The Statistician to the Stars: Philosophy Primer

Am I finishing up some of the numerous drafts clogging my drafts folder, drafts that seemed urgent or at least interesting only days (or, well, maybe months) ago, and posting them, as a good, tidy blogger ought? No, I am not. Instead, what little attention and focus I possess turns to yet another shiny object: this wonderful interview of Dr. Briggs at The Ordeal of Consciousness. (1)

As is so often and delightfully the case,  whatever discussion Dr. Briggs touches turns to philosophy, and more often than not, complicated things are expressed in understandable ways. For example, a critical set of distinctions is made here in a way just about anyone can understand:

WMB: It’s a minor abuse of words to say there are ontological truths. All it means is existence: something is “ontologically true” if it exists, otherwise it is “ontologically false.” This abuse was necessary to show how what exists (or not) differs from our knowledge of what exists. Epistemology is not ontology. Mixing up the two is one of the main causes of over-certainty, especially in quantum mechanics (QM) and in the Deadly Sin of Reification, which is exactly the error of supposing a conditional epistemological truth is ontic.

An epistemological truth is simply a proposition we know is true given some list of premises. It is purely a matter of knowledge, of our thoughts. For instance, we can know (my favorite example) “George wears a hat” is true if we accept “All Martians wear hats and George is a Martian”. But there are no hat-wearing Martians. The proposition is conditionally true, epistemologically, but ontologically false.

In QM, and in so-called frequentist theory of probability, people suppose probability is ontic, that it is real, or that it ontologically exists. Probability is no different than charge or mass. If that’s so, we should be able to extract or measure probability as we do charge or mass. We should be able to go to the probability store and buy a bucket of it. That people think probability is ontologically true leads to all sorts of conundrums and paradoxes. And, as always, over-certainty.

DB: How did we come to mix up ontology with epistemology such that the latter is confused with the former? Do you see this arising with the medieval nominalists, or largely with Descartes’s Cogito, or some other position, say, radical skepticism? Or is the cause more prosaic?

WMB: Nominalism is a great sin. For nominalists, all that exists are individual things. Ontology is everything to the nominalist, and epistemology nothing. You might go to a car dealer and kick the tires of the “automobiles” on the lot, but the nominalist must say there really is no such universal thing as an “automobile.” There only exist chunks of metal on wheels. Only there can’t be metal or wheels, either, for the strict nominalist, for “metal” and “wheels” express the idea of universals, and universals don’t exist for the nominalist.  This is why there are no real-life strict nominalists; there are only people who claim to hold the theory.

Further, nominalists can’t do experiments. You might want to study cancer in rats. Well, that requires defining the universals “cancer” and “rats”. Those definitions must be grounded somewhere in reality; else, the researcher could never get started. Nominalism is always self-refuting. The opposite error is Idealism, which says that which exists is dependent on our minds. Our thoughts are reality, somehow. Idealism is popular with bizarre, Depak Chopra-like interpretations of QM. Our “minds” cause wave-functions to “collapse”.

There are more nominalists these days then idealists, though these things wax and wane.  The alternative is called Realism, which has various forms, but put simply, it asserts universals exists, and that a world outside our minds exists. Realism, of course, accords with common sense.

So, when you hear a modern Analytic Philosopher claim to be an ‘Antirealist’ what he is doing is trying (desperately and futilely) to NOT be an Idealist nor a Nominalist, BUT, somehow, also not take a bite out of the apple held by Aristotle and Thomas. No, no, no! Must not admit that Science is Aristotle’s Logic as employed under the Scholastic Questions Method + cool gadgets & math. Then one might have to admit that it’s not Philosophy per se that has lost its way, but only philosophy since the Reformation and Descartes.

I cannot think of a single philosophical concept actually required to do real science – investigate the observable, measurable characteristics of the physical world – that has been produced since Thomas.(2)  Yet the Realist view – that a world exists apart from our conceptions of it, accessible through our senses, and understandable through our though processes – is that without which science is impossible.

The analytic philosopher views this antirealist approach as meet modesty in the face of a world best (or only) known through science, avoiding the hubris that is assumed to exist in the more traditional views. Could be cowardice – Thomists don’t get to sit at the cool kids’ table. (3) Could be that they don’t like logic as much as they claim to, when it leads where they would not follow.

Anyway, read the whole thing – not only good for you (and me!) but also fun. Then see Dr. Briggs’ questions he would have liked to have been asked. 

  1. In some odd way, the names “Yard Sale of the Mind” and “The Ordeal of Consciousness” seem mathematically or perhaps metaphysically equivalent. Not the blogs themselves – TOoC looks like a very good blog with, at the very least, higher standards and greater erudition (ha!) than mine – just the names.
  2. Infinitesimals, maybe? That bit of math was certainly a challenge to the philosophers contemporary to Newton and Leibnitz. I’m drawing a blank otherwise…
  3. Neither do modern philosophers – real scientists hold them in utter contempt – but they can pretend not to notice. Maybe they get on faculty committees, whereby they can make people treat them with, if not respect, at least with a certain proper fear – the fear that adheres to those who can work a bureaucracy. There’s even pathetically small hope of that.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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