Tag Archive: objective knowledge

What aims we pursue

What is the characteristic difference between a scientific theory and a work of fiction? It is not, I hold, that the theory is possibly true while the descriptions in the story are not true, although truth and falsity have something to do with it. The difference is, I suggest, is that the theory and the story are embedded in different critical traditions. They are meant to be judged by quite different traditional standards (even though these standards might have something in common.)

What characterizes the theory is that it is offered as a solution to a scientific problem; that is, either a problem that has arisen before, in the critical discussion of earlier tentative theories, or (perhaps) a problem that discovered by the author of the theory now being offered, but being discovered within the realm of the problems and solutions belonging to the scientific tradition. [289]

Against the autonomy of World 3

Popper (1972, 107-108) presents one of his “standard arguments for the independent existence of the third world” with the help of a thought experiment. Compare the following two situations: (a) All our machines and tools are destroyed, and all our knowledge of them. But books and our capacity to learn from them survive; and (b) all our machines and tools are destroyed, and all our knowledge of them. All books are destroyed, too.

In the second case, Popper argues, it would take much more time for the world to reemerge. I think that this hypothesis is quite plausible. Let us assume it is true. What follows from this? According to Popper (1972, 108), his thought ex­periment demonstrates the “reality, significance, and degree of autonomy of the third world.”

This, however, does not follow from the premises of the thought experiment. Strictly speaking, this thought experiment only demonstrates the significance of books. We may conclude that books, at least some of them, are significant things, which could, under special conditions, decisively influence how the world goes on. If we presuppose, in addition, that books are world 3 objects, then it follows that some world 3 objects are significant things. But the thought experiment itself does not tell us that there is a world 3, and that books are world 3 objects. Books could have great impact yet be physical things. After all, physical things can also significantly change the world, and our life (e.g., the impact of a meteorite).

Popper further illustrates the reality and influence of world 3 by referring to problem situations in science and mathe­matics. As an example, he presents Brouwer’s invention of his theory of the continuum. He cites the following statement by Heyting about Brouwer’s invention: “If recursive functions had been invented before, Brouwer would perhaps not have formed the notion of a choice sequence” (Popper 1972, 109).

The details of this example do not matter. The example illustrates the point in question. Quite plausibly, problem situa­tions may greatly influence the thinking of scientists. But here, too, we have to distinguish between two questions. The first is whether problem situations exert an influence on world 2, and perhaps on world 1. It is quite another question what problem situations are ontologically. They might be world 3 objects, but they might also belong to worlds 1 or 2. Popper’s example teaches us nothing about this question. It only illustrates the impact of problem situations, not their ontological character. [291]

The independence of World 3

Among the inmates of my ‘third world’ [World 3] are, more especially, theoretical systems; but inmates just as important are problems and problem situations. And I will argue that the most important inmates of this world are critical argu­ments, and what may be called—in analogy to a physical state or to a state of consciousness—the state of a discussion or the state of a critical argument; and, of course, the contents of journals, books and libraries. …

Let me repeat one of my standard arguments for the (more or less) independent existence of the third world [World 3].

I consider two thought experiments:

Experiment (1). All our machines and tools are destroyed, and all our subjective learning, including our subjective knowledge of machines and tools, and how to use them. But libraries and our capacity to learn from them survive. Clearly, after much suffering, our world may get going again.

Experiment (2). As before, machines and tools are destroyed, and our subjective learning, including our subjective knowledge of machines and tools, and how to use them. But this time, all libraries are destroyed also, so that our ca­pacity to learn from books becomes useless.

If you think about these two experiments, the reality, significance, and degree of autonomy of the third world [World 3] (as well as its effects on the second and first worlds [Worlds 2 and 1]) may perhaps become a little clearer to you. For in the second case, there will be no re-emergence of our civilization for many millenia. [107-8]

Reducing mental to physical states

If mental entities or, better, mental states should exist—and I myself do not doubt that the do exist—then positing mental states is necessary for any true explanation of them; and shoud they one day be reduced to physical states, then this will be a tremendous success. [293]

Provoking the ‘belief philosophers’

In upholding an objective third world [World 3] I hope to provoke those whom I call ‘belief philosophers’: those who, like Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, or Russell, are interested in our subjective beliefs, and their basis or origin. Against these belief philosophers I urge that our problem is to find better and bolder theories; and that critical pre­ference counts, but not belief. [107]

The subjectivist blunder of common-sense knowledge

I am a great admirer of common sense which, I assert, is essentially selfcritical. But while I am prepared to uphold to the last the essential truth of commonsense realism, I regard the commonsense theory of knowledge as a subjectivist blunder. This blunder has dominated Western philosophy. I have made an attempt to eradicate it, and to replace it by an objective theory of essentially conjectural knowledge. [Preface]

Absolutely authoritarianism-free absolutism

The idea of a philosophical absolutism is rightly repugnant to many people since it is, as a rule, combined with a dog­matic and authoritarian claim to possess the truth, or a criterion of truth.

But there is another form of absolutism—a fallibilistic absolutism—which indeed rejects all this: it merely asserts that our mistakes, at least, are absolute mistakes, in the sense that if a theory deviates from the truth, it is simply false, even if the mistake made was less glaring than that in another theory. Thus the notions of truth, and of falling short of the truth, can represent absolute standards for the fallibilist. This kind of absolutism is completely free from any taint of authori­tarianism. [Addenda, 567-8]

One truth for the Greeks

Herodotus seems to have been one of those somewhat rare people whose minds are broadened by travel. At first he was no doubt shocked by the many strange customs and institutions which he encountered in the Middle East. But he learned to respect them, and to look on some of them critically, and to regard others as the results of historical accidents: he learned to be tolerant, and he even acquired the ability to see the customs and institutions of his own country through the eyes of his barbarian hosts.

This is a healthy attitude. But it may lead to relativism, that is, to the view that there is no absolute or objective truth, but rather one truth for the Greeks, another for the Egyptians, still another for the Syrians, and so on. [45]

Encouraging an absolutist cast of mind

In their Dialectics of Enlightenment, the German philosophers Horkheimer and Adorno have argued that it was thus no accident that reason so often went hand-in-glove with ‘absolutism’. For reason and science, far from promoting liberty, encourage an absolutist cast of mind, by assuming an ‘absolute’ distinction between true and false, right and wrong, rather than a pluralist diversity of values. [8]

Nagel’s obviously objective values

Harris has identified a real problem, rooted in the idea that facts are objective and values are subjective.

Harris rejects this facile opposition in the only way it can be rejected—by pointing to evaluative truths so obvious that they need no defense. For example, a world in which everyone was maximally miserable would be worse than a world in which everyone was happy, and it would be wrong to try to move us toward the first world and away from the second. This is not true by definition, but it is obvious, just as it is obvious that elephants are larger than mice. If someone denied the truth of either of those propositions, we would have no reason to take him seriously.

These cases show that the idea of truth applies to values as much as it does to facts—but as with facts, the idea is not limited to obvious cases. There are many questions of value whose answer is not obvious, and about which people disagree, but that does not mean that they do not have a correct answer. As Harris points out, exactly the same can be said of historical and scientific questions: one should not confuse truth with what is known, or agreed on by everyone.

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