Saturday, December 06, 2014

Knowledge and the Problem of Deduction

There are few things more debated in Philosophy than knowledge itself. What constitutes knowledge, how is it acquired, what process do we use to validate it. But in all of that morass what gets lost is that the reasoning process, philosophy in general and deduction in particular, have a deep and innate problem. A problem that is as old as the invention of the reasoning process, a problem that underlies all of philosophy and gave rise to the Rationalist, Skeptic, and Empiricist schools of philosophical thought.

For some context it is worth starting with the often quoted and misunderstood "Problem of Induction," which is generally and somewhat mistakenly ascribed to a 1748 treatise by Hume.

The Problem of Induction

As Wikipedia puts it:
The problem of induction is the philosophical question of whether inductive reasoning leads to knowledge understood in the classic philosophical sense, since it focuses on the lack of justification for either:
  1. Generalizing about the properties of a class of objects based on some number of observations of particular instances of that class (for example, the inference that "all swans we have seen are white, and therefore all swans are white," before the discovery of black swans) or
  2. Presupposing that a sequence of events in the future will occur as it always has in the past (for example, that the laws of physics will hold as they have always been observed to hold). Hume called this the principle of uniformity of nature.
Wikipedia continues with the rather important caveat:
The problem calls into question all empirical claims made in everyday life or through the scientific method and for that reason the philosopher C. D. Broad said that "induction is the glory of science and the scandal of philosophy...."
First thing to note is "knowledge understood in the classic philosophical sense" the second part to note is the "lack of justification" which means "no deductive justification." In short the problem of induction is that it is not deduction. Hume would be appalled that his name is associated with such a narrow-minded conception.

Hume himself, in "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding," made that distinction. Besides never using the term "induction" in his treatise, he was very clear that the majority of human knowledge about the world comes from innate forms of reasoning. His treatise was in part his attempt to shine some light on this wide gulf of philosophical understanding on what we now call induction and abduction. He was not calling into question induction itself, he was calling into question the capabilities of philosophy to understand how our mind worked. How could our mind narrow down the infinite possibilities into those that followed from reality. In his words:
...this operation of the mind, by which we infer like effects from like causes, and vice versa, is so essential to the subsistence of all human creatures, it is not probable, that it could be trusted to the fallacious deductions of our reason, which is slow in its operations, appears not during the first years of infancy, and at best is, in every age and period of human life, extremely liable to error and mistake. It is more conformable to the ordinary wisdom of nature to secure so necessary an act of the mind, by some instinct or mechanical tendency, which may be infallible in its operations...
So for Hume it is clear that this "problem" is only a problem for philosophy, not reality. Philosophy must be understood as one more of the sciences. It is the science of thinking about thinking within the confines of human language, knowledge, and understanding. But, as a science, philosophy is not above reality. What we "know" is not circumscribed to what philosophers claim to be its ill-defined "knowledge." Philosophy has its limitations, it is silly to ascribe those limitations to human knowledge. The reality is that brains are inductive machines, machines that rely almost exclusively on induction and abduction to ensure our survival. It can be reasonably claimed (and Hume does) that deduction itself, and therefore all of philosophy, is nothing more than the product of induction working via the evolution of ideas.

Evolution is an example of induction at work over a simple tautological truth: The fittest survive because these are the fittest to survive. An apparent circular reasoning that singularly defines evolution itself. If an idea or organism, out of the many random variations that are generated every day, is not fit to survive it won't survive. If it is fit to work inside the environment and the environment does not get rid of it, it will survive. Random variations funneled and guided by the environment, making the most fit organisms and ideas more probable and the less fit less probable.

That same tautology underlies Philosophy itself. Deduction works because deduction works (within its limitations). There cannot be any further justification for it except that it has worked in the past. That is, inductively it works. Deduction, the product of the evolution of ideas, is itself an inductive construct of our minds. From this it should be clear that induction, not deduction, is closer to being a fundamental natural law and it is just a problem in the sense of understanding how it works.

Once we place "the problem of induction" within this broader context, we would realize that it has long been solved by Bayesianism in general, and Solomonoff's Universal Induction in particular. But the solution is not trivially intuitive to those without a solid background in probability and computability theories. Probabilities and likelihood are the concepts that solidify and instrument our understanding of our natural induction process, in an attempt to explain how the machinery of the mind achieves its goals. Hume himself hinted at this:
...where different effects follow from causes, which are to appearance exactly similar, all these various effects must occur to the mind in transferring the past to the future, and enter into our consideration, when we determine the probability of the event. Though we give the preference to that which has been found most usual, and believe that this effect will exist, we must not overlook the other effects, but must assign to them a particular weight and authority, in proportion as we have found it to be more or less frequent...
That is the Bayesian subjective probability perspective coming from the very same treatise that has long been associated with "the problem of induction."

The Problem of Deduction

Instead of a Problem of Induction we should consider the long-standing Problem of Deduction which, as Hume himself said, we cannot trust it for our survival because of its being slow and extremely liable to error and mistake. This problem not only underlies all of philosophy at least since the age of enlightenment, but was deductively proven by Gödel with his incompleteness theorem, which can be restated as: Deductive systems are not only incomplete, but cannot prove their own consistency. (For those that consider that Gödel only applies to systems capable of arithmetic, multiple versions of the same basic idea have been proven that extend the conclusion to all reasonable deductive systems. Here is an example from doxastic logic, and another example from computability theory).

The problem of deduction, and philosophy in general, is a large part of what defined the empiricist movement starting in the mid 17th century , as Immanuel Kant put it:
How little cause have we to place trust in our reason if in one of the most important parts of our desire for knowledge it does not merely forsake us but even entices us with delusions and in the end betrays us!
All deductive systems, logic in particular and philosophy in general, rely on the truth of its axioms or premises. So the problem of deduction is really that it is impossible to know the truth of axioms without assuming some a priori "fountain of truth" on which to rely. While rationalism claims access to the truth of innate ideas or revelation, skepticism rightfully points out that such fountain of truth is unattainable.

Empiricism solves this problem, because as opposed to rationalism and skepticism, empiricism focuses on the role of experience, evidence, and the senses, over the notions of innate ideas, tradition, or revelation. That is, empiricism opens up the middle way by relying on induction to obtain truth, reliable enough, on which to set its foundations.

But the real problem of deduction is that most people fail to see anything wrong with it. Most ignore that whatever deductive process is followed, it is resting on probabilistic grounds. Probabilities do not combine gracefully. It is very easy to start with high-probability premises and end with very low probability outcomes. This is particularly true when we take into account the vagaries of language and even go as far as constructing logic systems to represent them.

When this expansion via language and probabilities is taken into account, deductive systems become less reliable the more complicated the deductive process is. The shakier the axioms, the faster it degrades; the more ill-defined the terminology, the shakier the conclusions will be; and the looser the logic the sillier the conclusions become. So the problem of deduction is that it is used with everyday language, while most people live under the illusion propagated by armchair philosophers that there is no problem with it.


When it comes to knowledge, that most debated of philosophical subjects, it is worth keeping in mind what Hume said:
When we entertain any suspicion that a philosophical term is employed without any meaning or idea (as is but too frequent), we need but enquire, from what impression is that supposed idea derived? And if it be impossible to assign any, this will serve to confirm our suspicion. By bringing ideas into so clear a light we might reasonably hope to remove all dispute, which may arise, concerning their nature and reality.
The traditional philosophical idea of knowledge is an ideal that has to resort to an axiomatic universal truth to survive. That view is a distortion that partially arises from the illusion of "truth" intrinsic to deductive reasoning. Skepticism has it right, if that is the idea of knowledge, then such knowledge is unattainable by humankind. Empiricism, being the cornerstone of science itself, is the golden standard for all of what we consider knowledge in the modern world.

Being an inductive construct that arises from reality makes knowledge tentative, a probabilistic and ever-improving body of information that approaches reality itself. Scientific knowledge can be superseded by further scientific knowledge. Theories get superseded by more precise theories. But note that it is a matter of degree, not of a discrete all or nothing "truth value" from some idealized unattainable construct. As induction itself, it gets closer and closer to the truth of reality the more information is gathered.

Newton's theory of gravitation has long been superseded by Einstein's General Relativity, but for our everyday reality Newton is much more than enough. An engineer does not use Einstein's equations when building a bridge or even a rocket, she would use Newton's equations. It is only when the additional precision is needed, for example in the clocks that drive the equations behind GPS satellites and receivers, that General Relativity is taken into account.

It is commonplace that multiple ideas of knowledge be conflated in language. People talk about theories being proven wrong as if that somehow invalidates the knowledge derived from them. As if somehow the fact that it is not an unattainable "universal truth" makes it any less true. Knowledge is, by necessity, tentative but ever-improving thanks to the machinery of induction operating over the continuous evolution of ideas.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Satanist thesis

Lucifer, the bringer of light, the morning star; not an allegory but a direct translation of the origin of the term, even Jesus has that nickname. Satan, the opposition; what the corresponding word means in Hebrew, keep in mind that the idea of hell does not exist in Judaism. Beelzebub, Ba‘al Zəbûb, Baal of the flies, the god of the opposing tribe being derided by the followers of El. The devil, diábolos, diabolus, the accuser, the slanderer, the adversary. Evil, origin uncertain: transgression. Is it just me or is there an obvious pattern here?

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The purpose of prayer

As an atheist I always saw prayer as silly, it was just asking an imaginary friend for things that you wanted. Yet I still think its normal to be reciting mental mantras to remind myself of that which was important. Now I get to see both under the same light. Prayer must have evolved from this need of mental repetition, if the intention is strong enough, and the request sensible or vague enough, you might manage to grant it to yourself, so voilà prayer works.

In Buddhism prayer has a purpose, it is a task to be done, it serves to weaken the false ego. That part of you that only wants to do that which it finds fun to do at that particular time. That part that finds a hundred different excuses to procrastinate what is important until it cannot be delayed any further. That part that files for tax deferrals instead of taking the time to file the taxes. That is, something that must be done just because it must be done or there will be consequences. Just the normal things that life asks of us.

Have you ever gone to a party that you did not want to go to, just because a close friend or significant other prodded you to do it, and then you actually had fun at the party? Buddhist prayer in a way is like that. But it should only be done if it serves that purpose, not if it is simply rote repetition, if it is just for display, or if it is asking something to some imaginary being.

The main purpose of prayer is to set intention, to set purpose, to set our minds in a path that is receptive to what we would like to learn or achieve. Just as genuflecting towards a teacher is a sign of respect towards what is going to be taught; prayer is in part a commitment to respect the wisdom that has been evolving through millennia, from master to apprentice and new master. Buddhism itself.

I am personally more partial to mantras, it suits me better, it keeps internal what I deem should be internal. A conversation with myself with the purpose of being listened by myself. For tasks that need to be done, just because these need to be done, I have grass to cut and taxes to file; real life has plenty of those. Before meditation, or just in my normal day, I can set intention via the methodical repetition of personal mantras. Mantras that I feel I need and may simply make up on the spot. Who knows, perhaps at some point I will appreciate prayer more, but now I just see it as an external sign devoid of meaning—too close to the christian façade. And if it is devoid of meaning, for me, then it is simply not worth doing. Your mileage will vary.

But, when it comes to children, I believe that the custom of prayer should be preserved. Not in the sense of talking to an imaginary friend, but in the sense of talking to yourself to set your own goals, dreams, and intentions. To set morals, ethics, and interests. To make promises to the self, to family, to society, and learn to follow through or learn why the aim was set too high by the self. To do what needs to be done regardless of wanting to do it or not. To learn to enjoy life regardless of its ups and downs. Praying aloud allows us, as parents, to monitor our child's emotional development and guide them the best we can. But beware of rote repetition, that is not prayer, that is just words devoid of meaning.

Allow your children to make prayer personal, require them to make them personal, remind them of what should be important. After all, as a parent, you are responsible for the next generation of humanity. But never forget that their prayers are your children's alone, these are not for you or for anyone else. If they break a promise it is a promise they made to themselves, they should have their reasons, you are allowed to be curious. But it is really none of your business if they don't want to allow you to know. By then, you will know that your job as prayer-officer is done, and unvoiced mantras can take their place.

Thinking of all the time I wasted as a kid praying for protection to an imaginary being, I came to see that perhaps that allowed me to not be scared of the darkness of night, perhaps that gave me more courage than I would have had otherwise. It is hard to fathom what trusting an external force, bigger than yourself, can do for your personality. It is nearly impossible for me to see how that changed my form of thinking, I did become an atheist as soon as I became a teenager after all.

Prayer might have had something to do with me becoming an atheist. It also explains why to this day, after many years of being an atheist, I still find comfort in the sign of the cross. Childhood emotions are very hard to let go, particularly when these are embedded into motor memories. Perhaps we don't have to let them go, there is no need to throw away the baby with the bathwater, we can make use of those motor memories after all. The feelings these motor memories will evoke in the adult that your child will become. Live long and prosper.

Leonard Nimoy by Gage Skidmore. © licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Birthdays and wisdom

As I reach another revolution around the sun, it becomes even clearer that age has little to do with wisdom. Similar to how the number of pirates has to do with global warming, age is correlated but it is not the cause of wisdom. Wisdom is about learning from life experiences, wisdom is understanding, it is managing to put life experience into a context in which it makes sense. Wisdom is acquired by making mistakes, by trial and error. It is quite hard to achieve wisdom via someone else's eyes. We call it learning, and it cannot be done for you.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The seal of reality

Mahamudra, the great seal of reality. Reality as the measure of all things, or, as we know it in the west thanks to John Locke's 1688 Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, empiricism. Which was an improvement on Aristotle's idea of a Tabula Rasa for the human mind—furthered by Al Farabi during the Islamic renaissance while the west was in the middle of its dark ages. Empiricism is the main pillar of science, what makes science advance to the levels that we see today, what sets the limits to confirmation bias: hypotheses testing and experimentation.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

What is meditation

Meditation, seldom is a word more misunderstood. From a written discourse expressing carefully considered thoughts on a subject, as the writings that mark the purported origin of the scientific method by René Descartes, to a transcendental connection to the divine, whatever that is. But in reality, as it is used by Tibetan Buddhists around the world, it is just thinking carefully and methodically. A mental exercise.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Atheist, Ignostic, and Buddhist

This 4th of July I reached the realization that I am a Buddhist, a secular Buddhist, a philosophical Buddhist of the Tibetan tradition, which in reality is simply a Buddhist. Someone that understands some of the historical conditions that surround Buddhism and uses them to help filter out the core of the doctrine. I am an Atheist, that has come around to admire the purpose that gods have given humanity and can see that Buddhism evolved without a need for them [1]. I strongly believe that without gods we would not have become Homo sapiens sapiens, and I am in admiration of the stability religions have given to humanity. That does not mean that I believe in a God by any modern definition (if these definitions even exist), or that I choose to ignore the many wrongs that religions have done and keep doing, but I believe in their historical importance and appreciate their mere existence.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Venezuela, right?

You might have noticed that I lost interest in blogging about Venezuela. The same way as I started, I stopped seeing the purpose, as many excellent blogs were out there. Francisco, Miguel, and Daniel had it more than covered. My voice was just one more in the choir, one more that added little. But that was not the reason I stopped.

I stopped because it was affecting my health. I could not bear to see the state the country was going in without being able to do anything about it. Now, nearly ten years later, a new life a new perspective, and not having put foot in Venezuela since before this blog was started I finally realized why I had to stop. I simply could not bear to continue watching the news and paying attention to them. Venezuela became a sad joke, it just made me sick to even think about it.

Now, little has changed, Chavez died but Venezuela is a bigger mess than ever, money quickly being depleted and life becoming ever more difficult in that pseudo-communist utopia. No news coverage at all as the world is such a big mess that even the immense stupidity that is Venezuelan government and its massive suppression of dissent does not enter the international news sphere. Few friends remaining while most are making a living around the world, where their children can stay far away from the government indoctrination.

This post is the closing of that era. I have stayed away because I only saw a blog about Venezuela, so what else could this be about? Now I see other possibilities, I see new directions, I see new endeavors. Today I decided to repurpose this blog to be about more than just my nearly forgotten home country, and more about my life in my new adopted country, of which I have been a resident for as long as this blog was left abandoned to bit rot.

I cannot forget my origins, but this will not be a blog about Venezuela anymore. Other interests will come in, my newly adopted yet long-held Buddhist philosophy, the politics of my adopted country, the developments of my scientific and entrepreneurial interests. My return to finally finishing that long-abandoned Ph.D. In short, this crazy thing that I affectionately call my life.

Remodeling will be slow, the sidelines slowly repurposed, all of the bit-crud swept away with my attachments, I don't consider myself a blogger, just a guy that happens to have a blog that he could not simply delete from the internet. Who knows, perhaps I even decide to paint, it worked for Bush after all.

Unfortunately the comment section of the old blog posts fell into the abyss of bit rot. There were some interesting debates in there. You'll have to take my word for it.