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Don't Equivocate

From alt.philosophy.objectivism:

The empiricist approach to discerning reality is making sense of evidence that has been gleaned from the senses. Some philosophers – such as Kant – challenged this approach. They stated such things as that senses are imprecise, and that (in Kant) they only see the appearance of things – the “phenomenal” - but fail to see the things in themselves – the “noumenal.”

I want to make sense of the whole thing.

Now the senses are actually not imprecise. Incomplete yes, but imprecise no. We do not see the radio waves or the infrared radiation; we see the visible light. However the information that I get from seeing the visible light is not an erroneous one. If I see you, I am fairly certain that I am actually seeing you – both the phenomenal you and the noumenal you. I can from this make an educated guess that you are not Adolf Hitler.

Sorting out these issues requires being more careful. The word "imprecise" has a meaning when it comes to observations and measurements, which you ignore. A measurement of 1.337 inches is more precise than a measurement of 1.3 inches. Our senses are imprecise in the straightforward sense that they offer limited, not unlimited, precision. You can't look at something and see the exact, precise color or length of it.

You are trying to communicate about subtle differences between terms like "imprecise" and "incomplete", but you don't define them and you aren't using them correctly according to their standard English meanings.

After that you start equivocating with "not erroneous", "fairly certain" and "educated guess". These are standard equivocations used by almost everyone including Objectivists. But they're still a big problem.

When you say "not erroneous" do you mean it cannot be mistaken? That is, it's infallible? The standard equivocation is to be unclear on this meaning -- to say things like "X is not mistaken" like it's a fact. But then to admit, if pressed, that X could be mistaken.

This equivocation is much worse in this context because of a second ambiguity. It's possible to say that sensory data cannot be mistaken, it merely is, and the concept of error doesn't apply. If the sense data is misleading because of a defect in your eye, that's a different thing than a mistake. One can reasonably say mistakes are only made by intelligences, and that one's interpretation of sense data can be mistaken but the concept of being mistaken or not doesn't even apply to the data itself. (If one was taking that position, then one shouldn't say uses phrases like "not erroneous" to refer to error-doesn't-apply-here. But people do it anyway.)

"fairly certain" can mean things like

  • you don't want to be held accountable if your claim is wrong, so you hedged.
  • you don't know how certain you are, so you used a phrase that could mean pretty much any amount between 100% and 0%.
  • you want wiggle room to treat what you say as meaning "certain" sometimes and meaning "uncertain" at other times.

and if that weren't bad enough, the word "certain" alone is used as an equivocation. does it mean fallible knowledge? an "educated guess" as you put it? or does it mean you found the truth and it's proven beyond being doubted? people equivocate between those two meanings. and they pretend to mean something in the middle, which they can't actually define.

now let's consider "educated guess". does this mean simply "i have a guess and i think it's good?" or does it mean something more than that? is "educated" a claim to some kind of meaningful, objective status for the guess separate from your own positive opinion? it's unclear and the phrasing allows you to shift positions mid discussion.

and it fails to specify how educated the guess is. all guesses are educated more than zero and less than infinitely. so what's the idea here? it means it's educated an amount people in our culture think is good. which is really vague and unargued/unexplained.

there are lots of ways a guess can be educated. the important things are:

1) if any of the ways the guess is educated are relevant to the discussion, they can be stated. (none were stated here.)

2) is the claim to educated status meant to grant authority to one's position?

3) there is a myth that ideas have a continuum of epistemological status. Peikoff labels points on this continuum as "arbitrary", "possible", "probable", "certain". these are terrible terms which are chosen for maximizing equivocation. "probable" mixes things up with math. "certain" suggests infallibility. and the word "possible" has a meaning (that the laws of physics and logic don't contradict something) which is true of many claims in all the categories. the phrase "educated guess" may be a claim for higher status on this continuum. this continuum is one of the fundamental mistakes in epistemology and has led to endless equivocating. what difference does status on this continuum actually make? fundamentally everything comes down to critical refutation of ideas – or not. and the continuum sometimes refers to using critical arguments (for which no continuum is needed -- one always can and should act on ideas with no criticism of them), but sometimes the continuum hides the lack of any arguments.

so the fundamental equivocation is: do you have an argument that something is false? yes or no? but people don't want to face that. people want to ignore criticism and claim it's outweighed by some positive factor. they also want to ignore that they have no criticism of something, but reject it anyway by saying something else has more merit which outweighs it. (but if it's actually missing some important merit, why not just criticize that inadequacy?)

and meanwhile people are very interested in arguments that something is true. but that approach can't work because there's no way to prove something true, we always have improvable, fallible knowledge not some sort of final perfection. so what does trying to argue your idea is true mean, exactly, if you aren't arguing it's perfect? you're arguing it's the best we've got right now, it's good enough to act on, stuff like that. but how do you do that? to say it's the best idea we've got so far, you refute the rival ideas. and to say it's good enough to act on, you consider if there's any criticism of acting on it.


Elliot Temple on July 19, 2017

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