Category Archives: Epistemology

Naturalism and the “Testimonial Imperative”


Introduction: the Challenge of Philosophy

Years ago, a creationist challenged me to justify the assertion that people evolved from apes when we share lots of characteristics with raccoons. Now I know that we have many more characteristics in common with apes than any other animal, but rather than quibble about details I realized that I did not know the basis of evolutionary theory. My philosophical studies had focused on the history of astrophysics and cosmology, and I realized that I could not generalize my philosophy of science to explain the Darwinian revolution. I admitted to him that I could not justify it other than out of respect for scientific authorities.

For the next few years, I read the relevant books to understand evolution. First the “Origin of Species” itself, which easily refutes all the haters, but I kept on going for years, because evolution and its related disciplines are so vast; they overlap with mathematics, economics, and computer science quite a bit.

Realizing your ignorance is the beginning of a wonderful new stage in the search for truth. I know what it is like to reply to an objection using empty nonsense without really understanding the argument in its strongest sense. Of course I understand that evolution has not fitted the human race to be composed of freethinkers; we will always be the exception. It’s a law of nature. So I am very compassionate when I see people replying to me with empty nonsense. However, I will never ever willingly waste a day of my life believing in empty nonsense, for reasons explained below.

The Practical Basis of Naturalism – the “Testimonial Imperative”

The “Testimonial Imperative” simply means calling a spade a spade; or more precisely for the subject of ethical theory, every “ought” must be cashed out in terms of an “is”, and every “is” is only that which can be referred to without ambiguity, is defined operationally, and is known to exist with some specific level of certainty and evidence.

One may reasonably challenge me to cash out the Testimonial Imperative (TI) itself in terms of the “is” as a test of its completeness. After all the TI is itself and ethical standard like any other. So let us test it by applying it to itself and translate it from “ought” to “is” thusly: My strategy is to clearly define everything so that people know what I am saying and can better judge my words, and to clearly show how my words relate to higher principles which unite other areas of accepted knowledge. I cannot do this on my own, but require others to follow the same rule. Therefore, if you will not speak naturalistically, I will ignore you. I will ignore you because ultimately you are using vague terms which refuse to give up their meanings under scrutiny. Why should I put up with your nonsense ? You can’t possibly have any reply worthy of my time without accepting the Testimonial Imperative and its corollary, Methodological Naturalism.

If you decide to provisionally accept for the time being my demands of discourse, you could say that “How do you know that your Imperative is actually an Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS)? If it is not, then within Selection Theory your whole position is as unfounded as any theocracy.” I accept that caveat, since it applies to any ethical stance whatsoever concerning anything from scientific honesty to  the prohibition of murder to abortion rights. This is exactly what our moral basis is: I am taking a stance with my life on a certain definition of an adaptive strategy. Mine is “Philosophy”; which includes science, secular politics and freethinking in general. I am simply phrasing my definition of this strategy in the same way that any other moral principle is *actually * defined (iif it is ever defined at all!). When I oppose murder or aggressive warfare, I am taking a stance by pledging allegiance to an adaptive strategy that excludes these practices. Prohibiting murder and aggressive warfare have proven effective stratgies over many thousands of years, not only for humans but almost all other animals, so I am safe in this respect. Few will object on the point of theory, perhaps only quibbling over how this rule applies to specific cases. The number of ethical rules that are supported with this level of certainty are rather large; lying, stealing, gluttony, greed, envy, and lust are good examples.

So far so good. But when I take an ethical stance concerning the Search for Truth, I am on far shakier ground than with murder. However, the form of justification in both cases is the same because intellectual honesty is just as much an ethical virtue as other forms of honesty. I like to think it’s the most important, but perhaps it’s not. The main thing is that for Selection Theory, I am clearly defining all my terms, including “ought”, and I am clearly explaining how my oughts are binding. While you are clearly free to refuse to accept my ought, this only means that you are declaring yourself as one who does not care for the Truth, because you are not at all willing to accept the first principles of discourse, Aristotle’s “Three Laws of Thought”.

The Testimonial Imperative, like every other imperative (ethical or otherwise), is part of an adaptive strategy, which for humans means the regulation of cooperation. This strategy is a new thing; it seems weird to people because our ancestors did not search for the Truth in the way that some modern people do; i.e. by practicing Philosophy. (NOTE: When I capitalize “Philosophy”, it includes “science”.) Part of following the strategy of Philosophy is to define things clearly (Aristotle’s “Three Laws”) and to look for ultimate principles (the “arkhe”). Ignoring the arkhe means to take an unprincipled position. Truths are either axioms, or they are derived from axioms. Even contingent empirical truths have an axiom: For example, “I saw it happen.” is based on the axiom, “If you see it, it happened.”

While in my personal life, I like and cooperate all kinds of people, in my Work I will not respect anyone who tries to avoid the duty of defining what they mean or of relating what they say to the Arkhe. The desire to avoid this is a way to avoid the Truth. I agree that there are many well-founded fields where certain things are left vague because they are not ‘interesting’. These vague terms could be seized on by others unfairly. Creationists do this with certain aspects of legitimate biology, and I very much hope that I do not commit this error. However, it is very clear that almost every evolutionary concept is more clearly defined than almost every creationist concept. And this clarity is not merely in theory but also in practice. Likewise, when I do metaethics, I will define the broad range of my concepts more clearly and with firmer basis than is possible with any other competing theory. Also, my ethical concepts will be defined and explained using higher principles. It may be handy to simply define a principle out of nowhere, such as when Newton created “Gravity” and a name for some unknown force that affected matter. However, this cannot be the final result of science; gravity must eventually be explained in its relation to other phenomena. This is exactly what Selection Theory does with ethics. Just as gravity must eventually be cashed out in terms of other natural forces, ethics must be brought into theroretical relation with the rest of Nature. Perhaps Selection Theory has some fatal flaw unseen by me, but something like it must be the case. The nice thing about a naturalistic theory like mine is that even if it is wrong, it’s still a better use of your time than non-naturalism. This is because a naturalistic theory refutes itself, while non-naturalism never hazards any meaningful assertions about anything and merely maintains the deceptive appearance of knowledge.

Brains in Vats and the Simulation Argument

NOTE: One of the members of my Facebook group had some questions about Daniel Dennett’s dismissal of the possibility of “Descartes’ demon”, who could create virutal reality like the “Matrix” and fool the “Cogito” about the external world. We had a great discussion about it, which I have edited and posted below. While a lot of my blog posts are adapted from Facebook discussions, this one seems rather hard to change into a monologue. As a result, I am going to experiment with posting in this cleaned-up dialogue version.  Thanks to all my great interlocutors. Enjoy!

Q: There seem to be some problems with the following line of reasoning from Dennett: “Might you be nothing but a brain in a vat? Might you have always been just a brain in a vat?”

Dennett’s answer (in brief): “Descartes was wise to endow his demon with *infinite* powers of trickery. Although the task is not, strictly speaking, infinite, the amount of information obtainable in short order by an inquisitive human being is staggeringly large…Throw a skeptic a dubious coin, and in a second or two of hefting, scratching, ringing, tasting, and just plain looking at how the sun glints on its surface, the skeptic will consume more bits of information than a Cray computer can organize in a year. Making a real but counterfeit coin is child’s play; making a simulated coin out of nothing but organized nerve simulations is beyond human technology now and probably forever. One conclusion we can draw from this is that we are not brains in vats — in case you were worried.” ( Consciousness Explained, page 7)

(Facepalm..) Just seems like a non-sequitur. x would be very difficult to achieve, therefore not x, but there’s even a deeper fallacy here. Our brains are creating a simulation of the universe all the time…? So, clearly that can be done. However, the implicit part of the argument sort-of makes sense, to rephrase it “The universe is, like, really complex. So, it’d be, like, really a lot of effort to fake it”. You still need a universe, and universes are kinda big. Of course, it also raises the question – if our universe is simulated, what practical difference does it make?

Adam Voight’s Reply: This is a very good question and really gets to the heart of what separates modern and premodern scepticism / science.

Let’s start with skepticism: ancient skepticism simply doubted everything and found correctly that if you do this, then that means everything “can” be doubted and that therefore there is no knowledge. This is true and yet “trivial” as mathematicians say. It’s not “interesting” and  you can’t really do anything with it. Fortunately, natural selection tends to eliminate those who act in accordance with this trivial truth. Others ignore it in practice but pay lip service to it, and they are difficult to answer when they bring it up.

Modern skepticism takes many many forms, but all of them accept some form of modern science, meaning that while any one particular fact can be doubted, you cannot doubt everything at once. Every scientific theory accepts some set of truths as premises, but what they all accept are Aristotle’s Three Laws of Thought and all of their corrolaries, e.g. arithmetic, geometry, et cetera.

While it is logically permissible to doubt the reality of the external world, the truths of physics are true even if the external world is an illusion. For example, even if the Earth and Moon are “not real”, physics and engineering will still let you know how to get to the Moon and back. Even if the Moon is an illusion, you can still die from having your rocket miss it and go hurling through deep space. In either case, physics is just a well founded as it needs to be. There is no better-founded form of knowledge about the Earth and Moon available. It is useless to criticize it like some ancient skeptic or neo-Platonist. Useless, but not logically inconsistent. It is conceivable that someday someone can restate skepticism in an interesting form.

Now here is where we get to Dennett. Dennett is assuming that humans are living things, and that living things are physical objects and that physical objects “are” in the way that Aristotle or Descartes might define: subject to change, extended in space and time, et cetera. It’s logically possible to doubt the existence of the external world and all of these other premises, even though this would require redefining “existence”. Certainly a philosopher should at the very least entertain these thoughts, and if any theory could deal with them in a better way than Aristotle did, it would be one point in its favor.

However, physics can be true about physical objects regardless of the ultimate nature of these objects in the same way that evolutionary theory is true not only of “real” life but also virtual life existing in computer simulations. Even if it were found that we live in a simulation, physics and biology would still be just as true. Why? For the following two reasons:

1) Physics is not only the study of physical objects, it’s also the study of models of physical objects. Now if the our entire universe were shown to be model, then it would still fall within the purview of physics.

2) It is in fact possible that our universe is a simulation. However, the only way to prove that this is true or false is through the study of physics as it is currently done. Philosophy and physics can cooperate to define this question, and ask what sorts of answers are possible or satisfactory. Simulation theory is a possible physical theory, so long as it has practical effects. If it has no practical effects, then it’s meaningless. If it does have practical effects, then physics can study it.

Just because physics assumes the reality of the external world does not mean it is false if the world is a simulation. Newton’s theory of space and time were wrong, but his theory was good physics, because it consisted of well-defined concepts that were derived from experience. That’s why it led somewhere, and by “somewhere” I mean the NEXT theory.

Question: “My issue isn’t with Dennett’s “quasi-skepticism” (for lack of a better term) — it’s with his tautology. I do see your point, that if we want to get anywhere, we need to take *some* things for granted. Call them the Rules Of The Game. But to take data obtained using this method, and hereby try to prove that your founding assumptions are valid, is a tautology. All Dennett has really shown is the following: ‘If all possible worlds have the same physics, chemistry, biology and information science that ours does, then we are (probably) not brains in vats.’ (Actually, he hasn’t even demonstrated THIS very well IMHO — after all, he’s assuming that his imaginary mad scientists would be at our level of technological development, which seems odd given that, among other things, computing power doubles every decade — or is it faster now? But to continue…)
This is a perfectly valid conclusion, as far as it goes. But to extrapolate from this conclusion to the wider conclusion (that we are not brains in vats, full stop) is unwarranted and, moreover, misleading. After all, if we ARE brains in vats, then surely the validity of our scientific information is one of the first things we should be doubting! (I disagree with your conclusion that physics is physics; it’s trivially easy to invent a possible physics that differs wildly from ours — e.g. where an object initially at rest will gradually accelerate, or where both poles of magnets attract, or where “light speed” does not exist as an upper limit to velocity…) Essentially he’s using a clever sleight of hand to conceal a tautology from the unsuspecting reader, and all within the first seven pages, so as (I think) to dazzle them with his supposed brilliance before they have a chance to get their mental guards up. This is insidious, and unworthy of his training as a philosopher. An honest philosopher would explicitly spell out what he was doing (“For the purposes of argument, we will assume X”) and discuss the limitations of his conclusion. Dennett goes out of his way to hide them, like a magician pulling a carrot out of somebody’s ear. Unlike the magic trick, though, people read Dennett’s books (presumably) to seek truth and knowledge, not entertainment, and it’s dishonest to pull the wool over his audience’s eyes in this way.”

Adam Voight: “If it were me writing the same book, I would do it differently. He doesn’t really need to show that we’re not in a cosmic simulation, only that literal ‘brains in vats’ would not be lucid like we are now (they would not be able to read or write or think logically, for example), but I think that this section is very important to include because it looks at consciousness as a physical system, and you can’t do a science of consciousness without considering how mind is supervenient on life and life is supervenient on physics.

(Note to neophytes: “Supervenient” means based on but not reducible to the lower level. “Reducible to” means being an emergent phenomenon originating completely from a lower substrate while exhibiting characteristics that are physically impossible to deduce from the substrate.)

However, once you show that it’s physically impossible to create a single brain in a vat, this possibility becomes a LOT less interesting. It’s actually more likely that our entire universe is a simulation than that any single person’s qualia within a universe is. A true brain in a vat would not have access to the same consciousness that we do; it would be like a dream. Now they might not realize it that they were dreaming, but it is possible to know for sure that you are not dreaming if you’re awake, and he shows how this is true.

In conclusion, Dennett’s argument is not as circular as it might seem. With all of its assumptions openly stated, it goes like this: “Given our current knowledge of physics, it is impossible to implement ‘Descartes’ Demon’ within a Universe. So as far as we know, the way around this is for a civilization to implement an entire universe as a simulation. Since this is a radically different situation from a simulation at the individual level, Descartes’ thought-experiment becomes much less interesting and compelling.”



A “College Football” Theory of Testimonial Authority

The Game-Theoretic Structure of Warranted Testimony

We all “know” that Science works. But HOW do we know? It seems like we just take exotic ideas quantum physics and relativity on authority, right? The following argument derives the validity of scientific authority from an application of game theory. If our argument works, it shows that we can have warrant to accept beliefs that emerge from certain social contexts so long as the these communities implement certain enforceable incentive structures. In short, we should be able to accept the testimony a group if the group is known to behave in certain ways.

To illustrate my principle, let us look at college football. I grew up in an area of the world where we followed college football with equal enthusiasm normally reserved for professional football. While the game rules in these two leagues are similar, there is a big difference in how the national champion teams are chosen. In the professional NFL, there is a year-end tournament ending with a championship game called the “Super Bowl”. In the college NCAA, there are numerous post-season bowl games, but no tournament and no “Super Bowl” or its equivalent to choose the champs. And yet a week or two after the last bowl games are played, the news announces that x team is the “national champion” for the year. The obvious question is “how do they come to this conclusion?”. As a child, I asked and nobody knew. Nowadays, we have Wikipedia to look up things like this here. But back then, we had more freedom to imagine that maybe this was all a scam for some unworthy team to become the champs. If this intuition is valid, then it would also be valid to doubt the testimony of other organizations, both political, commercial, religious and even scientific. In this article, I seek to define the public behavior required of an organization such that its testimonial veracity is increased relative to other possible sources of assumed knowledge. This means that the public would be warranted in accepting its statements as being more likely true than not.

SO now back to the NCAA champs: notice how there is less bickering over the champion than there is over most US presidential elections, even though world of college football resembles 100  fanatical sects who all hate each other.  Maybe the NCAA should elect the next President? Just kidding. My point is that even though I don’t know how the national champ is chosen, my belief that the process is valid and impartial is warranted. This is due to the fact that there is an unforced consensus among the partisans of the different teams. As long as the consensus is real and unforced, am I not correct in assuming on their authority (the conjoint authority of the team partisans) that the outcome of their shared decision-process is trustworthy?

If this inference is valid, then it forms a prototype for a similar inference concerning the outcome of scientific debate, with the title of “Well-Founded Theory” replacing that of “National Champion”. If scientists have a real and unforced consensus about their field of study which is the result of open competition for the title of “Well-founded Scientific Theory”, then we are thereby justified in accepting their Theory and its interpretations as a basis for valid inference.

This is why I feel justified in disbelieving in the Labor Theory of Value, even though I would very much prefer that it were true, and that I have read Adam Smith’s and Karl Marx’s compelling ( to me, at least ) defenses of this theory. I know this because on the whole economists are rather centrist in their politics and would thus be comfortable with it if it were true. Thus, I have a game-theoretical warrant for the conclusion that the Labor Theory of Value is false. This form of argument also derives an equally valid warrant from any example of consensus among any social group that satisfies certain conditions: symmetry of information, broad consensus over the rules of the game, enforceable incentives, and other factors as well. The only task remaining is to catalogue the factors that warrant testimonial validity from actual sources of authority: science is clearly the best source, but college football championship voting is another, jury trails yet another, and so on. In a future, work I hope to elaborate on this using specific case studies.