Epistemology: Models & Mysteries

Models and Mysteries

Selections from the Prison Diaries, 2007-2009

by Alan Carl Nicoll

Copyright 2001 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

The following consists of unedited extracts from the diary pages I wrote in prison on epistemology. The basic idea is that when we are dealing with the world, solving problems and taking actions, our understanding is based on models of reality or parts of reality, a reality which remains mysterious. Essentially, I am elaborating on the basic insight of Alfred Korzybski commonly expressed as “the map is not the territory.” I think it makes interesting reading, though it is very much a work in progress. I have not removed the original page numbering, such as |181B|; the “B” indicates that the text is on the back of the original handwritten page 181. Diary entry dates are in {braces}. Text in [brackets] generally indicates a later addition, sometimes an explanatory comment added for blog readers, sometimes it doesn’t mean anything special. I welcome your response.

November, 2007

[Learning is largely the acquisition/improvement of tools & models.] [The following offers some models of “society” and “self.”]

Society: man as cog in machine, as manipulated consumer, as repressed animal—and I see now that these are models for thinking. (Society is hostile and beneficial.)

Self: thinking involves models: of man, of man’s place in the universe, of, indeed, rationality and thought and, even, models of models (model, metaphor, words, abstractions).

[Learning is largely the acquisition/improvement of tools & models.]

Philosophical Foundations

I need to codify these, starting with:

All knowledge is tentative. (Everything you know is wrong!)

Every sentence contains ambiguity, hence

No sentence can be accepted as true, with the possible exception of mathematical sentences; perhaps “no sentence that refers to the real world can be accepted as true,” which seems to be the same as “all knowledge is tentative.” In mathematical sentences, ambiguity is eliminated [?].

The 10/10/07 entry above is important.

Sentences about reality are in fact sentences about models of reality or parts thereof (hence, communication needs to begin by “defining terms,” which in essence means to specify the assumed models). “The map is not the territory.” The Einstein quote about mathematics and reality is relevant here. “The label never fits.”

Because we understand our models (exception: quanta), we think we understand the world (reality), but in fact everything is as deeply mysterious as “Why is there anything rather than nothing?” Reality is “infinite in all directions.” (See 10/17 and 11/9)

We are: bits of the universe rearranged, existing for less than the blink of an eye, sub specie aeternitatis.

We cannot know or recognize truth, but we can recognize and know error. Known errors must be rejected (as a basis for action; e.g., Xtianity).

Thoreau, in “Walking,” p. 623: “A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful—while his knowledge, so called, is often times worse than useless, besides being ugly. Which is the best man to deal with—he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?” I was struck by this as a vision of my view of knowledge about reality being knowledge about models of [bits of] reality, and that this “knowledge” blinds us to the deep mystery that reality is. In a word, we overrate the extent of our knowledge of a reality that is “infinite in all directions.” Any fraction of infinity equals 0%.  Perhaps the most stunning of moments in science fiction comes when the protagonist/reader either sees the territory in conflict with the map, or when he sees that his knowledge is 0% of reality. I suppose one could call this a “sense of wonder.” I’m in mind of The Weapon Shops of Isher.

{1/11/08} Rationalism leads to a desire and perhaps a search for absolute truths, but all truth (i.e., as close as we can get to truth) is what I might call “human truth.” Human truth is approximate (because our models are incomplete) and tentative, not the complete, immutable, eternal truth that rationalists and Thoreau seek. This view is a correction of rationalism, not a repudiation.

There is no excuse for the repudiation of rationalism [i.e., rationality] and the adoption of some form of irrationalism or intuitionism; I think such a belief is based on an inadequate, mystical model of “intuition,” as though it provides a kind of truth different from rational thought. Intuitive conclusions are perhaps slightly inferior, on the whole, to rational conclusions—both are dubitable. A feeling of certainty is not infallible, either. [Robert Burton wrote a useful but deeply flawed book on the neuroscience of this feeling:  On Being Certain:  Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2008.]  Arguments and feelings have a degree of persuasiveness, a concept that needs to be examined.

Conscious reasoning is preferable, on the whole, to intuition because it offers more points of attack for criticism, it is more ambitious (see Popper) and more vulnerable… conclusions and beliefs are like scientific theories, which seems very similar to Bartley’s pancritical rationalism.

A quote from Mary Catherine Bateson: Peripheral Visions, p. 5: “The body’s truths are often concealed, so it is not always easy to learn about birth or sex or death, or the curious and paradoxical relationships between them. We keep them separate and learn about them on different tracks, just as we learn separately about economics and medicine and art, and only peripheral vision brings them back together. Experience is structured in advance by stereotypes and idealizations [models], blurred by caricatures and diagrams.”

To an extent this is very true, but it is through these idealizations and models that we are able to think about and deal with them at all, because the mind cannot recall and manipulate this whole, real apple, but only a small fraction of its characteristics, |33B| and usually only those we think are relevant to the immediate need: as food, as projectile, as produce in bulk, as ingredient for pie, and as gift for schoolteacher. This structure that she seems to be deploring is in fact a tremendous aid to efficiency. That same structure can—does—blind us to the experience, the totality of this here-and-now apple in its infinite, awe-inspiring complexity. The mother preparing the child’s sack lunch or the grocer buying crates of apples don’t have time for awe and infinity. If we had always to deal with the infinite, we could get nothing done. But in fact, hardly any of us are even capable of experiencing awe or infinity in relation to anything less inspiring than a starry night. We don’t see it.

I think it also bears emphasizing that awe and infinity are not something which has been lost as we became civilized, but rather an ability that civilization has awakened in us. Babies and crows, perhaps, can only count to three, and think in categories even more than we do: dangerous, edible, mate-able, nest material, everything else. Their categories and models are coarser-grained and “crude,” but suited to present need and further growth.

{1/30/08} I keep mentioning “models and experience”—What is this? A categorization of human knowledge and learning? Something like that, but what exactly?

Learning essentially is the acquisition of experience; knowledge is not just experience, but experience of certain kinds? No…I think what I’m trying to get at is that when it comes to learning, some experiences are virtually worthless and others are extremely valuable, which is too obvious to bother writing it down. Anyway, I’ve made a list that I want to consider here of, I guess, categories of knowledge: models, skills, muscle memory, language(s), ability to “handle” metaphor, logic, attitudes, philosophy, hope, love, self-esteem, and feedback (on creations, acts) leading to a critical eye. Add: categories, levels of abstraction.

Metaphor, I think, is a kind of connection or a similarity between two things; similarity is only one such connection—a “connection between incidents, basic to learning,” per Bateson.

Where is Tony Balek now that I need him? [An “old army buddy.]

Learning is not simply the acquisition of knowledge, because skills go beyond “mere knowledge,” as do attitudes and philosophy and “taste.” Hope, love, and self-esteem are partly attitude, partly emotion…I seem to be flailing about and lacking a focus.

Models are a kind of metaphor, that is, a model is similar to a part of reality. They are what we have taken in of reality, our internal map of reality. “Mental” map.

What we called prejudice is saying that someone’s model of a category (usually of human beings) is too simple, and probably willfully so. And on the “wrong” level of abstraction.

A “part of reality” is an abstraction; we ignore “irrelevant” details and connections, or fail to see relevant ones.

A political slogan offers a superficial thought that appeals to (reinforces or implants) our prejudices and ignores important relevant facts; poor thought expressed simply and concisely, for a definite purpose; propaganda (agitprop?); lies uttered by hypocrites.

|35B| Is it true that all facts are, in fact, opinions? If “everything you know is wrong” is true (paradox Will Robinson!), then indeed all facts are opinions. An important—critical—point: are all facts sentences? I must avoid a rush to closure at this point. (Looks like I’ll have to study the parts of Wittgenstein I’ve previously failed with, i.e., the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations (?). And probably Wisdom’s How to Do Things with Words.

We certainly live by “facts” that are not expressed in sentences, e.g., we see a tiger in the long grass. This could be an accurate or an inaccurate perception. If accurate, does it constitute a “fact”? If not, why not? Certainly we don’t ordinarily think of it as such. But at this point I am stuck with a choice—a definition of “fact” is needed. Or should I look more closely at the relation between “fact” and “everything you know”? (yes).

If I indeed “know” correctly that there is a tiger, then “everything you know is wrong” is simply wrong. And so I conclude; yet I recognize its correctness in regard to facts expressed in language. It encapsulates (expresses concisely) a limitation of language in relation to reality; but, although we cannot speak without “lying,” as a guide to future action search lies can be reliable (pun).

So maybe I should revise “everything you know is wrong” to a “more correct” version: “everything I say is wrong.” Why? Because I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Lest we encourage the scourge of philosophitis, such statements should be kept out of the hands of the philosophically naive, and out of the armory of the SCs!

“Everything you know is wrong” is not “The Truth,” it is a heuristic, a way of looking at the world, i.e., a model of epistemology.

Here’s another: we don’t know what anything is, “all the way down.” In a way it’s more fundamental because it’s part of the argument in favor of the other one. Nor do we understand anything “all the way up”—hence, “infinite in all directions.”

[Marginal note:  “deep ignorance” (with quote marks)]

A third: all “explanations” of human behavior ultimately end with “that’s just how I am.” If this is so, then “know thyself” can lead only to description, not to explanation, not to understanding. Our explanations and understandings are, at best, only models, and we have so far no adequate model of a human being, or at least, a human mind. Labels—often mistaken for knowledge—aren’t knowledge. (Actually, they are, of a sort. Consider scientific “jargon”—fundamental models.)

|62B| Knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description—something important is missing here. We seek explanations of why and how, which are lacking. We at best come up with models of reality which tell us how to accomplish our ends but do not explain anything “all the way down.” Always there is the underlying mystery. I may know how to make an apple pie, I know that the apple is the fruit of a tree, I can describe how the apple grows from the pollinated flower, and so on and so on, but always there are underlying mysteries which these words do not touch: what is matter? [10/21/18:  This is looking like a request for an “essence” instead of something useful, like, “How can I manipulate matter to achieve this goal?”  However, it could also be a request for a definition…but don’t definitions always have to start with something undefined?  Is this correct?]  Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is the apple red? What is life?

Some of these, maybe all of these questions can be answered, but the sense of mystery remains: what am I that I can understand these things and ask these things? What kind of answer am I looking for? What kind of answer would not be “just words”? Must there be something unanalyzable, always, at the base of our knowledge?

{9/14/08} “Whatever works for them is okay by me.” Thus I previously expressed my tolerance for the beliefs of others. That there is a snag in this, due to our political system, I have previously considered. But there is another snag: lies “work.”

I’m not entirely sure what this means. “What works” is very dependent on the question of goals—“works” toward what end? If the goal is to be accomplished in the material world, science “works” better than anything (leaving aside questions of human motivation for the moment). If the goal is “eternal salvation,” science is worthless and (if the goal is to be attained) one must turn to religion, i.e., some belief system that claims to offer a path to salvation.

“We cannot know truth, only error.” This is my expression of part of the basis of Critical Rationalism. In practice, we must avoid known errors, and act upon the basis of whatever incomplete models of reality (postulating that all such models are incomplete) we possess, in pursuit of our goals. We must deal with “territories,” when all we have are “maps.”

The question of “lies work” is one I’d like to use in chastising religious believers and preachers, notably SCs, but since all maps are not territories, in a sense they are also all lies—they incorporate a kind of “known error,” but it is an error which cannot be avoided. If a religion promotes erroneous science—such as creationism—it is promoting an avoidable known error, i.e., it is a lie. Science does not—at least in theory—i.e. it avoids lies, and self-corrects, eventually. Science, and critical rationalism, avoid all possible (avoidable) known errors, and so provide the most accurate maps available. Politicians, history textbook writers, public defenders, police, recruiting officers, newspapers!, salesman, televangelists, and unscrupulous scientists peddle and promote lies—avoidable known errors—in pursuit of their particular selfish goals. Their lies work, for those goals, but they harm those who believe the lies.

When the engineer uses Newton’s mechanics because the greater precision of Einstein’s equations is unnecessary, his “lies” work—but nobody is misled, nobody is lied to. He is just using the most practical model or map available to him, for the task at hand.

The map is not the territory—or, in my preferred terms, the model is not the mystery.

Models and labels are abstractions, without which we cannot think in certain ways. This raises to questions: what ways can we think without use of abstractions, and, what is the significance of saying the things I’ve said about models and labels, i.e., that they are not truth?

Perception, living in the now, losing your mind and coming to your senses, these can be done without abstractions, but they hardly qualify as thinking. Making choices can be done without models or labels; thinking about choices, however, probably not. Any verbal thinking must use abstractions (words); non-verbal thinking might not. Is playing chess non-verbal? I think so; the game itself is an abstraction, however; it’s not “a board and small bits of wood,” though it can be looked at that way. Indeed, it can be played mentally.

The second question, re significance, is foolish; I am seeking understanding.

Alan Watts in his lecture “The Future of Christian Philosophy, Part 5,” says |93| that we need to reconcile the ideas of determinism and free will, as we have reconciled the wave and particle theories of light. We use both models; similarly, we can view our freedom in both ways. Neither gives us “the whole truth.”

That there are mysteries—questions which are not addressed, or adequately addressed, by present models (primarily science)—does not justify adherence to models which have no basis in—what? What is the basis of an “acceptable” model? Critical rationalism? Scientific data.

At this moment I begin to see the groundlessness beneath CR: [That it works in accomplishing one’s goals.] what constitutes the best or severest criticism? If we demand certain kinds of logic or data we have already eliminated from consideration certain kinds of belief and even experience. It seems unreasonable to eliminate all subjective experience; I must at least admit (as acceptable data) reports of subjective experience which agree with experiences I have had. [12/2/18: Ocean within, perfect moment] The difficulty arises in reports of subjective experience which reflect experiences I have not had.

“If you meditate using the technique X I was taught by guru Y, you will, in time, experience Z.” If I reply that I am not willing to invest my time and effort in pursuit of Z, I am in no position to say that Z does not exist, unless there is some conflict between Z and, let’s say, “the rest of the alphabet,” i.e., my own experiences. An absurd example: “If you put your finger up your nose and keep it there for ten years, you will surely see, as I do, the pink elephants.” How many personal testimonials would it take to make a skeptic into an agnostic or even a believer? And if these testimonials differ as to choice of technique and in description |95| of results, what then?

No simple thought experiment can resolve questions which have troubled the minds of philosophers for millennia. Yet answers are needed which can meet criteria of rationality—i.e., a good model of rationality would be very helpful here, such as CR aims to be.

What makes SCFs so S? They throw out whatever science conflicts with their F. In my case, I throw out whatever F conflicts with science. With regard to self-education, I am somewhat in the position of the man who sees pink elephants: “Spend some years reading the right books and you’ll give up your silly notions.”

I conclude: If a person does not accept certain minimum assumptions with me, I cannot usefully converse with him. What those assumptions are is unclear. So, am I again reduced to saying, “Whatever works…”? Not quite. If “Whatever works…” contains known error, it must be rejected. If it leads to destruction of the world or it conflicts with my efforts to preserve the world, it must be resisted. Otherwise, live and let live, eh? If it’s not useful, it’s not true? (Anti-James)

It’s not so much that EYKIW as that we never know (WNK) what we’re talking about, and the most obvious “proof” is that under or beyond every model is a mystery. We don’t know what an apple is (essence), we only know what we can do with it. This would seem to be the very opposite of Plato. But: I seem to be attacking these mysteries with some rather crude models.

The idea of truth as model seems very close indeed to James’ “it’s true if it’s useful” (which is virtually a caricature of James).

Read Edna Heidbreder:  Seven Psychologies, Prentice Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1933, pb, a useful but naturally dated overview of some points of view of psychology. Quote(s)

The book had me thinking often of models and mysteries. Here’s a good statement |97B| of the process of modeling: “The neat boundaries that separate one’s concept from another are shown to have no counterpart in the existential reality to which they are applied. There, all is continuity. Between stimulus and response, between one movement and another, between organism and environment, there are no real breaks. True, we may, and even must, introduce breaks in thinking of them; but we must never forget that the distinctions we use are of our own making, that they are not grounded in the nature of things but are convenient devices of creatures who invent them for practical purposes.” p. 212.

“The tendency to regard the most detailed knowledge as the most fundamental knowledge is in part an illusion.” p. 304. She considers that knowing the chemical composition of water does not inform us of its many uses and guises.

In considering psychoanalysis: “…if the analysis discloses a sex complex, the theory is confirmed. If it does not, it has failed to do so because the analysis has encountered a stubborn resistance, hence a particularly serious sex complex; and again the theory is confirmed.” p. 401. She says there could be more subtle illustrations of the “difficulty.” More amusing is when critics or disbelievers of the theory are explained as having resistances, etc. [Critics of Xtianity are tools of Satan.]

Re the mysteries underlying our models: “Eventually every natural science arrives at facts and relations that it cannot explain—and that it does not even attempt to explain. And this does not mean that science is pervaded with mystery. On the contrary, science gets on with its work precisely because it accepts certain empirical facts and relations as given and as constituting the practical limits of its inquiry, without pausing to ponder at length how they can possibly be so.” p. 420. Well, then, maybe science is pervaded with mystery…but I think the point is that these are mysteries of metaphysics which science [presumably] will never resolve.

A bit later he says, “The perception of this class of truths makes the attraction which draws men to science, but the end is lost sight of in attention to the means.  In view of this half-sight of science, we accept the sentence of Plato, that ‘poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history.’”  And:  “A wise writer will feel that the ends of study and composition are best answered by announcing undiscovered regions of thought, and so communicating, through hope, new activity to the torpid spirit.”  p. 46.

I think the key to Emerson’s thinking here is in “the end is lost sight of.”  Science, metaphysics, poetry all have different ends, though in a sense also all the same:  to understand the mystery.  Science carves out small areas and turns them into—or more accurately, creates from them—new models.  [Better:  new recipes.  Cf. Feynman.  2/21/11]  Metaphysics, poetry, religion all in their own way seek to explicate or shine a light into large areas of mystery.  The ends are different, and it makes no sense to criticize science as bad poetry or poetry as bad science.  Indeed, if we must choose between them, I think—I want to say we’re better off with science, but I can’t.  Because I agree with Emerson’s unnamed poet:  “The foundations of man are not in matter, but in spirit.”  (p. 46)  What’s wrong with the modern world is our failure, not of science, but of humanity.  [“Humanity” is vague; “compassion” or “love” is better.  Or even “vision.”]

“The invariable mark of wisdom is to see miraculous in the common.”  p. 49.

What I know about apples consists primarily in memories of my experiences with actual apples, |105B| factoids such as “apple juice comes from apples,” and models (apple as physical object, apple as the fruit of a tree which was grafted to produce this variety, etc.).  What’s left but the mystery:  “what is an apple?”  What is the essence of an apple?  To the second question I see two answers:

The essence of an apple is appleness.  This is a verbal trick, yet it seems also to have some sense.  Virtus dormativa, eh?  Or Platonic form?

The second possible answer seems to me to be the “most general model”:  an apple is a quantity of “matter,” with all its attendant processes and relationships.

With these ideas in hand, is there still an underlying “mystery”?  Yes:  what is matter?

[Alan Watts] compares a cat to whirlpools and candle flames—“objects” which are clearly ephemeral and of dubious “object” status—and says we should rather say it is “catting.”  That is, the universe is catting over there.  “The catting sat on the matting.”  But objects are useful models, as is “object as an event or process of the universe.”

|110| Given this view of time and causation, inadequately recalled above, clearly our concept of karma is a muddle.  He says that karma comes from a word that means “doing,” like “catting,” but I’ve forgotten too much of this to get it clear.  Rats.  It was one of his better lectures.

What is the cause of an apple?  Causation is not really a useful model in contemplating “natural” objects (or processes)—is it?  Does it clarify to say it’s a process the universe is doing?  What is the purpose of inquiry?  What is your purpose, need, or goal?  That’s what determines the most useful model.  “But I don’t want a model, I want the real apple.”  Then you must contemplate the mystery of appleness.

Quoting Wittgenstein:  “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of the intelligence by means of language.”  p. 469.

|112B|  In my terminology, with which I am perhaps bewitched, philosophy redirects the mind away from the model to the normally irrelevant or intractable mystery.  Models are a way of generating decisions and allowing actions without the endless entanglements of details.  [It is worth remembering that the mystery is (normally) irrelevant.] [11/15/19: Except that it’s what we live with, or in.  It is ordinarily irrelevant only to the making of practical decisions.]

“Even when quantum physics worked, in the sense of predicting nature’s behavior, it left scientists with an uncomfortable blank space where their picture of reality was supposed to be.  Some of them, though never Feynman, put their faith in Werner Heisenberg’s wistful dictum, ‘The equation knows best.’”  p. 5.

Feynman:  “Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’ because you will get ‘down the drain,’ into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped.  Nobody knows how it can be like that.”  p. 13.

“There were other kinds of scientific knowledge, but pragmatic knowledge was Feynman’s specialty.  For him knowledge did not describe; it acted and accomplished.”  p. 14.  (i.e., models)

Paraphrasing Oppenheimer:  “We make models of experience, and we know that our models fail to meet the reality.”  p. 210.

{1/14/09}  On p. 25 I wrote perhaps something important:  sentences about reality are in fact sentences about models of reality.  I think we perhaps cannot talk about reality—the mystery beneath the model—at all.  But when our sentences are based on different models, communication fails.  By “sentences about reality” I don’t mean the whole of reality, but rather any part of the real world, |115B| i.e., pretty much any sentence at all that doesn’t have an explicit and rigorous model associated with it, such as Euclidian geometry.

{1/15/09}  I think that much of what Wittgenstein calls our tendency to be bewitched by language is a mistaking of models for reality or truth, and the general antidote to such bewitchment requires us to become aware again of our ignorance and of the intractable mystery behind the model.

More about models and mystery.  Models tell us how to do things, how to accomplish our ends.  They also tell us, sometimes and to a degree, what something is (i.e., general and particular, like “featherless biped”), and often that “What?” is just a more or less empty label, like “electron.”  Or energy.  One of the bewitchments we must guard against is thinking that the label tells us something beyond the mere word itself.  Too often that label becomes an opaque paint that blinds us to the object itself, to its uniqueness, to its differences.  If I tell you that I saw a brown animal with long legs, eating crickets, you are unlikely to recognize that I saw a Burrowing owl; if I tell you that I saw an owl you are unlikely to guess that I saw a “long-legged” creature eating crickets.  Which “description” is more “useful”?  (What’s your purpose?)  Which is more “interesting”?  When I say “owl” you think you know; when I provide a partial visual your curiosity is aroused and you want to know, what is it?  Better you should recognize your ignorance and want to know, than t be bewitched by the label into thinking that you know.  Labels are useful handles for convenient reference to past experience; too often they serve as opaque paint which obscures present and future experience.  Birdwatchers become checklist fanatics, sometimes; a bird already on the list becomes devoid of interest.  “Naming something is the first step to understanding it.  Was that true?”  (Stephen Baxter:  Moonseed, Voyager, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1999, pb., p. 132.)  I would say, naming something is the first step to misunderstanding it.

The above is from part 1 of the Prison diary and is chronological.  The following is from PD2 and is somewhat mixed up because I cut and pasted anti-chronologically, then tried to fix things.

In considering models and mysteries, maps and territories, words and their referents, I don’t believe I ever related these to Nagel’s subjective/objective insight. Nagel’s point is essentially that in trying to “be objective” about something that is “essentially subjective,” the “something” tends to disappear. Consider that a model or a map is like an objective view of the essentially subjective mystery or territory. Indeed, the mystery or territory does tend to disappear behind the model or map; but the analogy is inexact. But perhaps it may prove of use, if I ever get another chance to read Nagel.

Note that the model or map—to an extent—is how we understand and interact with the mystery or territory; this is not the case with subjective-objective. There the point is the extreme difficulty, or impossibility, of arriving at an objective account of the subjective phenomenon. But it may be that to “lose your mind and come to your senses”—i.e., accept the subjective—is the answer to Nagel’s dilemmas!

{2/8/09} Not long ago I considered an apple and how one might look at it in terms of its mystery rather than through the lens of a particular model. And I said one might “contemplate appleness.” But there is another way: to fully experience this apple, here and now, in all its uniqueness—not as an apple, but as a focal point in the context of the entire universe., including the observer. But here the context is as important as the focal point.

To consider an apple in terms of its usefulness in meeting human needs, in meeting my needs, models are the thing. Models are answers to questions like, what is this good for? How can I use (exploit) this to meet my immediate or future needs? The more models I have learned, the more effectively I can meet my goals. As for “what the apple wants,” that’s irrelevant. Hence: we don’t want to fit human beings into models—they may object to being “rubricized” in Maslow’s terminology. We don’t want to automatically relate to people on the basis of our D-needs (D= deficit): a woman is not a “penis receptacle” nor a “cook.” She is a here-and-now focal point, if we are healthy and we are to respect her fully. But this entry is inadequate.

{3/1/09} On 2/8/09 [133B] I distinguished two kinds of models: those that are a basis for action, and those that “explain” (as the Bohr model of atomic structure). The explanatory model seems problematic, however, because we take it as an explanation of (substitute for confronting) the mystery, and this it can never be, which is a metaphysical assumption based on the idea [model?] of the infinite complexity of reality (Dyson’s “infinite in all directions,” as I understand it).

In science, an explanatory model is, first, a unifier of data, and second, a springboard for further hypotheses—an “intuition pump,” perhaps. The problem with quantum mechanics, as I understand Gleick’s Genius, is the lack of an explanatory model, in the usual sense of a construct that can be easily manipulated… something reassuringly easy to grasp, a mental teddy bear.

When something appears to be irreducibly strange, like QM, one would be wise to follow Feynman and reject the empty reassurances of the teddy bear. The same demands to be said about the warm fuzzies of Christianity (which are undeniably “warm” but not at all fuzzy, as I noted yesterday). It would be fun to say that only children need these empty reassurances, but about this I must admit a slight uncertainty: I do, after all, love my Timmyted.

The Fundamentals of Eastern Philosophy (another talk by Alan Watts), not a quote:  Categorization is how thought deals with experience—but nature is not categorized. To relate to nature in terms of categories is illusion: Maya. It’s a purely intellectual illusion.

Watts is right about categories, and I think categories are models or parts of models, but inexplicitly. When I call something an apple, I am not saying anything about how it might be used; but use is of the essence of a model as I’ve conceived it (though the “use” might only be an assumption in an argument, i.e., in reasoning). I see now that we have models that tell us how to do something, and we have models that purport to explain something. I need to explore this further but I am feeling a lack of clarity.

Quoting Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Men (1956): “Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of [an] artificial medium.” p. 10. [We deal with models because we can’t deal with mysteries. 2/21/11]

For a day or two I’ve had something in mind to say about words.  It is that words are either |127| about reality or they are about other words.  Or, more accurately, words are either about words, or they are not, i.e., they are about something else.  Semantic hairsplitting aside, so what?

Dictionaries are words about words.  Philosophy is often words about words.  And what of the words about something else?  Can I say that these other words are about either models or mysteries?  I think maybe that’s defensible, a model of meaning, perhaps.

No, words about models—in a restricted sense—are words about words, because what is a model but words (and sometimes non-verbal “maps” such as pictures, diagrams, and even maps) about mysteries?

Can anything useful be said about either class of words?

No, I must backtrack a minute.  If words about models are words (etc.) about mysteries, then there is no separate class of “words about mysteries.” Unless I want to break it down this way:  words about [mysteries] verses words about [words about mysteries].  To separate these two in practice would seem to be exceedingly difficult; would it be useful?

An example might help.  If I say that an apple is convenient food for travelers, that is a statement which presents “a model of an apple” in that it says how an apple may be used.  The statement is a “map” to guide the hearer to a nugget of information about how to manipulate reality usefully, i.e., how to accomplish a specific goal.  In this case the goal is “eating while traveling” or something like this.  To me, this is a paradigm of the function of a model:  an idea enabling one to usefully interact with a mystery.  What mystery? It could be “appleness,” or “apples” (same thing, I think), or “apples in the world” (ditto), or, finally, “the world.” [Consider:  the goals of science vs. “the goals of religion.”] Or even:  “this apple.” No, all the words in quotes in the last sentence are “words about mysteries,” indeed, they are labels for mysteries (the world), or abstractions (apples) of mysteries (the world).  So, I think when we abstract apples from the world we are already in the realm of modelmaking; which leaves the category “words about mysteries” very small indeed:  “the world,” “reality,” “everything,” and “the mystery,” for example.  These few, it seems, are not about models, and I think nothing useful can be said about them beyond what has been said (I have nothing useful to offer towards a metaphysics). 

Can anything useful be said about the other class, words about words? Perhaps this:  if it isn’t useful or entertaining, who needs it? It’s monkey chatter.

Models tell us (i.e., summarize) how to accomplish our purposes; they do not explain what things are (i.e., shed light on “mysteries”). This suggests to me, and |176| indeed it seems evident that it is pointless to ask what a mystery is; at best the response can be a category. What is an apple? A kind of fruit, a bit of matter, a reproductive structure/process, baby trees. Which sounds pretty familiar.

Is it a half-truth to say that “My keys are in my pocket”? Ordinarily, no; but that “ordinarily” suggests, “Sometimes it will be half-truth,” which means what? Perhaps something like, “I have two sets of keys, one in my pocket, one on the desk.” So for the initial statement, it is sometimes true, sometimes false, and sometimes an inadequate statement. It can be made more adequate: there exists a set of keys which are mine and which are in my pocket. Is this a half-truth? As Homer Simpson says, [grunt].

I think at this point I have to reject “all truths are half-truths” as, at best, a suggestive but false statement. I resist calling it half-truth because I’m beginning to think that the very label is a “bewitching” word that muddles something—some kind of questions—while seeming to be an informative answer or mere label. It is a convenient wastebasket for difficult questions. No doubt there are others. I like that metaphor (“wastebasket”) exceedingly. Another wastebasket: “just a matter of opinion.” Can these “wastebaskets” also be “considered and accurate judgments”? Yes, I think so. I think: if it’s a snap judgment, it’s a wastebasket.

Pigeonholes are blinders; sometimes blinders are necessary tools.

{3/26/09} Someone, possibly Oliver Wendell Holmes, said that general rules don’t decide specific cases. I had a hard time accepting that when I first heard it (translation: I didn’t accept it), but now I’m persuaded that it’s more true than false. But that raises a more interesting question: what, then, is the value of general rules? If they cannot be used to decide, if they cannot be used as guides, it seems that they must be completely useless. “In most cases X, but this is not most cases.” No case is “most cases”; then what?

I see that my thinking is stuck in a channel, trying to find a general rule for how to handle general rules.

If general rules don’t do—aren’t good for—what we think they do, then any attempt to decide a general rule, or to refine existing rules, is a pointless waste of time. How, then, is one to reason about anything?

Are general rules models? Are models general rules? I think yes, some are. “Apples are good ‘road food’” is a general rule—unless one is starved for protein or is allergic to apples or… or… “Absent any specific knowledge to the contrary, follow the general rule”; this seems to be a good general rule. We need general rules, it seems, or we’ll never be able to decide anything, because I suspect now that practically every decision we make is in the form of deciding which general rule to apply or follow in this particular case. And is it true that we make those decisions by following some other general rule? What else is reasoning than the application of general rules to specific cases? That, and establishing or devising the rules themselves, as I have been doing here, which again is probably an exercise in using general rules. Ow! My head hurts!

{4/4/09} I think the conclusion is this: we have true, false, and inadequately expressed propositions. This is 180° away from “everything you know is wrong.” Alas, it is extraordinarily difficult to achieve clarity here, not to mention expressing this “adequately.” Well, it would be rather improbable for me to come up with something new in epistemology, or even to rediscover a truth.

I have long disparaged the concept of truth. I find EYKIW to be a congenial position, and TFI (true, false, inadequately expressed) uncongenial, troubling. But that’s exciting.

Perhaps a better way to look at this is to say that a half-truth is, in general, an |176B| inadequately expressed proposition. This, rather than being a wastebasket for difficult questions, is instead a stimulus to further thought. It is a refusal to pigeonhole, a refusal to “label and misunderstand.”

Which leads to a reconsideration: instead of EYKIW, I get this: everything we know is inadequately expressed. [Not inadequate for our purposes!]

At some point, always, thinking must end and decisions must be made. But in practice we usually (I feel a strong urge to say “always,” which is certainly unreasonable) stop thinking too soon. It is only after the thinking has been done that the pigeonhole, the blinders, are permissible.

My next book project: Philosophy for the Million! Or PM for short. Seriously, I can see a series of articles or essays coming together, the old conundrums of epistemology being “solved”: the tree falling in the forest, the meaning of life, and what is truth?

So, now, what is truth? It is an expression of what we know, adequate to the question we are dealing with. Question: are my keys in my pocket? True answer: which set of your keys do you mean?

Is matter solid? Answer: do you mean impenetrable to cosmic rays, or impenetrable to your head?

Does God exist? Answer: do you mean the God of Genesis as interpreted by a Stupid Christian Fanatic or do you mean some vague notion of something or other? Or: exist to shake hands with, or exist as unicorns exist? Exist to pray to, not expecting an answer?

Is it necessary then, to answer every question with another question? No; but until we have a question adequately expressed, we cannot answer except with a clarifying question.

In each of the above sample questions, the “answer” seeks to clarify an ambiguous word in the question: keys, solid, God, existence.

|180| On [176B] I said, truth is an expression of what we know, adequate to the question we are dealing with.  This seems rather similar to Popper’s ideas, though in very different words.  The weak point in my formulation—let’s say the most obvious weak point—is in that phrase, “what we know.” Many times I’ve said that we cannot know truth, but only error.  So, recasting the above I get: truth is an expression that avoids all known error, adequate to the question we are dealing with.  Translated, this becomes, “truth” is a plausible hypothesis. 

Which result makes me want to wash my hands of epistemology, even though it seems a very good, though not very original, result. 

About that “we cannot know truth, but only error”—a logician would immediately point out that if we “know error,” then we know truth.  For example: “I know that my keys are not in my pocket” can be the truth.  It seems, then, that all we can prove is a “negative.” But thinking further, I can still be mistaken in thinking that the keys in my pocket are someone else’s keys, when they are really mine.  It seems that we cannot know either truth nor error, if we cannot know truth.  Can we ever be sure?

With sense impressions, our certainty can always be refuted when it is demonstrated to us that we are not a complete human being, but only a brain in a vat (assuming that is what we are).  I suppose our certainty that there are thoughts cannot conceivably be refuted; but can we rely on our conception of what is inconceivable? Doesn’t the inconceivable, loosely speaking, happen everyday? But how important is this whole line of reasoning?

Looking back, then, in practical terms—or not—we have plausible hypotheses and known errors and inadequate expressions, instead of “truth.” Yawn!

On [179] I said that if someone questions my world view I would have to respond like any new age guru; but my worldview has a great strength that others lack: it is consistent with science, which everyone uses, which the whole world accepts.  If someone questions my worldview, then, the better response must be, which parts of science don’t you accept?

Something worth thinking about: what parts of my world view do not consist of “just science”? This is the more interesting and difficult question.  I suppose anything I believe on philosophical grounds, such as the meaning of life, ethics, yada yada, politics, the good life.

|180B|  Let’s consider a half-truth: in a sick society, alienation is sanity.  Now, no society is either 100% sick nor 100% well (we can assume), so perhaps we can assume that neither 100% conformity nor 100% alienation will ever be best.  Presumably, the sanest position (approximately) is to be alienated from whatever is sick in one’s society, and conforming to whatever is sane in one’s society.  Except that-conforming to what is sane may result in overlooking a superior alternative.

Wrapping this up: every society has points of sickness; it is sane to be alienated from the sick points. Yawn!


Copyright 2001 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s