DiaBlogue: To Good, Too, Be True

My fellow DiaBlogguer Alan warns, “This Better Be Good” as we continue our attempt to build a mutually satisfactory epistemology. I at least am finding the process enjoyable and productive, though he half-seriously complains about my filibustering some of his questions. 😉

Of my five points:

1. Truth exists
2. Belief in Truth is Good
3. Knowledge imperfectly reflects Truth
4. Better Knowledge produces Better results
5. Knowledges improves through honest collaborative inquiry into shared Reality

Alan doesn’t seem to have any trouble with the first three, or really with the last two, but does ask for clarification:

* For 4, what do I mean by “Better” and “Good” — Do I mean, “Better knowledge ‘produces’ better predictions.”
* For 5, “While community is very helpful in developing knowledge, I am not so sure that it is critical.”

There’s a few other questions, but those seem the central aspects in need of resolution. [Read more] for my attempt to answer them, as well as justify the atrocious pun in the title…

Interestingly, one of Alan’s question is an excellent starting point for the topic I wanted to discuss.

As we identify them [additional inputs], we ought also be able to identify further possibilities for falsification. (Do you agree, Ernie?)

Yes, I do, but I’d like to be clear about both how and why. What I am attempting to do is define our mutual epistemologies in a sufficient compatible manner that we can understand where they differ. Assuming one of us doesn’t give up out of frustration or boredom, the process would only terminate if:

* We reach complete agreement about the matters under discussion
* We disagree about a matter of fact which is not (easily) falsifiable
* We disagree about a matter of principle which does not have observable consequences
* Somebody lies, denies an obvious truth, or gives up our claim to logical consistency and/or rational belief

Surprisingly, these are the only options, at least if we accept a Bayesian view of probability — i.e., we are willing to make predictions. This result is formally stated (and proved) as “honest truth-seeking agents with common priors should not knowingly disagree” — or more briefly, “same-prior Bayesians never honestly disagree.”

Why does this matter? Well, it goes to the question of, “How do I know if what I believe is true?” The basis for my belief is some combination of assumptions (priors), reasoning, and experiences. I would assert that it is impossible (both in principle, and in practice) to have perfect self-knowledge, and eliminate all subjective bias. Thus, a commitment to truth requires a commitment to both:

* testing predictions against an external, objective Reality (“experiment”)
* subjecting one’s analysis and assumptions to critique by a Community (“peer-review”)

In particular, I am making a paradigmatic assertion that it is illegitimate to make a claim to know Truth based purely on introspective Reason. Such a claim may well “be” true, but I don’t consider it “known” until it has been tested against both experiment and peer-review. Of course, with sufficient training one may internalize a community paradigm such that we internally “know” that it would be acceptable, but that still confirms the community’s role as validator of knowledge.

I know many philosophers would disagree, but do you, Alan? If so, where and how?

The reason this matters gets back to your question about ‘What is Good?’. I appreciate your concerns about mixing “intellectual virtue” with “moral virtue.” While it is tempting to get into a discussion of ethics, there may be a simpler option. For now, let me simply assert that:

* It is Good to Believe what is True
* That which enables Belief in Truth is also Good

That is, Character traits and Community norms that facilitate the pursuit and recognition of Truth are “Good”, and those that hinder it are “Bad.” This may be a fairly thin ethic, but at least it is well-defined, and hopefully should prove sufficient for our purposes. I honestly don’t know myself yet whether this is consistent with my larger understanding of morality, but I am willing to live with this definition for now, and suffer the consequences if I’m wrong. 🙂

This would also imply that Good Knowledge does not merely enable us to carry out arbitrary intentions, but explicitly supports those Intentions which produce Good (i.e., Belief in Truth). Sure, “effective knowledge” might be instrumentally useful in some short-term sense, but I am asserting that such knowledge is fundamentally incomplete if it ultimately conflicts with the imperative to believe Truth.

Again, I am not saying this point that I can prove these things are true. I am merely stating that I believe they are true, and elucidating what I mean when I say I “know” something is true. While it would be great if Alan agreed (so we could build on this foundation), at this stage I’ll be happy if it merely serves to highlight where and how we disagree. If not, we may have to go back to eBay