Friday, April 29, 2011

Empiricism as a Weapon

I commonly run into something that is becoming a bit of a trend, so I figured I would address the root of this issue rather than try to combat every individual instance of it. People often demand to see empirical data as a weapon to shame others and avoid conclusions they dislike. I see it mainly when someone opposes a viewpoint or assertion of mine, and especially if the subject at hand is racism, sexism, feminism, etc.

Here is an example from a comment on a recent Youtube video of mine about feminism:

"...a viewpoint that he claims '90%' of 'feminists' share, without offering any evidence at all. I mean, it's ridiculous just on the face of it."

The second sentence is just blatant shaming and intimidation, so there's no need to analyze it any further. My interest is in the first sentence, where he points out that I offer no evidence for my claim. Let's look at an earlier statement from the same commenter:

"Feminism has so many different forms. It isn't about man-hating."

What evidence did he offer for his claim? None of course. The reason is that he is not engaging in scientific research; he's expressing his viewpoint based on his personal experience. He might offer anecdotes and an example or two, but he's not going to have a case study handy to prove that feminism isn't about man-hating.

The point is that we all do this. It is a necessary part of discourse. It is simply not a productive use of time to catalog and detail tremendous amounts of evidence for every viewpoint we hold or express. Doing so would use up time that could be used for other things, and remove the entire benefit of having a subconscious intuition that automatically sorts through raw data in the background while we do other things.

The appeal to empirical evidence is not out of a desire to be rational and point out my irrationality, though it is his intention that people interpret his statement that way; it is out of a desire to attack my viewpoint in whatever way he can. Appealing to empirical evidence is a pwn move, basically, that can be brought out whenever he runs out of other, more productive options.

In any discussion about anything, he can always arbitrarily say "What's your evidence?" and then declare himself the "winner" when the person he is in disagreement with cannot just throw out a dozen verifiable examples. It's especially arbitrary when you consider that the level of scrutiny is entirely up to his discretion; if you can name 6 examples, why can't you name 7? Can you show me evidence of your examples? How reliable is the evidence? Etc.

At this point I can, and do, say "If you find my viewpoint unconvincing, so be it." What motivates me to write this post is not what that specific person will think, but the fact that others would read such a response as "Ooh, Shawn just got pwned. If he's so right, why can't he provide any evidence?" when it should be read as "Shawn doesn't have time for this jackass." The point of this kind of empirical attack is to make someone look irrational and foolish in the eyes of others, who might unwittingly be fooled.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Pragmatism Part 6: Pragmatism and Ayn Rand's Objectivism

I think it would be interesting, at this point, to compare and contrast the pragmatic viewpoint I have expressed in this series with the views of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism. I considered myself an Objectivist for many years and still count Rand as a major influence on my thinking.

Please note that the below mainly deals with metaphysics and epistemology. I might deal with Rand's ethical theory in a future post.

(1) The Hierarchy of Philosophy

The first distinction, I think, comes in the hierarchy in which various fields of philosophy are arranged. Rand argued that one must start with metaphysics, and then proceed to epistemology once certain metaphysical foundations have been established, and then proceed from there to ethics and eventually politics.

Pragmatism (as I have been defending it; I don't claim to represent all thinkers that use this label) begins with a mix of ethics and epistemology. It begins by asking the question "Why do we pursue truth?", and in starting with that question, already finds itself in both fields of philosophy, since the question deals with both the nature of truth and the ends towards which we act.

I think the error in Rand's thinking here is that she has everything out of order in terms of how we experience the world. I think this is partly due to her erroneous assumption that people are born as blank slates, and only become anything beyond that through experience. She didn't assume any innate drives in human beings, though she never addresses the question of how more sophisticated values form if we don't have a prime value(s) to start us on the path of action.

We come into the world with certain drives and ways of organizing our experience already in place. The first thoughts of an infant are likely more driven by basic animal desires to experience pleasure and avoid pain than a more sophisticated adult. A baby already acts towards ends, and tries to form understanding of his experience so as to make use of it. Insofar as a baby has a metaphysics, it is only as a practical theory for getting what he desires.

In short, we do not begin with metaphysics and end up with epistemology and ethics. We begin with desires, which later become more sophisticated and achieve the status of values, and our experiences. Notions of truth and falsehood come later, as do notions about what the fundamental stuff of the universe is.

I think in this important way, the pragmatic outlook is more consonant with how we actually think than Objectivism's hierarchy.

(2) The Axioms

Ayn Rand held that there are three basic axioms of the universe. Her justification for the truth value of these axioms is that they cannot be denied without assuming their truth, because they are intrinsic to reasoning itself. The axioms are as follows:

  1. Existence exists. There is something and not nothing.
  2. To be is to be something in particular. Everything has a fundamental nature that distinguishes it from other things.
  3. I am conscious. That is, I am aware of existence and things in particular.
While I agree that these premises are intrinsic to any rational discourse about anything, does it follow from this fact that they are metaphysically true? Rand here seems to be confusing or conflating metaphysics with epistemology; the premises intrinsic to reason are intrinsic to just that; the human faculty of reason, not necessarily of reality as such.

The position I have put forth is that premises such as these may very well be intrinsic to human reasoning. This does not mean they are metaphysically true; they (and reason herself, as well) serve the function of allowing us to usefully organize our experiences.

(3) The Role of Reason

Rand's definition of reason is "the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses." I mostly agree with this definition, though I would change "the material provided by man's senses" to "our experiences." Much of the world of our experience is internal; a feeling of sadness or hunger is not material provided by man's senses, but it certainly is among the things that reason deals with. We form abstractions about emotions, thoughts, sensations, etc. just like we do about sensory experience.

For the most part, Rand's conception of reasoning is compatible with pragmatism so long as one does not infer any metaphysical facts from the results of the reasoning process. It is in the belief that metaphysical Truth (with a capital T) can be obtained by reasoning that I am at odds with.

There are some specific things about Rand's theory of concept formation that I am at odds with. For one, it seems impossible to me to be a complete theory of human thought. At no point does Rand address the role of intuition (beyond some comments about emotions being automatic), or consider the possibility that the functions of the human mind are not as holistic as would be convenient for those of us trying to understand it.

Far from the perfect product of a top down designer, modern neuroscience has strongly suggested that the mind is a cobbled together mess of evolutionary kludges built on top of one another. Compare the smooth functionality of a planned neighborhood or city with one that formed more organically (with all of its traffic jams, oddly shaped intersections, and poor zoning) and you'll get a grasp of how imperfect the human mind is.

I also think Rand's grasp of what a concept is is too simple and limiting. Rand defined a concept as "a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted." I think this definition fails to account for several things, such as:

  1. How we develop notions intrinsic to our thinking but incapable of being observed directly, such as causality.
  2. Our ability to conceive of things that only have one unit; the types of things we would normally refer to with proper nouns, such as Thomas Jefferson or the Internet.
  3. The possibility that concept formation is more sophisticated and algorithmic than simply omitting measurements; determining the distinguishing characteristic of something might involve more than just measurement omission.
I'm sure I could think of some more comparisons and criticisms, but those are all that come to mind for now. It should suffice as a basic comparison of my pragmatism and Objectivism.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Pragmatism Part 5: Pragmatism and Metaphysics

I've gotten some feedback regarding my metaphysical assumptions, particularly the phenomenon/noumenon distinction, so I think it is a good idea to clarify what I mean.

I'm going to use the science fiction movie The Matrix as an example to elaborate on why I now reject metaphysics as a necessary discipline and why I adopt a pragmatic epistemology as a result. In the movie, human beings are basically resting, unconscious, in closed pods. Various wires are connected to their nervous systems, and a big computer simulates a fake world that they live in. Even though everyone thinks the world they live in is the real world, in reality they are resting in a pod, completely unaware of this fact.

Consider the life of someone in the Matrix. His natural predisposition to the correspondence theory of truth causes him to assume that everything he sees simply is what it is. He sees a dog and he concludes that what is happening is that he is seeing an actual dog, rather than a computer generated image.

The simulated world of the Matrix is his phenomena. It is the world of his experience, and in this example it has been cleanly divorced from the world as it is. The world as it actually is (the noumena) consists of pods with people in them and a bunch of computers running the show.

Now consider; is it possible for this man in the Matrix to ever know he is in the Matrix? Particularly if he grew up in it from childhood and had no reason to ever suspect that he lived in a simulation? And if we dig even further, can the computers (which, in this movie, were conscious creatures like human beings) know that they aren't in a similar simulation? No matter how deep you dig, there could always, theoretically, be another layer underneath your current experience that you are unable to make contact with.

It may be reasonable to infer, from the fact that we have sense experience, that there are noumena. But the only thing we can infer about noumena is that they generate our experiences. Whether they do this by simply being the things we see, through a complicated computer simulation, or any number of other means, we can never know. Even if we dig a layer deeper, we can't ever know that we're at the "final layer" of reality.

In our day to day lives, we are no different than someone in the Matrix. I'm not asserting that we all live in an advanced computer simulation; I am asserting that it is impossible to prove or disprove this notion. I am also asserting that it is impossible to prove or disprove the notion that we aren't living in a computer simulation.

Fortunately, as a pragmatist, I don't really have to care. William James, an early pragmatist thinker, has a brilliant quotation that I think sums up my view on the issue quite nicely:

"‎There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen."
If there are no practical implications to believing I'm in the Matrix when compared to believing that I'm in the real world, then the theories seem pragmatically equal. The Matrix theory actually ends up losing out purely for pragmatic reasons; it is more awkward and difficult to integrate into day to day life. Since it offers no predictive power with regards to my experience, it is not useful.

But suppose someone did prove a theory of metaphysics and connect it to sensory experience somehow. Does the whole pragmatic house of cards fall down? Not at all.

Even if everything we see, hear, touch, etc. is simply as it seems to us, the fact remains that we cannot remember it all, and we have a finite capacity for understanding it. Our own limitations as finite beings prevent us from ever understanding the world with perfect metaphysical clarity.

By necessity of being finite, we have to make fuzzy generalizations, imperfect predictions, and decisions that might not work out like we expect. To put it bluntly, we are not reliable enough instruments of understanding to ever assume that what we hold in our minds is metaphysical truth, even if said truth was somehow able to be experienced directly.

This forces us into the pragmatic position. We have to use the theories, values, etc. that work the best because we simply cannot hold some perfect, Platonic form of reality in our mind. We have to go into everything assuming that what we think is true might be false if we are to remain adaptable and thrive in the finite, imperfect environment of our own minds.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Pragmatic Ethics Part 1

Like any epistemological theory, pragmatism has profound implications in the field of ethics. Pragmatism, in a sense, is an ethical epistemological theory; it regards facts as a type of value, and begins with values rather than facts when explaining why we believe what we believe.

Because of this, I feel compelled to revise the ethical theory that I put forward a few years ago. While I think the basic thrust of the theory is the same, many of the arguments no longer apply or need to be reconstructed to better reflect my current view on the subject.

(1) The Is-Ought Problem

First explicitly formulated by David Hume, the is-ought problem has been a thorn in the side of ethicists ever since. The argument essentially is as follows:

  1. We can observe the world and know facts about it. We can know, for example, that the sky is blue, that rocks are hard, that we have arms, etc.
  2. Statements about facts and values are fundamentally different. The statement “The sky is blue,” can be verified empirically, but the statement “It is good that the sky is blue,” cannot.
  3. There is no logical method for deriving a value statement from a fact statement. I cannot infer from the fact that the sky is blue that it is good or bad in any objective sense.

Basically, Hume argued that there is no way to logically derive how things ought to be from the way things are. Value claims and ethical claims (claims about what ought to be) cannot be grounded in facts.

Many philosophers infer from Hume's argument that ethical claims are irrational or nonsense that don't refer to anything in reality. Others (Hume included) argue that ethics and values are fundamentally emotional and therefore have usefulness, but can't be defended in any logical or rational way.

Note that the whole argument rests on a specific epistemological foundation; the correspondence theory of truth. The assumption is that, before values enter the picture, we obtain facts about the world which are pure and untainted by values. It is only after we have facts that we interpret them in specific ways to produce values.

What happens when we swap out the correspondence theory of truth for a pragmatic theory? Essentially, the argument falls apart. A fact is information that we use to interact with our experience. Intrinsic to calling something a fact is belief in it. Intrinsic to belief is a pragmatic motivation; I believe it because it serves me in some way.

In terms of our experience, values precede facts. Even a newborn feels compelled to observe some things more than other things because of beliefs about what will and won't satisfy him, even if he is not capable of verbally expressing this fact.

There is no is-ought problem. If anything, there is an ought-is problem, but I think the pragmatic theory of truth (discussed in my other posts) addresses that well enough.

(2) Human Will and Compatibilism

Since human decision making is, essentially, what ethics is all about, it is important that we establish a basic foundation for human decision making. Do we have free will, or are we the unwitting puppets of forces beyond our control? Is this even a valid distinction?

The basic premise of determinism is that everything that occurs is caused by something else. If a tree falls down, it is the result of something causing the tree to fall down. In a deterministic universe, there is no such thing as an uncaused action.

To be even more clear, it is the nature of the entities that determines exactly how something behaves. For example, lets say I run into a tree with a truck and knock it down. The tree fell down because of the nature of the truck, the nature of the tree, and the nature of their interaction (high speed impact).

I agree with all of the above pragmatically. While causality itself cannot be observed, it is a useful theory for predicting future events. Determinism seems to be the most useful theory for explaining why future events seem connected to past events.

Many determinists, however, make a subtle leap from the belief that all action is causal to the belief that human decision making is moot. The assertion is that, since all human decisions must be caused by something else and that it is the nature of that "something else" that determines what human decisions will be, human decisions are simply illusory.

This is, to be blunt, a non-sequitur. It does not follow from the premise "human decisions are caused by something," that "human decisions are illusory/unimportant." There is a whole realm of causal interaction that occurs within one's own mind that links the outside world to the decisions you make, and none of it is an illusion by nature.

Today I will walk to work. The fact that a variety of previous causal interactions (many inside my own head) determined that I will make this decision does not invalidate the fact that I made a decision. I can't stress this point enough, and it is the fundamental reason I identify primarily as a compatibilist rather than a determinist.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Pragmatism Part 4: Psychological Integration

(1) Psychological Integration

One interesting question that comes up with the pragmatic theory of truth is how to usefully incorporate it in our day to day thinking (and if we even should do this.) After all, in our day to day thinking and interaction with our experiences, we tend to assume many things that are completely unprovable. Here is a short list of some of these things:
  • We assume that our experiences are actually what is "out there", outside of ourselves. In reality, it is not possible to know this one way or the other.
  • We assume that other people (and to some degree, animals) are conscious creatures very much like us and with a similar internal experience. While this explanation makes sense (other people act much like us, so it makes sense that they are internally similar), it is not yet provable in any direct, logical way.
  • We assume that our own mental experiences are all connected as part of a single whole called the "self." We intuitively separate our sensory experience from this concept of "self", but there is no logical line to draw between sensory experiences and mental experiences; sensory experience is a class of mental experience.
  • We assume that some observed events "cause" other events. We believe that there is a metaphysical link between certain events that correlate with one another, but not other events that correlate with one another, even though we can never observe this link.
  • We assume the future will be like the past. We assume that, because the sun came up the last 10,000 days we've been alive, it will come up tomorrow. We construct most of our theories about the world based on this unprovable assumption.
I could come up with several more but those five should suffice for the point I am making. It's not simply that we are mistaken when we make the above assumptions; they are intrinsic to our way of thinking about the world. Even though I know, in an abstract philosophical sense, that all of the above are in question, I cannot help but assume all of them whenever I think about anything.

The evolutionary explanation is simple; the above assumptions are simple (meaning that they take little time and energy to grasp) and get the job done, at least when it comes to surviving and reproducing. There is no evolutionary advantage to making a distinction between experience and the world outside of experience, or to questioning whether other human beings are also conscious creatures with internal mental experience.

It is useful, I think, to simply not fight these assumptions in day to day living and discourse. They are useful and there really is no advantage to questioning whether you and I are looking at the same sky, or whether you can think about things like I do, when I am talking to you about the sky.

Of course, this brings up the question; what is the use of pragmatism to anyone but philosophers? Why even bother to have pragmatism; why not simply assume the correspondence theory of truth and live that way in all situations?

I think that there are psychological benefits to being aware of the pragmatic theory of truth on an abstract level even if it can't be fully integrated. First, it gives us more clarity when comparing competing theories (both scientific and otherwise). We are in a better position to determine which theory is better and why since we now understand what makes a theory good or bad.

Secondly, I think it gives many benefits towards understanding other people (after, of course, accepting the assumption that other people are conscious beings like ourselves). Deep down, everyone is a pragmatist. Even someone who is philosophically defending, say, the correspondence theory of truth has pragmatic reasons for doing so. He finds the theory useful in some way for coming to grips with his experience (which he calls "the world") and is drawn to it for that reason.

It really puts to rest the notion that truth is ever valued for its own sake, or that beliefs are not attached to utility. This has the potential to sharply improve our understanding of why people do the things they do and believe the things they believe.

Thirdly, I think it improves our understanding of ourselves. Once you accept that you believe the things that you believe, not due to some noble commitment to truth, but because those beliefs are useful to you, you are now in a position to ask yourself why you believe what you believe and get real answers. This also improves our ability to empathize with people that disagree with us; they are self-interested creatures drawn to certain ideas because it improves their lives, just like we are.

(2) Future, Past, and Evolution

An interesting point is that, for natural selection to have resulted in animals like us that assume the future will be like the past, the future only has to have been like the past up until this point. If the future were like the past right up until tomorrow, for example, we would still be the result of natural selection, but the metaphysics intrinsic to our thinking would shatter in pieces tomorrow and we would have no way to come to grips with our experience.

Pragmatism Parts 1-3: Intro and Science

These are the thoughts that have led me to what I believe is some variant of epistemological pragmatism. Some might call me a Kantian after this post, though I don't think I really am. Note that this is a short essay, so I'm painting a picture here in very broad strokes; there are going to be gaps in my reasoning and missing details.

(1) A Rejection of Metaphysics

There is no direct metaphysical connection to reality that enables us to experience our sense data as anything but sense data. To use Kantian terms, we have access to phenomena (our experiences) but not to noumena (things as they are). In fact, it would be impossible to know noumena under any circumstances, since we can't know anything except by experiencing it, which means necessarily knowing an experience instead of the thing in itself.

There are also certain metaphysical assumptions that cannot even be experienced, but seem to be fundamental to how we organize our experiences. Causality, for example, is the assumption that certain events necessarily follow from certain other events. But we cannot experience causality. We can observe a brick hitting a window, followed by the window shattering, but we cannot experience "the brick causing the window to shatter." Causality is a way we make sense of our observations, but it is never observed as a thing in itself.

This doesn't mean that experience, assumptions about causality, etc. are bad, unuseful, etc. It simply means that we have no reason to believe, one way or the other, whether they actually represent noumena. It's impossible to know.

(2) Evolutionary Psychology of Truth

There are two popular theories regarding truth in the world of philosophy. These aren't the only theories, but they are the most common.

The first is correspondence theory, which says something like "a belief is true when it corresponds with the real world." As I stated before, we have no way to directly access the real world, so this theory can be thrown out from the get go. We could invent a modified version that states "A belief is true when it corresponds to our experience," but this theory isn't particularly useful, since there is no way to falsify an experience as such. Nobody ever looks at an apple, experiences the sensation of seeing a red color, and concludes that the apple is green. A good theory of truth needs to provide a practical means of differentiating truth from falsehood in order to be useful.

The second popular theory is the coherence theory, which says something like "a belief is true when it can coexist with your other beliefs without creating a contradiction." The problem with this theory is that someone could, in theory, invent several internally consistent bundles of beliefs. These bundles could be internally consistent but not consistent with each other, forcing someone to choose one. A coherence theory provides no means of determining which internally consistent bundle is the correct or truthful one.

This leaves us in a bit of a bind. If the truth isn't "beliefs that correspond with the real world," and it isn't "beliefs that coexist without contradiction," then what is it? What theory can we use to distinguish true propositions from false ones? This is where I think evolutionary psychology comes into play.

Roughly speaking, both the correspondence and coherence theories of truth are implicit to our thinking from birth. We naturally seek to remove contradiction between our beliefs, and to confirm our beliefs through experience. We don't come into this world with knowledge of a distinction between phenomena and noumena. By nature, we conflate the two. The distinction has to be teased out through careful, analytical thinking.

Let's step back a bit and ask; what is the purpose of truth? Why do we feel driven to distinguish true propositions from false ones? What is it about our nature that makes this necessary?

The basic principle of evolutionary psychology is that the human brain, like all other parts of the human body, is a product of natural selection. Your arms work the way they do because they enable your survival and reproduction, causing the genes that created your arm to replicate more successfully than competing genes. The same is true of your brain.

Knowing this, we can ask; what is it about distinguishing true ideas from false ones that enables our genes (most specifically, the genes that help in building a mind that is driven to distinguish truth from falsehood) to replicate more effectively? I think the answer is simple and practical.

If I believe a lion will eat me, and this causes me to run away from lions, I will survive and reproduce much more effectively than if I don't have this belief. Natural selection would lead to minds that believe ideas that result in more effective gene replication. The purpose of truth, in order words, is pragmatic; it serves a useful function. An idea is true to me if believing it leads to results that I prefer over the results of believing something else.

(3) Pragmatism

I think this pragmatic theory of truth is a very useful one for a number of reasons. First, it removes the need for any particular theory of metaphysics. Metaphysics is irrelevant if we are no longer trying to connect the concept of truth to noumena (things in themselves.) In theory, pragmatism is compatible with any metaphysical theory.

Second, it eliminates epistemological nihilism without needing to appeal to metaphysics. True and false aren't arbitrary and subjective, regardless of whether or not they correspond to noumena. True and false have measurable, understandable implications that enable us to continue to distinguish between the two.

Third, it eliminates the need for any concept of absolute truth. In fact, pragmatism allows for degrees of truth. Let's say I have 3 theories to explain the same phenomenon; the theory that is most useful for understanding the phenomenon is the "most true", the theory that is least useful is the "least true", and the remaining theory is in the middle. The possibility remains of a 4th theory that is even more useful that the current theories.

The human mind is necessarily finite to a great degree, and we simply cannot hold nearly as much information in our minds as we would like. This forces us to generalize, omit data, make unproven assumptions, etc. in our thinking on a constant basis. The benefit of a pragmatic theory of truth is that the concept of truth remains useful even in this kind of environment.

(4) Truth is prescriptive

This is one of the more interesting conclusions I have drawn. I'll try to explain how I came to this idea.

What is it we mean when we say "truth", when discussing theories of truth? Each theory has its own definition; the correspondence theory defines truth as belief that correctly corresponds with reality. Coherence theory defines truth as belief that coheres with other beliefs. And so on. But what is the thing each theory is trying to describe? What is meant by truth that underlies all of these theories?

To answer this, I think we have to ask why we make the distinction at all. Why do we call some beliefs "true" and some "false"? What function does this serve in our lives? The answer is pragmatic. Some beliefs function better than others for achieving our desires, and the distinction exists to enable us to select the beliefs that function better.

This is where I think the prescriptive nature of truth reveals itself. Truth is preferable belief. That is, a true belief is a belief that one ought to have, and a false belief is a belief that one ought not have.

When the correspondence theory says "truth is belief that correctly corresponds with reality", what it really says is "It is preferable to believe things that correspond with reality." When the coherence theory says "truth is belief that coheres with other beliefs", what it really says is "It is preferable to have beliefs that cohere with other beliefs."

This turns the whole is-ought problem upside down. If descriptive claims, truths, are a CLASS of prescriptive claims, then there is no fact-value distinction and no is-ought problem. Ayn Rand said "Every 'is' implies an 'ought'," but it would be more accurate to say "Every 'is' is an 'ought'."

(5) What does it mean for one belief to "work better" than another?

To answer this, we have to dig deep into what a belief is. I think our everyday conception of what beliefs are and how they work, while intuitive and functional in everyday life, is flawed.

The human experience is essentially a big feedback loop. We receive input through our various senses. Our nervous system (mostly our brain) then performs a variety of calculations with this input. At the end of the loop, our nervous system sends signals to various parts of our body to produce movement, chemical production, etc. In reality, we aren't one big feedback loop, but many, many such loops running in parallel to one another, affecting each other, etc. But one big loop serves as a useful analogy here.

To put it more simply, someone sees a lion nearby, the brain does a calculation and concludes "Lion bad. Run away." This is followed by electrical impulses being sent to various muscles to cause him to run away.

Within the brain, we store ideas. Ideas consist either of past experiences (memories) or the results of calculations (a mix of what we would call memories, ideas, abstractions, values, etc.) Ideas are involved in the calculation process; this is why someone might experience a fear of dogs after being bitten by one. The past experience has changed how the brain responds to the stimulus of seeing a dog.

The purpose of an idea is to make our brains more accurate when calculating what actions to perform. If I have an idea like "Turning the tap causes water to come out," I will be able to more easily satisfy my need for water when I feel thirsty.

The idea of "water" is itself just an algorithm for getting what we want. We experience a desire, thirst, that is satisfied when we place water in our mouths and swallow. In our brain, the label "water" refers to an algorithm that basically gives a simple true/false response. If it returns true (that is, if our brain calculates that what we are looking at is indeed what we would call "water"), various other algorithms in our mind are engaged. We now know that, if we move our bodies in such a way as to get this "water" in our mouth, we can satisfy our thirst.

Now suppose there were two competing algorithms, each vying for the label "water." Algorithm #1 essentially defines water as "liquid." If we observe something and it seems to be a liquid, Algorithm #1 will return "true" and we will act as though the thing we see is water. Algorithm #2 is more stringent and involves more calculation. Liquids that have certain colors or textures are dismissed as not being water. Additionally, ice and water vapor are considered water.

If I am really thirsty, and I encounter a large bottle of bleach, which algorithm will get my needs met more effectively? Clearly Algorithm #2. Algorithm #1, in this case, might kill me, since I would assume the bleach was water, drink it, and be poisoned.

Essentially, all ideas are algorithms for interacting with our experiences, and beliefs are a class of ideas. A belief is a predictive idea; if I encounter X, I will also encounter Y. If I see dark cloud overhead, I should expect to see rain soon. In the above example with water, water is a concept, but the belief that drinking the bleach will satisfy my thirst is, well, a belief.

Ideas (including beliefs) that get our desires met more effectively are preferable to ideas that don't, and "preferable belief" is essentially the definition of truth.

(6) Pragmatism and Science

One fear that has been expressed to me is that pragmatism prevents us from preferring one scientific theory to another. For example, when Galileo claimed that the Earth actually goes around the Sun (and not the other way around), would there have been any pragmatic reason to accept his new theory?

To answer this, we have to ask a basic question; what is it about scientific theories that makes them useful in general? If we can show that (A) scientific theories are useful for clear, understandable reasons, and (B) that those reasons can be a standard for judging scientific theories as better or worse than one another, then we have retained the pragmatic outlook without losing the benefit of scientific progress.

To find out why scientific theories are useful, I think we simply have to look at what scientific theories are used for. Someone committed to correspondence theory might say that a scientific theory is used to describe the world in some way, but as a pragmatist I recognize that "the world" is simply the world of my experience, and that usefulness is intrinsic to my ability to understand my experience.

The real power of a scientific theory is prediction. A good theory is one that predicts future phenomena. The word future is being used to refer to the future of the person making use of the theory, not necessarily the future in general. For example, a theory of evolution helps someone understand events that occurred in the past, but the theory is predictive in that it predicts what that person will experience in the future, even if those experiences are the result of something in the past.

It is in their predictive power that scientific theories are useful. But suppose you have two different scientific theories with comparable predictive power? How do we know which is the better theory?

Since usefulness is our standard, there is a second aspect of a theory that comes into play; efficiency. The less time and energy that we have to invest into using a theory in order to get the results we want, the better. A more efficient theory is more useful than a less efficient one. The key element of a theory that determines its efficiency is complexity. A simpler theory will, generally speaking, be more efficient than a more complex theory because it requires less time and energy to get the desired output. This is essentially the pragmatic justification of Occam's Razor.

So if two competing theories give similar predictions, but one theory is simpler than the other, the simpler theory is preferable. It gives us the same results with less time and energy.

Suppose we have two different theories with equal predictive power and equal simplicity. How do we know which theory is better? This is where a third factor comes into play; how easily can the theory be combined and integrated with our other theories? Our ideas, values, etc. don't exist in a vacuum. They have to coexist and intermingle. Cognitive dissonance is, essentially, the emotional experience of having ideas that don't harmonize well with each other.

If a theory does not harmonize well with your other thoughts, it loses efficiency. It becomes awkward, unwieldy, and difficult to use. Moreover, it is far less likely to contribute to other ideas that you might have. It becomes a tool with little use other than the one, exact task it was built for. It's over-specialized, basically.

Let's bring all of this back to the original question about Galileo's theory. Let's compare it, step by step, to the geocentric theory (where Earth is at the center of the solar system) and see how they stack up:

Predictive Power - In the context of what was known at the time, both theories at first appear to have equal predictive power. Equations existed for both theories that could predict where various heavenly bodies would appear in the sky. However, Galileo's theory accounts for phases in the other planets that the geocentric theory cannot. This means that Galileo's theory is better at predicting the future experiences of observing heavenly bodies. Winner: Galileo.

Efficiency - While both theories could predict where various heavenly bodies would appear in the sky, the mathematics of Galileo's theory were far simpler. This means less time and energy have to be invested when using Galileo's theory. Winner: Galileo.

Harmonization - This is where things start to get a bit tricky. For a Catholic, the geocentric theory harmonizes strongly with the teachings of the church. Earth is the center of God's creation, with Man being the greatest and most important creation of God. Since the Bible describes the formation of the cosmos in a very geocentric manner, geocentrism makes more intuitive sense.

At first, it would seem like pragmatism has been defeated. After all, if most of the population is Catholic, the gains in efficiency and predictive power might well be overshadowed by the loss of having a theory that easily harmonizes with their other theories, ideas, values, etc. Science is halted by the church, and it would appear that this is how it should be, pragmatically speaking. This is where things get interesting though; Catholicism is itself a bundle of theories that themselves can be assessed using the above criteria.

If Catholicism itself is a less predictive, less efficient worldview than the scientific, atheistic worldview, then Catholicism is in crisis from a pragmatic perspective. And if Catholicism is thrown out, Galileo moves in quite easily. While it is true that, within the context of Catholicism, Galileo's theory is less useful, the context of Catholicism is not itself the basic human context. It is only in the barest context of the human experience that we can, in the ultimate sense, assess the pragmatic value of a theory. That doesn't mean that we always would/should do this in practice; it simply means that pragmatism is not simple affair only concerned with immediate needs and desires. Sometimes it can uproot long held ideas and entire worldviews in a process that is painful but ultimately beneficial.

(7) Pragmatism and Scientific Motivation

Another fear that has been brought to my attention is the fear that pragmatism essentially kills the motivation for scientific inquiry "for its own sake." The argument, if I understand it correctly, is this:

"Sure, Galileo's theory might be pragmatically better than competing theories, and maybe a pragmatic approach does account for most of the positive advances in scientific theory in the last few hundred years. But what use is it if all it does is predict my personal experiences? I'm a scientist because I want to understand the world as it is! I want to show how things actually are, and if I truly believed that this goal was impossible, I would have no motivation to do science anymore!"

I don't think anyone, truly, pursues "truth for its own sake." The idea is that the noble scientist is only concerned with truth, rather than his own interests, and will pursue truth come hell or high water. This is, frankly, not the case. Everyone pursues everything out of some interest that they have. The scientist that pursues what he calls truth is pursuing it out of self-interest.

The important thing to understand is that coming to terms with our experiences is a very important and gratifying psychological experience. Whether we call those experiences "my personal experience", "the truth", "the real world," etc., we have a profound drive to develop an understanding of that experience and share that understanding with others.

One need only ask a scientist "Why are you a physicist and not a biologist?" to discover that there is no such thing as the impartial pursuit of truth. Every pursuit is related, in some way, to the values and desires of the pursuer, if for no other reason than the fact that we cannot pursue everything at once. This is also why there is no such thing as unbiased news reporting; since one cannot say everything at once, one necessarily has to choose to say some things and not other things, and one's values and ideas will determine which of those things you say.

Fundamentally, though, this particular scientist is operating under false pretenses. First, the moral nobility he assumes for his pusuit; everyone is after the same truth that he is after in all of their attempts to come to terms with their experiences. The "noble altruist" meme (which is certainly not exclusive to scientists) should simply be thrown out altogether. I won't go into the psychological nitty gritty here, but it is not a sign of psychological well-being but of personal grandiosity and narcissism.

Secondly, the history of science shows that his belief that he is finding "the truth" (in a non-pragmatic sense) is completely false. Theories are frequently revised or thrown out in favor of newer, better theories. No scientific theory is ever final or "the truth"; it's truthfulness is always contingent on there not being another, better theory. A pragmatic epistemology is the only epistemology that gives any meaning to the word truth in the field of science.

Thirdly, I think the argument itself falls apart because I don't see most scientists as having this worldview. Scientists (any profession, really) are driven to science for any number of personal, subjective reasons. Some might just be in it for the paycheck. Others might have a profound desire to understand a certain slice of their own experience (even if they call it "the world" or "the universe"). Others still might be in it for fame, recognition, or honor. I don't think there is any actual risk of science being abandoned due to epistemological pragmatism.