(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘epistemology

“Our beauty lies in this extended capacity for convolution”*…

John Semley contemplates an America awash in junk mail and junk science…

… In the long interregnum between Trump’s loss and his unceremonious retreat from the White House, the postal service would play a critical role in what the pundit class liked to call his Big Lie. He framed mail-in ballots, baselessly, as being especially susceptible to fraud and manipulation. Even before the election, back when he could still avail himself of Twitter, Trump tweeted that such ballots would lead, irrevocably, to “MAYHEM!!!” His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, freshly clowned-on in the new Borat movie, would likewise crow that hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots tilted the results. Elsewhere, on newly struck TV ads, postal workers were framed as pandemic-era heroes, delivering parcels to communities squirming under stay-at-home orders.

This contest over the image of the postal service—and mail itself—revealed a more profound tension, a deeper crisis facing democracies in America and elsewhere. It is a fundamentally epistemic crisis: about the control and promulgation of information, and how that information comes to shape a worldview, and how those worldviews come to bear on the world itself. And it’s just one front in a war of epistemologies that has been raging since at least the republic’s inception. Because to control the mail, as [Seinfeld‘s] Newman himself once memorably snarled, is to control information.

The control of information is key to any ideological project….

There follows a fascinating historical rumination on postal services and America’s history with information and mis/disinformation, and a consideration of our current moment, replete with insights from observers ranging from Scientific American to Thomas Pynchon– richly informative, genuinely entertaining, deeply provocative, and, in the end, at least mildly optimistic: “America, Ex Post Facto,” from @johnsemley3000 in @thebafflermag.

* Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49


As we scrutinize sense and sensibility, we might recall that it was on this date in 1998 that Clarence E. Lewis Jr. was named Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President of the U.S. Postal Service, becoming the highest-ranking African-American postal employee to that date. He had started his postal career as a substitute city letter carrier in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1966. On his retirement in 2000, he was given the Benjamin Franklin Award, the Postal Service’s highest honor.


“The truth is rarely pure and never simple”*…

For a century, the idea of truth has been deflated, becoming terrain from which philosophers fled. Crispin Sartwell argues that they must return – urgently…

It is often said, rather casually, that truth is dissolving, that we live in the ‘post-truth era’. But truth is one of our central concepts – perhaps our most central concept – and I don’t think we can do without it. To believe that masks prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to take it to be true that they do. To assert it is to claim that it is true. Truth is, plausibly, central to thought and communication in every case. And, of course, it’s often at stake in practical political debates and policy decisions, with regard to climate change or vaccines, for example, or who really won the election, or whom we should listen to about what.

One might have hoped to turn to philosophy for a clarification of the nature of truth, and maybe even a celebration of it. But philosophy of pragmatist, analytic and continental varieties lurched into the post-truth era a century ago. If truth is a problem now for everyone, if the idea seems empty or useless in ‘the era of social media’, ‘science denialism’, ‘conspiracy theories’ and suchlike, maybe that just means that ‘everyone’ has caught up to where philosophy was in 1922…

[Sartwell sketches the last 100 years of philosophy, and it’s undermining of the very idea of truth.]

I don’t think, despite all the attacks on the notion by all sorts of philosophers for a good century, that we’re going to be able to do without truth. In a way, I don’t think all those attacks touched truth at all, which (we’re finding) is necessary, still the only possible cure…

As a first step… we might broaden the focus from the philosophical question of what makes a sentence or proposition true or false to focus on some of the rich ways the concept of truth functions in our discourse. That love is true does not mean that it is a representation that matches up to reality. It does not mean that the love hangs together with all the rest of the lover or lovee’s belief system. It doesn’t mean that the hypothesis that my love is true helps us resolve our problems (it might introduce more problems). It means that the love is intense and authentic, or, as I’d like to put it, that it is actual, real. That my aim is true does not indicate that my aim accurately pictures the external world, but that it thumps the actual world right in the centre, as it were.

Perhaps what is true or false isn’t only, or even primarily, propositions, but loves and aims, and the world itself. That is, I would like to start out by thinking of ‘true’ as a semi-synonym of ‘real’. If I were formulating in parallel to Aristotle, I might say that ‘What is, is true.’ And perhaps there’s something to be said for Heidegger’s ‘comportment’ after all: to know and speak the real requires a certain sort of commitment: a commitment to face reality. Failures of truth are, often, failures to face up. Now, I’m not sure how much that will help with mathematics, but maths needs to understand that it is only one among the many forms of human knowledge. We, or at any rate I, might hope that an account that addresses the traditional questions about propositional truth might emerge from this broader structure of understanding. That is speculative, I admit.

Truth may not be the eternal unchanging Form that Plato thought it was, but that doesn’t mean it can be destroyed by a few malevolent politicians, tech moguls or linguistic philosophers, though the tech moguls and some of the philosophers (David Chalmers, for instance) might be trying to undermine or invent reality, as well. Until they manage it, the question of truth is as urgent, or more urgent, than ever, and I would say that despite the difficulties, philosophers need to take another crack. Perhaps not at aletheia as a joy forever, but at truth as we find it, and need it, now…

On why philosophy needs to return of the question of truth: “Truth Is Real,” from @CrispinSartwell in @aeonmag.

Source of the image above, also relevant: “The difference between ‘Truth’ and ‘truth’.”

* Oscar Wilde


As we wrestle with reality, we might recall that it was on this date in 1986 that Geraldo Rivera opened “Al Capone’s Vault”…

Notorious and “most wanted” gangster, Al Capone, began his life of crime in Chicago in 1919 and had his headquarters set up at the Lexington Hotel until his arrest in 1931. Years later, renovations were being made at the hotel when a team of workers discovered a shooting-range and series of connected tunnels that led to taverns and brothels making for an easy escape should there be a police raid. Rumors were spread that Capone had a secret vault hidden under the hotel as well. In 1985, news reporter Geraldo Rivera had been fired from ABC after he criticized the network for canceling his report made about an alleged relationship between John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. It seemed like a good time for Rivera to scoop a new story to repair his reputation. It was on this day in 1986 that his live, two-hour, syndicated TV special, The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault aired. After lots of backstory, the time finally came to reveal what was in that vault. It turned out to be empty. After the show, Rivera was quoted as saying “Seems like we struck out.”



Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 21, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Reality is frequently inaccurate”*…

Machine learning and what it may teach us about reality…

Our latest paradigmatic technology, machine learning, may be revealing the everyday world as more accidental than rule-governed. If so, it will be because machine learning gains its epistemological power from its freedom from the sort of generalisations that we humans can understand or apply.

The opacity of machine learning systems raises serious concerns about their trustworthiness and their tendency towards bias. But the brute fact that they work could be bringing us to a new understanding and experience of what the world is and our role in it…

The world is a black box full of extreme specificity: it might be predictable but that doesn’t mean it is understandable: “Learn from Machine Learning,” by David Weinberger (@dweinberger) in @aeonmag.

(image above: source)

* Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe


As ruminate on the real, we might send carefully-computed birthday greetings to Grace Brewster Murray Hopper.  A seminal computer scientist and Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy, “Amazing Grace” (as she was known to many in her field) was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer (in 1944), invented the first compiler for a computer programming language, and was one of the leaders in popularizing the concept of machine-independent programming languages– which led to the development of COBOL, one of the first high-level programming languages.

Hopper also found and documented the first computer “bug” (in 1947).

She has both a ship (the guided-missile destroyer USS Hopper) and a super-computer (the Cray XE6 “Hopper” at NERSC) named in her honor.


“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”*…

Objective reality has properties outside the range of our senses (and for that matter, our instruments); and studies suggest that our brains warp sensory data as soon as we collect it. So we’d do well to remember that we don’t have– and likely won’t ever have– perfect information…

Many philosophers believe objective reality exists, if “objective” means “existing as it is independently of any perception of it.” However, ideas on what that reality actually is and how much of it we can interact with vary dramatically.

Aristotle argued, in contrast to his teacher Plato, that the world we interact with is as real as it gets and that we can have knowledge of it, but he thought that the knowledge we could have about it was not quite perfect. Bishop Berkeley thought everything existed as ideas in minds — he argued against the notion of physical matter — but that there was an objective reality since everything also existed in the mind of God. Immanuel Kant, a particularly influential Enlightenment philosopher, argued that while “the thing in itself” — an object as it exists independently of being subjectively observed — is real and exists, you cannot know anything about it directly.

Today, a number of metaphysical realists maintain that external reality exists, but they also suggest that our understanding of it is an approximation that we can improve upon. There are also direct realists who argue that we can interact with the world as it is, directly. They hold that many of the things we see when we interact with objects can be objectively known, though some things, like color, are subjective traits.

While it might be granted that our knowledge of the world is not perfect and is at least sometimes subjective, that doesn’t have to mean that the physical world doesn’t exist. The trouble is how we can go about knowing anything that isn’t subjective about it if we admit that our sensory information is not perfect.

As it turns out, that is a pretty big question.

Science both points toward a reality that exists independently of how any subjective observer interacts with it and shows us how much our viewpoints can get in the way of understanding the world as it is. The question of how objective science is in the first place is also a problem — what if all we are getting is a very refined list of how things work within our subjective view of the world?

Physical experiments like the Wigner’s Friend test show that our understanding of objective reality breaks down whenever quantum mechanics gets involved, even when it is possible to run a test. On the other hand, a lot of science seems to imply that there is an objective reality about which the scientific method is pretty good at capturing information.

Evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins argues:

“Science’s belief in objective truth works. Engineering technology based upon the science of objective truth, achieves results. It manages to build planes that get off the ground. It manages to send people to the moon and explore Mars with robotic vehicles on comets. Science works, science produces antibiotics, vaccines that work. So anybody who chooses to say, ‘Oh, there’s no such thing as objective truth. It’s all subjective, it’s all socially constructed.’ Tell that to a doctor, tell that to a space scientist, manifestly science works, and the view that there is no such thing as objective truth doesn’t.”

While this leans a bit into being an argument from the consequences, he has a point: Large complex systems which suppose the existence of an objective reality work very well. Any attempt to throw out the idea of objective reality still has to explain why these things work.

A middle route might be to view science as the systematic collection of subjective information in a way that allows for intersubjective agreement between people. Under this understanding, even if we cannot see the world as it is, we could get universal or near-universal intersubjective agreement about something like how fast light travels in a vacuum. This might be as good as it gets, or it could be a way to narrow down what we can know objectively. Or maybe it is something else entirely.

While objective reality likely exists, our senses might not be able to access it well at all. We are limited beings with limited viewpoints and brains that begin to process sensory data the moment we acquire it. We must always be aware of our perspective, how that impacts what data we have access to, and that other perspectives may have a grain of truth to them…

Objective reality exists, but what can you know about it that isn’t subjective? Maybe not much: “You don’t see objective reality objectively: neuroscience catches up to philosophy.”

* Albert Einstein


As we ponder perspective, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Confucius; he was born on this date in 551 BCE. A a Chinese philosopher and politician of the Spring and Autumn period, he has been traditionally considered the paragon of Chinese sages and is widely considered one of the most important and influential individuals in human history, as his teachings and philosophy formed the basis of East Asian culture and society, and continue to remain influential across China and East Asia today.

His philosophical teachings, called Confucianism, emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, kindness, and sincerity. Confucianism was part of the Chinese social fabric and way of life; to Confucians, everyday life was the arena of religion. It was he who espoused the well-known principle “Do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself,” the Golden Rule.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 28, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Facts are facts and will not disappear on account of your likes”*…

This artist rendering provided by the European South Observatory shows some of the 32 new planets astronomers found outside our solar system

… That said, some facts may morph out from under us. In consideration of “in-between” facts:

When people think of knowledge, they generally think of two sorts of facts: facts that don’t change, like the height of Mount Everest or the capital of the United States, and facts that fluctuate constantly, like the temperature or the stock market close.

But in between there is a third kind: facts that change slowly. These are facts which we tend to view as fixed, but which shift over the course of a lifetime. For example: What is Earth’s population? I remember learning 6 billion, and some of you might even have learned 5 billion. Well, it turns out it’s about 6.8 billion.

Or, imagine you are considering relocating to another city. Not recognizing the slow change in the economic fortunes of various metropolitan areas, you immediately dismiss certain cities. For example, Pittsburgh, a city in the core of the historic Rust Belt of the United States, was for a long time considered to be something of a city to avoid. But recently, its economic fortunes have changed, swapping steel mills for technology, with its job growth ranked sixth in the entire United States.

These slow-changing facts are what I term “mesofacts.” Mesofacts are the facts that change neither too quickly nor too slowly, that lie in this difficult-to-comprehend middle, or meso-, scale. Often, we learn these in school when young and hold onto them, even after they change. For example, if, as a baby boomer, you learned high school chemistry in 1970, and then, as we all are apt to do, did not take care to brush up on your chemistry periodically, you would not realize that there are 12 new elements in the Periodic Table. Over a tenth of the elements have been discovered since you graduated high school! While this might not affect your daily life, it is astonishing and a bit humbling.

For these kinds of facts, the analogy of how to boil a frog is apt: Change the temperature quickly, and the frog jumps out of the pot. But slowly increase the temperature, and the frog doesn’t realize that things are getting warmer, until it’s been boiled. So, too, is it with humans and how we process information. We recognize rapid change, whether it’s as simple as a fast-moving object or living with the knowledge that humans have walked on the moon. But anything short of large-scale rapid change is often ignored. This is the reason we continue to write the wrong year during the first days of January.

Our schools are biased against mesofacts. The arc of our educational system is to be treated as little generalists when children, absorbing bits of knowledge about everything from biology to social studies to geology. But then, as we grow older, we are encouraged to specialize. This might have been useful in decades past, but in our increasingly fast-paced and interdisciplinary world, lacking an even approximate knowledge of our surroundings is unwise.

Updating your mesofacts can change how you think about the world. Do you know the percentage of people in the world who use mobile phones? In 1997, the answer was 4 percent. By 2007, it was nearly 50 percent. The fraction of people who are mobile phone users is the kind of fact you might read in a magazine and quote at a cocktail party. But years later the number you would be quoting would not just be inaccurate, it would be seriously wrong. The difference between a tiny fraction of the world and half the globe is startling, and completely changes our view on global interconnectivity.

Mesofacts can also be fun. Let’s focus for a moment on some mesofacts that can be of vital importance if you’re a child, or parent of a child: those about dinosaurs. Just a few decades ago, dinosaurs were thought to be cold-blooded, slow-witted lizards that walked with their legs splayed out beside them. Now, scientists think that many dinosaurs were warm-blooded and fast-moving creatures. And they even had feathers! Just a few weeks ago we learned about the color patterns of dinosaurs (stripes! with orange tufts!). These facts might not affect how you live your life, but then again, you’re probably not 6 years old. There is another mesofact that is unlikely to affect your daily routine, but might win you a bar bet: the number of planets known outside the solar system. After the first extrasolar planet around an ordinary star made headlines back in 1995, most people stopped paying attention. Well, the number of extrasolar planets is currently over 400. Know this, and the next round won’t be on you.

The fact that the world changes rapidly is exciting, but everyone knows about that. There is much change that is neither fast nor momentous, but no less breathtaking.

Introducing the mesofact: “Warning- Your reality is out of date,” from Samuel Arbesman (@arbesman) who went on to develop this notion in a wonderful book, The Half-Life of Facts. Via @inevernu who notes that the above article, which ran in 2010, contains examples of mesofacts that have already changed again– illustrating Arbesman’s point…

* Jawaharlal Nehru


As we noodle on knowledge, we might recall that it was on this date in 1642 that the first American college commencement ceremony was held at Harvard College. It was North America’s first taste of non-religious ritual– and was designed to send a clear message to England that its American colonies were a going concern. Still, of the nine seniors graduated, three soon crossed the Atlantic the other way, one to serve as a diplomat for the rebellious Oliver Cromwell and another to study medicine in Italy.

Apropos the piece above, the curriculum followed by those graduates was rather different– was filled with different facts– than those of classes in later centuries.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 23, 2021 at 1:00 am

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