Monday, October 17, 2005

Effing The Ineffable


All kinds of things are unpredictable. If someone accidentally believes in a particular outcome from an unpredictable origin, I find it hard to accept that belief constitutes "knowledge".

While knowledge as "justified true belief" is a poor definition of knowledge, it seems to capture something like what most people mean by knowledge.

Let me instead refer to only "justified belief". It seems to me that there are many things which by their very nature are justified, and some which are not. Since I question whether a claim to knowledge can be anything other than a probablistic claim based on experience, justified belief seems to capture my preferred concept perfectly.

For example, maths is self-justified. It is a declaration of a system, and deductions within that system as justified by the initial declaration. It is interesting that the physical world seems to work the same way! I have this nagging doubt as to whether things "have to be like that", or whether we're just lucky that the universe follows rules.

Lots of things are unjustified, but let's look at what's unjustifiable in principle. By this I mean something which, by its very concept, cannot be justified -- that unjustifiability is assumed in its definition.

All meaningless claims are unjustifiable. Just technically speaking, you can't ever assess them, so there's just no way.

Many people would claim that the universe works in a way which is fundamentally incomprehensible. Let's say I call this method "Magic". The word magic is not incomprehensible, for it picks out that system whose manifestations we describe using all sorts of things like physical laws etc. However, there are aspects to its nature which I can never know for my own nature is intrinsically such that those facts cannot be known. Perhaps they rely on a greater intelligence than I can bring to bear, or the ability to percieve real things which I cannot in this existence.

Claims about what constitutes that incomprehensible nature are meaningless, but it is not meaningless to suppose that such a thing might exist. For example, it seems not unreasonable to suppose that there is some unifying abstract theory which ties in all the laws of physics in a way which prevents the world from tearing itself to pieces.

Regardless of whether you think that's useful or not, I think I have now expanded the list of unjustifiable things to two: meaningless claims and incomprehensible ones (much like this email is beginning to seem!).

You're probably after something a bit meatier though.

Many wrong things are meaningful but unjustifiable. "3 + 5 = 2" is unjustifiable.

A lot of Martin Heidegger's work was concerned with the absolute nature of things -- he talked a lot about phenomenology. Husserl also talked about this. He gave consciousness as an example of something which was meangingful but somewhat incomprehensible. Because consciousness itself can never be directly experienced, it is something which is at least partly un-knowable (i.e. has a nature partly beyond justifiable proposition).

He came to this conclusion that consciousness is always consciousness of something, and it is a paradox to be conscious of consciousness itself. (Along the lines of it not being possible to be conscious of unconsciousness -- you could never know both sides of the box).

Some things may not be amenable to mathematical, conceptual or phenomenological reduction. As such, they are unjustifiable.



Anonymous Rebecca said...

3 + 5 = 2 might be justifiable if you're working in a number system where everything is modulo 6 ... :)

I would divide up justifiable/unjustifiable things into perhaps 4 different categories:

1. things that can be justified to be true;
2. things that can be justified to be false (your 'wrong things');
3. things that can be proven to be unjustifiable either way (I think your other examples fit here); and
4. things that are unjustifiable given the knowledge we have currently, but could theoretically be justified to be true or false if we had more information.

10/18/2005 10:24:00 AM  

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