Postmodernism debate

Stefan Molyneux and Thaddeus Russell had a debate about postmodernism. The meat of the debate starts at about 25 minutes. Molyneux and Russell have a false idea in common that results in them making bad arguments. I’ll explain enough of their positions to explain their mistakes and point out an alternative that doesn’t have any known problems.

Molyneux is trying to defend the idea that reality is objective and we can know stuff about it. He ends up talking about whether we know for certain that stuff falls down instead of up. He calls this sort of statement “base reality”. He distinguishes this base reality sharply from theories about what is causing the base reality. Molyneux also sez scientists don’t completely repudiate previous scientific theories.

Russell’s position is that any idea can be reinterpreted. So the idea that things fall down depends on your interpretation of the word “down”. For example, if you’re in Australia, “down” is a different direction from “down” in the UK. His least bad argument is that knowledge changes over time, including scientific knowledge. For example, astronomical observations of distant galaxies are not compatible with previous cosmological theories, so cosmologists have been scrambling for about 20 years to come up with better ideas.

Russell also states that people interpret ideas using their values. In particular, scientists use the scientific method to bolster their values. The scientists do observations and draw conclusions from them to label some people as mentally ill. Molyneux’s reply to this sort of point is that scientists are not using the scientific method to do this. Neither of them bother to explain how they imagine science works.

At one point at about 68 minutes Russell states that the world looks flat and Molyneux sez that’s just an interpretation. They’re beginning to sound kinda similar at this point. What’s going on?

Justificationism

Russell and Molyneux share an idea: they both think that the standard by which ideas should be judged is whether they can be shown to be true or probably true or good. This is a common idea in philosophy. The process that allegedly shows an idea is true or probably true or good or whatever is called justification. The position that justification is desirable or necessary in epistemology is called justificationism.

Justificationism sounds superficially reasonable, but it leads to unsolvable problems. Any argument uses assumptions and rules that supposedly lead from those assumptions to conclusions. If the assumptions are true, and the rules are correct, then the conclusion is true. People then assume that we can proceed by showing that the assumptions and rules are correct, so our ideas are correct.

But if the standard is that ideas have to be justified, then we have to show the assumptions are true and the rules of inference are correct. You might imagine that you could do this with another argument. But that argument uses assumptions and rules, so what do you do next? Do you make another argument: argument 3? What about the assumptions and rules of argument 3? If you want to use arguments for justification, you have to make an infinite series of arguments, which is impossible.

Another way of trying to do justification is to say that some ideas are obviously true, e.g. – Molyneux’s ideas about base reality. You then justify your ideas starting with the obviously true ideas. This means that as far as those ideas are concerned you have given up on argument. This means those ideas can’t be discussed or explained in any way. But ideas you can’t discuss or explain are useless. To use an idea you need an explanation of how it’s connected to other ideas. For example, to understand what you see you need to understand how your eyes work, which involves the laws of optics. And if there is an explanation, it is not justified. So the basic sense experience or whatever you want to call it is either fallible or useless.

These problems lead many people to reject that objective knowledge is possible. Since no knowledge measures up to justificationist standards, none of our knowledge is objective. And if we can’t have objective knowledge of reality, then why should we even think that reality is objective?

Critical rationalism

The only known way to deal with this problem is to reject the idea that justification is required for knowledge. We should replace justification with a different standard: you can separate ideas that should be rejected by criticism. This was explained by Karl Popper who called this idea critical rationalism (CR), see e.g. – “On the sources of knowledge and of ignorance” in Conjectures and Refutations and Chapter I of Realism and the Aim of Science. Other people have improved on Popper’s ideas, such as David Deutsch in his books The Fabric of Reality (Chapters 1,3,7) and The Beginning of Infinity  (Chapters 1,2,10,12) and Elliot Temple: Fallible Ideas and Yes No Philosophy.

Let’s go back to looking at arguments and consider what we can do with them, other than justification. Suppose that you make an argument that if some premise A is true and some set of rules B is correct, then the conclusion C is true. Then you make another argument with premise C, rules D and conclusion E. And suppose that you make another argument that E and C can’t both be true. And suppose you think that all of these arguments are correct. They can’t all be correct, so you should discard one of your arguments. Note that you didn’t have to justify anything to do this. All you have to do is say that they are all true and you have a problem. You don’t have to show that they’re true. You can just guess.

What can you do about a problem? You can guess solutions and then look for problems with the guesses. You keep doing this until you find some guesses with no known problems. This process just requires guesses and criticisms, not justification.

CR requires that you should treat ideas by the objective standard that they should answer criticisms. Ideas that answer criticisms are knowledge. Ideas that fail to do this are not knowledge.

The parts of knowledge that are commonly called science use experimental and observational testing as one of the kinds of criticism used to eliminate bad ideas. People who claim to justify their positions using science have fundamentally misunderstood science and the theory of knowledge more generally.

Russell and Molyneux don’t resolve the issue of the role of values in science and knowledge more generally. Values can play a role in the selection of problems. For example, people do a lot of work on aerodynamics partly to make air travel safer (they value people not being hurt or killed) and more efficient (they value fuel and want to save it). But values aren’t exempt from criticism, so they are not the source of scientific knowledge or any other kind of knowledge.

If you’d like to know more about this, you can read some of the material linked above and discuss it as you go along at the Fallible Ideas group.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

2 Responses to Postmodernism debate

  1. > whether they can be shown to be true or probably or good

    typo

    > shows an idea is true or probably or true or good or whatever is called justification

    typo

    > Justificationism sounds superficially reasonable, but it leads to unsolvable problems

    the spirit of Jism is to try to show ur ideas *are not errors*, rather than to perpetually value and pursue error correction.

    > Another way of trying to do justification is to say that some ideas are obviously true

    Even if you have an infallible foundational idea, X, ppl can still debate how to interpret it and its role in a current controversy. Foundationlists also assume their interpretations of the foundations are unquestionably, infallibly true – or else they run into the regress argument again. (Note this still applies when X is an evidence idea – an idea about what was observed.)

    The solution to the regress argument is to focus on error correction instead of justification.

    > You keep doing this until you find some guesses with no known problems.

    what if that takes 500 years?

    > CR requires that you should treat ideas by the objective standard that they should answer criticisms. Ideas that answer criticisms are knowledge. Ideas that fail to do this are not knowledge.

    what if there’s a disagreement (in your own mind or with another person, doesn’t matter) about whether an answer to a criticism works?

    > For example, people do a lot of work on aerodynamics partly to make air travel safer and more efficient.

    because they *value* safety and economic resources like jet fuel. (you don’t say this part. i take it as implied but i bet some readers will be confused.)

  2. Pingback: Hoppe on epistemology | Conjectures and Refutations

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