The strange phenomenon of the cult of facts: three case studies

justthefactsby Massimo Pigliucci

I am a scientist, I appreciate the importance of verifiable facts. Moreover, my empirical research was in quantitative genetics, so I have a salutary respect for quantification and statistical analysis.

But I’m also a philosopher, which means I recognize that there simply isn’t such a thing as facts without a given theoretical framework. [1] So did Darwin, by the way. He famously wrote to his friend Henry Fawcett: “How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”

I’m telling you all this because I think we are currently suffering from what Leon Wieseltier has recently called “the cult of facts” [2]. Wieseltier was complaining about famed data cruncher Nate Silver, who has been referring to opinion journalism as, and I quote, “bullshit.”

Case 1: Nate Silver, bullshit and opinion journalism

Silver is justly famous for his Bayesian number crunching and meta-polling which, among other things, has led him to formulate increasingly accurate predictions about Presidential and Congressional elections (and which has now gotten him a gig at ESPN, where he is turning his talent to what he loves most: baseball analysis) [3].

Silver’s complaint about opinion journalism is based on his perception that op-ed columnists at outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and so forth are predictable and repetitive, which in turn is because they have “very strong ideological priors [which prevent them from] evaluating the data as it comes in [and] doing a lot of [original] thinking.”

Like Wieseltier, I am aware that the state of public intellectualism and opinion making isn’t exactly without problems. But, with Wieseltier, I find it oddly naive of Silver to talk as if “ideological priors” (otherwise known as beliefs about the world) weren’t inevitable in anyone (including Silver), and — within limits — were not actually a good thing.

Moreover, as a fellow Bayesian, Silver ought to know that his own analogy is ironically flawed: in Bayesian analysis you always begin with priors, and the whole point is to revise those priors as new data comes in. That is, embedded in the very fabric of the Bayesian approach [4] is that you start with beliefs, you add data (collected on the basis of your beliefs!), and end up with (likely modified) beliefs. You just can’t take the belief components out of the analysis, it’s integral to it, and it’s both affected by the data one gathers and determines which bits of information “out there” actually get to count as data.

As Wieseltier astutely observes, “Silver wishes to impugn not only the quality of opinion journalism, he wishes to impugn also its legitimacy. The new technology, which produces numbers the way plants produce oxygen, has inspired a new positivism, and he is one of its princes. He dignifies only facts … He does not recognize the calling of, or grasp the need for, public reason.”

And that is the crucial issue. It is fine — indeed, a good idea — to criticize individual opinionators when they get their facts wrong, or when their reasoning is faulty. That is the essence of democratic discourse in an open society. It is downright reactionary, however (regardless of whether Silver himself intends it that way) to delegitimize the whole idea that smart and well read people — we used to call them intellectuals — have become irrelevant because all we need to grasp the truth is tables and graphs.

Wieseltier accuses Silver of attempting to impose an auctoritas ex numero as the final arbiter for our judgments. The number of crucial issues that simply do not lend themselves to this sort of neo-positivism is staggering, with Wieseltier himself citing whether gays should have the right to marry, the scope of the social net, and the question of whether we have a moral duty to intervene in a case of genocide as obvious examples. Note that he is not saying that facts are irrelevant to these questions: social nets and military interventions in other countries are costly affairs, both in terms of financial and human resources (though it’s harder to imagine what sort of fact would be relevant to the issue of gay marriage). The point is — in perfect Humean fashion [5] — that facts will help us arrive at judgments, but will not uniquely determine those judgments. Our values and our critical reasoning are the additional ingredients entirely left out of Silver’s narrow view.

Wieseltier points out another bit of revealing naiveté on the part of Silver: his complaint that commentators like Paul Krugman or George Will are “repetitive,” which Silver again attributes to the rigidity of their (ideological) priors. But as Wieseltier immediately notes, Krugman, Will and others are in the business of public reasoning and persuasion, and the latter requires repetition. Indeed, for someone who is so much into evidence-based assertions, Silver would do well to check the cognitive science literature on how people change their minds: they rarely do it on the spot, as soon as they hear a beautifully reasoned argument (or pore over a cleverly put together infographic). People change their minds — when they do — because of multiple exposures to a given idea, from multiple sources and in various fashions. So it isn’t enough to make sure one gets his facts straight and his reasons well articulated. One also has to write elegantly and convincingly. And one has to do it over and over, if one wishes to accomplish anything at all.

Wieseltier ends his piece by asking whether numeracy is truly the American public’s most pressing problem. Seems to me that a vibrant democratic discourse could use more numeracy among its participants, and Nate Silver has certainly contributed his share in acquainting people with the power of data crunching. But that’s peanuts compared to the hurdle of fostering critical thinking abilities without which no amount of data crunching will help move society forward.

Case 2: the Ngram viewer

A second instructive case comes courtesy of a book review that appeared recently in The New Yorker, penned by Mark O’Connell, who was commenting on Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture, by Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel [6].

Aiden and Michel have apparently single-handedly founded a new field, which goes by the unwieldy name of “culturomics,” i.e. the quantitative study of culture. The promise is the usual one: out with the old-fashioned humanistic approach to culture; in with the scientific and quantitative method.

As in the case of Wieseltier’s criticism of Silver, O’Connell too is (rightly) not dismissive of the new approach. After all, it is only reasonable to welcome a better handle on the facts of whatever it is one wishes to study or understand. The issue, rather, is one of emphasis, and of what exactly is being promised vs what can be delivered.

The centerpiece of Aiden and Michel’s book is the tool they invented for Google back in 2010: the Ngram viewer, a piece of software that allows you to graph the recurrence of a given word or phrase in Google’s gigantic library of scanned books. With so much data and computing power at their disposal, what did Aiden and Michel discover about the inner workings of human culture?

Well, while investigating the infamous Nazi campaign against “degenerate [i.e., modern] art,” Aiden and Michel looked up Marc Chagall’s trajectory in Ngram and concluded that “between 1936 and 1943, Marc Chagall’s full name appears only once in our German book records.” Which, of course, has been well known (qualitatively) to historians for a while. They also discovered that “Marcel Proust became famous for writing good books” (really?). They further quantitatively documented that Hitler is the most famous person born in the past two centuries, which led them to the apparently novel conclusion that “darkness, too, lurks among the n-grams, and no secret darker than this: Nothing creates fame more efficiently than acts of extreme evil. We live in a world in which the surest route to fame is killing people, and we owe it to one another to think about what that means.” Just one question: for whom, exactly, was this a secret?

And therein lies the problem. It’s not that Ngram isn’t a fun and potentially even somewhat useful tool. Nor is the point that humanity scholars cannot benefit from more scientific literacy and, when appropriate, some statistical training. But none of this amounts to the hyperbolic, TED-like statements of Aiden and Michel reported by O’Connell: “this big data revolution is about how humans create and preserve a historical record of their activities. Its consequences will transform how we look at ourselves. It will enable the creation of new scopes that make it possible for our society to more effectively probe its own nature. Big data is going to change the humanities, transform the social sciences, and renegotiate the relationship between the world of commerce and the ivory tower.” I seriously doubt it, but at any rate I’d like to see the data backing up this overly grandiose statement before accepting the claim at face value.

Case 3: Who’s assessing the assessors?

If you are a faculty at a state university anywhere in the United States you will recognize the term “assessment,” and you will likely have strong feelings about it. It refers to the latest legislative and administrative fad to engineer the impression that the powers that be actually give a damn about public education — at the same time as legislators keep slashing funds for it with gusto, and administrators keep hiring people like themselves and granting them handsome salaries the benefits of which to students is far from clear. [7]

The whole idea behind assessment exercises is that we need quantitative (of course) ways to figure out if our students are learning what we think we are teaching them. As one of the administrators at my own university keeps repeating, “I am data driven.” Well, so am I, truly, though I prefer the broader expression “evidence driven.” Nonetheless, I thought that giving students assignments in the form of tests and papers, and then grading said students on such assignments, was precisely the way we do check the degree to which students are learning at least a certain percentage of what we teach them.

Apparently not. Instead, we need to spend precious faculty time, and of course invest in expensive, custom made (and usually awfully designed) software, to “assess.” But as Steven Hales has pointed out in an entirely data-free editorial in The Chronicle of Higher Education [8], the whole approach quickly degenerates into epistemic skepticism and eventually into downright epistemic suicide.

Here is Hales’ satirical analysis: “the outcomes-assessment tool faces the same dilemma that grades [do]: Either (1) we know that it accurately measures the degree to which a student has mastered the course material and achieved the objectives of the course, or (2) we do not know. … Obviously we can’t use the outcomes-assessment tool itself to prove its own veracity, since that, again, is circular. … the demand that we prove the reliability of every method of gaining beliefs leads directly to a vicious regress. Ultimately we are left with skepticism: We have no knowledge at all.”

If only state legislators and administrators had bothered to take a course in epistemology, or introductory logic!

There is more: whenever I inquire with administrators about the ultimate purpose of assessment exercises, I eventually get them to admit that what they really want is to show state legislators that the university is improving by the only two measures that seem to have any traction with politicians: graduation rates and time to degree completion.

Now, of course nobody wants students to drop out of college, if it can be at all avoided. And nobody wants students to spend an extra minute beyond what is necessary in college, because — given the outrageous cost of tuition — they’d be sinking further and further into perilous debt before they even get their first job.

But surely those can’t be the only measures that count! To show this, my favorite retort to administrators is to use a reductio argument (again, those pesky intro philosophy courses!): if we really care only about graduation rates and time to completion, then there is a sure way to guarantee that we have one hundred percent graduation and that all students finish their degree in exactly four years. All we need to do is — ironically — to drop any assessment, including grades, and pass every student in every course, regardless of how s/he has mastered the material.

“Surely you’re joking, Massimo!” immediately responds the somewhat flabbergasted administrator. But I’m not, or at the least only in part. (Good philosophical points can often be made with jokes anyway. [9]) The point is that clearly better graduation rates and shorter time to completion are not what we are after. What we are after is a thoughtful education that allows our young to both reflect on the kind of life they want and develop the skills necessary to become thoughtful citizens of a vibrant democracy. Oh, and yes, to be able to find a job too.

But these latter goals are very difficult to quantify, contra the ease of estimating graduation rates and time to completion. So here is a perfect example of a situation where quantitative data not only are not helpful, but are positively harmful. That’s because the data is being gathered in response to a very poorly thought out question. It is simply astounding that we even need to have this discussion, and moreover that faculty all over the country are — at the least at the moment — surely on the loosing side of said discussion (which means, of course, that so are the students).

As I made clear at the beginning of this essay, I am not data-phobic, anti-science, or a luddite. I am simply trying to resist the latest quantification fad whenever it doesn’t help, or in fact hampers what we are trying to do. (And I haven’t even mentioned the app-based obsession with quantifying selves! [10]) Bayesian statistics, Ngram, and even (some) assessment exercises are surely tools we want to keep handy in our conceptual and technological toolbox. But the tools by themselves are no panacea, and indeed in some cases are simply irrelevant to the task, or downright harmful to it. David Hume once said that a wise person proportions his beliefs to the evidence. True, but a wise person is also capable of formulating good questions and then choose the best approaches to answer them, instead of the other way around.


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] See section 4 of Jim Bogen’s “Theory and observation in science,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[2] “The emptiness of data journalism,” by Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic, 19 March 2014.

[3] See Silver’s FiveThirthyEight site.

[4] See The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy, by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne (2011).

[5] Here is how David Hume framed the problem in his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739): “In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.”

[6] “Bright Lights, Big Data,” by Mark O’Connell, The New Yorker 20 March 2014.

[7] It is easy to find both data and opinion pieces backing up these statements. For instance: “State of American Higher Education: More Adjuncts, More Administration, More Tuition, Fewer Full-time Faculty, and Less State Support!,” by Anthony Picciano, CUNY Academic Commons, 17 February 2014; The Fall of the Faculty, by Benjamin Ginsberg, Oxford University Press, 2011; “Administrator Hiring Drove 28% Boom in Higher-Ed Work Force, Report Says,” by Scott Carlson, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 February 2014; and many, many more.

[8] “Who’s Assessing the Assessors’ Assessors?” by Steven Hales, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11 March 2013.

[9] See Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar . . .: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, Penguin, 2007.

[10] For an insightful commentary see: “Quantified Self: The algorithm of life,” by Josh Cohen, Prospect Magazine, 5 February 2014.

181 thoughts on “The strange phenomenon of the cult of facts: three case studies

  1. FYI: I meant to write “The uncertainty principle does NOT make nature immeasurable.” It was a typographic error and I could not edit the comment and I had things to do. I have a life elsewhere and don’t always have time to make corrections.

    Again, I meant to write the opposite of what I did. The uncertainty principle does not mean everything is unreal and Einstein’s theory of Relativity does not make everything relative. Poorly understood popular accounts of physics do not allow us to insert our favorite psedu-religion in a god of the gaps type argument.


  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    A good read for those interested in the evolving nature of journalism and a great resource for anyone keen to know about latest goings on in the media.


  3. I think its a very well put together piece. I don’t think i agree with all the things said because more than anything media is a game of probability. Tying everything to numbers may give us correct results depending upin what we are looking at and also the accuracy of collected data. will post more on this later!


  4. Dear Sir,

    Since you find that I’ve gone “off on a tangent – gosh.” I’ve copied all your posts, and seen where I have erred. I’ll try to make the conversation more productive.

    In the following, ’ve done some reflecting on the matters. Can I ask ever so kindly to print this out, and read it a a whole, before dissecting its parts?

    The first part of your posts deals with the “adversary system” of getting closer to the truth, and the “silencing of opinion,” and it ends with Massimo’s reference to spirituality.

    One could say a lot about the inherent weaknesses of an “adversary system” and the implicit enthymeme that life is a discrete series of trials for truth. I might point that in one way or another “silencing of opinion” has existed way before our species became us. The process is called “socialization:” the group effort to create convergence of opinion for joint or collective action.
    But we’ll leave this matter for the end.

    Massimo then mentioned spirituality – a very vague term – and you expressed regret for his disinterest in the matter.

    My first intervention is the little story about the Ivory Coast, which is a story at the edge between the material and the spiritual, and one does not know what to make of it.

    You conclude (I quote you with your explicit permission): “Nothing is what it seems to be. I am not denying the reality of spiritual experiences, the denial was shocked out of me by experiences, so vivid, so immediate and so compelling that I have seen the world differently ever since(don’t ask). But we should question them carefully.” This statement sets the stage for my understanding of what “spirituality” means for you – the key word (correct me if I’m wrong) is experience.

    In a subsequent reply to Coel (not me) you state: “I will use an analogy from the computer field to illustrate my point. The principles of electronic design beautifully explain the design of computer and memory chips. Any good electronic engineer will look at the schematics and work out the functioning of the motherboard and chips. Think of this, by analogy, as the biological substrate.”

    I re-enter the thread at this point.

    Allow me here a general (and gentle) statement that frames my subsequent posts (alas, it is not “truth” that was standing up in an “adversary” court, just my imperfect way of impressing meaning on an abundant world).

    Faced with the infinite world of experience (including yours) mankind soon learned that is could structure it either by quantity or quality. To differentiate the two: “quantifiers” are interested in how experience “works,” the other side in interested in what the experience “is.” We’ll tackle the quantifiers first.

    Those who went the “quantity way” soon found it useful for communicating and agreeing on that basis. There were common rules of manipulation of quantities. New outcomes emerged, allowing understanding and exploitation of the world of experience. The principle of cause and effect was applied to excellent use – that’s how we got to the moon and back.

    Logic and quantum mechanics showed the limits of the approach; then we discovered the phenomenon of complexity (Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”), ecology and networks of all kinds. It is remarkable how the quantitative approach is evolving better to tackle these deeper layers of experience.

    This applies to consciousness also. To address your soft/hardware analogy, while we may not know what consciousness “is,” every day we know more about how consciousness “works.” Consequentialism reigns – for the time being (I’d echo the saloon sign: don’t shoot the pianist, he plays what he can).

    Please note that the “quantitative approach” allows joint and collective action – the essence of being humans (TOMASELLO). The worker trusts the engineer that his scaffolding will not collapse. Note also that this approach allows for “deferred reward,” which is the basis of social and material capital. Note that each individual can selfishly figure out “what’s in it for him.” The “quantitative method” has merits.

    Now to the qualitative side of things. The core issue here is not whether the experience occurred or not (i. e. its “truth” – I’ll gladly grant you yours), but rather than there is an unbridgeable difference of opinion over the “is.” You may love black cats and I prefer dogs – but we would have a fundamental difficulty conveying each other the quality of the respective experiences. As a result, joint or collective action is difficult. I would not go the moon on an engineer’s intuition: not because the intuition is wrong, but because I won’t blindly trust how it works, and works for me.

    Revelation – the appeal to unassailable authority – is an attempt to get around the difficulty. The deus ex machina does the ordering for us. For a while people may march to such authority, but as soon as they observe that it works to their detriment, they lose faith.

    Now back to our exchange. I wrote: “You have postulated a discontinuity, a disconnect between hardware and software, between structure and function. Since you are postulating a discontinuity, by definition you can’t jump to the other side. The rules may be different there. It is akin to using our physics to explore time before the big bang.”

    I then simply asked you what “method” you’d use to explore “how the software works.” In reply to your second analogy – the tundra – I evoked the image of Dersu – the man who knew how to survive in the tundra, but not in the village.

    You did not address my question.

    In my last statement, I then used the analogy of ID etc. to point out the poverty of much of the “qualitative” approach. It yields no method. You’ll allow me, I hope, a symmetric use of analogies. I was not qualifying you at all as part of the “ID species.” I apologize for any possible misconstruction.

    As collateral, I’ve pointed out that statement about “what is”, rather than “how it works” had an unfortunate tendency to turn out, upon closer quantitative inspection, duds.

    I’m not sure, Sir, I understand then where I “went astray.”

    Regrettably, this longish exposition does not meet the criterion of “adversary truth” – rather that of a meaningful conversation, unless you take it apart in “adversary” fashion.

    I can state now one of my core points. “Truth” will seldom emerge from an “adversary” approach (unless we strictly argue “scientific method” – and even then). It focuses on the flaws in the argument, rather than the commonalities. It is destructive of emergent social cohesion.

    What is needed for joint and collective action is not “truth,” but “closure” the agreement to go forth. Now “closure,” in some sort of way, is an agreed “silencing of opinions.” In the good old days, one did it by reading entrails, the flight of birds, or scapulomancy. Social systems have silent, that is implicit, closures (the invisible hand once more, but also “empowerment”). We need new methods to achieve closure. My take – changing mentalities – would be a further way to explore.

    It has not escaped my attention that “changing mentalities” goes against the current grain of “autonomy” of the individual. The tension between autonomy and sociality will never be resolved – a further instance of the limits of “truth.”


  5. Just for fun:

    I’m not sure whether Hitler was “smart” Here is an alternative view of WWII

    Stalin was a schemer, Hitler was a dreamer (and hater).

    In a first round Stalin fooled hater Hitler into attacking the West (the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement) hoping thereby to weaken all the participants. 1:0 for scheming Stalin.

    In a second round Hitler, on a whim, attacked the SU just as the SU was readying to attack Hitler. (Stalin was gunning to invade mid-July 1941). The schemer had failed to take into account the whimsicality of Hitler. 1:1 all.

    Roosevelt outsourced WWII (Europe) to Stalin, and got him to liquidate Hitler: 2:1 for Stalin.

    Set, game, match.


  6. Hi Aldo,
    thanks for that useful and thoughtful comment. I agree with much of what you say.
    Where we diverged is when you brought in mention of I.D. I quite simply don’t believe in I.D. and thought you were unfairly attributing those beliefs to me. I am also very careful about the subject of ‘revelation’ and try, as much as possible, not to bring that into the discussion. There are too many misunderstandings about the subject for there to be any possibility of a constructive conversation.

    The tangent I mentioned was that I thought you were unfairly attributing statements and beliefs to me that I don’t hold, which is why I challenged you to quote my words.

    In your summary of my ideas you rightly pointed out that I believe in the contest of ideas, or the ‘adversary system’. You made an important point and that is there must come a time of closure. In the law court that time comes when the judge delivers his verdict. In parliament that time comes when the vote is taken. In discussion that time comes when we integrate the discussion material into our internal store of thoughts.

    As you pointed out, I see ‘silencing’ as a great danger. This is a very modern and very liberal phenomenon.

    In the discussion of spirituality you point out that the quantitative world of measurement and observation is immensely productive and I completely agree. We can organise and run the world very effectively without any spiritual assumptions. On a superficial level it certainly seems that way. That is the common belief today. As it happens I don’t agree and then we start talking past each other. My opponents will claim that science is a better explanation of the world than religion is. I will reply that they create a false opposition between science and religion, that religion is about morality, purpose and meaning, that religion is not about science at all. Religion is normative and science is factual. My opponents will refuse to concede this point and insist that religion is a discredited competitor to science(which usually shows they are ignorant about religion). And so we talk past each other.

    Here is another way to look at it. Humankind’s problems can be grouped into two broad clusters, natural evil and moral evil. Science addresses natural evil and religion addresses moral evil. I use the term ‘natural evil’ in the very broad sense of anything that detracts from material well being on the one hand, and its opposite, anything that contributes to material well being.

    But enough of that. Let’s agree to disagree and move on.
    I made no mention of revelation and see no need to reply to your point.

    In the discussion of hardware and software, as an analogy for brain and mind, I used the metaphor of a changing landscape which requires different tools and understanding. I explained that the software world requires an entirely different toolset to that of the electronic engineer and suggested that, in the same way, the mind requires an entirely different toolset. You replied by asking me to explain this toolset. If I could I would earn a Nobel prize. I will leave that to far better minds than my own.

    I can state now one of my core points. “Truth” will seldom emerge from an “adversary” approach
    Perhaps the strongest rebuttal to your claim is the legal system. We have had more than 2000 years of experience with the adversary system in courts of law and still we have no better way of arriving at the truth in disputes.

    What is needed for joint and collective action is not “truth,” but “closure” the agreement to go forth.
    Yes indeed, we do need closure and I think that is an important point you have made. But closure can only follow an approximate agreement on what the truth is. In a court of law the judge makes a summing up and then delivers his verdict.

    …goes against the current grain of “autonomy” of the individual. The tension between autonomy and sociality will never be resolved
    I expand on this point in my reply to Alan Sokal’s post. See especially the last part of my argument. The problem is getting worse.


  7. Thanks, your Catship,

    this is the kind of exchange I’d like.
    I’ll reply in the afternoon, again, at some length


  8. Brenda von Ahsen

    “That isn’t how truth works. If a statement is true then it is true for everyone everywhere.”

    I can think of at least one obvious counter example. I can make the true statement that it is the 3rd of April, at a time when it is not yet the 3rd of April for those on the other side of the world. So the statement is not true for everyone, everywhere, at least not simultaneously it isn’t.


  9. labnut:

    Hmm, strong words, but really, to write two lengthy opinions but a book you have not read is, even by Jerry Coyne’s standards, a little extreme.

    You are misrepresenting. Coyne wrote two posts *about* *articles* that referred to the book. He plainly stated that he had not read the book, but would do so, and would respond to the book itself once he had done so. In the meantime he was responding to the two articles, quoting and analysing what those articles said about atheism. What is wrong with that?


  10. Brenda von Ahsen:

    I got banned because I argued, successfully I believe, that science really cannot dictate morality. That matters of fact are very different from values and the science is limited to tell us what we can do but cannot tell us what we ought to do. That got me banned.

    Really? Are you sure that’s what you got banned for? I’d have thought that the majority of the commenters on that site would agree with you on that point. Seems a pretty innocuous opinion. Can you post here the actual comments that got you banned?


  11. @labnut:
    I regret there was no way to reply to the actual comment you made, so I chose another of yours for a quick response to one of your comments to Aldo regarding your argument for the value of thinking together using an adversarial approach. You used the survival of adversary systems in law as your support.

    Aldo said: “I can state now one of my core points. “Truth” will seldom emerge from an “adversary” approach ”

    labnut replied:
    “Perhaps the strongest rebuttal to your claim is the legal system. We have had more than 2000 years of experience with the adversary system in courts of law and still we have no better way of arriving at the truth in disputes.”

    Seems to me like the wrong comparison to point to legal thinking to make a point about scientific thinking. Here’s my take. I don’t imagine legal thinking is intended to result in truth specifically, the goal is justice. We usually never find off how far off the information used by a judge or jury might have been, we have to make a judgment in place. There is very little room for ongoing dialog over time or correcting our impressions except sometimes to try to correct miscarriages of justice.. Truth is instrumental in achieving justice in law. In law there is usually no such option as collaboration except within each side preparing a case or negotiating a plea. The constraints of law involve resolving cases where viewpoints presented have highly motivated agendas, need to come to closure quickly, typically have very limited information, and where inquiry in general serves the goals of resolving disputes and seeking justice rather than learning how nature works.

    The classic flaw in adversary process is that the participants are especially motivated to corrupt inquiry in their own behalf. The alternative in law to adversary process is inquisitorial process, where a presumably impartial judge decides. Neither is really what we want in empirical inquiry or problem solving. What we want instead are collaborative processes where we think together to use further inquiry to resolve differences in perspective regarding the available evidence and how to interpret it. The adversary aspect tends to corrupt those processes because it motivates people to protect their own viewpoint rather than understand what they were missing.

    In general, I would argue that there are important distinctions between the styles of thinking we emphasize in empirical inquiry, legal justice, moral fairness, etc., and that while they are often combined in complex problem solving, elevating one to a privileged status independent of context is just as likely a source of error as a solution to questions about truth.

    “What is needed for joint and collective action is not “truth,” but “closure” the agreement to go forth. ”

    “Yes indeed, we do need closure and I think that is an important point you have made. But closure can only follow an approximate agreement on what the truth is. In a court of law the judge makes a summing up and then delivers his verdict.”

    We can also proceed together after coming to agreement by thinking together in non-adversary ways when we see our goals as shared rather than opposed. The adversary approach is “natural” to us perhaps for egocentric reasons and because our perspective is limited and can be efficient for finding flaws in each others’ reasoning and perhaps to some degree for contrasting viewpoints, but it is limited in value for coming to the best understanding of complex situations.


  12. Brain Molecule Marketing:

    I just read that actually it [the uncertainity principle] is an artifact of old measuring instruments…there is, in fact, not quantum leap…

    That’s not true. The uncertainity principle is a description of how nature is, it is not an artefact of measuring instruments. All it says, in esence, is that wavefunctions have a physical extent, and thus they cannot be physically located beyond some limit.


  13. “I can think of at least one obvious counter example” — And if you try just a little bit harder you can see why that doesn’t work. The calendar is a purely arbitrary human artifact.


  14. What was wrong with that? He should have read the book and then commented. A little obvious, don’t you think?


  15. @ Brain Molecule Marketing — “Why are the general/philoospher anti-science comment boards filled with only physics!?”

    Because it serves as a handy crowbar to bludgeon one’s opponent’s with. And because some people pontificate on things that they have only a superficial understanding about.


  16. If he was commenting on the *book* then yes, but he wasn’t, he was commenting on the *articles*, and what *they* said about atheism.


  17. @ Coel — “Can you post here the actual comments that got you banned?”

    No, I am not going to rehash a debate from another blog. That is counter to generally accepted codes for behavior on the internet. I will however say that I find the attitudes and behaviors of some extremely militant atheists to be highly objectionable. They are quite often just as dogmatic, intolerant and fundamentalist as the theists they oppose. There are a subculture of atheists of the Sam Harris ilk who have really done little more than dress their own bigotry and intolerance in new clothes. I have little patience for them.


  18. Your Catship,

    I delayed replying a bit. The rain might come this evening, and I wanted to pull up the early weeds around Lord Ganesh – a statue reading a stony book in our garden. My wife and I got Him on a whim, in Delhi, and it has amused passers-by ever since.

    Pulling weeds is a transformative experience, each time. That is, if one does not use the logical abstraction of weed-killer. Like enthymemes, weeds hide in full view, blend unobtrusively, and if you go for dandelions, you miss clover. Dandelions are easy: spot them and pull them out with a knife. Clover is another story. One has to feel the main root, its angle underground, in order to pull it out whole. Each plantlet is unique.

    I learned to love nature’s deep diversity in a nunnery’s vineyard, talking to each stock before cutting it so as to get a rich harvest in the fall. It was a never ending, intense dialogue from which the quality of the harvest depended. The material world at its best.

    Agree to disagree

    Of course, your Catship, weeding allows mental multi-tasking. And the sentence: agree to disagree came and went in my mind, as I crouched on the floor.

    I could not refrain from smiling wryly. For this very sentence is full of Western enthymemes. It reminded me of the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. The tortoise gets off first, Achilles follows. At each mark, they measure the dividing distance. It shrinks each time, but will never disappear, even when it becomes infinitesimally small. Never the twain shall meet. To agree to disagree is the same process – the inevitable outcome of a Western logic of categories, and difference. “What is is, what is not, is not” rules hidden in our language and worldview.

    My worldview is rather one of silent transformations. Writing the text this morning has transformed me. I had to think hard about how to reach you – without sowing more stones in the path – and some formulations emerged from the keyboard like Athena from Zeus’ head. I have ever so slightly been changed. By engaging you I have and will change you. You cannot help it – you can’t undo Aldo’s comments, once you’ve read them. An adjacent possible has opened you can no longer deny. You’ll never be able to go back to the “un-thought.” This will go on well past the point we stop. Furthermore: you’ll move others. Others will read these exchanges, and so on forever. I’m expecting, in ten years’ time a dissertation on the concept of enthymeme.

    In the Western worldview, one stops to judge: close/far, true/false, good/bad. When one thinks in silent transformations, judgments become difficult: the reality never stops for a telling photograph. What is true becomes false, and bad turns out for the good… and so on forever.

    There is nothing philosophical in my words: just the agronomist’s, biologist’s, and social scientist’s recognition of material and symbolic interactions.

    Which is true? It depends on circumstances – or a scalar issue. Mercury rotates around the sun in accordance to Newton’s and Kepler’s laws. But once every century or so, its alignment with other planets moves it ever so slightly (enough for Einstein to prove relativity theory!). Within a billion years or so, Mercury will be wrenched out of its orbit and end up somewhere in the sun’s outer space. I’m simply talking astronomy. But Newton’s approximation of the Truth will not outlast the solar system.


    Living beings and systems tend to be homeostatic. Opposite forces balancing each other – so as to yield sustainability (and reproduction). All living beings are and create homeostatic systems. In this sense, the cells, but also a clump of bacteria, are “social systems” with their rules. A different word is “self-domestication.”

    Among higher apes, grooming may help social sustainability. Among the bonobo, it is sex in a matriarchal society. As apes, we have slowly developed rules of our own. 400’000 years ago, we shifted from scavenging to hunting. By 250’000 years ago, we had agreed to share the kill according to rules (BOEHM). Like all other species and systems, we have been self-domesticating, and will go on (KITCHER: Ethical project).

    Differently from other animals, however, we are forever inventing enablers – moving into new ecological and social niches. My favorite “true tale” is nomadism. First, we domesticated dogs. With one dog one could tend 100 sheep and goats – pastoralism. We domesticated the horse next. With one horse andonea dog we could tend 500 sheep and goats – but we had to move to long-range transhumance for lack of grazing – nomadism emerged. At a later point, the horse enabled us to create warfare: the long range projection of power. Silent transformations, my Catship, and no point in the process where you could stop and “assess it”, or set rules.

    Given the “enabling” capacity of humankind, the self-domestication process will vary from group to group, and from place to place. In Ladakh we have polyandry, so as to preserve the unity of the very scarce land at the bottom of the valley. Why there is the same in Kerala I don’t really know – it could be whimsical. In between you have all sorts of kinship systems.

    Yes, one needs self-domesticating rules. Society won’t survive otherwise. This matter is so central, that most morals are transmitted not as overt rules, but as silently as behaviors infants pick up with their emotional imprinting. We are certainly hard/soft-wired for self-domestication. Call it morals? If you wish.

    Bring two strangers together, and quickly they’ll develop a “moral system” of their own, from a cultural and genetic template. Give them a new enabler and soon they’ll have elaborated new and appropriate rules for its use. Self-organization seems to be the norm.

    Much of the current discussion about morality is less about its development, than about its enforcement. The gossip ladies of old did it all too well. Trash magazines, collaterally to reporting lurid details about celebrities, silently reassert moral rules. Nothing is better than a healthy discussion about the exception to remind us that the rule applies. But indeed, enforcement is becoming difficult, both because our world is becoming more complex, and also because we in the West tend to assert our role as “self-authenticating sources of valid claims” (RAWLS) – which, in my view is highly debatable.

    Do we need moral discussions? By all means. The pace of transformation by ever-novel enablers is fast outstripping the silent social means humanity has in dealing with the novelty.

    My favorite example is “death.” Enablers in the last 50 years have thrust upon us the responsibility for the “management” of death: at great cost we can delay it – by six months or so (and poor quality of life). The current trend is socially suicidal, for most of our resources would go to gifting departing people in this way.

    Much of the current – religiously underpinned – discussion is about “sanctity of death” (except for Texas, that is). Worst in this respect, in the West, is the Catholic approach, where “only the last day counts.” Dying in grave sin sends one straight to hell. To me, a religion based on avoidance of last day’s sin, rather than living a “good life,” is not worth having.

    Pascal’s wager

    GRAEBER aptly said that people seek democracy and get a republic. By analogy I’d argue that we sought morality, and got religion. What was meant to be closure became principle (a usual psychological inversion). Then, we secularized religion, and made it a set of transcendent principles – alas, a dog by any other name is still a dog. I’d share your distaste for secular theology, if you allow me symmetry.

    Why this is so may have had to do with property (FLANNERY – MARCUS: The origins of inequality), but I’d have much further to reflect, before even venting a conjecture. Certainly property and surplus is an enabler unforeseen in nature – hence our difficulty in coping with it.

    Pascal understood tha conundrum, and opined that we don’t need religion to “lead a good life,” but only faith can get one into heaven. He sided with Augustine and against Pelagius. I’d be squarely in the opposite camp. If nothing else because I could not stomach the idea that someone who leads a bad life, but has “faith,” gets in when the “good lifer” is rejected on faith-grounds (sorry Luther, but pecca fortiter, sed crede forties is not my cup of tea).

    Adversary system

    Tadd Stark has said much of what I had to say.

    Two additions: originally justice was retributive/restorative, and did not concern itself that much with truth. Justice was simply “meted out” – measured (MILLER: An eye for an eye).

    All analogies from the private to the public realm are misleading. Closure is needed to make “society whole again.” The adversary system fails there and then, though it may have uses at the personal level.

    To conclude

    I’ve taken you on a grand tour of issues, never leaving the “usefulness” and material realm. I have eschewed principles, which in my view are theology in drag, and avoided dichotomies. It is silent transformations all the way.

    Not bad, for a bit of weeding in the garden, don’t you find? That’s why Voltaire, at the end of Candide, advised “tending the garden.”


  19. @Coel: As is obvious to any physicist on reading the comments by “tienzengong” (and also from reading his blog), he is a crank.

    In addition to ‘any physicist’, I do know many prominent physicists, some of them are at , and . You are encouraged to talk with them on this issue.

    I have showed five points in my comment on the above example.
    a. It matches the measured Alpha number to fourth digits (in fact, can be to any digits). The calculating accuracy of this formula can be checked by any 8th grader who knows no physics.
    b. It encompasses a very important physics parameter, the Weinberg angle.
    c. It encompasses an underlying physics framework, the Alpha-physics (based on the Weinberg angle and two numbers [64, 48]).
    d. With the Alpha-physics, both Cabibbo and Weinberg angles can be ‘derived’ ( ). Then, this equation is based only on two numbers (64, 48).
    e. It is a ‘structure’ constant, based only on two numbers (64, 48). After knowing the structure, it is used as a check pen to check the validity of the BICEP2 data.

    In addition to calling names, do you have any rebuttal for those five points? In any discussion or debate, when one side resolves to name-calling, he has run out any rebuttal power. He is not only lost the debate but also his dignity.

    @Aldo Matteucci: “Could you point to an easy gas station where I could tank up on the basic concepts you manipulate, so I can follow faster, and hopefully better?”

    The two physics blogs which I provided above can be the easy gas stations for you if you are interested in gas-up for your physics journey. The Quantum Diaries is the blog of CERN, as the writers are all prominent physicists at CERN.


  20. Aldo,
    the inevitable outcome of a Western logic of categories
    And what is wrong with that?
    I agree that we can learn from other cultures but our Western culture has been singularly successful with its science, philosophy, logic, governance, respect for law, respect for rights and technology.


  21. Aldo,
    I have ever so slightly been changed. By engaging you I have and will change you.
    I agree, though this may not be true for everyone. Apart from the primary parties to the debate there is the much larger silent party, watching and silently assessing the arguments. They too will be changed. But, they are not emotionally engaged in the debate so thoughtful comment will reach them and not emotional polemic. A useful discipline is to imagine that you are talking to this unengaged, silent majority. They are not interested in winners or losers, they are just looking for useful insights.


  22. Tien

    I’ve just dicovered that, when buying a hearing aid, one always gets the same chip with 16 channels or whatever. However: if you pay X, you only get the first 4 channels, and one has to pay up a lot to get the whole set unlocked. It is akin to bying a car with five gears, and having to pay to unlock second and higher gears..

    After looking at the CERN blog, I feel, I got handed the mental chip with only 4 channels that work. The rest has been locked away for ever…


  23. As they say in Wall Street, past performance is no predictor of future success.

    It is you who ask for change from shift paradigm from quantity to quality, and then object to my dispensing with categories in many situations?

    At the moment, in the social sphere, categories are destructive. Remember “you are with us, or against us?” Read ISAACS (1947): No peace for Asia, or any of the subsequent historians to assess how that dichotomy destroyed world’s chances for lasting peace.

    Same thing in Ukraine, China, all over.

    Dangerous and heady stuff, Your Catship, let me assure you.


  24. @ tienzengong — “In the recent BICEP2 announcement, many prominent physicists and cosmologists questioned it accuracy.”

    No they didn’t. In fact the viXra log praised the professionalism of the team and then advised an abundance of caution and said: “It is important to understand that the results are understood to be preliminary but there is no need to wait for confirmation before thinking about what the implications will be on the assumption that they are confirmed.” Before going on to speculate. This is the normal operation of science.

    Nothing in that blog or the other justifies your attempt to divide up “rationale” into competing logic systems. It is a little unclear but I think what you are trying to do is to say reason, logic, is different for different people therefore there is no objective truth or that scientific realism is invalid. If that is what you’re trying to say the blogs you link to do not support that belief and your maths here seem to me to be little more than obfuscation.

    I am in favor of brevity and clarity and would like more of it. 😉


  25. Brenda,

    “The calendar is a purely arbitrary human artifact.”

    If you want to take that approach then numbers are, “purely arbitrary human artifacts,” so I can’t even claim that 2 + 2 = 4 is a true statement. Are you able to give an example of a true statement that doesn’t rely on a, “purely arbitrary human artifact” ?


  26. well, we have a nice thread..going…..not too many personal attacks..seems pretty open, no bullies driving folks away…my experience in other discussions…paranoid, hostile MA guy bullies control the web…


  27. Brenda von Ahsen:

    I will however say that I find the attitudes and behaviors of some extremely militant atheists to be highly objectionable. They are quite often just as dogmatic, intolerant and fundamentalist as the theists they oppose.

    That’s rather a substance-free complaint, supported by no evidence or examples.


  28. tienzengong:

    In addition to ‘any physicist’, I do know many prominent physicists, some of them are at …

    Supporting your claim by pointing merely to comments you have posted on other blogs is not that convincing. How about pointing to primary refereed literature that you’ve authored, or “prominent physicists” who you have co-authored papers with?


  29. Aldo, talking of the success of Western thinking (categories), you said:
    As they say in Wall Street, past performance is no predictor of future success.
    Quite true. The problem is that East Asia is very quickly learning from us as they go through their own belated industrial revolution, becoming an able competitor. The post-industrial society brings its own problems(the late modernity described by Anthony Giddens), as we are discovering. We will be emerging from those problems just as East Asia finds it is bedevilled by those problems.


  30. “numbers are, “purely arbitrary human artifacts,”” — No they are not.

    “I can’t even claim that 2 + 2 = 4 is a true statement” — I can. Not only can I say 2 + 2 = 4 is true. I can prove it *must* be true for all possible worlds.

    “Are you able to give an example of a true statement that doesn’t rely on a, “purely arbitrary human artifact” ?” — There are many. The above is one example. The Metamath Proof Explorer Will give you the required rigor if that is what you want.


  31. “numbers are, “purely arbitrary human artifacts,”” — No they are not.

    “I can’t even claim that 2 + 2 = 4 is a true statement” — I can. Not only can I say 2 + 2 = 4 is true. I can prove it *must* be true for all possible worlds.

    “Are you able to give an example of a true statement that doesn’t rely on a, “purely arbitrary human artifact” ?” — There are many. The above is one example. The Metamath Proof Explorer (google it. Apparently I cannot include links) will give you the required rigor if that is what you want.


  32. @ Coel — “That’s rather a substance-free complaint, supported by no evidence or examples.”

    This discussion is off topic and I’m really not interested in justifying my opinions to you to this time.


  33. Brenda,

    “numbers are, ‘purely arbitrary human artifacts,’ — No they are not.”

    In which case I would please like to discuss the meaning of your expression, “arbitrary human artifact.”

    My understanding is that numbers exist only because we agree the axioms that cause them to exist. The Peano Postulates start with, “1 is a number,” and from there we construct, axiomatically, the numbers on which the whole of mathematics is based. To me, this means that numbers do not have an objective existence, they are subjective constructs of the human mind. This completely agrees with my understanding of your phrase, “arbitrary human artifact.” In fact, had some person asked me to explain the expression, “arbitrary human artifact,” I would have used the numbers as my example.

    If you had asked me to make a meta-statement about truth, I would have said that you can only have truth inside an axiomatic system. My position seems to be semantically indistinguishable from a statement made by Massimo in the essay that started the thread. He said, “there simply isn’t such a thing as facts without a given theoretical framework.” My understanding of that quote is that without some previously agreed point of reference, there is no such thing as “true” or “fact.” The previously agreed point of reference, or the axiom on which the truth is based or to which it is anchored, must, pretty much by by definition, be an “arbitrary human artifact.”

    Your claim, however, seems to fly in the face of this and instead claims that we can only have truth outside an axiomatic system. Your position is diametrically opposite to mine and seems to be claiming an ultimate truth that exists outside of any previously agreed reference framework.

    I am therefore going to ask you to please clarify the precise meaning of your expression: “arbitrary human artifact.” I would also ask that you please explain the precise sense in which numbers do not meet your definition of the phrase.


  34. (Just to stimulate thought:)

    There is no quantitative way to assess how well people can think outside-the-box. It’s almost inherently impossible to create a quantitative measure for such a thing because to truly think outside-the-box is to think outside standard models and frameworks and thus cannot be assessed with a rigid model or preset criteria.

    (I think there is definitely a place for standard evaluation and then those areas that lie within the immeasurable or even inexpressible .)


  35. Your Catship,

    Do I get overtime pay?

    You ask (in an earlier comment) why I am against categories in the social world.

    No issue is more fundamental to public discourse in the US at the moment than that of personal autonomy vs. society and its structure – the state. In current discourse, individual and transcendent human rights are forever opposed to the “encroaching” state. The state is a super-structure at the service of the individual, and its primary task is to protect the individual (including from the state itself). A hero among the afacionados in this field is BASTIAT, a French economist who, in 1850, argued that the state’s functions were strictly to protect freedom of the individual and his property. The state had no claim on the individual otherwise – well, defense of the realm maybe.

    Please note BTW that this line of thinking is very much Biblical. It is rooted in the Adam and Eve story where the mythical primeval couple is enjoined to live off the fruits of their labor (hence, the state has no right to a share, and taxes are theft). Abraham was an individual. And so on. Jesus simply said “my kingdom is not of this world” and refused to trace a line between the individual and society. And in fact, there is an underlying religious streak to libertarianism. BASTIAT was a devout Catholic.

    Now, we know is that we are, in ways we do not understand, both individuals AND members of a social group. To use a category I reject: we are essentially both. It is not “dualism,” it is co-substance. This is a fact we need to understand better, but all signs are, it is a fact: my identity is to a (large?) extent the result of my being silently immersed in the social group; we are very much contextual (social psychology) and situational. Aristotle said that “man is essentially political” and meant that “no man is an island.” Swift’s Robinson Crusoe is a take on those who were then beginning to claim autonomy (In this context “free will” is cura posterior).

    This implies, to be sure, that one has rights; but it also implies that one has obligations. When acting one is not just to act “selfishly,” but to think also of the “public good.” or blindly trust in the “invisible hand” to do the job for me or set things right in the end. Please note that I do not make rights conditional on the obligations. They would not be rights; they would be rewards of serfdom.

    Now, one can coach the matter in terms of high-minded “morals,” of “selfishness” against “altruism,” or simply, factually realize first that categorizing “I” vs. “group” creates a problem for a homeostatic social system. We better learn the facts about how the system works, before discussing how it “ought to work.” It is learning how to drive before bickering over whether to go.

    By highlighting the hidden enthymeme of “category” and its nefarious effects (for the social group, for the environment, etc.), I can usefully and neutrally divorce the factual – learning how we are all in it together – from the ethical. Self-domestication (in all its forms) is the immediate goal, and how we achieve this, given the complexity of the factual interrelations is at the moment a matter of trial and error that includes both the group and the context, hence it will pragmatic, not deontological. The Platonic quest for the “ideal” is replaced simply by a concern recognizing that we are a system, and learning how the system work.

    It takes some getting used to this way of thinking, Your Catship, so I won’t be surprised that you recoil from it at first. You need to explore this adjacent possible, and get comfortable with it, test and see its usefulness. Had I a game, we could speed up this familiarization process.
    But such deep alternative thinking is urgent.

    This ideologically (a category-driven) quest of individual autonomy is tearing the US apart (and some of the world with it). It is destroying the sense of community. Such categorical thinking also tends to divide society in “elite” and “followers,” “deserving” and “non-deserving” and creating tensions between “haves” and have not”. We may not agree whether to go to Washington or San Francisco, but we can readily agree not to drive into a ditch by sharing the view that touching the steering wheel has consequences.

    You mention the emergence of Asia. The subject is a tale beyond the scope of this comment. One word of caution: there is much “willful ignorance” going about, one is to tread lightly, and read heavily, in order even to begin to understand its inner (and often silent) workings and transformations.

    I’ll give an example. Quite recently, I read the XXIII century ballad on the “fearless and honest” Judge Bao – a popular hit in China for centuries. I stumbled upon the part where, after his first nomination, Judge Bao seeks, as his first move in office, to find 8 mandarins (including the Chancellor) who will “sponsor” him i.e. will be held personally responsible if he makes errors. This is the “co-responsibility system,” a system going back to the origins of China.

    If you have followed the fate of Bo Xilao, you may have noticed that the former Head of Security (one of the eight running China before the current lot) has been put under inquest, and 14 billion yuan confiscated from him and his entourage. This man had sponsored Bo, and now pays for it. The very old system seems, in new ways and strange forms, to be re-emerging.

    Meanwhile, while the West bleats human rights and free elections, the CCP is trying, for the first time in China’s history, gradually to split the judiciary from the administrative function – at the local and county level. The, gradual, silent, introduction of an independent judiciary in my view far more important a change than the possible introduction of elections at this time.

    As a counter-example: while many in the West stigmatize China, they blithely ignore that about 30% of India (a democracy) has been mostly living under martial law for all or part of the country’s existence, and that in the last 10 years over 50’000 people have been killed under this regime by the state (Kashmir, but also East India, and areas of Naxalite rebellion). Imagine had this happened in Lhasa.

    To conclude: seeing the world through the enthymeme of “category”, My Catship, has deeper implications that one thinks at first. As BASTIAT says, our task is to see what “is hidden.” The worst blinkers are those we don’t notice.


  36. A small addendum.

    Ever since Parmenides, we have been categorizing reality in “what is” and “what is not” (and never the twain shall meet). It has been natural to see the opposition between the “I” and “them”, the autonomous individual and the social group. The idea of “both” was foreign to Greek thinking (the Romans were “bridge-builders,” building them between opposites. Their republic was bridge-building between groups (SP-Q-R!) They never bothered to cleanse their philosophy).

    Today, categorizing has become silent culture: Western infants apply categories – they first learn objects. Sinic infants apply relations – they first learn verbs (NISBETT).

    The West paid dearly for this categorizing stance. The Greek rejected the 0 – though they knew about it (it came from India via the Levant). We call it “Arab”, though it later came again via Central Asia (STARR).

    In the XIII century the West started polyphonic singing, noted the voices, and also the pauses. At that point is understood the meaning of 0 – we saw an analogy from pause: a silent tone. The West has been on a number roll ever since (this story is probably half true – see CROSBY). Change of mentality.


  37. Coel, hardly. Go and read the comments to the blogs of many militant atheists and you will see hordes of comments fitting Brenda’s description.


  38. Brenda von Ahsen:

    You start by recounting your experience of another blog, saying it was “horrible”, that the blog-owner is a “bigot” with “cult-like followers”, who are “dogmatic, intolerant and fundamentalist”.

    Then when questioned about this you say it would be “counter to generally accepted codes for behavior” to discuss the matter and that the discussion would be “off topic”. Hmm, OK.


    I’m aware of what happens on such blogs and I don’t think that Brenda’s description is even remotely accurate about the blog that she named.


  39. From the Editor:

    All, the discussion so far has been interesting and productive, in the spirit of Scientia Salon. However, I have noticed some posts and exchanges that were borderline acceptable in terms of civility or constructiveness. Be warned that they will not be tolerated much longer.

    The point of Scientia Salon is to offer a variety of in-depth essays to stimulate conversation among readers and, when possible, between readers and writers. (As you know, I always engage in discussions pertinent to my own essays, and I encourage – though of course cannot obligate – other authors to do the same.)

    But this isn’t meant to be your run of the mill blog infested with trolls and anonymous commenters who feel empowered by that anonymity to bring down the level of discourse. That is why commenters have to register and provide me with their email address. I fully intend to use my prerogative as editor in chief of Scientia Salon to see that the dialogue remains civil and productive.

    Thank you for your understanding, and keep your contributions coming!


  40. Martin,

    you write: “To me, this means that numbers do not have an objective existence, they are subjective constructs of the human mind.”

    on the face of it, I would agree.


    I use these subjective constructs, axioms and their derivations to fly to the moon and back. And it works. Every time. If there is an error, it is always in the observations, never in the maths.

    Admittedly, not all “mathematical systems” so far have found an use in reality, Many have been developed as self-contained abstractions at first. At a late date, however, they have been found to have unerring applications in parts physics.

    So I’m puzzled. There seems to be an unfailing correspondence between the applicable maths and the observed physics. Does this not indicate some, may be strange, connection between the “subjective construct of the human mind” and reality?

    Admittedly ,I can scout the universe for the number 2 and shall never find it, but, it is the 2 that would allow me to do the scouting…


  41. Aldo Matteucci,

    “I use these subjective constructs, axioms and their derivations to fly to the moon and back.”

    So what? You invent numbers to describe where the moon is, and then you discover that the moon is where the numbers you invented say it is, and you consider this to be proof of something? This sounds to me like circular reasoning.

    “Does this not indicate some, may be strange, connection between the ‘subjective construct of the human mind’ and reality?”

    Since numbers, and other subjective constructs, were invented for the specific purpose of describing this thing you call “reality,” it would be surprising if there were not such a connection. The question you should be asking yourself is whether this “reality” you speak of is objectively there. Are you able to show that this moon you metaphorically traveled to is really there? Can you demonstrate your own objective existence?

    Descartes answered the question by saying, “I think, therefore I am,” but all he showed is that some thinking is happening. He did not show that the thinking was occurring inside his own head, or that it was him that was doing the thinking, or even what thinking is.

    If you have never considered Descartes before, try first the analogy of a transistor radio. I have a radio beside me on my desk. There is music coming from it. But the music is not made inside the radio, it is being broadcast from a radio station hundreds of miles away. In the radio station the music is not being played live, but by a record, rotating on a record player. The music is not in the record, it was actually made in a recording studio hundreds of miles away from the radio station and fifty years previously. All Descartes showed, was that the transistor radio was turned on and tuned in, he said nothing about the source of the music nor who the musicians were, nor how the music got into the radio, nor how the radio works or even what music is. He just said, “I hear music, therefore the radio works,” which tells us nothing about what is actually going on.

    This thing you call, “reality,” is a mental picture created for you by your five senses. When you tap your finger on your desk you see your finger tapping at the same place you feel it tapping and you hear the sound of it tapping originating from the same place you saw it and felt it. This creates for you a coherent mental picture and you call this picture, “reality.” But you can’t show that the desk is, objectively, there.

    If you are not able to do any better than Descartes, then I’m afraid you are back with, “subjective construct of the human mind,” and there is no truth without an axiomatic system.


  42. @ bonsaimartin — “In which case I would please like to discuss the meaning of your expression, “arbitrary human artifact.”

    Arbitrary is synonymous with contingent and to be contrasted with necessary. True statements such as “The Earth revolves around the sun” contingent, they could be otherwise. True statements like “2 + 2 = 4” are necessarily true, they are true in all possible worlds.

    “To me, this means that numbers do not have an objective existence, they are subjective constructs of the human mind.”

    Numbers are abstract concepts that name objects or relations between objects in the world. From the fact that they are abstract entities it does not follow that they are subjective.

    “My understanding is that numbers exist only because we agree the axioms that cause them to exist.”

    The website that I linked to, Metamath, uses the rule of substitution and nothing else. From which it deduces numbers and the Peano axioms, which are properly theorems in an axiomatic schema. Axioms do not have causal powers. They are abstract entities that exist entirely in the human mind. Numbers are not arbitrary, they are the necessary consequence of certain assumptions. We take the rule of substitution, a + b = b + a, and from that construct all of mathematics.

    “If you had asked me to make a meta-statement about truth, I would have said that you can only have truth inside an axiomatic system.”

    I accept Tarski’s definition of truth that truth is a property of sentences *only*. We can show that by disquotation. “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white. The sentence P “Snow is white” is true if and only if P. Truth is a semantic property of sentences.

    “He said, “there simply isn’t such a thing as facts without a given theoretical framework.” My understanding of that quote is that without some previously agreed point of reference, there is no such thing as “true” or “fact.””

    Numbers are not facts. (Well, they are mathematical facts in that they can be deduced.) Statements of fact, “The Earth revolves around the sun” are contingent. It could have turned out that the earth did in not revolve around the sun. There exists a possible world where “The Earth revolves around the sun” is false. The statement “2 + 2 = 4” is necessarily true for all possible worlds. The set of agreements, the “theoretical framework” Massimo is talking about is not, I believe, the same as what I’m talking about above. I think that he means we have to agree more or less with empiricism. That there is an agreed upon set of rules, the scientific method, that we will all observe and which help science to determine facts.

    “Your position is diametrically opposite to mine and seems to be claiming an ultimate truth that exists outside of any previously agreed reference framework.”

    I do not know what an ultimate truth would be. I only know that truth is a property that some sentences have. You seem to object to the idea that it is not up to you whether or not something is true. Truth is objective. That means that it is not up to me whether or not “2 + 2 = 4”. I do not get to decide if P. P is true regardless of my personal subjective belief about P. However you cannot deny the basic fundamental laws of thought because by the very attempt to you must use them. The laws of thought are the necessary precondition to any communication at all. You are using them right now. Relativist notions of truth are incoherent and self refuting.

    I believe that many of such kinds of objections are based in emotions and are therefore irrational in nature. Some people do not like it that not everything is up to them. They recoil at the suggestion that whether or not something is true is independent of their subjective beliefs. It insults their egoistic concept of themselves so they reject it. They are wrong.


  43. Brenda,

    Dependent of course on me understanding what you said, there appear to be some contradictions in your last post.

    1. “True statements such as ‘The Earth revolves around the sun’ [are] contingent, they could be otherwise. True statements like ‘2 + 2 = 4’ are necessarily true, they are true in all possible worlds.”

    Here you want to have two types of truth. One of which is a contingent truth that could, in your terminology, “be otherwise.” Since the comment that started this conversation was your claim that, “If a statement is true then it is true for everyone everywhere,” the concept of a contingent truth would seem to refute this claim. How can a truth be both contingent and yet the same for everyone, everywhere? Later, (in this latest post) you say, “There exists a possible world where ‘The Earth revolves around the sun’ is false.” Indicating that it is not true for everyone, everywhere and is, by your original claim, not a true statement at all. You seem to be conjuring up versions of, “true” as it seems expeditious to do so and are not cohering to a logical train of reasoning. According to your initial post the very concept of, “contingent truth,” should be anathema to you but you post it here with no qualms.

    If you want to retain the concept of contingent truth then you must logically admit the original statement was in error. If you want to stand by the original statement then you have to abandon the concept of contingent truth. There is no logical consistency in holding to both these diametrically opposed claims.

    2. “You seem to object to the idea that it is not up to you whether or not something is true. Truth is objective.”

    I do not object to the idea of whether, “it is up to me,” but I would on the whole prefer that it were not. I would prefer a system where we can determine the truth of a statement logically or empirically, rather than leaving it up to me. You use the example, “snow is white,” which you say, “is true if and only if snow is white.” Agreed. But you would first have to define what, “Snow” and “White” are. The schema within which you determine these definitions is the, “axiomatic system,” within which the statement, “Snow is white” can be considered true. Outside that system (I say system, you say schema), absent those definitions, the statement, “Snow is white” can be neither true nor false. How that can be considered to be, “Objective,” is not obvious. It is quite clearly subject to the definitions of, “Snow,” and “White,” and to the schema within which you are operating.

    3. “P is true regardless of my personal subjective belief about P”

    Finally, something we can agree on.

    4. “Relativist notions of truth are incoherent and self refuting.”

    In some senses, I would agree with you. In a universally axiomatic system such as mathematics, we cannot have some people thinking that 2 + 2 = 5.3468149 because that would make things impossibly confusing. Universal axioms take care of such issues and ensure that, in that system, everyone has the same truth. But the statement, “homosexual marriage is legal,” is currently true in England, but not true in Nigeria, where homosexuality itself is illegal. The statement is therefore true for some people, but not for others, and its truth may change over time as the laws of various countries change (it has only recently become true in England). Equally, the statement, “the tide is in,” can be true only at some points on the coast at certain times during the day, and therefore at any given time is true for some people and not others. According to my understanding of the expression, “relativist notions of truth,” these are relativist notions of truth that are not obviously incoherent or self-refuting, so I’m going to have to disagree with you on this part. They also both refute your original claim that a true statement must be true everywhere, for everyone.

    5. “Numbers are abstract concepts that name objects or relations between objects in the world. From the fact that they are abstract entities it does not follow that they are subjective.”

    This paragraph contains a fairly obvious contradiction, but it helps. In the first sentence you say numbers are, “abstract concepts,” and in the second you say they are, “abstract entities.” I assume you meant to say “concepts” in both cases, where my desk is an entity but love is a concept. This helps us move closer together because your choice of concept is more nearly what I meant when I said “subjective.” Since numbers do not grow on trees or get washed up on the beach, they are concepts. I chose “subjective” as the opposite of “objective” but it was a poor choice, your word is much better. Thank you.

    6. Since numbers are concepts, we have to establish a schema for communicating that concept. For numbers, that schema is called mathematics. Whether you choose to start with the rule of substitution, or choose to start with the first Peano postulate, “1 is a number,” the point is that any conclusions you derive, any truths you establish, any theorems you prove, these things have validity only within that particular schema called mathematics. They have no meaning outside of that schema. This is the sense in which I meant that truth can exist only within an axiomatic system. There have to be some foundational definitions of the terms being used before you can say that a statement is true. Those foundational definitions are the axiomatic system in which the statement can then be true. Absent such definitions, absent such axioms, any claim about the truth of the statement is meaningless.

    7. “I accept Tarski’s definition of truth that truth is a property of sentences *only*.”

    It is disappointing to have to point out that the statement, “truth is a property of sentences only,” is not a definition of anything. It is a statement about a property that some sentences are claimed to have. It is a claim that only sentences can have this property. But it says nothing about what a sentence is, or what that property is, or how we tell which sentences have that property. It is also only relevant within Tarski’s Theory of Truth in Formal Languages, where the concept of, “sentence” has previously been defined. Are you able to define what a, “sentence” is in mathematics? If not, your claim to have “accepted,” it doesn’t really mean very much at all.


  44. @ bonsaimartin — “You invent numbers to describe where the moon is, and then you discover that the moon is where the numbers you invented say it is”

    Numbers are not invented. They are discovered. They have an objective existence independent of my subjective needs, wants and desires. The reason they are objective is because they name real relations between objects or states of affairs that exist in the world.

    “This thing you call, “reality,” is a mental picture created for you by your five senses.”

    The homunculus argument fallacy. The argument that my senses or my brain creates a picture of reality in the theater of my mind is a fallacy. It is essentially a special form of begging the question and leads to an infinite regress. After all, how do I know there is a picture of reality in my mind? I need to assume another set of faculties which present to me a picture of the picture of reality in my mind. But again, I can doubt the veracity of the picture of the picture so I need to again create a picture of the picture of the picture of reality. And so it goes.

    “But you can’t show that the desk is, objectively, there.”

    I refute it thusly…. (kicks desk).


  45. In order to escape threading I am replying to an above comment here.
    “Here you want to have two types of truth.”

    No, there is only one kind of truth. Both “The Earth revolves around the sun” and “2 + 2 = 4” are true statements. One is analytic and the other synthetic but both share the single property of being true. There is no contradiction.

    “Since the comment that started this conversation was your claim that, “If a statement is true then it is true for everyone everywhere,” the concept of a contingent truth would seem to refute this claim. ”

    You misunderstand the nature of contingency. The statement “The Earth revolves around the sun” is in fact objectively true. It is true for everyone everywhere in this world. The fact that there exists possible worlds in which this is not true does not negate it’s truth in this. What makes the sentence “The Earth revolves around the sun” true is the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun. That it is true for everyone makes it objectively true. That it’s truth could have been otherwise makes it’s truth contingent. However, possible worlds do not actually exist so there is no implied contradiction.

    “But the statement, “homosexual marriage is legal,” is currently true in England, but not true in Nigeria”

    Human social constructions come with an implied background of shared beliefs, knowledge and capabilities. When Barack Obama ran for president he did so with the shared background that elections do not take place on the surface of the sun. Or that being president does not consist in rolling down a hill while grabbing mouthfuls of grass. The fact that when humans speak they assume a shared background of similar knowledge and beliefs does not make what they say less true. If I say the tide is coming in those who hear me assume that I mean the local tides. Or whatever the context for making that claim is. Perhaps I say “the tides are coming in” in the context of a work of fiction. In which case it’s truth would depend on the rules of the fictional world. So these types of statements are not truly relative. Their unstated assumptions can be expanded to any degree of precision that we need. People are just lazy and make their language carry a lot of weight.

    “In the first sentence you say numbers are, “abstract concepts,” and in the second you say they are, “abstract entities.””

    Concepts and entities are synonymous. They are ideas and ideas exist in my brain as localized systems of neural firings. My mind, such as it is, can be represented as a functional diagram of neurons firing in response to internal or external stimuli. If I were an alien and my brain composed of xenons instead of neurons and I held in my xenon mind the concept of “two” it would occupy the same functional role of two-ness as it would in my neural mind because “two” corresponds to an objective state of affairs in the world which exists independent of whether or not I am human or alien. If we ever meet alien species the language that we will both share will be mathematics.

    I have an appointment and must leave this unfinished.


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