Exploring Ontology

It's all about the deep questions.

Category Archives: Epistemology

The First Principle on the Structure of Possible Worlds: An A Priori “Falsification” of Occam’s Razor

This is the first post in the philosophical project motivated by the “What it is to Know” blog post. (If you haven’t read it, you should probably start with that post.)

Imagine all of the possible metaphysical theories (corresponding to possible worlds) that account for (are consistent with) the observations of a particular phenomenon. Now line them up according to their ontological commitments on a ray. The beginning of the ray will be the theory with the least ontological commitments, with precisely none. In other words, the phenomenon can be explained with recourse to the ontological commitments we already have prior to philosophizing on the phenomenon. Just above the beginning point, the theories with the smallest and simplest ontological commitments will lie. Continuing on, the distance from the beginning point will correspond to the complexity of the theory.

Now, for any specified level of ontological commitment (except for the zero level, in which case there will only be one) there will be multiple metaphysical theories with the same rough level of complexity. To represent this, the ray’s width at a particular distance from the beginning will correspond to the number of metaphysical theories that are observationally adequate at that specific level of complexity. Now, I take a stronger statement of the first crucial step in the argument to be intuitively clear: at more austere levels of simplicity in ontology fewer metaphysical theories are ideally imaginable, and those levels of ontology with increasing complexity have “more to work with” so to say, and therefore have more ideally imaginable metaphysical theories at their disposal. Here, an example might serve to elucidate things. In constructing a theory of the world, it may or may not be true that God sustains every event that happens and he is the “grounding” for causation and physical law and such. However, one can easily increase the complexity of this picture. One can say there are two gods sustaining the world; one is in charge of events of type A and the other of events of type B. And one can do this for as high a number as one wishes. Also, one can give the Gods certain psychological traits, names and so on, so that the number of possible metaphysical theories of the grounding of the universe would increase exponentially as complexity is increased. These theories would all furthermore be consistent with all observations. However, for this argument to work, it is more than sufficient to claim that the higher levels of complexity have at least an equal number of potential theories than the simpler ones. This claim makes up one kernel of the argument. Read more of this post

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What it is to Know – The Beginning of a Philosophical Project

So, if my goal is knowledge, I must first ask myself what it is to know. If a proposition had less than a probability of one, would I know that p? What I take to be knowledge is this: take all possible worlds in which the evidence for a proposition holds, if that proposition is true in all of these possible worlds, then, I take it, that evidence allows me to say that I have knowledge of that proposition. Now, what about someone who contests that this does not mesh well our intuitive grasping of the word knowledge? That person must then be committed to the claim that it is perfectly well for someone to say, “For all I know it could be the case that p is false, but I still know that p is true.” I take this to be a reductio ad absurdum. Therefore, knowledge requires absolute certainty.

One question to ask is: does this definition of knowledge perserve closure? So, say that by some reasons R, I am justified in knowing a proposition P. Furthermore, let it be true that P implies Q. Well, if P is true of all the possible worlds I can be in, so it is the case that Q is true of all the possible worlds I can be in. Therefore, knowledge must be closed under implication.

So, lets try to find out things that I know. Well, for starters, I know it is not the case that nothing exists. Since, any sensory evidence whatsoever would rule out the one possible world in which nothing does exist. I, obviously, know all the truths that are true by convention, but those are uninteresting (mathematical truths seem to be of this form). I know all truths of the form, “I am having sensory experience X”, since, by the definition of knowledge, I must take all possible worlds in which I have a sensory experience X and ask whether it is true that I am having sensory experience X. Obviously, the verdict comes down on the side of knowledge. Now, although this is somewhat substantial, it still hasn’t taken us anywhere useful. Going to have knowledge of things “outside” of my experience, however, cannot be done since I can imagine a possible world with nothing outside. (A caveat here: as an axiom prior to wherever my philosophizing takes me, I must assume that whatever is producing my thoughts does so in a rational matter. Not exactly that is perfectly rational in every sense of the word, but that it is capable of rationality. If it is the case that it isn’t, then there is nothing that I can do since my thoughts cannot be produced by anything other than what is creating my thoughts.) Clearly, this definition of knowledge cannot take us very far. This makes me a skeptic with regards to knowledge.

What I must therefore look to is probable beliefs, rather than beliefs that are absolutely true. What would make a belief probable? Ideally, we could apply the same definition: reasons R maks a belief B have probablility X iff the probability of being in a world where B is true, where the set of possible worlds in question is restricted to those in which R holds, is precisely X. The problem with this definition is that I am less than a perfectly imaginative being. I do not have a perfect grasping of the “probability space” of possible worlds. Since all beliefs hinge on this idea, the most worthwhile philosophical project is to flesh out as much as possible the space of possible worlds.

Skepticism – The Brain in the Vat Argument: Cartesian Complications

Closing the Loopholes

In this post, I’ll go through some limitations of the argument, and how the argument may even be modified slightly in order to reach a stronger conclusion. First of all, it is clear that no skeptic conclusion can conclude that all knowledge is impossible. One example of infallible knowledge that everyone can have, famously stated by Descartes, is that he himself exists. Simply thinking about the question implies one exists to do the thinking, which directly leads into the famous quote, “I think therefore I am.” Most skeptical theses, therefore, argue against the possibility of knowledge about the external world (although recent psychological studies point to the fact that we know far less about our “internal” world than we once thought). Some further restrictions must be made to this skeptical thesis, however. Certain trivial analytic statements (statements true simply by virtue of the concepts involved) certainly cannot be included in a skeptical thesis. It is pretty easy to know, for example, that if there are bachelors, than they must all be unmarried.

So what does it mean for “someone to know nothing about the external world”? Three cases of knowledge are under the umbrella of this statement

  • Any case of someone’s knowing something which entails the existence of some concrete entity outside his own mind. (Example: Someone knowing that many bachelor’s are happy since that entails the existence of at least one bachelor.)
  • Any case of someone’s knowing something which entails that some concrete entity, such that it is not an anlytic or logical truth that it does not exist (outside the person’s mind), does  not exist.  (Example: Someone knowing that there are no flying pigs exist.)
  • Any case of someone’s knowing something which entails a truth about a concrete entity, which is not an analytic or logical truth. (Example: if dolphins exist, then they are rainbow.)

That is a pretty strong skeptical position!

There are a couple of exotic cases that fall under these bullet points that do not seem to be compellingly addressed by our argument, however. Consider someone who believes that there actually is an evil scientists out there deceiving people. One thing he does know is that if there is an evil scientist messing with his brain, then it is not the case that that scientist is deceiving him into believing falsely that an evil scientist exists. Because if there were such an evil scientist, then it would be true that he existed! Therefore, according to this argument, he might as well know that an evil scientist exists (this argument doesn’t counter that belief). This suggests the use of contrast cases. If one knows that an evil scientist exists, then he would have to know that when he was born he wasn’t filled with drugs or chemicals that make him constantly fall into error about external matters, so that his beliefs are only randomly related to the external world. Read more of this post

Skepticism – The Brain in the Vat Argument: Intro

My favorite debates in epistemology have always been the debates for and against skepticism, and the “brain in the vat” thought experiment has always been a classic in the field. Here, I will present the argument and give a few preliminary justifications. Later, another posts will consider the objections and counter-objections to the argument.

1. If one knows some fact about the external world, p, then one can or could know that he at least believes that p and, furthermore, that there is no evil scientist, a being other than himself, who is deceiving him into falsely believing that p.

2. In respect of anything which might be known or believed about the external world, say p, no one can our could know that he at least believes that p and that there is no evil scientist, a being other than himself, who is deceiving him into falsely believing that p.

3. In respect of anything which might be known or believed about the external world, say, that p, no one ever knows that p.

Premise 1

This premise relies on “the assumption of reasoning” or the fact that knowledge is closed under entailment. Basically, if one knows that p, and it is true that p entails q, then one can or could know that q. So, if someone knows some fact p, then that entails that he can or could know that he is not being falsely deceived into believing that p. Lastly, the first part of the “then” clause relies on the almost unanimously agreed fact that to know that p, it  is necessary to believe that p. It is the second part of the “then” clause which cannot be satisfied. As a whole, I see this premise to really be uncontroversial. After all, how could it be false?

Premise 2

This comes to the classic “brain in the vat” scenario. Intuitively, one can never know that one is not a brain in a vat being poked by electrodes to falsely believe in various propositions. This premise has, however, been objected to, and we will look into those objections later. The first time I heard this premise though, I thought it was pretty obvious.