Musings on Gettier and the definition of knowledge

Originally posted on Scientia Salon:

knowledge3by Coel Hellier

Philosophers have traditionally defined knowledge as a belief that is both true and justified, a definition that sufficed until, 50 years ago, Edmund Gettier pointed out that the conditions could be fulfilled by accident, in ways that didn’t amount to what we would intuitively regard as knowledge.

Gettier pointed to scenarios such as:

“Smith has applied for a job, but, it is claimed, has a justified belief that ‘Jones will get the job.’ He also has a justified belief that ‘Jones has 10 coins in his pocket.’ Smith therefore (justifiably) concludes that ‘the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket.’ In fact, Jones does not get the job. Instead, Smith does. However, as it happens, Smith (unknowingly and by sheer chance) also had 10 coins in his pocket. So his belief that ‘the man who will get the job has 10 coins…

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People Are the Problem and They Pretty Much Always Will Be

Originally posted on Whatever:

Today PZ Myers ruminates about the problems he has with the atheist movement here in the US, much of which, from my point of view, boils down to “the problem is that there are people in it.”

Which, I will hastily note, is not me snarking. People are hierarchical, status-sensitive and in many ways fundamentally conservative creatures. We crave structure, hate disruption and are wary of outsiders and change. And some people are just plain rotten people, and those people are widely distributed. I’m not entirely sure why the atheist movement (and/or the various public examples of it) would be at all different. And given the larger society in which the atheist movement in the US exists, it’s not entirely surprising that things play out as Myers notes:

Too many atheists turn out to be just as shallow as the fervent faithful I rail against. Too many see atheism as another useless…

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Jim Holt: Why does the universe exist?

I did a post a few weeks ago explaining why I’m not much of a fan of the “Why is there something rather than nothing?” question.  So, when this TED talk popped up later, I resisted watching it, thinking it would just be a rehash of the standard hand wringing.  I guess you could still characterize it as a rehash, but Jim Holt makes it very entertaining, and finishes with what I think is an excellent summation of the issue.


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Massimo Pigliucci on the boundary between science and pseudoscience

In this video, Massimo Pigliucci, the philosopher and biologist who runs the Scientia Salon site, discusses the demarcation problem, the dividing line between what is and is not science.  The distinction is easy for things like astrology and astronomy, but gets more difficult for many other areas.

I’d forgotten about Massimo’s latest book on pseudoscience.  It’s now queued up in my Kindle account.

I found this talk interesting and enlightening.  But one thing I found puzzling was Massimo’s apparent dismissal of falsifiability as a useful criteria for distinguishing science from non-science.  I may change my mind once I’ve read the book, but for now, I think I disagree, for a couple of reasons.

The first reason involves the distinction between using falsifiability in scientific work versus using it as a criteria for what is science.  Massimo discusses two historical scenarios I’ve discussed myself in the past.

The first scenario was when the orbit of Uranus didn’t match the predictions of Newtonian mechanics.  Rather than assume that Newtonian mechanics had been falsified, astronomers predicted the existence of a new planet which turned out to exist: Neptune.

But in the second scenario, faced with  anomalies in the orbit of Mercury, astronomers predicted the existence of a planet closer to the sun, which they prematurely named Vulcan, but which turned out not to exist.  Ultimately, the problems with the orbit of Mercury were in fact a falsification of Newtonian mechanics.  (Mercury’s orbit was eventually explained by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.)

The point Massimo and other philosophers make is that there is no way to know at the beginning of these scenarios whether the contradictory observations are from the scientific theory being wrong or the existence of unknown factors, like the existence of a new planet.  And that is true.  Discovering that a scientific theory has been falsified takes expert judgment, and often a lot of time.

But judging whether or not a theory has been falsified is different than judging whether or not it is a scientific theory.  And by that standard, falsifiability makes it very clear that Newtonian mechanics was science, and falsifiable.  If it hadn’t been, there might still be schools of physics dedicated to Newtonian mechanics today.

My second reason for disagreeing with Massimo goes somewhat to my general attitude toward philosophical guidelines, which is that the perfect is the enemy of the good.  I fully admit that falsifiability is not a perfect criteria.  For example, slavish adherence to it might prematurely exclude speculative but legitimate concepts that may eventually lead to falsifiable theories.  But it works well in the vast majority of cases, and is often a good guiding principle for separating a scientific idea from a philosophical one.

I will agree though that falsifiability is not as good for the specific demarcation between science and pseudoscience.  Many purveyors of pseudoscience make falsifiable claims, but they often overlook or ignore the fact that their claims have already been falsified.  I think the real divide between these two areas is whether or not the practitioners are honestly pursuing knowable truths, and whether or not they are doing it competently.  Shysters and con artists are dishonest, and crackpots are incompetent, and often the purveyors of pseudoscience are both.


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Virtue Ethics: an ancient solution to a modern problem

Originally posted on Scientia Salon:

69729_aristotle_lgby Peter D.O. Smith


This article is neither a defense of nor an attack against either religion or secularism. It treats them as well established sociological facts and no more than that. I take them as given and argue that a greater moral good can be achieved if the two belief systems find common moral ground in virtue ethics.

Why should we care?

Moral choices infuse most aspects of our life, whether we know it or not. And a great number of these moral choices are bad ones. This is why our prisons are filled to overflowing [1], and recidivism is so high at 66% [2]. This is why we have so many war dead and this is why so many die violent deaths at the hands of murderers or radical ideologues. This is also why we have such an inequitable distribution of wealth. This is why cheating is…

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Cosmic inflation appears to have shifted from settled science back to speculation

You can get background on what I’m talking about in this post here and here.

Probably the best thing to do is let the experts weigh in on this.

It’s interesting to note that the empirical evidence from BICEP2 has never been called into question, only the interpretation of that evidence.  An interesting reminder, no doubt painful for the scientists personally involved, is that scientific evidence remains as much about interpretation of the evidence as the evidence itself.

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The Great Recession was less severe than the Great Depression because we do learn from history.

As is quickly becoming usual, Tina at Diotima’s Ladder asks excellent questions: Roosevelt and Obama: Did we avoid a Great Depression? | Diotima’s Ladder.

For the past week I’ve been rushing home every night to catch The Roosevelts: An Intimate History by Ken Burns. I’m not really a big Ken Burns fan. And yes, it’s the fiddle music. But this one is worth a watch. (And the music is not so incessant.)

The episode on the Great Depression made me wonder about our Not-So-Great Recession. We complained bitterly about our losses during that time, but seeing those lines of people winding down the street just to get a free lunch makes me think we might be a little ungrateful for what we do have.

Her entire post is well worth reading, but I’m interested in this question that she asks at the end.

My question to you is this: Did we avoid a Great Depression? What can history teach us?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I responded with this comment, which I’m reproducing here, slightly enhanced.

I don’t think there’s any question that we did avoid another Great Depression and, at least for the United States, it was the result of the Bush administration, the Obama administration, and the Federal Reserve system all acting properly, stepping up at the critical moments.

To see how bad it could have been, all we really have to do is look at the years 1929-1933.  As far as I know, this was the worst economic contraction in US history.  The government let banks fail by the thousands, they cut government spending repeatedly in a vain attempt to balance the budget, passed ruinous tariffs discouraging international trade, and the Federal Reserve contracted the money supply to meet its obligations under the then rigid international gold standard.

All of this killed spending throughout the economy, sending it into a tailspin.  The nominal size of the economy collapsed by 40% and unemployment hit 25%.  It’s fair to say that in early 1933, the economy was in free-fall and democracy was in jeopardy.  The New Deal, starting in March 1933, stabilized things, alleviated suffering, and was able to provide a good amount of economic growth and lower unemployment, but there wasn’t a complete economic recovery until that huge stimulus package known as World War II kicked in.

In 2008-2009, when faced with a similar situation, and with the lessons of the Great Depression firmly in mind, the US government pretty much did the opposite.  It stemmed the cascading failures before they got out of hand with the much reviled bailouts (Bush administration), passed the equally reviled stimulus package (Obama administration), and stuck to an expansionary monetary policy (Federal Reserve), driving libertarians crazy.  These actions were far from perfect (the stimulus, for instance, probably should have been much larger), but on balance the performance of our government in this generation far surpassed the performance of the government in the early 30s.

Lamentably, this initial stabilization was followed by years of premature government austerity in both the US and in Europe, causing pointless suffering for millions.  Fortunately, in the US, the Federal Reserve compensated somewhat with monetary policy, again to considerable revilement.

The problem, of course, is that it’s very difficult to demonstrate what could have happened.  We can only see what did happen.  In economic history, there are always conflating variables giving alternate narratives just enough oxygen to survive.  But I think the Great Recession is, on balance, a demonstration that we can learn from history, even if most of us don’t recognize the win.

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