General Thoughts on Epistemology III: We Are All Cosmic Gamblers

English: The French Gambling Aristocracy

English: The French Gambling Aristocracy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a preface to this post, it is crucial for me to communicate that I am setting aside the discussion about “knowledge” as my primary pursuit. The reason, as I explained in part II, is that the use of the word has become muddled. My position is that philosophical skepticism about “knowledge” of the external (physical) world attempts to solve a presently unsolvable problem, and therefore, “knowledge” may not be the best term to use when attempting to describe how we gather and store data in our brains. Instead, I will focus on the interaction between human beings and the external world on its own terms. Hopefully what follows is indicative of this.

A while ago I wrote about Pascal’s Wager, contending that he removes the essential components from what it takes to justify a belief. His argument was that, when looking at belief in God in a cost-benefit analysis, it is more beneficial to choose to believe in God. I reject his presumption that a person can rationally choose to believe something exists while disregarding all evidence for or against its existence. However, his idea that it is useful to equate believing and wagering is worthy of consideration. My suggestion is that the process of making a wager is the best model to describe what is going on when we are deciding that something is the case. When we claim to have a belief, faith, trust, or even knowledge, what we ultimately have is a form of bet. This does not answer the question of how we ought to come to a belief, but my inclination is to say that this theory will help explain what these kinds of claims are, fundamentally.

There are a few “armchairish” observations sometimes taken for granted that hint at my suggestion being a good one: Assuming that humans all function the same in the following ways, 1) we use observations and cognitive processes to form beliefs; 2) we take action based on our beliefs; 3) sometimes mistakes, ambiguity, and/or external factors outside of our control cause us to be incorrect in/about our beliefs; and 4) replacing the word “belief” with “wager” in (1)-(3) results in a fairly coherent progression of thought.

Put simply, when we decide that P is true given the data we have, we are simultaneously placing a wager on P. In other words, we do not only think it is true now, but we are betting it will continue to be true as time goes on. Then, as we go about life taking action according to the wager, the proposition is tested by observations xy, z, etc. If these observations appear to connect logically and/or causally with P (if everything appears consistent), then we confirm it to some degree, and the wager is not changed. The risk adopted by the bet is that the proposition may be proven to be incorrect, and there may be some undesirable consequence as a result of the action(s) based upon the proposition.

This process is related to Jonathan Haidt’s psychological theory involving processes of the mind. He came to the conclusion that people have an initial reaction to some stimulus that consists of a snap-judgement. Then, what follows are a series of rational thoughts that he says “supports” the initial judgment. I agree with this general theory, but if we also add that it is possible for the rational thought to deny the initial judgment, the theory has an even wider application.

The nature of the game is that whenever we consider some question, we have an open field of possible truths that is narrowed whenever we rule things out based upon testing, observation, and logic. This thought isn’t new. It is reminiscent of the scientific method, which dates back to the Renaissance and early Colonial Era when it began to take shape. Most of the modern iterations of the scientific method assume that any theory is open and liable to change, not only because of more efficient and useful language, but also because the pool of data changes over time. A “wager,” I suppose, could be most analogous to a “hypothesis.” But hypotheses are more consciously contrived, and my goal for the “wager” is to be broad enough to refer to unconscious behavior, in addition to all matter of predictions, theories, and conjectures.

Note that merely “placing a bet” says nothing of my conviction in the outcome, the quality or quantity of information that is taken into account, the level of consciousness with which I make the bet, or the time-frame of my test. I may be unconsciously believing something ridiculous, or I could be making a detailed evaluation of a claim’s plausibility. Both would involve a wager of some form—a decision to hold some proposition to be true or at least to act as if it were true.

One might also point out that there are important distinctions between different kinds of wagers, namely temporal ones. There are wagers about what will happen (predictions), about what has already occurred (beliefs), and about that which is ongoing. Suppose my childhood friend and I see a squirrel darting through street, and he says, “I bet that squirrel will get hit by a car!” Our inclination would be to label this as a prediction, since the event has not yet come to pass. In continuing the story, suppose I were to respond, “I do not believe that squirrel will be hit by a car.” It seems odd at first that I would use the word “belief” for what should be another prediction.

The reason someone might make such a mistake, I think, hints at a deeper underlying theory like the one I have proposed. If both beliefs and predictions are forms of a wager, then there is an inherent predictive aspect in both of these terms. The substitution of “belief” for “prediction” is made because the character of “belief” has an inherent predictive quality about it, which makes it easily mistaken for a prediction. However, it still does not have the same set of qualities that “prediction” has. There is still room for distinction.

And the distinction is this: A prediction is a consideration of what has not yet come to pass; a belief considers what is ongoing or has passed. In my theory, they both still fall into the “wager” category. I can still comfortably replace both “I believe” and “I predict” with “I bet.”

The immediate worry that should arise is that it seems like I would be committed to saying that predictions, wagers, and beliefs are all the same thing. In response, I would say my claim is that wagers are broad enough to encompass all of these kinds of terms, and there is a predictive element to a wager. However, that element refers to a “first-order” qualification that beliefs, predictions, propositions, and the like contain in common an expectation of continued confirmation. And confirmation can only occur at points in time after a wager is made, regardless of its kind. Note that because people are continuously acting or not acting, each action must carry with it an implicit set of bets. Since this is always the case, it doesn’t seem that “beliefs” can be abstracted from “wagers.”

Secondary qualifications would make up the distinctions between the different kinds of wagers. For instance, expanding upon the distinction I made earlier: the content of a belief must be considering an ongoing or past phenomenon; the content of a prediction considers a future phenomenon.

To conclude, when we form beliefs and predictions, we are making bets on what we think is accurate. The discussion about whether we can verify knowledge globally is a bunch of bunk. It is pretty clear that sometimes we make mistakes, but our goal is to seek truth regardless. And ultimately, we all play the game. We are all cosmic gamblers.

General Thoughts on Epistemology II: Global Philosophical Skepticism

nihilism

nihilism (Photo credit: stungeye)

The various forms of philosophical (p.) skepticism in the study of epistemology seek to question, deny, or limit the categories of what is possible to know. While it is useful to point out that we don’t have the data to confirm or deny some claims, many skeptics go so far that they would be forced to live a lifestyle that is inconsistent with their beliefs. I argue that questioning the “existence” of knowledge as a whole probably serves no purpose, since either answer will have no bearing on the everyday criteria for making decisions and taking action.

General p. skepticism questions the prospect of “knowledge.” There are several schools of thought that can be found on the family tree of p. skepticism. The extreme form is called epistemological nihilism, in which all “knowledge” is denied. There is also epistemological solipsism, a theory stating that “knowledge” about the external world is impossible, but “knowledge” about the agent’s mind is possible. ‘Global’ p. skeptics claim that they hold no “absolute knowledge,” while ‘local’ p. skeptics question specific types of knowledge. My target is the multifarious forms of global (g.) p. skepticism including nihilism and solipsism, and there are three main issues with these positions that I will touch upon.

First, this debate has been prolonged by a failure to give proper attention to semantics. The quotations around the word “knowledge” in my explanation are present because I have difficulty pinpointing exactly to what g.p. skeptics are referring when they use the term. It wouldn’t be just to completely fault the deceased thinkers who would have benefitted from access to modern advances in neuroscience. Nevertheless, “knowledge” remains ambiguous even without modern scientific perspectives.

It could be that “knowledge” really is “Justified True Belief.” Or it could be some abstract thing we achieve when we fully “understand” such and such. Perhaps it could be as simple as a subconscious observation that we sense in our environment. Ever walk into a room with, say, blue wallpaper, but hardly pay it any mind? How conscious does one have to be in order to know that the wallpaper is blue?

A g.p. skeptic might respond, “Exactly. The point is that we have no clear idea of what knowledge is.”

But they forget that human beings are the authors of language. We get to decide exactly to what “knowledge” refers. Any label without a referent is a floating abstraction. The question should not be, “What is knowledge?”, but rather, “How should ‘knowledge’ be defined?” The question should not be “Does knowledge exist?”, but rather, “Is ‘knowledge’ a useful term, given its definition?”

The second issue is that some skeptics must act inconsistently with their beliefs in order to interact with their environment. Nihilists believe that there can be no “knowledge” about the external world, and therefore, it cannot be verified. Yet, if they want to do anything, they must act upon information they receive through their senses. If they believe nothing they receive should be characterized as “knowledge,” then fine. The discussion becomes semantic. Otherwise, unless the nihilist sits quietly until death (or is deaf, dumb, blind, etc.), then the beliefs he/she holds will be violated.

As justification, I propose this thought experiment: Try to think of just one instance in which a normal, conscious human being can act physically without being aware of something in the physical realm.

Finally, there is an almost comical response to g.p. skeptics from a philosopher named G.E. Moore. He essentially says (not an actual quote), “Look. Here is my hand. I am perceiving a human hand right now. That is a fact that I ‘know.’ If you do not think I know it, then let’s say that I am acquiring sense-data. One sense-datum that I perceive is the surface of my hand.”

Although he employs an intriguing way of engaging g.p. skepticism, if we take the analysis one step further, we arrive at an important point. It is that perception of the so-called “external world” is the default state of human beings. There are all these lights and sounds and feels going on that we report on and verify through language. “Stuff” happens with such frequency that there is not really any reason to deny knowledge of the external world, especially on the basis that we could be wrong about individual bits of knowledge. (Proving something false logically necessitates the truth of the falsehood). The burden of proof is on the denier of clear and obvious evidence that literally surrounds us at all times.

To reiterate, challenging “knowledge” as a useful term is not a poor challenge, but questioning the concept while presupposing an ambiguous meaning is problematic. Going too far with g.p. skepticism will result in an inconsistent lifestyle. Acting in accordance with one’s sense-data regularly, while globally denying that very same data is an incoherent position. Therefore, the only option by default is to accept the external world as a given. Even settling for an agnostic position, abstaining from belief in the external world, may conflict somewhat with taking action. As I like to say, half-seriously, in all its Objectivist glory, “Reality doesn’t care about your nuanced opinion.”

Alone. Content.

Alone

What follows is grounded in anecdotal and personal experience. It was developed as a personal strategery for philosophization and is not guaranteed to relate with everyone’s experiences in life. I wrote this in the hopes that it would hit home for some seeking guidance and be a positive influence on those individuals. Credit is given to Ayn Rand for being an influence on this train of thought (because she would flip in her grave if I didn’t say so).

In the wake of unfortunate shootings like those in Newtown, we look for things that we can do as a society to prevent them from happening. The reaction is only natural. If we perceive something as a problem, many of us have an urge to fix it. The more widely-publicized it is, the greater the reaction from society.

There is much talk about having stricter gun laws or placing guards in schools or blaming violent video games. I find that having blanket measures will likely result in public outrage and unforeseen costs. The key to finding a solution is to look at the root cause, which begins with people. Individuals kill other individuals. They do it for reasons that can only be explained psychologically. Psychology often dissects how people think about and perceive reality in order to find causes for their actions. This inevitably brings us to philosophy, which gives us the tools to discover how to think about and perceive reality.

My goal here is to examine a general method of rearranging one’s perception of reality in order to demonstrate the need for a sweeping philosophical shift in society. The method to which I am referring begins with the goal of learning how to be content and alone, but it ultimately reveals a reason to live. It employs philosophical thought processes to alter psychological behavior.

People who find themselves alienated from society for one reason or another tend to alienate themselves further. This may happen because of bullying, self-esteem issues, or any combination of intellectual rationales. They often find themselves in vicious cycles of negativity, which ultimately lead to nihilistic justifications for behavior. The thought is often that “nothing matters, so I may as well do something extreme.”

I would urge everyone, no matter who they are, to both teach and learn how to be content with oneself, while generally disregarding others. This is not to say that others should be treated poorly and ignored entirely, but that one should learn the art of being happily alone when the need arises. Many of the explanations for psychological issues ultimately reduce to social trauma as the cause, and social trauma only occurs as a result of other people. Therefore, in these cases especially, one must learn the skills to both recognize and disregard the irrational expectations and behavior of others in order to find contentment. This may require the individual to be isolated for an extended period of time in order to think, but not always.

Human beings have an evolutionary need to connect with other human beings. This can cause complications when attempting to detach oneself from others. It can be deadly to become detached without any measures to offset the pain created from the natural desire for belonging.

Therefore, the other half of the method is crucial. This is to learn how to be content while detached from the influences of other people. This may require certain behavioral changes. It will require a shift in focus from people to things and ideas. One must learn how to find appreciation in life as a good in itself. For many, this will only occur when they look at their own lives introspectively in relation to the reality surrounding them. Being alone makes it easier to do this. They should realize that they have a choice between truly living and caring for oneself or disregarding reality and rationality altogether.

This choice is a fundamentally philosophical one. It is between two simple beliefs: accepting that there is objective reality and throwing out the notion of objective reality. If one decides that there is no objective reality, there is no reason to do anything in particular because there is no such thing as value. If there is objective reality, there are things in life that are valuable because there are individuals who desire them. If an individual is not alive and conscious, there can be no value because there is no individual to conceptualize it. Thus, because the existence of the concept of value is dependent upon the existence of the individual, the individual’s life should be treated as holding some level of intrinsic value.

As a society, we typically accept that there is an objective reality, and we take it to be a rationally-held belief. The other choice ends in absurdity and in extreme cases, reality-denying actions like mass-shootings and/or suicides. It is incoherent when one takes any action whilst simultaneously denying the existence of reality. It is incoherent to ever treat one’s own life as valuable whilst simultaneously claiming that said life is not valuable. It is irrational for one to believe that human beings exist whilst simultaneously believing that value does not exist (because human beings must hold desires, and desires entail value judgements). As a society, if we want people to live positive and fulfilling lives, we must make it clear that there is a choice and that one ought to choose to live in reality instead of wallowing in non-reality.

I believe that this choice is one of the most basic philosophical decisions that a person can make. In order for people to do this, however, they must recognize that it is a choice in the first place and that it will dictate the way they live their lives. Unfortunately, many people have not made this conscious decision, and therefore, they do not have any fundamental guiding principle to dictate how they live. These people have likely spent most of their lives making decisions on largely non-rational or instinctual bases.

Developing a logical justification for life can be deeply satisfying. It is literally having a reason to live. The contentment that this can bring is profound. Although some may not find immediate value in a justification for life, in time, one should realize that a human being has no choice but to seek truth in order to live at all. I must use my eyes to see my surroundings and comprehend what exists. I use the information I accumulate over the years to decide how to interact with those things that exist. As I have said, one cannot coherently deny reality while accepting it in practice.

With a new perspective on life, it becomes much easier to do all the things that one values and achieve one’s goals. Moreover, because the entire process of rationalizing and choosing life is done alone, there should be a newfound sense of self-reliance. If an individual is able to make it through the process, it is now clear to that person that he or she can think for oneself. Following the process, there should rarely be any need to rely on others for psychological motivation.

The method I have described breaches a massive subject and combines a number of disciplines. I am not sure I have done it justice. I am also not sure that it is something available to everyone. There are appropriate periods of time to isolate oneself purposefully in order to think, but sometimes one is thrust into a situation of isolation. The decision to live is especially important for them. In some cases, it can be an actual matter of life or death.