conclusion would have looked a lot more like Aristotle’s than like ours.

    This wasn’t because they were slavishly following Aristotle, but because they weren’t accounting for wind resistance.

    When they encountered falling objects in their daily lives–when a book and a letter fell off the table at the same time–what they observed was not two articles falling at the same rate, but two articles falling at very different rates.

    So consider the situation on the ground: here was a study (physics/mechanics/motion) that seemed to have no practical use whatsoever, and the broad outlines of which seemed to be confirmed in your life every day.

    You’re going to want to go out and test those outlines–why, exactly?

    There is, as far as you know, no advantage to you for doing so. Such knowledge, one way or the other, will not make your life on earth any better nor would it make your salvation after death any more likely.

    What happened in the Renaissance wasn’t that scholars suddenly started questioning Aristotle’s conclusions when they had never done so before.

    They’d been challenging Aristotle in ethics, politics, metaphysics and more for centuries.

    What happened in the Renaisance is that people begin to think that there might be something to be got out of studying motion and mechanics–like making weapons for war, and improving architecture.

    And as soon as they did, they started testing everything they could.

    And they had no compunction in doing it.


    9 Oct 11 at 1:40 pm

  3. So they included astronomy for its practical use, and excluded physics on the same basis. Doesn’t this remove both of them from the exalted level of education and them to mere training?
    I’m only so-so trying to be impish here. I’ve just never been comfortable with the classical Greek notion that learning was somehow more valuable if it didn’t help us earn our keep. The idea seems to have bad consequences–calculus instead of statistics for example.
    I didn’t mention the Tower of Pisa business directly because I’d heard doubts expressed about the story. My guess would be it was done–but later for showmanship. You don’t pull a stunt like that in public until you know exactly what the result is going to be.
    But we’re still missing two things. First, it points out again that “plausible when not examined” is not the same thing as “tested” and should be a warning against reading Great Books without looking outside the 50″ shelf.
    Second, we have to be missing something else right here. I may be weak on my Medieval physics and astronomy, but I know my medieval weapons and architecture. These people are doing great things with arches and flying buttresses–not to mention trebuchets and ballistae–long before those possibly mythical cannonballs were dropped. If they didn’t start testing prior to the Quatrocento, it’s not because they had no interest in improved weapons and architecture.
    And I won’t even mention the cuckoo clock.


    9 Oct 11 at 2:56 pm

  4. “To John and the men of his era, there seemed to be no practical use for such study. They saw no results possible from such study except maybe collecting a lot of random facts that would have no impact on your life in this world and no impact on your life in the next.”

    I am reminded of a short story by Poul Anderson called “Early to Rise”. It features a modern engineer who somehow finds himself in Iceland at the time of Lief Erikson. He makes a miserable failure of trying to introduce any modern improvements. He says “You don’t have the tools to make the tools to make the tools!”

    If we date the start of modern science to Galileo at about 1600, then I have to say that it was about 1850 before science began to make much practical difference.

    (I’d call the steam engine more engineering than science until thermodynamics was developed.)


    9 Oct 11 at 7:07 pm

  5. The Middle Ages weren’t into studying things that “help us earn our keep.” By “useful” they meant tending to inculcate wisdom, by which they further meant something closer to saving their souls.

    If that also provided some more mundane benefit–like the sea navigation thing–well, that was the goodness of God in his Providence.

    As for flying buttresses, they were a clunky solution to a problem that would have been better handled if thought through.

    And for what it’s worth–Galileo is far too late for the start of science as we understand it. That goes back at least to Copernicus.

    He’s the one who actually established the idea of the heliocentric solar system.

    He just wasn’t the one who went jumping around claiming that this meant that the Pope was an idiot and the Bible wasn’t true.


    9 Oct 11 at 7:23 pm

  6. 1.

    A seeming contradiction: If experience is accepted as a valid source of knowledge about an objectively real world, then this experience leads us to the conclusion that this world is governed by universal physical law. However, the existence of universal law precludes any kind of meaningful dualism. There can be no autonomous agent making decisions because such an agent would have to break the universal law. Yet, virtually everyone (I think it is safe to assume) experiences herself as just such an autonomous decision-making agent.

    Does this mean that universal law is incompatible with using experience to understand the world? No, it does not. When different aspects of experience lead to contradictory conclusions, one of these must yield; we do not, however, disqualify all experience merely because one part or another has been found inaccurate.

    There are many conflicts between different aspects of experience; we tend to favor those that are useful, and those that preserve an internally consistent comprehension of reality. Dreams occupy a significant portion of experience, but most people put little weight on them because they are consistent neither with waking experience nor even with themselves from minute to minute. Few people, awaking from a flying dream, would expect to retain the power of flight in the “real” world.

    So there is nothing inconsistent, or unusual, in using experiential knowledge to discredit experience. There is nothing to say that experience must be indivisible, to be accepted entirely or rejected altogether. To be sure, there is no absolute proof of which part of experience is “true”, or that any part is – or in fact of anything whatsoever.

    But the point I was trying to make is that “choice” is not objectively definable at all – and this is true whether one accepts determinism or not. It’s not that choice doesn’t exist, it’s that choice is purely subjective – it is not a part of the world that is inferred from experience, it IS an experience. Even in a dualistic world, there is no objective way to distinguish between the unpredictability of “choice” and the unpredictability of mere randomness. That is, you can’t tell who has a soul and who is just going through the motions.


    Regarding the person who believed in evolution, without understanding it, merely because it is supported by Science: I don’t see why this position is invalid. It’s hardly uncommon for people to accept authorities concerning things they don’t understand. I don’t really understand general relativity, but if Stephen Hawking says that time slows down near a black hole, I’m willing to take his word for it.


    jd brought up the fact that the behavior of particles at the quantum level – and thus, ultimately, everything – is only probabilistically determinate. This one is usually the first shot fired whenever the subject of determinism comes up. My contention is that it doesn’t make any real difference.

    First, the uncertainty principle describes a limit on what can be known, and hence an absolute limit to prediction, but it leaves open the possibility that events are rigidly determined by initial conditions which are not observable. Whether particle behavior is “really” random is unknowable and inconsequential.

    Second, while the behavior of any one particle is not predictable, the probability distributions of particle behavior are extremely predictable. These distributions are just the sort we would expect if they were caused by unobservable variation in initial conditions. If the behavior of particles was influenced by the “choice” of some autonomous agent, we would expect to see unpredictable changes in these probability distributions – Dr. Manhatten’s “thermodynamic miracle.”


    Concerning the historical utility of science, I think jd is about right. Engineering is not the same as science and, even today, depends more on experience and caution then on genuine understanding. Most of the time, we just look something up in a table or building code, apply a generous safety factor, and get on with it. Housebuilders go straight to the “get on with it” stage; everything is standardized (based on experience, not on analysis) and if they encounter something non-standard they make it up as they go along.

    Science only becomes useful when it can be used to predict ways of doing new or better things that haven’t already been discovered by experience. Great strides in agricultural methods were made during the eighteenth century, but these were based more on trial and error than anything else. The Gentleman Farmers knew nothing of chemistry, microorganisms, or genetics. The introduction of canned food depended on a scientific explanation of spoilage – which turned out to be completely wrong. The ability to calculate stresses on simple machine parts was around before 1850, but materials worth doing the calculations for were not.


    9 Oct 11 at 8:03 pm

  7. Still not clear to me how astronomy inculcates wisdom while physics wastes time–nor why physics suddenly has war machine potential AFTER about four or five centuries of tossing things through the air. (Yes, I’ve read about Demetrios Poliorketes (Sp?). I’m talking about Western European revivals.) It’s actually mathematics, not physics, which picks up a late medieval/early modern utility for navigation and ballistics.

    However, “usefulness” defined as aiding salvation is still usefulness. It’s not the same as “for its own sake.”

    jd, I think you’ll find the Poul Anderson story you’re referring to is titled “The Man Who Came Early.”

    ab, I’d keep in mind that quantum effects are potentially a way for God to intervene in the universe without violating any physical law. Which doesn’t mean He does of course. But the existence of efects we can’t determine in advance makes the universe a ship in a bottle–difficult to manipulate, but demonstrably not impossible. It ought to be more unsettling in certain quarters than it has been so far.

    Also, how sure are you on the food preservation business? My understanding was that it was ALL engineering–not a false theory, but no theory at all in 1810 when Napoleon awarded the prize. They knew it worked, but wouldn’t understand why until Pasteur.


    9 Oct 11 at 10:49 pm

  8. Canning was developed based on the theory that contact with air caused spoilage. Boiling the food was a way of creating a vacuum seal; killing microorganisms happened incidentally. This led to some cases of botulism, because it’s quite possible to create an airtight seal while leaving many bacteria alive.

    Knowledge of Aristotelian physics was never useful to anyone, because it doesn’t make quantitative predictions. But even if the Carolingian operators of trebuchets had known Newton’s laws of motion, it wouldn’t have helped them. They lacked means to adequately measure the weight of a rock or to carry out calculations. The projectiles were crudely shaped and precise control of release timing was very difficult. What the operators needed to hit a castle wall (not an easy task in the circumstances) was experience and ranging the machine by trial and error. Hell, even in WWI, artillery depended heavily on trial-and-error ranging (thus the need for forward observers).

    Divine intervention at the quantum level would involve deviations from the predicted distribution patterns. For heat to flow spontaneously from a cold object to a hot one, for instance, does not violate any absolute law; however, the probability of this happening on any scale is too small for it to be ever observed. If, say, you burned your tongue on an ice cube, this would be evidence of Tampering.


    9 Oct 11 at 11:49 pm

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