Regarding Doubt and the Grounds of Knowledge

February 23, 2010

Doubt, if you can, everything. This Descartes attempted, and he claims to have not only successfully doubted all, but moreover to have returned from the void, the foundations of his beliefs being thereby rendered unquestionable. But I cannot go so far; there is much that I cannot doubt. Descartes claims that in his doubt of all, he could nonetheless prove his own existence, for “Cogito, ergo sum.” But I ask, whence “therefore”? How does he who doubts everything know that what thinks exists? For my part, I need no such argument, for I am simply unable to doubt my own existence. Imagine that you do not exist, not by imagining a world in which you had not been born, or a time in this world before you had been born, but thinking that here, now, you do not exist. For my part, I cannot; my power of doubt fails me.

Thus I have a piece of knowledge. But of what nature is it? It is not objectively certain, I suppose; I have not derived it by infallible syllogism from objectively certain premises. But if it is uncertain from this objective standpoint, it is nonetheless subjectively certain,1 for I cannot think otherwise. And if, come what may, I shall never doubt it, what matters the method of its proof? And what, indeed, would an objective proof be? The result of a deduction? But whence the premises? Whence the rules of inference? Objective proof is only possible within a framework to provide premises and a logic. Objective proof of such a framework is impossible.

Consider the principles of propositional logic. ‘A or not A’, and certainly not both. How do we know this? Not from any logic, for it is logic that we seek to prove. Rather, my grounds for belief in the principles of logic are the same as for my belief in my own existence. Without sophistry, attempt to believe both that it is and that it is not snowing. I simply do not know what that would mean. Just as I cannot doubt that I exist, I cannot believe that a contradiction is true. Or believe that it is neither snowing nor not snowing. Again, my powers of mind fail me, and I cannot. Or believe ‘If A then B, but A and not B’. Again, the statement is meaningless to me. Although I cannot prove it false, neither can I doubt its falsity.

Thus I may more clearly state the relationship between subjective and objective proof. An objective proof is interpersonally valid, but hypothetical, so that while those who accept the framework assumed are bound on pain of inconsistency to accept the conclusion, those who deny its foundations are bound to nothing. Subjective proof, by contrast, is not interpersonally valid; indeed, the proof is intrinsically incommunicable, being the inability to doubt the proposition proved. However, while objective proof binds conditionally, subjective proof binds absolutely: one who professes disbelief in what he cannot doubt denies himself. Thus we may define reason as consistency, but in two forms. One is objectively rational if he accepts all that his beliefs bind him to accept, and deny all that they bind him to reject (as a corollary, to be objectively rational one’s premises must be consistent, for otherwise those two tasks would be jointly impossible). One is subjectively rational if one’s intentional beliefs are consistent with one’s deeper beliefs.2

Thus far I have dealt with propositions. But there is one more element in the wall that prevents me from following Descartes into the void of total doubt, one question that refuses to pass unanswered: what ought I to do? The question is uniquely persistent in that any attempt to ignore it is itself an answer (“I ought not to answer that question”, or some more complex variation). Nor can I answer with mere opinion, for that too is a factual answer (“I ought to do as I please”). Fortunately, to this normative question correspond normative subjective facts. I ought to seek the truth, not falsehood; I could never consciously believe what I thought false.3 Similarly, I cannot doubt that good is to be pursued, and evil avoided, above all other considerations. These answers, a deduction of which has tormented the positivists, who sought proof in science, come easily unto me, for unlike scientific proof, subjective proof cares little whether a proposition is normative.

1: This essay does, I admit, attempt to prove the subjectivity of truth. But subjectivity must not mean relativism; I assert that there are no grounds for belief apart from the individual mind (for how could there be any which are not perceived through that mind?), but not that the truth thereby found will be different for different minds, and emphatically not that we can choose what is true.

2: I see the power of this definition in analysis of the self-proclaimed relativists who nevertheless tend to be rather dogmatic about their relativism. Their profession of relativism clashes with the fact that one cannot truly doubt that some things simply are true, and this deeper belief in the existence of interpersonal truth clashes with their professed belief to create the wildly inconsistent statements that one occasionally sees, in which self-proclaimed relativists assert the absolute truth of relativism, or some other branch of political correctness.

3: This is not to say that people cannot have subconscious impulses toward believing what is false (on which see Bryan Caplan’s work on rational irrationality), but merely that one could never consciously do so without badly twisting definitions.


Dignity

December 17, 2009

I recently had the ebook “What Matters Now” suggested to me, (I would not strongly recommend it; for those insecure in their knowledge of what matters it is likely dangerous; for those secure it is likely a waste of time). In reading it, I was rather troubled by one comment by Jacqueline Novogratz therein: “Dignity comes from creating your own destiny and from the respect you get from your family, your peers and society.” Is this dignity?

Creating your own destiny is a part of dignity, if considered rightly. One cannot have dignity while a slave to another. But what does it mean to be a slave? A free man makes his own choices; a slave accepts the choices of others. This does not, however, mean that the free man chooses the choices. Every one of us is given a certain set of options among which we choose; those, and no others. We do, it is true, influence by our present choices the options we shall face in the future, but we can only influence them, never determine them. Therefore, to be free a man need have no control over outcomes; it is indeed possible that all possible choices would produce the same result. Is a man faced with a choice between death and doing wrong to avoid it? He remains free, so long as he does not allow another to choose for him. The choice is his, even if the options are not those he would choose if he could. Thus also a man may be a slave despite possessing the greatest power: if a man allows the actions of others to determine his own actions he is a slave. Our lives, therefore, are precisely what we make of them: if a man resists what he cannot control, he condemns himself to frustration; if he grants to others power over what is in his control, he condemns himself to slavery; if he uses rightly what is hiss and accepts what is not, he is free. Therefore, dignity as self-determination is the power to create not one’s external situation but one’s own character.

And what of the second part of the definition, “the respect you get from your family, your peers and society?” This we must in no way allow. For the respect of others remains always contingent. Do the masses love you? Ask again tomorrow, or if not then the day after. Therefore, dignity demands nearly the opposite of being respected: an independence from the need for the respect of others. Do what is right, and judge others on what they think of what you have done; do not judge what is right by what others will think. He is richest who has the least fear of want, and because the possession of all external things is contingent and so one with wants and the means to satiate them must still fear their loss, he is richest who has the fewest wants. In the same way he is most dignified who least relies on the approval of others.

Novogratz continues to say that “It’s easy to take dignity away from someone but difficult to give it to them.” Half is nearly correct; the other half could not be further from the truth. Dignity is not merely difficult but impossible to give, for he who relies on the gifts of others does not possess dignity. But at the same time dignity is impossible to take away. The dignified man is precisely the self-reliant man, the man who contents himself with doing right and accepts what he cannot control. Nothing any other can do can disturb such a man. He is free in wealth, for he does not fear its loss; he is free in poverty, for he does not need anything but his own will. He is free when respected, for he does not allow the maintenance of that respect to control him; he is free when disrespected, for if he has done wrong he knows the disrespect to be deserved and if he has done right he knows that in their malignments his accusers condemn only themselves (should we seek the praise of bad men? Certainly not. And is the man who praises evil good or bad? Bad. Therefore, doing evil can only earn the praise of bad men, whose praise is worthless). Dignity is important; but let us think not of how we can bestow it on others but of how we can teach ourselves and others to secure it for themselves.


Consequentialism and Unit Conversions

August 7, 2009

It is easy to compare measures in the same units; comparing measures in different units of the same type (as length or time) merely takes a bit more work. But how is one to compare measures in units of different types? Is a mile more or less than a minute? One can answer this question readily in a specific context; if driving at 60 mph, the two may be called equivalent. But unlike a conversion between, say, feet and metres, where the conversion is inherent to the units involved, such a conversion between miles and minutes relies also on the situation.

All this is a very roundabout method of presenting my fundamental difficulty with consequentialism: it relies on mathematically impossible calculations. A consequentialist asserts that the value of an action can be measured by its consequences, and actions compared by the relative worth of their consequences. The difficulty is in comparing the value of disparate things. A typical consequentialist argument that I hear too often is that the harm done by taxation is smaller than the good provided by the security that the taxation can secure, and that therefore taxation is a net good. This argument could mean one of two things. Possibly, it means that physical security is more important than financial security, and therefore that any increase in physical security outweighs any amount of taxation. But this seems false; is security so valuable that the smallest modicum of security outweighs the greatest theft?1 Perhaps, then, the argument is proportional: the actual security gained outweighs the theft, although were the provision of security less efficient it would not. But security is one thing, and theft another. By what conversion are we to coIt is easy to compare measures in the same units; comparing measures in different units of the same type (as length or time) merely takes a bit more work. But how is one to compare measures in units of different types? Is a mile more or less than a minute? One can answer this question readily in a specific context; if driving at 60 mph, the two may be called equivalent. But unlike a conversion between, say, feet and metres, where the conversion is inherent to the units involved, such a conversion between miles and minutes relies also on the situation.

All this is a very roundabout method of presenting my fundamental difficulty with consequentialism: it relies on mathematically impossible calculations. A consequentialist asserts that the value of an action can be measured by its consequences, and actions compared by the relative worth of their consequences. The difficulty is in comparing the value of disparate things. A typical consequentialist argument that I hear too often is that the harm done by taxation is smaller than the good provided by the security that the taxation can secure, and that therefore taxation is a net good. This argument could mean one of two things. Possibly, it means that physical security is more important than financial security, and therefore that any increase in physical security outweighs any amount of taxation. But this seems false; is security so valuable that the smallest modicum of security outweighs the greatest theft?1 Perhaps, then, the argument is proportional: the actual security gained outweighs the theft, although were the provision of security less efficient it would not. But security is one thing, and theft another. By what conversion are we to compare one to the other? It might be objected that individuals perform such tradeoffs daily; when one purchases a good or service one is asserting that one prefers the item to the money, and the conversion is contextually supplied by one’s preferences. However, another might choose differently, and therefore the conversion is therefore not universal but situational. Furthermore, only individuals hold preferences, strictly speaking; societal preferences must be built from individual preferences, and no method of doing this is inherent to the preferences.2 And, even if such a conversion did exist, I have never heard mention of it in such discussions. How does the consequentialist decide which quantity is greater, aside from a conversion standard? He cannot. Yet one who asserts one thing to be better than another without comparison of their effects by some such conversion is no true consequentialist.

Some utilitarians, such as the hedonists, seek to avoid this problem by avoiding such conversions, claiming that only pleasure is good and thus that all things may be compared in common units of pleasure. But pleasure is by no means as simple to measure as distance. J.S. Mill, for example, divides pleasure into higher and lower types, which are to be valued differently. But at what exchange? Bentham attempts to avoid that difficulty with his claim that “quantity of pleasure being the same, pushpin is as good as poetry.” But how are we to measure pleasure? What, precisely, is a packet of pleasure? Or is it continuous, rather than discrete? I see no path around the question within consequentialism, nor do I see a direct solution.

Therefore, it seems to me that consequentialism cannot serve as a guide to conduct. Whenever you hear someone saying that we should do something because its gains outweigh its losses, or one thing rather than another because its net gain is greater, and the consequences at issue are disparate, ask by what conversion he compares the two. If he cannot answer, his argument is nonsensical; if subjective, his argument fails to bind others. A legitimate answer I have never heard.

1: I do not wish to assume that theft is innately bad, which any consistent consequentialist would deny, but that the seizure of resources prevents them from being used elsewhere, causing (presumably) some loss of good.

2: This, of course, does exclude any claim that the free market uniquely identifies societal preferences. On the other hand, it also precludes any argument that it does not–the matter is simply undefined. Distribution must be determined without recourse to welfare arguments (which allows the reentry of the free market as just).


A defense of the supernatural

May 9, 2009

Let us hypothetically assume materialism, that all possibilities are completely described by physical specification. Under this assumption, I do not believe that any moral statements can be justified. In a materialistic universe, all possibilities are adequately described physically; therefore, a moral statement would be a reason for preferring one physical arrangement to another. On what grounds could one make such a claim? The preference could not refer to any non-physical standard, such as symmetry or order, for such a standard, if true, would be a true non-physical statement and thus contradict the assumed materialism. The standard cannot be contained in some portion of the physical universe, for rules for mapping states to prescriptions are without limit, and the rule used would then become a non-physical statement.1 The standard could not be correspondence of the whole universe to itself, for that is tautologically true. Therefore, no standard is consistent with materialism, whether not founded on any physical facts, on some facts, or on all. Consequently, no preference among possible configurations of atoms can be justified.

But, following our original assumption of materialism, only configurations of atoms exist, and thus all things, including thoughts, are solely configurations of atoms. Thus, within a materialistic universe, no belief is preferable to any other. Consequently, if materialism is true, the set of atoms corresponding to belief in materialism is in no way preferable to that corresponding to disbelief, even though the former is true and the latter false: the consistent materialist cannot prefer truth to falsehood.

On the other hand we may consider the rule that belief in truth is better than belief in falsehood. This being a nonphysical fact, it is inconsistent with materialism. If it is true, then to believe it is better than to believe the contrary; if false, not. Thus, I conclude that belief in materialism is, even if logically consistent, irrational, for belief in the preferability of truth to falsehood is better than belief in materialism if true, but is not worse if false.

1: Thus we may dispense with attempts at materialistic egotism. Whence does the materialist determine that the arbitrary group of atoms he considers himself are preferable as a normative standard?


Indirect Proof and Necessary Evils

April 4, 2009

In most fields of philosophy, a set of propositions that entails a contradiction is held inconsistent, following the law of non-contradiction.1 Where one can rank the support for the various propositions, this allows the figure of indirect proof: if adding a proposition to a set of beliefs singly better supported than it produces a contradiction, the proposition added must be considered false.2

In one field of philosophy, however, most people seem to hold this method of reasoning invalid: ethics. Many proposed ethical systems place upon people burdens to two or more incompatible actions. Elsewhere, such a system would be held inconsistent, and in need of alteration. In ethics, however, the law of non-contradiction does not seem to apply: an actor faced with contradictory obligations should follow one, considering his violation of the other a necessary evil, regrettable but not fatal to the system.3

This strikes me as exceedingly sloppy reasoning. We do not hold that although Newtonian physics and relativity are contradictory, they are both true and we should follow one, considering our denial of the other necessary to avoid indeterminacy; we hold that the contradiction renders any belief in both necessarily false. So it should be in ethics. There are no necessary evils; only false ethical systems that produce them. The true ethical system will at no time obligate an actor to two incompatible actions. This does not mean, of course, that I believe that, a priori, if an ethical system is to prohibit, for example, lying, it must do so in all circumstances; that prohibition may have exceptions (“One may not lie except to criminals”, or even “One may not lie except when doing so is commanded by a higher principle”, with the precedence established).4 However, these exceptions must be inherent to the original ordinance, and not produced from the conflict of absolute ordinances.

Law being a subset of ethics governing enforceable interpersonal interactions, rights are also subject to this prohibition of contradiction. No right may be justly violated at the instigation of any other ethical principle. Thus, long lists of “human rights” such as those of the UN are necessarily false, for they place agents under competing ethical claims. Even the rights to free speech and freedom of property are inconsistent, as in the stock case of crying “fire”. Traditionally, it has been held that in this case the latter right overrides the former. I say, on the other hand, that this instead means that one of these rights is not a true right, but rather a manifestation of something else. Legal questions must be solved by argument from sound principles, not by weighing of incompatible principles in incommensurate units.

1: A strong contradiction is, however, necessary. A set of propositions that produces a paradox is not inconsistent unless the addition of other certain premises produces a strong contradiction.

2: Note, however, that this also applies to the better-supported premises; their contradiction of a supported premise lowers their support correspondingly, even though from the assumption that they are better supported than the new proposition their support remains positive. Thus, one cannot use a set of propositions to disprove a large number of propositions only slightly less-well supported; even though it is more plausible that any one of the introduced propositions be false, it is more plausible that some proposition in the original set be false than that all of the introduced propositions be false. Thus, the set of propositions believed true should be the set that minimizes the combined evidence in favor of propositions believed false.

3: And it is not clear to me why he should do one instead of the other. If government is a necessary evil, unjust but necessary to prevent other injustices, why should we not hold that the injustices consequent on the absence of government are a necessary evil, unjust but irremediable without other injustice?

4: This is ultimately the problem with Kantian ethics and rule utilitarianism. Kant’s categorical imperative may be valid in principle (and is a necessary consequence of moral absolutism), but his use of it to obtain, for example, an absolute prohibition on lying ignores that the true rule of behaviour is not necessarily “lying is acceptable”, but rather “lying is acceptable in this situation”, which one could wish to be a universal principle of action without the consequences attending permission of lying in general. Similarly, for any proposed rule under rule utilitarianism one could propose the modified rule that the previous rule is to be followed except when violations of it would improve utility. The rule utilitarian would then have to say that there is no such instance, which requires much stronger support (and, arguably, moves rule utilitarianism indistinguishably close to deontology, merely approaching from the opposite side (assuming the consistency principle)).


Is and Ought

March 28, 2009

Certain concepts are irreducible, lexically explicable only by circular reference. Reality is one such, definable only in terms of itself. One may specify its proper scope (e.g. “what does not cease to be when one ceases to believe in it”), but not its essential meaning.1 Obligation, too, is irreducible: one may say that we have an obligation to do what is right, and the pursuit of good is right, but ultimately must return to say that good is what we are obliged to pursue.

Inherent to the notion of a fundamental concept is that it is explicable only in terms of itself. Therefore, all attempts to define the nature of reality are pointless: we may be able to find an intricately circular definition, but it will ultimately come down to “what exists, exists”. Cartesian demon presentations of skepticism miss the point: if that is the nature of reality, then so be it. It is still reality, still an environment beyond my control. It is possible to argue that nothing is real, that there is no environment, that everything we experience we actively create, but that seems quite implausible (try as I might, I cannot make myself believe that I am a tree).

Obligation is, like reality, a fundamental concept not explicable except circularly. No amount of reasoning can move from a statement of reality to a statement of obligation. Any such attempt must involve an implicit normative premise, and therefore begs the question as an attempt to define obligation in terms of reality. Utilitarianism, for example, is not a simple definition of the good as the greatest aggregate utility; it is a normative statement that the greatest aggregate utility should be pursued. All ethical theories must contain foundational normative premises that cannot be reduced to observation of reality.

Choice relies on both these realms, applying a normative major premise to a positive minor premise returning an ethical statement to guide action. No theory can avoid this: one can explain the actions of others by positive determinism, but by introspection, one must have some other principle to guide one’s own deliberation. One may attempt to act in conformity to the factors determining the actions of others, but this itself is an ethical belief, that it is right to do so. Amoral action is impossible. Furthermore, relativistic moralities are incoherent, relying on the absolute premise that one should follow whatever relative standard is proposed.

The seeming consequence of this is that one can never violate one’s principles, for all actions, insofar as they are willful, arise from normative syllogisms. Thus, what does it mean to do what one knows to be wrong? Not to forsake ethics, but to abandon one’s former ethical system for another. All wrongdoing is intellectual error. However, we must remember that thought and memory is not static. One can forsake one belief for another in a moment and revert as quickly, as when one afraid of insects but cognizant of their harmlessness starts on encountering one. He started because he feared harm, which fear he knows to be groundless. Nevertheless, he deserted that belief when it became important. Similarly, one who does wrong that he knows to be wrong does not act contrary to his beliefs, but rather temporarily forsakes those beliefs. One may, of course, also be continually wrong, without such a reversion to right beliefs; such are those who know neither repent nor regret. In any case, the fundamental error is in the intellect, not the will. One can never act contrary to what one thinks right at the moment.

1 Many argue that one cannot define the essence of any concept. I would agree that one cannot define any term without recourse to concepts not essentially definable, but I believe that derivative concepts may be so defined.


Freedom and Coercion

March 9, 2009

What does it mean to be free? Many, I think, would say that freedom is found in self-determination, the ability to choose one’s course of life. Interference with that choice is destructive of freedom, whatever its intention. To an extent, I would agree. However, we must remember that choice is not of results, but of actions. God, in creating nature, embedded in it a certain payoff matrix: certain actions bring certain results. Freedom is the ability to choose one’s actions and their inherent results, not the ability to choose results independent of action.

Thus, we may identify the first fallacious opinion regarding freedom, that it encompasses such things as “freedom from hunger”, or “freedom from want”. Freedom means the ability to choose a course of action that satisfies one’s hungers or wants, if one is available in nature,1 but does not mean the ability to have one’s desires met regardless of the course of life one chooses. Preventing someone from accepting a job offered him does violate his freedom; however, if he chooses to reject the job offered, his “right to a job” does not entitle him to some other. Freedom means only the ability to choose one’s actions, not the results one would like.

But this definition is incomplete, for it would seem to permit many seeming violations of freedom. The robber who offers the choice of “your money or your life” does not seem to restrict one’s options for action, yet any sensible theory of freedom would regard his action as a violation of freedom.2 Thus, I would add the provision that one may also not interfere with the natural payoff matrix: freedom entitles people not only to to choose their course of action, but also to reap the natural consequences of that action. We may, however, here distinguish between material and moral freedom: the robber’s dilemma infringes on his victim’s material freedom, but the actor still has moral freedom of will, and remains responsible for his actions. No amount of compulsion justifies commission of wrong.3

But by appealing to natural payoffs, I obligate myself to define naturality. Naturality does not mean what would happen without human interaction, for then the criterion would not apply to actions dependent on interaction with other men (as our contrafactual refers not merely to the contrafactual, but to the nonsensical “what compensation would one man owe for stealing from another if that other did not exist?”). I do, however, believe that naturality only involves reference to other humans when their existence is a logical prerequisite of the situation. The settler in a new land does not logically rely on others, despite any potential material dependence; consequently, the natural results of his actions should not depend on others. Similarly, the solitary worker does not depend on others, and his ability to enjoy the product of his labor is independent of others, and their interference would violate his freedom. But what if two men cooperate? We may renormalize, and say that their proceeds do not depend on the presence of others. But what of the distribution between them? I see no reason for preferring any particular distribution, at least on the grounds of freedom, other than that security in their own persons, that not being a product of their cooperation, must remain inviolate (thus supporting any agreement reached; the ethics of promises and future contracts is quite a mess, and I shall not address it here). This similar procedure may be applied, I believe, to all further questions. One case I would like to address, however, is theft (which may be generalized, mutatis mutandis, to other violences). The thief obviously has no right to the proceeds gained thereby, for they are not a natural consequence of his actions. Meanwhile, the goods gained thereby were the natural consequence of the actions of their owner, assuming his title to be just; therefore, he retains title, and the goods remain his. Similar reasoning will, I believe, show that one can similarly derive a right of recompense, although I shall not detail that here.

Thus far, I have only considered freedom with respect to external sources, yet perhaps there is also compulsion from within. Compelling someone to practice the piano for two hours a day clearly violates his freedom. What if, however, he wishes to become better, and disciplines himself to do so? His freedom is superficially restricted, in that he denies himself other options. But in the same manner, any action restricts one’s freedom, in that it entails not doing whatever else one might be able to do at the time. Thus, the pianist remains free.

This may seem trivial on its own, but bears importantly on Christian freedom. Christian freedom is of two types, which I shall call liberating and restricting. The first is the freedom from “slavery to sin” that enables us to choose to act rightly, which by definition is what is most in our interests. Restricting freedom, on the other hand, is the self-discipline to actually follow that course once it becomes available. These concepts must, I think, remain separate. Liberating freedom is external, for self-imposed bondage is not properly termed such. Restricting freedom, on the other hand, must be internal, for imposed action is amoral. Even though freedom only has value insofar as it allows us to follow a better course of action, it does not follow that “forcing someone to be free” by using compulsion to force him to adopt that course of action increases his freedom; quite the contrary, it restricts his freedom.

1 The necessity of this qualification is evident from the case of famine. If one proclaims a right to the availability of a course of action that satisfies one’s hunger, then a purely natural famine would violate people’s rights (as such a right could not be satisfied for all). By definition, rights are against men, not nature; therefore, the right is invalid.

2 Of course, not all theories do so: see Sen. Reid’s rather entertaining argument that taxes are voluntary at http://eyeam4anarchy.blogspot.com/2009/02/are-taxes-really-voluntary.html. On the other hand, I see no reason to consider his theory sensible.

3 Further, given that one has no reasonable expectation of material freedom, given its dependence on the actions of others, one should care only for doing what is right, not getting what is due.