Absolute Truth, or Not? And a Few Loose Ends

Diary 8/16/22, continued: Models and mysteries; and aims; William James quote; absolute truth versus approximate answers; Richard Feynman quote; Lisa Feldman Barrett and Johann Hari.

Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

{8/16/22} continued.

An article from Neuroscience News—‘Life Hates Surprises’: Can an Ambitious ‘Free Energy Principle’ Theory Unify Biology, Neuroscience and Psychology?—provides an example of the kind of thinking I’ve variously called “models and mysteries” or, less abstractly, “maps and territories”:

 [American population biologist Richard] Levins concluded there is a trade-off between the level of detail in a model and the number of systems it applies to. A model that captures a lot of detail about a specific system will be less informative about other, similar systems.

For instance, we can model the technique of an Olympic swimmer in order to improve their performance. But that model will not faithfully represent a different swimmer.

On the other hand, a model that covers more systems will be less informative about any particular system. By modelling how humans swim in general, we can design swimming lessons for children, but individual differences between children will be ignored.

The moral is that our models should fit our aims. If you want to explain the workings of a particular system, produce a highly specific model. If you want to say things about a lot of different systems, produce a general model.

For me the crucial point is that “our models should fit our aims,” or, which map is ideal depends on our goals (destination).  Recognizing this (truism?) comes with recognizing that “absolute truth” and related ideas about stability and flux, subjectivity and objectivity, religion and atheism, and so on, are poorly understood by many non-philosophers—and in fact are not useful in the real world.    I have yet to formulate a sufficiently broad (thus, sufficiently abstract) description of this principle.  I’ll try to do this now.

To effectively relate to the world, one needs an idea or model of what the world is like.  For me, Heraclitus had it right in this instance.  He “was most famous for his insistence on ever-present change—known in philosophy as ‘flux’ or ‘becoming’ or impermanence… as the characteristic feature of the world; an idea expressed in the sayings, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice’ [etc.]” (Wikipedia).  I believe that modern science confirms this view (though I suppose that some subatomic particles might be argued to be “permanent,” i.e., “immortal”).

“World” Photo by Ricky Gu00e1lvez on Pexels.com

Of course, these are bottomless waters in which I cannot dive deeper than others, i.e., I’m in over my head.  But I still have to “effectively relate to the world” despite my abyssal ignorance.  So do we all.

So, which is a more useful (i.e., effective) view of “truth”:  to see it as eternal and unchanging, or to see it as William James does here:  “We have to live today by what truth we can get today and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.”  The history of science demonstrates this to my satisfaction.  I have no particular desire to argue the point; I’ll take it as an assumption for today (and the foreseeable future).  This view of “truth” is not something that can be decided scientifically or on the basis of evidence; it is probably a moral choice, as Karl Popper said about critical rationalism.

The thing is, people don’t like to think that their knowledge today may be rejected tomorrow.  (“Life hates surprises.”)  They want life to be geometry or arithmetic, with “one right answer”; they want science to be absolutely true, and they want their “God” to be eternal.  “The law is the law.”  “Love is forever.”  And so on.  I think that mental maturity requires getting past these absolutes and recognizing that the real world is going to remain a mystery regardless of the quality and detail of our “maps.”

[Physicist] Richard Feynman:  “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing.  I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things.  It doesn’t frighten me.” Quoted in Robert A. Burton: On Being Certain:  Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2008, p. 100.

Richard Feynman (1918-1988)

It might be that, if the absolute view were a better reflection of (guide to) reality, the world would be a better place.  But we’ll never know that, because it will never happen.

Back to other subjects—

Lisa Feldman Barrett pretty much explodes “the myth of the given” in this quote (How Emotions are Made:  The Secret Life of the Brain, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, 2017): “Scientific evidence shows that what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell are largely simulations of the world, not reactions to it.”  p. 27.

Johann Hari (Lost Connections:  Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions, Bloomsbury, New York, 2018):  “…this pain isn’t your enemy….  It’s your ally—leading you away from a wasted life and pointing the way toward a more fulfilling one.”  p. 257.  I think I believe this, but it’s hardly in my active memory.  So, if I’m sitting in a frying pan but can’t see the way out, what then?

Printing the Collected Quotations.  The printer has a new squeakiness but otherwise working perfectly.  I went on the Internet and was reading at Truthout when I got an error message that the printer couldn’t print the file.  Finally it restarted printing the whole file, so I opened the paper drawer (the easiest way to make it just stop) and read my “Help” document.  Following the instructions there, which are anything but intuitive, I deleted the item from the print queue (and why were there six items in the queue?).  When I closed the paper drawer, it again started printing the document—grr!  I tried to shut off the printer, holding the power button down, but all that did was make lights blink.  Finally I unplugged the printer to get control.  Now it’s printing the new job, the final 150 pages of the document.  All these problems were due to MS Word and/or Windows.  Maybe printers should have a panic button?  Clearing the print queue does nothing to clear the printer’s buffer, it seems, so whatever is in the printer’s memory will be printed.

Working with the CQ has turned up a number of things I’ll want to take with me to the Hemlock Club meeting on Saturday (today is Tuesday).

One good thing about getting binders to hold such large printed files:  it makes the double-sided copy preferable to the single-sided loose sheets that I generally work with, thus saving paper.

Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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