About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, January 28, 2013

When false dichotomies are neither false, nor dichotomous

by Massimo Pigliucci

For a while now I have noticed that a number of skeptics and philosophers have indulged in a questionable logical game. They begin by noticing that there is no sharp, absolute distinction between two concepts, and they proceed as if there were no distinctions at all to be made. This is a serious mistake, and it’s time to redress it.

We have seen several examples of this phenomenon recently even on this blog. Michael Shermer (not to mention, of course, Sam Harris) want to do away with any distinction between facts and values, so that moral philosophy collapses into science (presumably, biology). Some of my other recurring targets (Coyne, Dawkins, Hawking, Krauss) want to declare philosophy dead because they don’t see any difference between what philosophy and science do, and since science does it better, then...

Ironically, much of this goes back to the highly influential work of one of the 20th century's most prominent philosophers: Willard van Orman Quine. Quine was a (successful) critic of the then dominant school of logical positivism (or, in the US, logical empiricism). In his landmark paper on “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (a true example of progress in philosophy, despite later criticism of it), Quine set out to rescue empiricism from the grips of positivism. One of the two “dogmas” he attacked [1] was formulated thus: “belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths that are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact, and truths that are synthetic, or grounded in fact.”

So there goes the first “false” dichotomy: Quine rejected the widely accepted (particularly by the positivists) distinction between analytic and synthetic truths in philosophy. He had good reasons to do that, and yet he ended up throwing the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. Traditionally, a synthetic truth is a statement about empirical matters. “There are eight planets (Pluto! Give me back Pluto!!) in the solar system” is a synthetic truth, as it is not logically necessary, and it requires telescopes and other instruments to be established. An analytic truth, instead, refers to something that is correct regardless of empirical evidence, like “Bachelors are unmarried men” (which is true by definition: if you bring me a married bachelor I will simply retort that he is either not married or not a bachelor).

On what grounds did Quine reject such an intuitively obvious, and widely accepted, distinction? What’s empirical evidence got to do with the concept of bachelorhood? Nothing, as it turns out, as Quine himself readily agreed, but he thought that analytical truths like that one are “epistemologically insignificant.” Quine was rather interested in analytic statements like: Force = mass multiplied by acceleration, because those cannot so easily be decoupled from a background theory of a particular type (say, Newtonian mechanics), and that theory in turn cannot be decoupled from the relevant empirical evidence necessary to validate it. If this is correct, then, F = ma looks like an analytic truth, but in fact depends on empirical input, thus breaking down the analytic / synthetic dichotomy.

We need to understand Quine’s point in a broader perspective before we can get to other popular (and, in my opinion, misguided) rejections of apparent dichotomies. Quine was trying to nudge philosophy toward what has since become known as a “naturalistic turn,” in which the distinction between philosophy and science was a matter of degree, not kind. He did that by attacking the very idea of “foundationalist” programs in philosophy, like the assumption that there are logical foundations for math, say, or epistemological foundations for science. For Quine knowledge is best thought of as a “web,” not an edifice (indeed, the most popular database of peer scientific journals is called The Web of Knowledge, though I don’t know if that was intended as an homage to Quine — I doubt it).

This “holistic” take on knowledge meant that there are no sharp boundaries to be found anywhere. Natural science, philosophy, logic, math, and anything else that augments human understanding of the world is part of the web, so that one cannot isolate a particular piece — say F = ma — and call it an analytic (i.e., empirically independent) truth, for the simple reason that in a holistic system of knowledge nothing is independent from anything else.

That’s nice, as far as it goes, and I have been arguing for a broader conception of knowledge that includes contributions from the disciplines mentioned above, a conception that sometimes goes under the name of scientia. The problem is that Quine reacted to what he perceived as the positivists’ “reductionism” [again, see footnote 1] with a bit too much of a holistic overcompensation. It may very well be true that everything is connected to everything else in a general sense, but a lot of these connections are simply irrelevant to any particular task at hand, and can be treated simply as background conditions. I think of this as analogous to the many-body problem in cosmology: yes, theoretically speaking every object with mass in the universe gravitationally affects the behavior of any other object with mass. But when it comes to, say, calculating the orbit of the Moon to a very high degree of accuracy, a lot of local small masses (yours and mine, for instance) don’t matter, nor do a lot of very large but very distant bodies (pretty much everything outside of the Sun, really). The same with the web of knowledge, I submit, which leads us to a more moderate and reasonable view of the problematic dichotomies we are talking about.

Consider, for instance, one of the most prominent thorns in Quine’s side, of which he was very much aware: mathematics. Mathematical theorems have always been considered the quintessential example of analytic truths, as they do not depend (at all) on empirical evidence, regardless of the fact that math may (and does) have implications for science. When you prove, say, the Pythagorean theorem, you don’t go around measuring a bunch of triangles, you begin with certain axioms and background conditions (e.g., declaring that you are working within Euclidean geometry), and then logically deduce the theorem. What’s empiricism got to do with it?

Here Quine, to put it boldly, just cheated his way out of the problem. He began by saying that math was really a type of science, after which he argued that he was primarily concerned with applied math, which clearly makes contact with science and the empirical world. Yes, but most math is not applied, and even the part that is, isn’t derived from science, it applies to science. Then he argued that math as a whole is justified by the fact that a part of it makes contact with the empirical world. That would surprise the hell out of mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics, and frankly, amounts to a lot of handwaving to save an extreme form of holism about knowledge that is ultimately untenable. Mathematics remains a very good example of analytic truth, pace Quine. And so does logic, by the way.

To recap, what we have so far is that there are pretty clearly synthetic truths (the number of planets in the solar system), though they do depend on a given theoretical background; there are also clearly analytic truths (math, logic, definitions of bachelorhood, etc.); and then there are truths that are somewhere in the middle (Quine’s famous example of F = ma). Knowledge is indeed better thought of as a web of connections that meld together empirical and logical components, but the resulting alloy can sometimes be regarded as an almost pure example of one or the other ingredient.

We can now proceed with reconsidering two other “false dichotomies” that some skeptics and philosophers indulge in denying these days: the one between facts and theories and the one between facts and values.

Postmodernist philosophers (I’m using the term broadly here) are fond of pointing out what in philosophy of science is known as the “theory-ladenness” of scientific facts, and rightly so. As Darwin himself famously acknowledged in a letter to a friend, “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!” That is, there is no such thing as “just the facts,” even in science. Quine would be pleased. But that does not license the further conclusion that therefore there is no distinction at all between facts and theories. That there are 8 (or 9) planets in the solar system is a fact, within the background of accepted theories in planetology and celestial mechanics. If you’d like to argue that there is a 9th (or 10th) planet somewhere outside the orbit of Pluto your most direct route is to do so via careful observations of the planet itself or of the gravitational consequences of its presence on the orbits of the other planets (that’s how we discovered Uranus, Neptune and Pluto). It would be foolish to begin by arguing about the soundness of astronomical theory.

So, yes, scientific theories are based on empirical facts, and conversely, “facts” are meaningful precisely because they have a place within a given theory of the world. But that doesn’t mean it’s all a mushy holistic structure where astronomers can’t tell the difference between an observation and a theoretical statement.

Finally, the third “false” dichotomy, of which I have written recently here (see links above to the posts about Shermer and Harris): the fact / value one. By now the reader should recognize that the same general approach applies: true, there is no sharp line in the sand to be drawn, because values can be thought of as the ethical equivalent of theories in science. Just as there's no sharp separation there, there isn't gonna be one here either. But it is perverse to therefore argue that it’s all facts (i.e., science can determine values based solely on empirical evidence). And that’s because theory-ladenness applies here too: what counts as a “fact” (the GDP is increasing) becomes the object of ethical judgment (it is good that the GDP is increasing) only within a certain theoretical (ethical) framework, and that framework needs to be argued for, it doesn’t just pop out of brute facts like a Minerva emerging fully formed from the head of Jupiter.

This more nuanced (post-Quineian?) view, of course, cuts both ways: philosophers can’t dismiss the relevance of empirical input into ethics on the ground that is and ought are forever unbridgeable, just in the same way as scientists can’t simplistically reduce the latter to the former and dispense with philosophical reasoning. Equally, postmodernists can’t base their social critique of science on the theory-ladenness of observations, but scientists don’t get away with saying that “evolution is a fact.” It isn’t, or at least not only. It’s also a set of theoretical statements, and even whether something counts as a fossil (a pretty basic fact) or not does depend on a number of background theoretical assumptions.

So, next time you hear someone either invoking or rejecting a dichotomy as a knockdown argument, smile and tell them about Quine (in the first instance) or that philosophy has progressed past the necessary Quinenian way station (in the second instance). Then proceed to an actual discussion of the interconnectedness of facts, theories, values, synthetic statements and analytic ones. Have fun!


[1] If you must know, the second dogma is this: “reductionism: the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construction upon terms which refer to immediate experience.” Here the term reductionism is used by Quine in a very specific, positivism-derived sense. It does not refer to the more common usage in ontology or epistemology, as in “everything that happens in the universe can be reduced to or be understood through the workings of the fundamental laws of physics.”


  1. Massimo,

    I take your statement, "values can be thought of as the ethical equivalent of theories in science," to mean that there's an empirical component to value claims. If it is claimed that education is valuable, for example, the truth of this claim depends at least in part upon the truth of empirical assumptions about what education brings about. I think this view is true enough, but I don't think it can inferred from this that there's isn't a clear distinction between values and facts as such (which is the point I take you to be making, though I could be wrong). It suggests only that there's an empirical component to value claims and actual instances of valuing.

    As I see it the basic philosophical question about value is that of what it means to value something, or for something to have value. Now while a particular instance of valuing something, or something being valuable, or a question of value, and so on, may depend on empirical beliefs/facts, what it means to value something or for something to be valuable has little to do with empirical facts. It's on this conceptual level that a line in the sand between value and fact can be drawn, even if our actual practice of valuing is bound up with empirical beliefs or facts. While I think we can say that the line between value claims and empirical claims can be blurry, I don't think we can say that the line between value and fact is blurry. How does this relate to your view?

    As to thinking about about value, in my view talk about value is a kind of oblique talk about human desires. To understand values I think we must understand how the word 'value' and its cognates function in language. As to Quine, I think a flaw in his philosophy is that he had little room for the sort of conceptual unpacking that is philosophy's stock in trade.

  2. A thought experiment I like do is to think of possible persons, or what biologically comes close, on other planets (like Rorty's Antipodeans). One might think that their mathematicians have developed a mathematics much like ours, say with Pythagoras' Theorem by a different name. (Maybe. Mycielski's "Locally Finite Theories" - jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2273942 - defines a mathematics isomorphic to our "standard" one but without infinite objects.) But is their "moral logic" the same as ours, or is it contingent on their own evolutionary, biological, and cultural development?

    1. Philip,

      >But is their "moral logic" the same as ours, or is it contingent on their own evolutionary, biological, and cultural development?<

      Fascinating question. I agree with Massimo's view on this, stated below, though on a different basis. If the Antipodeans have a morality then it must be formally like ours, i.e. meet our conditions of being a morality. This is only because otherwise we would not call it a morality and not because logic is a culture-independent universal. I'm not sure what "culture-independent universal" means. I think logic is just a contingent aspect of contingent human language and that the aliens could easily parse reality in such a radically different way that our conceptual distinctions would be useless in trying to understand them, i.e., the aliens might be Hegelians. I'm kidding on a literal level but not on a metaphorical level. I think humans could have conceived the would in a fundamentally different way - such that our notion of logic would make no sense - so if you add a different biology too ...

    2. Perhaps the Antipodeans' morality (if not their mathematics) could utilize a paraconsistent logic.

      e.g. "A Paraconsistent Solution to the Problem of Moral Dilemmas" Helen Bohse; South African Journal of Philosophy; 2005, Vol. 24 Issue 2

  3. Re: Sam Harris, fact/value, etc. -

    "...for if, from the point of view of the brain, believing 'the sun is a star' is importantly similar to believing 'cruelty is wrong,' how can we say that scientific and ethical judgments having nothing in coming?" (The Moral Landscape, pg.122)

    The quote above is from his chapter on Belief where he argues about the physiology of belief in particular and where, presumably, neuroscience can come to the rescue. Although he definitely wants to use fMRI results as evidence that there is no fact/value gulf (i.e., values are facts to be discovered/confirmed/justified by science), it seems to me that he is both overlooking the nature of language, and setting up a needless straw man.

    The words 'sun', 'star', 'cruelty' and 'wrong' are all human constructions. The sun is a star because we say it is. Likewise, we define certain actions as cruel based on our feelings about them (essentially); and the same goes for the notion that we think these actions are wrong. Of course, a star has definite (human-chosen) characteristics that allow us to call certain blindingly bright celestial phenomena stars; and the same can be said for the phenomenon of cruelty: when we (empirically) come upon a certain set of pre-chosen characteristics, we call it cruelty. So it's not 'intrinsically' true that the sun is a star or that cruelty is wrong; but on a certain level it is 'objectively' (or at least empirically) true...

    And I don't think many people are claiming that scientific and ethical judgments have *nothing* in common; your post is a case in point.

    And the fact that a certain part of our brain (i.e., the MPFC) is responsible for 'processing' beliefs - no matter what the content - doesn't mean that those beliefs are true, objective, or amount to real knowledge...

  4. Paul,

    > If it is claimed that education is valuable, for example, the truth of this claim depends at least in part upon the truth of empirical assumptions about what education brings about. <

    Correct. I defend the right to universal access to education because I think — on empirical grounds — that it leads to a more functional society and more meaningful individual human lives. Of course, the fact that I value the latter two outcomes is more removed from empirical evidence, and it begins to approach what you call a desire. But even desires can be uncovered empirically, right?

    Still, I want to make clear that I am no Sam Harris: I do not thin that values collapse into empirical data. But I’m not sure that we can (or should) always draw lines somewhere in the sand, instead of acknowledging that the fact/value distinction sometimes is sharper and sometimes a bit more porous.


    > is their "moral logic" the same as ours, or is it contingent on their own evolutionary, biological, and cultural development? <

    I would say that the Antipodeans would have a different morality, insofar as their biology and culture are different. But how they logically develop their moral discourse would have to be similar, since I think logic is a culturally independent universal.

    1. Massimo: I do not thin that values collapse into empirical data.

      But aren't values (or moral beliefs) more or less psychological (and presumably neurological) facts? Even if so, then can still conflict with one another, in which case I think we still need the tools of rational/analytical philosophy in order to test their coherence and to adjust them, so as to bring them into some kind of balance (or reflective equilibrium).

    2. PS: When I say "need", I mean that in a pragmatic sense. We may be forced to live with some problems (e.g. paradoxes), whereas others beg for some kind of working solution in order that we may survive and in some sense flourish.

  5. "since I think logic is a culturally independent universal."
    True if you consider others such as Eastern logic to be illogical.

  6. > What’s empirical evidence got to do with the concept of bachelorhood? Nothing, as it turns out, as Quine himself readily agreed, but he thought that analytical truths like that one are “epistemologically insignificant.” <

    I must say, I laughed when I read that. From now on, whenever my argument is falling apart, I'll dismiss any objections as "epistemologically irrelevant"!

  7. Baron,

    > True if you consider others such as Eastern logic to be illogical. <

    Actually, a lot of logics developed in India and China have significant overlap or similarities with “Western” logic. But of course there is also a lot of illogicity, both in the East and West...


    I agree with the rest of your comment, but:

    > aren't values (or moral beliefs) more or less psychological (and presumably neurological) facts? <

    Well, no. Values and beliefs are *instantiated* by particular psychological and neurological facts, but I wouldn’t say they are identical with those facts (from now on I’ll call this the “Harris fallacy”... ;-)

    Again, take the analogy of math: thinking about the number 4, say, certainly is made possible by a particular psychological condition, and it is instantiated by a particular neurological pattern. But it would be really strange to say that the neurological pattern *is* the n. 4.

    1. Massimo: I would put it this way: For the purposes of actually doing math or morality, one (probably) gains nothing by pointing out the psychological & neurological basis of those procedures.

      Nonetheless, I assume a dependency here. IOW, wipe out all humans (or sentient beings, capable of abstract thought) and I would bet that you wipe out all math and morality in the process.

  8. Massimo, actually when I realize that all logic stems from the way biological forms must make predictive choices, I agree with the idea that it's a culturally independent universal.

  9. Interesting post! I've been wanting to learn more about Quine for a while.

    >and then there are truths that are somewhere in the middle (Quine’s famous example of F = ma).

    F = ma as an analytic truth? It seems pretty synthetic and a posteriori to me (describes a regularity in the world, is not a consequence of stipulated axioms). What's the argument for it's being analytic at all? Merely that it's written in algebra?

    >As Darwin himself famously acknowledged in a letter to a friend, “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!” That is, there is no such thing as “just the facts,” even in science.

    I'm not sure if Darwin was really speaking to the present discussion in that quote. I take him to be pointing out that facts are useless except insofar as they confirm or disconfirm some hypothesis, not that there are no facts independent of theories. On my reading, Darwin would be happy to say that there is, for example, an objective fact of the matter about how many white hairs are on an average zebra's rump (whether we have a theory or not) - it's just that that fact is "of no service" unless it serves as evidence for one or another hypothesis.

    1. Ian,

      Regarding 'F=ma', I think the idea is that this is true by definition ('F' just means 'ma') but is such that it represents a way of thinking about reality that could be revised: in the future we might regard that whole way of thinking about things as flawed.


      Indeed. In taking empirical relevance as a condition of epistemic significance, Quine seems to be begging the question.

    2. F = ma as an analytic truth? It seems pretty synthetic and a posteriori to me (describes a regularity in the world, is not a consequence of stipulated axiom).

      I see it as clearly analytic.

      What's the argument for it's being analytic at all?

      I see it as the technical definition of force, and therefore as prior to any possibility of having empirical data about forces.

    3. > I see it as the technical definition of force, and therefore as prior to any possibility of having empirical data about forces. <

      That is my understanding also. While undoubtedly important, F=ma is a definition, not an empirically testable hypothesis.

  10. Agree with Ian, I thought this was a great post and I've been trying to gain a better understanding of Quine's "Two Dogma's" for a while.

    I concur with pretty much everything written in the article, but I just wanted to touch on the idea of foundationalism. I know from epistemology we have as the three main theories of justification coherentism, foundationalism, and infinitism. As far as infinitism goes, I have looked into it and it seems to be a pretty implausible idea with few supporters (at first glance anyway). That leaves coherentism and foundationalism, and I have to say I think the latter is much more intuitive in nature. When I think about logic, mathematics, and the physical sciences, it seems very clear that there are foundational notions or laws at work in each of these disciplines. These axioms, primitive notions, or fundamental laws have been gleaned by careful intuition, observation, and reasoning. The fact that they are so powerful at explaining our world should, over time (and as each new experiment and prediction born out from these areas come to fruition), make us believe that they are indeed the right foundations. Of course, as our knowledge deepens, there may be new findings that require slight modification, and adjustments can be made that retain much of the original structure of these foundations while incorporating the new findings.

    I feel like this is the way things have been going, with mathematics and logic seen as deeply fundamental in a certain sense, eventually spilling over into mathematical physics and other scientific disciplines and aiding in determining the correct foundational principles in those areas.

    Coherentism and the idea of a 'web of belief' are nice ideas that make some sense, but I feel like there has to be something holding that web up. It can't stand alone without a firm foundation, and indeed the 'web of belief' that currently exists looks like it rests on a sound bedrock.

    Any thoughts?

  11. Ah a refreshing post!!

    I'm slightly hurt by the use of Quine as a stepping stone, since I'm currently having a serious Bromance with his collected works... But your point is well-made, and hopefully well-taken.

    I find that people OVERSTEP REASON going both ways:
    (1) Some want an artificial severing of dichotomies; tear the world into metaphysical pieces.
    (2) Some want an artificial cesspool of all useful distinctions.

    Quine is GREAT help for calling out (1), and pointing at difficencies in theories that hinge too heavily on UN-ANALYZED "A priori" or "analytic" truths.

  12. Thanks for yet another useful and lucid text, Massimo!

  13. Ian,

    > F = ma as an analytic truth? <

    Well, you’ve seen some of the responses to this query already. I must admit to your same puzzlement, but I think that Quine would indeed argue that since it’s an equation that defines a physical property, it is (supposed to be) analytical. And then of course would use your puzzlement to argue, see? there ain’t no sharp distinction between synthetic and analytic...

    > I'm not sure if Darwin was really speaking to the present discussion in that quote. <

    I didn’t mean to attribute to Darwin prescience about 20th century philosophy of science. But he was writing in the context of the then ongoing “great induction debate” about the proper way to conduct science (with J.S. Mill and William Whewell on opposite sides), and the point, I think, is germane: there is an infinity of “facts,” and they only become relevant (“scientific facts”) when imbued in some type of theoretical framework. Which is close to what Quine would later argue.

  14. pete,

    > These axioms, primitive notions, or fundamental laws have been gleaned by careful intuition, observation, and reasoning. The fact that they are so powerful at explaining our world should, over time make us believe that they are indeed the right foundations <

    Well, it depends on what one means by "foundation." Yes, few doubt that many notions in math, logic, or for that matter science are not here to stay, including Quine. But foundationalism here means the search for some kind of absolutely indubitable rock bottom starting point on top of which all knowledge can be built. Hume's problem of induction (for science) and the failure of the Russell-Whitehead attempt to establish logical bases for math (together with Godel's theorems) pretty much took care of that. So the idea of a web is a powerful alternative, and it's advantage is precisely that it doesn't have to "hang" from a specific indubitable hook. Anything in the web, including basic math and logic, can in theory be reexamined and replaced if we have reasons to think that we have better alternatives, as unlikely as that actually is to happen in practice.

    1. I see, and yes I do agree that we probably won't be able to ever find absolutely indubitable foundations for our knowledge.

      That being said, I think that as our scientific and mathematical theories progress, we begin to develop fundamental notions that are improved as time goes on. As you mention, Godel did show that we can never have a complete foundation for mathematics, but this does not mean that we can approach the complete set over time by continually improving our knowledge of mathematics and discovering new axioms to add to the original list.

      In much the same way, our physical theories begin to show dependencies on things like symmetry and conservation principles that begin to stay more or less constant even with the development of newer theories. So maybe that is how I should define my foundationalism: The idea that there are true, fundamental properties of existence that we can uncover/approach (never with 100% certainty though) over time through the aid of science and rational inquiry.

  15. More on isms, on religionism and scientism...

    Since the early 1900’s ALL “science” has been taken over by the Technology Culture of the religious Americans, represented by the trade-union-church AAAS. Plain and simple. There has not been any science in the world since then except “religious-American-science”.

    On the blissful religious science ignorance…:

    USA-World Science Hegemony Is Science Blind

    Since the early 2000s I have been posting many articles on science items surveyed and analyzed by me, without religious background-concepts. I have been doing this because I was deeply disturbed by the religiosity of the 1848-founded AAAS trade-union and by the consequent religious background-tint of its extensive “scientific” publications and activities.

    On my next birthday I’ll be 88-yrs old. I know that I’m deeply engaged in a Don Quixotic mission-war to extricate-free the USA and world Science from the clutches and consequences of the religious-trade-union-church AAAS, adopted strangely by the majority of scientifically ignorant religious god-trusting Americans and by their most other humanity following flocks…

    But I am sincerely confident that only thus it is feasible and possible to embark on a new, rational, Human culture (Scientism) and on new more beneficial and effective technology courses for humanity…

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)

  16. Fascinating article,

    In reading it I was reminded of some quotes from Neils Bohr.

    "Two sorts of truth: profound truths recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth, in contrast to trivialities where opposites are obviously absurd."

    "The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth."


    "How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress."

    I am in the corner with Ladyman & Ross that there are at root no fundamental things. So for me an inter-connected web of relations seem like a good way to think about these issues. Of course just saying everything is related is not very useful either. I do think that recognition of the web foundation can prevent the types of errors that Harris and Krause make dismissing philosophy.

    I read on science2.0 an article by Amir Aczel awhile back about a type of math that accounts for the excluded middle and relates to eastern philosophy and possibly quantum logic. I think it relates to this post so will post the link:

    Thanks for the post Massimo, I will need to read it a few more times to adjust my thoughts.

    1. That Amir Aczel article cited was one of the best ever.

  17. I loved this article. But having said that, I myself find it difficult to distinguish between facts and theories. Evolution, Special Relativity and all are easily understood as theories. But what about the idea that humans need oxygen to survive? Is it a fact or a theory? Massimo, please expand on this in issue in future articles. Because I find it very confusing.

    What I think is, the idea that humans need oxygen to survive is a theory. Because you need a lot of concepts to understand what oxygen means. Usually we say, we need oxygen to survive, and that's a fact. But if that too is a theory, I wonder what facts means in the first place. I'd say, whatever is, is a fact. Is the idea that we need oxygen to survive a fact, or is it a theory we developed to explain a fact? I think it's a theory. But then, what exactly is the fact there?

    Then it gets even more complex. If the idea that humans need oxygen is a theory, then the idea that my bicycle has mass must also be a theory. The idea of atoms is certainly a theory, beyond which we have already moved. Then what about humans who are made from atoms. Is the idea that humans exist a fact, or a theory like the idea that humans need oxygen to survive? Well, if oxygen thing too is theory, humans are theory too.

    Whatever is, is a fact. But even if there are facts (I believe there are. Objective reality exists), we can't know about any of them without forming a concept about them. So all knowledge is concept. All knowledge is theory.

    I know this is a dangerous path to travel. It's the Kant->Hegal-> Heidegger->Derrida path. But it bugs me that I can't step outside myself and see reality without the use of my mind. In fact it bugs me thatI can't step outside myself and look at me.And since I can't step outside myself, it seems that all I can do is model my experience in a way that allows me to make accurate predictions (another concept), and based on that accuracy call my theories true. So truth is how my theories according to another concept I have. Then how can I justify my belief that my model of reality is how reality actually works? Why not use some other truth criteria?

    I don't know what I'm talking about. It just bugs me.

    1. brainoil,

      I can assure you that you ain't going Derrida! That said, the sort of considerations you put forth are exactly why I said that the fact/theory distinction is real, but a matter of degrees. Take your example of breathing: it is a fact that human beings breath air. It is a theory (albeit a very well substantiated one!) that what we breadth is (in part) oxygen. The same, say, with atoms: it is a fact that we are made of material substance; it is a theory that we are made of atoms that are themselves made in certain ways. And of course all these theories are scientific, which means they are based on observations and experiments (i.e., "facts"). I hope this helps!

    2. Yes. But I can't help feeling that something's amiss here. What makes human beings breathe air a fact, and what they breathe is oxygen a theory? The difference isn't clear to me. Rocks don'tknow that humans breathe, as far as we know. Animals don't know humans breathe air, even though they have sense organs, as far as we know. Only we know we breathe. Why? I think it's because we can make concepts. We take in the sense data and form concepts about them. That's why I think that one can argue, human beings breathing air is not a fact, but rather a concept created to explain a fact. So I think it's not that easy to argue that human beings breathing air is a fact, and humans needing oxygen to air is theory.

      See the fundamenatal problem I see here is that we can't step outside our minds and observe the world. We take the external reality for granted, even though we don't have knock-down argument for solipsism (if anyone has one, I'd be happy to know). But even if the external world exists, it's not as if human consciousness is a mirror of external reality. It forms concepts. It takes data from sense organs (data that are erroneous from time to time, apparently), and it orders them, catalogues and unifes them using concpets that it creates.

      What I think the postmodernists do wrong is that from here they jump to there is external objective reality, and that you can believe anything you like. That doesn't seem right. 1 sheep + 1 sheep always looks like 2 sheeps to me, so if you're going to pay for only 1 sheep when you're taking 2 sheeps, I'd feel cheated, quite rightly. But still, I'm not convinced that humans breathing air is a fact, and humans needing oxygen to survive is a theory.

    3. I think everying is connected to some degree,but as Massimo indicated with the moon orbit example degree matters, and some things are so loosely connected they can be practically ignored. The Aczel article I linked to seems descibes a topos mathematics that accounts for the "nearness" of relations rather than being rooted in set theory.

      The concept seems promising to me.

  18. "it is a fact that we are made of material substance'

    Hmmm...It seems like 'facts' emerge and are perceived by what I've heard Dennett refer to as the 'Manifest Image'. Yet in Physics aren't atoms,fermions, bosons & fields considered more ontologically fundamental then material substance? I suppose the limited access of the 'Manifest Image' requires theories to gain a more truthful 'ontological image'.

    I think what is important is to aknowledge that 'facts' emerge from a web of relations.

    1. What is a manifest image?

    2. "What is a manifest image?"

      The term was used often in the "moving naturalism forward" conference that Massimo took part in. I wasn't familiar with the source so I just looked it up. It was introduced by Wilrid Sellars as "the framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the world". It is how we "ordinarily" observe and think about the world, Sellars contrasts it with "the scientific image".


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.