Category: The Beginning of Infinity

Allen Lane: 2011.

The royal road to tyranny and revolution

Ideas have consequences, and the ‘who should rule?’ approach to political philosophy is not just a mistake of aca­demic analysis: it has been part of practically every bad political doctrine in history. If the political process is seen as an engine for putting the right rulers in power, then it justifies violence, for until that right system is in place, no ruler is legitimate; and once it is in place, and its designated rulers are ruling, opposition to them is opposition to rightness. The problem then becomes how to thwart anyone who is working against the rulers or their policies. By the same logic, everyone who thinks that existing rulers or policies are bad must infer that the ‘who should rule?’ question has been answered wrongly, and therefore that the power of the rulers is not legitimate, and that opposing it is legitimate, by force if necessary. Thus the very question ‘Who should rule?’ begs for violent, authoritarian answers, and has often received them. It leads those in power into tyranny, and to the entrenchment of bad rulers and bad policies; it leads their opponents to violent destructiveness and revolution.

Advocates of violence usually have in mind that none of those things need happen if only everyone agreed on who should rule. But that means agreeing about what is right, and, given agreement on that, rulers would then have nothing to do. And, in any case, such agreement is neither possible nor desirable: people are different, and have unique ideas; problems are inevitable, and progress consists of solving them.

Popper therefore applies his basic ‘how can we detect and eliminate errors?’ to political philosophy in the form how can we rid ourselves of bad governments without violence? Just as science seeks explanations that are experimentally testable, so a rational political system makes it as easy as possible to detect, and persuade others, that a leader or policy is bad, and to remove them without violence if they are. [210-11]

Rational policy-making

How can we formulate policies for the unknown? If we cannot derive them from our best existing knowledge, or from dogmatic rules of thumb like blind optimism or pessimism, where can we derive them from? Like scientific theories, policies cannot be derived from anything. They are conjectures. And we should choose between them not on the basis of their origin, but according to how good they are as explanations: how hard to vary. …

The question ‘How can we hope to detect and eliminate error?’ is echoed by Feynman’s remark that ‘science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves’. And the answer is basically the same for human decision-­making as it is for science: it requires a tradition of criticism, in which good explanations are sought – for example, explanations of what has gone wrong, what would be better, what effect various policies have had in the past and would have in the future.

But what use are explanations if they cannot make predictions and so cannot be tested through experience, as they can be in science? This is really the question: how is progress possible in philosophy? As I discussed in Chapter 5, it is obtained by seeking good explanations. The misconception that evidence can play no legitimate role in philosophy is a relic of empiricism. Objective progress is indeed possible in politics just as it is in morality generally and in science. [208-9]

Why optimism is a necessity

Blind optimism is a stance towards the future. It consists of proceeding as if one knows that the bad outcomes will not happen. The opposite approach, blind pessimism, often called the precautionary principle, seeks to ward off disaster by avoiding everything not known to be safe. No one seriously advocates either of these two as a universal policy, but their assumptions and their arguments are common, and often creep into people’s planning.

Blind optimism is also known as ‘overconfidence’ or ‘recklessness’. An often cited example, perhaps unfairly, is the judgement of the builders of the ocean liner Titanic that it was ‘practically unsinkable’. The largest ship of its day, it sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. Designed to survive every foreseeable disaster, it collided with an iceberg in a manner that had not been foreseen. A blind pessimist argues that there is an inherent asymmetry between good and bad con­sequences: a successful maiden voyage cannot possibly do as much good as a disastrous one can do harm. As Rees points out, a single catastrophic consequence of an otherwise beneficial innovation could put an end to human pro­gress for ever. So the blindly pessimistic approach to building ocean liners is to stick with existing designs and refrain from attempting any records.

But blind pessimism is a blindly optimistic doctrine. It assumes that unforeseen disastrous consequences cannot follow from existing knowledge too (or, rather, from existing ignorance). Not all shipwrecks happen to record­-breaking ships. Not all unforeseen physical disasters need be caused by physics experiments or new technology. But one thing we do know is that protecting ourselves from any disaster, foreseeable or not, or recovering from it once it has happened, requires knowledge; and knowledge has to be created. The harm that can flow from innovation that does not destroy the growth of knowledge is always finite; the good can be unlimited. There would be no existing ship designs to stick with, nor records to stay within, if no one had ever violated the precautionary principle. [201-2]

Proof theory is computer science

So, a computation or a proof is a physical process in which objects such as computers or brains physically model or instantiate abstract entities like numbers or equations, and mimic their properties. It is our window on the abstract. It works because we use such entities only in situations where we have good explanations saying that the relevant physical variables in those objects do indeed instantiate those abstract properties.

Consequently, the reliability of our knowledge of mathematics remains for ever subsidiary to that of our knowledge of physical reality. Every mathematical proof depends absolutely for its validity on our being right about the rules that govern the behaviour of some physical objects, like computers, or ink and paper, or brains. So, contrary to what Hilbert thought, and contrary to what most mathematicians since antiquity have believed and believe to this day, proof theory can never be made into a branch of mathematics. Proof theory is a science: specifically, it is computer science.

The whole motivation for seeking a perfectly secure foundation for mathematics was mistaken. It was a form of justifi­cationism. Mathematics is characterized by its use of proofs in the same way that science is characterized by its use of experimental testing; in neither case is that the object of the exercise. The object of mathematics is to understand – to explain – abstract entities. Proof is primarily a means of ruling out false explanations; and sometimes it also provides mathematical truths that need to be explained. But, like all fields in which progress is possible, mathematics seeks not random truths but good explanations. [188-9]

The universality of reason

The whole of the above discussion assumes the universality of reason. The reach of science has inherent limitations; so does mathematics; so does every branch of philosophy. But if you believe that there are bounds on the domain in which reason is the proper arbiter of ideas, then you believe in unreason or the supernatural. [166]

Why digital beats analogue

Without error-correction, all information processing, and hence all knowledge-creation, is necessarily bounded. Error-correction is the beginning of infinity. [140]

On the is–ought canard

Certainly you can’t derive an ought from an is, but you can’t derive a factual theory from an is either. That is not what science does. The growth of knowledge does not consist of finding ways to justify one’s beliefs. It consists of finding good explanations. And, although factual evidence and moral maxims are logically independent, factual and moral explanations are not. Thus factual knowledge can be useful in criticizing moral explanations. [120]

Don’t panic!

Nor will we ever run out of problems. The deeper an explanation is, the more new problems it creates. That must be so, if only because there can be no such thing as an ultimate explanation: just as ‘the gods did it’ is always a bad explan­ation, so any other purported foundation of all explanations must be bad too. It must be easily variable because it cannot answer the question: why that foundation and not another? Nothing can be explained only in terms of itself. That holds for philosophy just as it does for science, and in particular it holds for moral philosophy: no utopia is possible, but only because our values and our objectives can continue to improve indefinitely.

Thus fallibilism alone rather understates the error-prone nature of knowledge­-creation. Knowledge-creation is not only subject to error: errors are common, and significant, and always will be, and correcting them will always reveal further and better problems. And so the maxim that I suggested should be carved in stone, namely ‘The Earth’s biosphere is incapable of supporting human life’, is actually a special case of a much more general truth, namely that, for people, problems are inevitable. So let us carve that in stone: PROBLEMS ARE INEVITABLE.

It is inevitable that we face problems, but no particular problem is inevitable. We survive, and thrive, by solving each problem as it comes up. And, since the human ability to transform nature is limited only by the laws of physics, none of the endless stream of problems will ever constitute an impassable barrier. So a complementary and equally important truth about people and the physical world is that problems are soluble. By ‘soluble’ I mean that the right knowledge would solve them. It is not, of course, that we can possess knowledge just by wishing for it; but it is in principle accessible to us. So let us carve that in stone too: PROBLEMS ARE SOLUBLE.

That progress is both possible and desirable is perhaps the quintessential idea of the Enlightenment. It motivates all traditions of criticism, as well as the principle of seeking good explanations. But it can be interpreted in two almost opposite ways, both of which, confusingly, are known as ‘perfectibility’. One is that humans, or human societies, are capable of attaining a state of supposed perfection – such as the Buddhist or Hindu ‘nirvana’, or various political utopias. The other is that every attainable state can be indefinitely improved. Fallibilism rules out that first position in favour of the second. Neither the human condition in particular nor our explanatory knowledge in general will ever be perfect, nor even approximately perfect. We shall always be at the beginning of infinity. [64-5]

On being arrogant enough

In any case, it was not arrogance that made people adopt anthropocentric explanations. It was merely a parochial error, and quite a reasonable one originally. Nor was it arrogance that prevented people from realizing their mistake for so long: they didn’t realize anything, because thy did not know how to seek better explanations. In a sense their whole problem was that they were not arrogant enough: they assumed far too easily that the world was fundamentally incom­prehensible to them. [51-2]

Rejecting unscientific theories out of hand

We do not test every testable theory, but only the few that we find are good explanations. Science would be impossible if it were not for the fact that the overwhelming majority of false theories can be rejected out of hand without any experi­ment, simply for being bad explanations. [25]