Popper on Logic and Truth

by Mark English

It is often said that the foundations of logic are the conventions that we (as users of logic) agree upon. I see problems with this view.

For a start, the word ‘logic’ is used in different ways. It is often used to refer to formal logic and applications and developments thereof, but it is also used to refer to the principles of sound reasoning in ordinary informal contexts.

In the case of formal or symbolic logic, agreed-upon sets of axioms do indeed determine how each system operates. In this sense, logical systems are relative and malleable. They can be seen as tools, which may be applied to various subjects and activities. Different applications call for different systems or modifications of the system (or tool) being used.

The problem is that such a view seems to suggest that logic is radically relative, and this could be seen – as it often is, in fact – to justify a broader kind of relativism that would encompass science and possibly validate non-rational modes of thinking. I would want to argue against this view and say that the foundations of logic run deep.

Certainly, it is not satisfactory merely to say that the foundations are conventions we consciously decide on. One reason we know this is because certain logical principles are built into natural language such that an intuitive grasp of something very like what we call logic is a prerequisite for communicating linguistically. In other words, this intuitive understanding of what we might choose to call logical principles precedes any conscious decision we might make about adopting principles, much less sets of axioms. A young child – to the extent that the child uses language – gets it.

‘Not’. ‘Or’. ‘And’. ‘If … then’ Such words and idioms – and perhaps the pre-linguistic intuitions that lie behind them and their equivalents in other languages – are arguably the source of (and are closely related to) the various formal operators. [1]

Of course, there are big differences between natural and formal languages. For example, the meanings of the words and idioms of natural languages vary and are context-dependent, whereas the meanings of logical constants (which can be seen as being defined simply in terms of how they are used within a system) do not vary within a particular system and are not context-dependent in the way natural language expressions are.

Take the logical connective ‘or’, which is used in the propositional calculus to represent the truth-functional operator of inclusive disjunction. Its meaning/use is quite clear and explicit. When this operator is used, the set of operands is true if and only if one or more of the operands is true. So “Paris is the capital of France or Berlin is the capital of Germany” is true if (a) one of the two statements (operands) is true and (b) if both of the statements are true.  It is only false if both are false.

The English word ‘or’ is one of a number of coordinating conjunctions and normally doesn’t work like its counterpart in formal logic. It usually represents exclusive rather than inclusive disjunction. If someone says they wished they had become a doctor or a lawyer, they generally mean either/or, not either/or or both. The slightly awkward expression ‘and/or’ is often used to specify inclusive disjunction in English.

My broader point is that logical structures may often be complex and difficult to discern, but they are generally decipherable and are an integral part of any kind of symbolic processing. Some constraints always apply.  It is never a case of ‘anything goes’.

There are many ways you could approach these sorts of questions. You could focus on the relationship between natural and formal languages. Or you could probe into the logical basis of digital computing. But I thought it might be worthwhile here to present – mainly through selected extracts from a section of his book, Objective Knowledge – some of Karl Popper’s ideas on logic and truth. [2]

I disagree with many of Popper’s views (on the mind, for example) and I also have reservations about his apparent aversion to dealing with questions relating to natural language, questions which may well be pertinent to some of his claims. Nonetheless, I think his views on logic and truth are well worth taking seriously. Driven by a commitment to commonsense and scientific realism, he shies away from conventionalism and relativism.

Popper explicitly rejects the idea of logic being merely a set of more or less arbitrary conventions (whether consciously agreed upon or not). “I am opposed,” he wrote, “to looking upon logic as a kind of game. I know about so-called alternative systems of logic […] but alternative systems of logic can be discussed from very different points of view. One might think that it is a matter of choice or convention which logic one adopts. I disagree with this view.”

Popper sees logic as a theory of deduction or of derivability.

Derivability or deduction involves, essentially, the transmission of truth and the retransmission of falsity: in a valid inference truth is transmitted from the premises to the conclusion. This can be used especially in so-called ‘proofs’. But falsity is also retransmitted from the conclusion to (at least) one of the premises, and this is used in disproofs or refutations, and especially in critical discussions.

We have premises and a conclusion; and if we show that the conclusion is false, and assume that the inference is valid, we know that at least one of our premises must be false. This is how logic is constantly used in critical discussion, for in a critical discussion we attempt to show that something is not in order with some assertion. We attempt to show it; and we may not succeed: criticism may be validly answered by counter-criticism.

Popper is probably most famous for proposing to replace the verification principle of logical positivism with a falsification principle. This was his response to the problem of induction as described by David Hume. Popper’s “backwards” argument from false conclusion to a false premise is a logical notion (cf. modus tollens), but it also relates to science.  Indeed, logic is central to the practice of science.

Popper thinks that criticism is a crucial methodological device for the building up of a sound body of knowledge about the world and that effective criticism would not be possible if we could answer criticism by rejecting the logical framework of the critic; by saying, in effect, “Your logic may be all right for you, but I prefer a different logic, and according to my logic this criticism is not valid.”

He argues that strong logics (like classical logic) are to be preferred in critical contexts, “for we want our criticism to be severe [and in order] that the criticism should be severe we must use the full apparatus; we must use all the guns we have. Every shot is important. It doesn’t matter if we are over-critical: if we are, we shall be answered by counter-criticism. Thus we should (in the empirical sciences) use the full or classical or two-valued logic.”

What lies behind this concern is – in part – his rejection of subjectivist interpretations of quantum mechanics. “If we […] retreat into the use of some weaker logic – say, the intuitionist logic, or some three-valued logic (as Reichenbach suggested in connection with quantum theory) – then, I assert, we are not critical enough; it is a sign that something is rotten in the state of Denmark…” (His little joke about the Copenhagen interpretation.)

He recognizes, of course, the importance of these “weaker” logics in proof theory.

[I]f one can prove mathematical theorems with methods weaker than the full battery of classical logic, then this is extremely interesting from a mathematical point of view. Thus in proof theory we are interested in weakening if possible our classical logic, and we can, for example, introduce intuitionist logic […] and investigate how far we can get without using the whole battery. […] So if you wish to prove, or to establish something, you should use weak means. But for disestablishing it – that is to say, for criticising it – we may use strong means.

Alfred Tarski, he claims, introduced two important ideas into logic which are very compatible with scientific realism. The first (partly anticipated by Bolzano) is that logical consequence is truth transmission. The second, according to Popper, is a rehabilitation of the idea that truth is simply correspondence with the facts.

Of the three main theories of truth, the oldest [is] the correspondence theory, the theory that truth is correspondence with the facts, or to put it more precisely, that a statement is true if (and only if) it corresponds to the facts, or if it adequately describes the facts. This is the theory which I think Tarski has rehabilitated.

The second theory Popper discusses is the so-called coherence theory. It comes in many forms but in general terms holds that a statement is regarded as true to the extent that it coheres with the rest of our knowledge. The third theory is that truth is pragmatic utility or pragmatic usefulness: it says in effect that “we should accept a physical theory as true if it turns out in tests, and other applications, to be pragmatically useful, or successful.”

Our problem can be sharply formulated only by pointing out that the opponents of the correspondence theories all made an assertion. They all asserted that there cannot be such a thing as the correspondence between a statement and a fact. This is their central assertion. They say that this concept is meaningless (or that it is undefinable …). In other words, the whole problem arises because of doubts, or scepticism, concerning correspondence: whether there is such a thing as a correspondence between a statement and a fact. […] It is also quite clear that, but for these doubts, the upholders of the coherence theory and of the theory of pragmatic usefulness would really have nothing to argue against. Nobody denies that pragmatic usefulness and such matters as predictive power are important. But should there exist something like the correspondence of a theory to the facts, then this would obviously be more important than mere self-consistency, and certainly also much more important than coherence with any earlier knowledge (or ‘belief’); for if a theory corresponds to the facts but does not cohere with some earlier knowledge, then this earlier knowledge should be discarded.

Moreover, if there exists something like a correspondence of theories to facts, then it is clear that a theory that corresponds to the facts will be preferable to a theory that doesn’t. Or, as Popper puts it, “the pragmatist position will be superseded by a realist position if we can meaningfully say that a statement, or a theory, may or may not correspond to the facts.”

It is important to realize also that, while the coherence and pragmatist theories are generally taken to assert the impossibility or meaninglessness of a correspondence theory, the correspondence theory does not involve denying the importance of coherence or of pragmatic factors.

Popper sees the central issue with defending the correspondence theory as having nothing to do with defining ‘truth’ (he claims to have little interest in definitions), and remains focused on the question of whether or not a statement or a theory can plausibly be said to correspond (or not) to the facts.

According to Popper, Tarski rehabilitated the correspondence theory of truth by providing a simple but precise method of coordinating statements and facts. He did this by deploying the distinction between language and metalanguage in a particular way. A metalanguage is a language in which we talk about some other language (called the object language). Popper gives the example of a grammar of the German language, written in English, which uses English as a metalanguage in order to talk about German (the object language). But you can also use any natural language to talk about, i.e. make metalinguistic assertions about, itself, so that at certain points the language is operating metalinguistically and at other points not.

Here is the key part of Popper’s account of how Tarski’s theory of truth enables us to see how statements can be coherently seen to coordinate – or correspond – with facts about the world.

The characteristic thing about a metalanguage is that it contains (metalinguistic) names of words and of statements of the object language, and also (metalinguistic) predicates, such as ‘noun (of the object language)’ or ‘verb (of the object language)’ or ‘statement (of the object language)’. If a metalanguage is to suffice for our purpose it must also, as Tarski points out, contain the usual means necessary to speak about at least all those facts about which the object language can speak.  All this is the case if we use English as our metalanguage in order to speak about German [or English, for that matter] as the object language under investigation.

For example, we shall be able to say in the English metalanguage such things as: The German words ‘Das Gras ist grün’ form a statement of the German language.

On the other hand, we shall be able to describe in our (English) metalanguage the fact which the German statement ‘Das Gras ist grün’ describes. We can describe this fact in English simply by saying that grass is green.

We can now make a statement in the metalanguage about the correspondence of a statement of the object language to the facts as follows. We can make the assertion: The German statement ‘Das Gras ist grün’ corresponds to the facts if, and only if, grass is green. (Or: ‘. . . only if it is a fact that grass is green.’) This is very trivial. It is, however, important to realise the following: in our assertion, the words ‘Das Gras ist grün’, put within quotes, function as a metalinguistic (that is, an English) name of a German statement; on the other hand, the English words ‘grass is green’ occur in our assertion above without any quotation marks: they do not function as a name of a statement, but simply as the description of a fact (or alleged fact).

This makes it possible for our assertion to express a relationship between a (German) statement, and a fact. (The fact is neither German nor English, although it is, of course, described or spoken about in our metalanguage, which is English: the fact is non-linguistic, it is a fact of the real world, although we need of course a language if we wish to talk about it.) And what our metalinguistic assertion asserts is that a certain (German) statement corresponds to a certain fact (a non-linguistic fact, a fact of the real world) under conditions which are precisely stated.

Popper was attracted to the correspondence theory of truth because he saw it as a realistic theory:

[I]t makes the distinction, which is a realistic distinction, between a theory and the facts which the theory describes; and it makes it possible to say that a theory is true, or false, or that it corresponds to the facts, thus relating the theory to the facts. It allows us to speak of a reality different from the theory. This is the main thing; it is the main point for the realist. The realist wants to have both a theory and the reality of the facts (don’t call it ‘reality’ if you don’t like it, just call it ‘the facts’) which are different from his theory about these facts, and which he can somehow or other compare with the facts, in order to find out whether or not it corresponds to them. Of course, the comparison is always extremely difficult.

The coherence and pragmatic theories purport to present us with a method of deciding whether or not a given statement is true. But Popper emphasizes that his version of the correspondence theory (based as it is on Tarski’s semantic theory of truth) is not designed or intended to yield a criterion of truth. In fact, Tarski proved that in a sufficiently powerful language (and in every language in which we can formulate mathematical or physical theories) there can be no criterion of truth.

Although we have no criterion of truth and no means of being even quite sure of the falsity of a theory, it is easier to find out that a theory is false than to find out that it is true […]. We have even good reasons to think that most of our theories – even our best theories are, strictly speaking, false; for they oversimplify or idealise the facts. Yet a false conjecture may be nearer or less near to the truth. Thus we arrive at the idea of nearness to the truth, or of a better or less good approximation to the truth; that is, at the idea of ‘verisimilitude’.

Popper wants to incorporate this idea into logic. While his formal definition of verisimilitude (or ‘truthlikeness’ as it is often now called) has been challenged, the concept has proved to be a fruitful one. This is no surprise, really. Given the provisional and incomplete nature of scientific theories at any given point in time and the obvious phenomenon of scientific progress, this concept or something like it is clearly called for.

Seeing scientific progress merely in terms of effectiveness or some such pragmatic notion is possible, but seems unnecessarily restrictive. Whatever else it may be, scientific activity – encompassing both empirical and formal disciplines – also represents an attempt to understand the world of which we are a part. What’s more, within its self-imposed and natural limits, this quest for understanding can be seen to have been remarkably successful.

NOTES

  1. Clearly these expressions and the intuitions which underlie them have in turn arisen from our actions and interactions, and so are rooted in some sense in the physical world.
  2. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972. I am drawing on the final section (section 4) of the penultimate chapter. The entire chapter is available here.

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78 Comments »

  1. dbholmes,
    my remark on the myriad events I thought to be quite clear. No serious philosopher in the Modern era denies an external reality. To the extent that Mark suggests this, he is ‘straw-manning.’ The issue has *never* been whether there are things or events, but whether our interpretations of those can be trusted; to what extent; and on what basis. And finally, what it is it that we do with those interpretations – how do they fit into a larger view of the world, what are their material implications, how can they be used to ground further research or improve our lives, etc.

    Mark is also just wrong that the Continental tradition somehow poses a threat to the “epistemic authority” of the natural sciences. The “epistemic authority’ of the sciences has been an issue of concern since Descartes. There are currently some social-relativists who say silly things about the sciences. But most in the Continental tradition have pretty much left the hard sciences alone.

    At one point Mark suggests that he wrote this essay partly in response to my piece on Hegel. If Mark thinks that Hegel is the source of his problems, the originator of ad-hoc explanations that seem to suck every unexpected counter-example into them, or that Hegel is a solipsist or a relativist in any way whatsoever, he couldn’t possibly be more mistaken. And although Nietzsche wrote that truth was merely a deployment of metaphors so overused that it had been forgotten that they were metaphors, he also wrote admiringly of the modern sciences and the technologies they spawned as providing the means for a future poiesis of human culture divorced from the superstitions of the past. Finally, it may come as a surprise to discover that two of the most important figures in the Continental tradition – Husserl and Heidegger – both considered themselves traditional Realists, like Peirce (whom they both had read), trying to find a language that would articulate a direct knowledge of reality (“Being’ as Heidegger liked to call it), providing a ground for the sciences – for mathematics and the natural sciences for Husserl, for the social sciences and philosophy itself for Heidegger. But Peirce’s Realism collapses into (the decidedly Nominalistic) semiotics, Husserl ends up with so much bracketing that we can no longer distinguish the bracket from the reality (das ding an sich) we wish to know, and Heidegger deludes himself that he can know the ‘reality’ of Nazism better than the Nazis themselves, and suffers the consequences.

    Look, traditional Realism just no longer works. It was a beautiful idea, it helped ground Aristotle’s empirical research (such as it was for its time), and an almost earthy trust in the essential goodness of God’s Creation in such as Thomas Aquinas. But once scientists began to discover that ‘the world is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose;’ and once philosophers stopped asking ‘what can be known? how can the world make itself known to me?’ and began asking “what can I know? how can I know anything at all?’ the jig was up. Reality does not come to us directly and never has.

    BTW, and certainly related: if I understand you aright, your continuing clarifications – and moderations – of your preferred take on Realism, tend to sound more and more like a rather moderate Pragmatism – an experimentalist ‘ok, let’s believe this for now, and see what comes of it.’* That’s not at all the kind of (scientific) Realism Mark is advocating. He wants to say that the theories of the natural sciences are purely descriptive of actual events and processes *just as they are* – I don’t see how this successfully evades the problems of interpretation.

    —-
    * Somewhat reminiscent of Dewey – Popper’s real adversary here, although I don’t know if the two thinkers ever acknowledged each other.

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  2. dbholmes,
    I forgot to clarify – from the perspective I am writing from, ‘facts’ are the results of argumentation that begins when someone makes the claim (such as) ‘It is the case that -.’ Once the argumentation has convinced us of the truth or reliability of the claim then the ‘case’ is agreed to be a fact. (The reason why interpretation is so important here is because such argumentation has to present a strong interpretation of the case to be convincing. However what grounds a strong interpretation is itself a matter of interpretation, and so we have discussions and arguments such as this one.)

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  3. Hi Erik (and others)

    Borges! Right. Now I have a better sense of where you are coming from. I am operating on a much more pedestrian level however.

    On the issue of the distinctions between natural, constructed and formal languages, this is complicated and I’m no expert. But the point I would want to make is that a formal system is one in which every element (symbol) is specified in advance with precise and explicit rules for the way they may be combined into well-formed formulas, a set of axioms and rules of inference. If a language is actually used in the real world in the way natural and various constructed languages are it is not (or is no longer) formal. Given this gap (or gulf?) between formal systems and ordinary language, it’s little wonder that there are various conflicting interpretations of, say, Gödel’s proof.

    It’s funny you should highlight that point about Popper’s use of the word ‘trivial’. It struck me also as not only interesting but absolutely central to what he is saying. And it ties in with my recent replies to Dan.

    It is not clear from the OP because (as I previously noted) the editors have stripped off some of the quotation marks from the version I sent in (Dan explained why) but they did not indent all of the quoted paragraphs. So I have reinserted the quotation marks here. *Popper’s* words:

    “We can now make a statement in the metalanguage about the correspondence of a statement of the object language to the facts as follows. We can make the assertion: The German statement ‘Das Gras ist grün’ corresponds to the facts if, and only if, grass is green. (Or: ‘. . . only if it is a fact that grass is green.’) This is very trivial. It is, however, important to realise the following: in our assertion, the words ‘Das Gras ist grün’, put within quotes, function as a metalinguistic (that is, an English) name of a German statement; on the other hand, the English words ‘grass is green’ occur in our assertion above without any quotation marks: they do not function as a name of a statement, but simply as the description of a fact (or alleged fact).

    “This makes it possible for our assertion to express a relationship between a (German) statement, and a fact.”

    So, yes it is trivial in a sense. But making the object language/metalanguage distinction gives us a kind of ‘dual perspective’ which allows us to “express a relationship” (as Popper puts it) between a statement (language) and things that are not language.

    As I said previously, Popper is using the word ‘fact’ in a different sense from how most philosophers want to use it; but I think that it does, like many words, have different senses and can be used in subtly different ways. Sometimes it refers to information or ‘processed input’; but often it simply refers to what is ‘out there’. Think of the common idiom, ‘The fact of the matter is …’ meaning: ‘This is how things really stand (in respect of the topic under discussion)’. (Notice also that at one point Popper says “… fact (or alleged fact).”)

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  4. Mark, I’m immensely grateful that you read me with such generosity! I’m in a hurry, so I shouldn’t write back, but I have a vague memory of Popper talking about translations between languages a some kind of proof that “world three objects” exist, or, if it was that translations proves that there cannot be a fundamental difference between formal and natural languages. Do you recognise that? I’m probably just asking the same question again about my “experience of similarity” between Gödel and Popper…

    Thanks again!

    Best regards.

    //Erik

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  5. From Putnam’s “A Comparison of Something with Something Else”:

    ‘The difference between Quine and Popper is precisely that for Popper there is, and for Quine there is not, an interpreter-independent fact of the matter as to whether an arbitrary sentence is true. [Both are building off the Tarskian idea of truth, and it is the move from language to meta-language where Quine’s indeterminancy of translation is aimed]. Quine has deconstructed the notion of truth by making it something “immanent” rather than something “transcendent.”…On the other hand, the minute a philosopher starts trying to persuade one that some views are misleading, that giving up some notions isn’t as bad as one thinks, and so forth, then he admits that there really is such a thing as getting something right [or true].’

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  6. ejwinner

    “… No serious philosopher in the Modern era denies an external reality. To the extent that Mark suggests this, he is ‘straw-manning.’ ”

    This is a bit rich. I wrote a gentle, exploratory piece highlighting some interesting things Popper said. I wasn’t attacking anybody. In the comments, initially I was responding to something you said, namely: “A tree falling in the wilderness with no one around it doesn’t even exist, let alone make a sound, as far as I’m concerned.”

    Your latest response continues: “The issue has *never* been whether there are things or events, but whether our interpretations of those can be trusted; to what extent; and on what basis. And finally, what is it that we do with those interpretations – how do they fit into a larger view of the world, what are their material implications, how can they be used to ground further research or improve our lives, etc..”

    Seems reasonable.

    “Mark is also just wrong that the Continental tradition somehow poses a threat to the “epistemic authority” of the natural sciences.”

    First of all, I only mentioned continental philosophers in the comments and I wasn’t thinking of 19th or early-20th century thinkers but mid-to-late 20th century thinkers. I didn’t say they pose a threat, I said many of them question the epistemic authority of science. I could say a *lot* more – about the lack of interest in or knowledge of science on the part of many philosophers, especially continentals or those influenced by them. And irritation – or hostility –towards science and formal logic. (Feminist logic, anyone?)

    “The ‘epistemic authority’ of the sciences has been an issue of concern since Descartes. There are currently some social-relativists who say silly things about the sciences.”

    You don’t say!

    “At one point Mark suggests that he wrote this essay partly in response to my piece on Hegel. If Mark thinks that Hegel is the source of his problems, the originator of ad-hoc explanations that seem to suck every unexpected counter-example into them, or that Hegel is a solipsist or a relativist in any way whatsoever, he couldn’t possibly be more mistaken.”

    Talk about a strawman! I never suggested anything *like* this. Yes, this piece was more or less triggered by something you wrote about Hegelian logic. In the course of discussion Popper’s name came up (I mentioned him, I think) and I thought I would follow up on Popper. Thus this piece.

    “And although Nietzsche wrote that truth was merely a deployment of metaphors so overused that it had been forgotten that they were metaphors, he also wrote admiringly of the modern sciences and the technologies they spawned as providing the means for a future poiesis of human culture divorced from the superstitions of the past.”

    I know something about Nietzsche, you know. He is a thinker I have a profound affection for and it pains me to see how he has been appropriated – and distorted and misrepresented – by postmodernists etc..

    “Finally, it may come as a surprise to discover that two of the most important figures in the Continental tradition – Husserl and Heidegger – both considered themselves traditional Realists…”

    I am not ignorant of the history of ideas – and especially of this period. There are writings of Heidegger (*Introduction to Metaphysics* and later stuff mostly) which I have been very impressed by. I know his basic position. Likewise, I know a bit about Husserl, but don’t share some of his assumptions so didn’t bother reading him.

    “Look, traditional Realism just no longer works. It was a beautiful idea, it helped ground Aristotle’s empirical research (such as it was for its time), and an almost earthy trust in the essential goodness of God’s Creation in such as Thomas Aquinas. But once scientists began to discover that ‘the world is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose;’ and once philosophers stopped asking ‘what can be known? how can the world make itself known to me?’ and began asking “what can I know? how can I know anything at all?’ the jig was up. Reality does not come to us directly and never has.”

    I honestly don’t know what the last sentence is saying.

    (Addressing dbholmes directly) “BTW, and certainly related: if I understand you aright, your continuing clarifications – and moderations – of your preferred take on Realism, tend to sound more and more like a rather moderate Pragmatism – an experimentalist ‘ok, let’s believe this for now, and see what comes of it.’ That’s not at all the kind of (scientific) Realism Mark is advocating. He wants to say that the theories of the natural sciences are purely descriptive of actual events and processes *just as they are* – I don’t see how this successfully evades the problems of interpretation.”

    I am not saying what you say I am saying at all. (I would say they are *attempts* to describe and explain actual events and processes.)

    Virtually your whole comment has been a bad-tempered misrepresentation of what I think and what I have been trying to say.

    What is promoting this (apparent) anger? I ask myself. I have been scrupulously polite both in the essay and in the discussion.

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  7. Hi EJ, there is no question you are highly informed on the subject, more so than me. However your (and Dan’s) responses have appeared more or less to be using my responses to make further attacks on Mark’s argument by reading into what I say, things that I not only haven’t said but said quite the opposite.

    “…your continuing clarifications – and moderations – of your preferred take on Realism, tend to sound more and more like a rather moderate Pragmatism – an experimentalist ‘ok, let’s believe this for now, and see what comes of it.”

    I am unaware of any “moderations” I have made to my stated position, and I would not need to make “continuing clarifications” if there were not “continuing misreadings” I have to correct. Yes, my (consistent and long held) position is close to a moderate pragmatism. Hence why I said in the opening of my first reply that I think I take a pragmatic approach. Mark had made some distinctions between pragmatic, coherence, and correspondence accounts (which I thought was interesting anyway) and I believe I worked all three aspects into my reply. My position is a little bit more than what you suggest here, but that would be a close start.

    “That’s not at all the kind of (scientific) Realism Mark is advocating. He wants to say that the theories of the natural sciences are purely descriptive of actual events and processes *just as they are* – I don’t see how this successfully evades the problems of interpretation.”

    This is the second or third time I am facing this criticism. And I have pointed out already that I understand this (though might amend your second sentence to say the theories are *attempts* to describe… correspondence being a potential measure of how a theory successfully describes things “just as they are”). I stated in my opening that it was beyond my paygrade to assess whether Mark was successful in his argument, but I was sympathetic to it. What followed was an explanation of what position I hold given the fact that I recognize attempted (philosophically rigorous) Realist accounts tend to fall (but then I think the same of AR accounts).

    “my remark on the myriad events I thought to be quite clear. No serious philosopher in the Modern era denies an external reality. The issue has *never* been whether there are things or events, but whether our interpretations of those can be trusted; to what extent; and on what basis. And finally, what it is it that we do with those interpretations – how do they fit into a larger view of the world, what are their material implications, how can they be used to ground further research or improve our lives, etc.”

    First, your remark was not clear, and as I pointed out in my first question about it even if I could get the “myriad events” part the “sure” part seemed less understandable (and not helped by what you just said above). Not saying you were wrong, but you seemed to be positing a certainty about a *universe* that contained features that existed in a *mind-independent* fashion. This was something you seemed to be against previously.

    Second, I’m finding it odd that I have been criticized in the past (by Dan) for using such terms as “external reality” and “the world” in basically the same way you use it here… being told it is problematic to philosophers… but now it seems ok? I see very little disconnect between what you just laid out and anything I have ever said or held about metaphysics/ontology/epistemology, especially the overriding concerns within them.

    If we can meaningfully discuss an “external reality” or “world” with “actual events or processes” going on it it, for which we generate interpretations and have an interest in the accuracy between interpretations and actual events, some of the criticism of Mark’s piece (and in discussions of Realist positions in prior threads) seem a bit shaky now.

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  8. dbholmes,
    Again no one doubts there is an external reality to world. But the nature of this reality or world is highly problematic. Quite a bit in Modern philosophy has been an attempt to find ways to make it less problematic; these efforts have not convinced me this can be done. Other efforts in philosophy have been directed towards accepting this problematic character and developing means to get along with it – I tend to favor these. The issue is not whether there are mind-independent stuff and events out there, but whether we can know and articulate them in a mind-independent manner, and that doesn’t seem to be the case.

    Mark,
    I apologize if I have straw-manned you with Hegel. However, you have complained that there are quite a few philosophers attacking the epistemic authority of science, and, while we have now a radical left intelligentsia that have found their way into the academy, I just don’t see this as the terrible threat you do, because ultimately they will not find their way into the mainstream. So it is with the mainstreams of Analytic and Continental thought that I think we should concern ourselves with here, rather than the outliers – they should be addressed separately and directly.

    I certainly didn’t think myself expressing any anger or resentment, and if I came across that way, I apologize. But this discussion has been somewhat muddy and I admit feeling frustrated that two sentences I wrote – “A tree falling in the wilderness with no one around it doesn’t even exist, let alone make a sound, as far as I’m concerned” and the clarification “I’m sure that there are, every minute, a myriad of events happening through-out the universe, but they won’t become ‘facts’ until we learn of them and articulate them somehow” – have been picked at as if they were mysterious bits of esoterica, when they seem to me to be written in perfectly clear English. Notably both yourself and db seemed to flat out ignore the qualifying final clause of the first sentence “as far as I’m concerned.” As for difficulties concerning the proper use of the term ‘facts,’ well, those rather originate with your source material, Popper, and while you’ve tried to construct a reading charitable to his text that can somehow avoid this, I don’t think the effort has been successful, either in the essay or the comments – which is why I finally felt I had to define my own understanding of the term (which I think to be fairly common) in opposition to what appears to be Popper’s.

    Finally, “‘Reality does not come to us directly and never has.’ I honestly don’t know what the last sentence is saying.” – Come on, Mark, I know you know what Adaequatio rei et intellectus means – the thing comes to us directly, and it is up to us to adequate our intellect to it – the battle cry of traditional Realism. Only this isn’t quite what happens.

    Interestingly, today I find this paragraph which Massimo Pigliucci writes in an ongoing commentary on Feyerabend on his weblog, Footnote’s to Plato:

    “What Feyerabend is getting at is the conclusion — I believe fairly widespread among philosophers of science, nowadays (but not when Feyerabend was writing) — that a naive realist interpretation of scientific theories is untenable: there is no sharp separation between facts and concepts, and our conceptual frameworks in part determine what counts as a relevant fact or not. This isn’t necessarily a particularly novel idea, as it was expressed already by Darwin in a famous letter to a friend of his: ‘How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”'”

    I am not quoting this as authoritative here, but as a fairly well-written and brief description of a position similar to my own, and that we find in both the Analytic tradition and the Continental traditions. The only question, then, is the nature and limit of the conceptual frameworks we use to determine our facts.

    Mark and db:
    Please bear in mind that when I write in comment threads here, or in other web sites, i do so aware that there are readers besides those directly engaged in the discussion on the thread – that there are readers who, say, may not be familiar with traditional Realism or how it was displaced; that may not be familiar with key positions in either the Analytic or Continental traditions or their histories.

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  9. Dan

    “I see no anger whatsoever in EJ’s comments.”

    I said “(apparent) anger”.

    “… [The comments] are entirely substantive.”

    They also misrepresent what I have been saying.

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  10. Before one accuses others of misrepresentation, it’s worth considering two possibilities:

    (a) They got it wrong.
    (b) You didn’t explain things very well.

    If a lot of people seem to be “misrepresenting” you might want to consider (b).

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  11. Hi EJ,

    “Please bear in mind that when I write in comment threads here, or in other web sites, i do so aware that there are readers besides those directly engaged in the discussion on the thread – that there are readers who, say, may not be familiar with traditional Realism or how it was displaced; that may not be familiar with key positions in either the Analytic or Continental traditions or their histories”

    Ok, fair enough and it explains some of my confusion at what seemed large detours from my own statements.

    “Quite a bit in Modern philosophy has been an attempt to find ways to make it less problematic; these efforts have not convinced me this can be done. Other efforts in philosophy have been directed towards accepting this problematic character and developing means to get along with it – I tend to favor these.”

    Then I’m not seeing much of a disagreement with the position I took from my very first reply. This is fine.

    “The issue is not whether there are mind-independent stuff and events out there, but whether we can know and articulate them in a mind-independent manner, and that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

    Here is a point of potential disagreement, and the source of confusion with your statement. One of the arguments I was making is that by using a (I will roll with the term) common sense Realism, there are certain experiences and actions emerging from science which hint that we can articulate them in a mind independent manner. At least it gives some pushback against AR concepts.

    Also, depending on what you mean by “mind-independent” the statement above does not seem strong enough to argue against using “cat is on the mat” statements, or talking about a difference (and so means to judge the gap) between theory and actual process (I’ll skip using “fact” since you use that differently).

    …………..

    Mark (to EJ): “I am not saying what you say I am saying at all. (I would say they are *attempts* to describe and explain actual events and processes.)”

    Me (to EJ, written before Mark’s was posted): “…though might amend your second sentence to say the theories are *attempts* to describe…”

    So I did have the right read of Mark’s argument, and could spot EJ’s misunderstanding. Given that we both felt a bit misunderstood, perhaps it would be useful to ask about some things before assuming and arguing against worst interpretations. Both Mark and I asked for clarification when we saw something unusual. And that might lessen perceptions you are writing angrily.

    ………..

    EJ (to Mark): “both yourself and db seemed to flat out ignore the qualifying final clause of the first sentence “as far as I’m concerned.”

    Here is a good example. Apparently I “flat out ignored” something, whereas when you did the exact same thing (somehow missed my *to me* qualifier) I did not accuse you of a deliberate action. While I think the problem I had with your myriad statement goes a little deeper and wider than relation back to the single tree falling quote, I’ll settle for a “looks like we’re even” conclusion. 🙂

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  12. Hi Dan,

    “If a lot of people seem to be “misrepresenting” you might want to consider (b)”

    I agree with what you are saying except in this case, as I point out in the reply right before this (written before your comment appeared) I had the right read of Mark’s position. So it’s not like “a lot” of people were getting him wrong, it appears just EJ… though it could have been he misread (a) Mark and not chose to misrepresent.

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  13. db,
    “”Mark (to EJ): “I am not saying what you say I am saying at all. (I would say they are *attempts* to describe and explain actual events and processes.)”
    Me (to EJ, written before Mark’s was posted): “…though might amend your second sentence to say the theories are *attempts* to describe…””

    I don’t see that adding the ‘attempts’ qualification adds so much to the position that the way I phrased it was a radical misreading of it.

    Mark,
    if I have misrepresented your position, again I’m sorry. However my reading of that position, though put bluntly, is a fairly common reading of scientific Realism, which I thought you were arguing for.. I will certainly re-read the essay and the comment threads to note points of divergence from this position.

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  14. Dan

    “Before one accuses others of misrepresentation, it’s worth considering two possibilities:

    (a) They got it wrong.
    (b) You didn’t explain things very well.

    If a lot of people seem to be “misrepresenting” you might want to consider (b).”

    All I am saying is that the statements in ejwinner’s comment misrepresent – i.e. do not accurately represent – what I have said and what I think. You are implying that this happened because I didn’t explain things very well. Well, I did my best.

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  15. Typically the charge of “misrepresentation” does not suggest and inadvertent, but rather a deliberate mistake. I’m glad you didn’t mean it as such.

    Oh, and I didn’t imply anything. Two people hardly qualify as “a lot.”

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  16. Thanks Marc. Yes I’ll have to try to figure out how what Dan Tippens is saying relates to what I have said here also. I would have been interested in his reaction to this piece, actually, but I realize he has a policy of not commenting much on other people’s essays – which I totally respect.

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  17. It is wonderful to see that the subject of logic can still engender such fruitful and passionate discussion! That its place in our minds and culture is not yet settled is rather surprising considering how relatively simple it really is. Here is my own commonsense perspective:

    Mathematics is the language of logic, par excellence. It describes the relationships between mathematical objects following precisely described the rules. Emotions and feelings are not formally recognized in the system. When mathematical objects correspond to objects existing in the external world, the information that can be derived via mathematical logic is quite astonishing.

    All human beings engage in informal mathematics during daily calculations in their struggle for existence: am I or are you or us being reasonable or rational? Am I getting value for my money? These are questions that we deal with constantly every day in business, politics, philosophy and otherwise. Emotions and feelings play a very important role in these calculations and thus it is explained why we are never able to come to a universal agreement on any of these matters.

    Thus, logic is objective. It describes the relationships between the things in our world. That at least is what it used to be in the early days when things were simple. Farmers, traders, engineers and architects had to figure out a language through which they could communicate. Keeping it objective was the way to go. The structures of logic where determined by their experience of the every day world.

    I would go as far as to say that logic is deeply rooted in our a biological heritage. The logic of life has made us what we are. It is as ‘simple’ as that! Philosophers can ask all the questions that they want, but answers will only come through applied logic (Science).

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  18. Hi Mark,

    Yes, sorry I haven’t been commenting on other essays other than my own. Things at my lab have been insane (Dan K is aware of the details), and my grad school application deadlines fall between Dec. 15th and January 15th, so I’ve been focusing hard on these things.

    In January I hope to be more engaged.

    re your piece: just one quick question, I thought you were a minimalist about truth, along the lines of Paul Horwich (I think I saw on one of your personal blogs an essay on this matter). Were you trying to go for something like that here?

    side note: I enjoyed the essay, and as you probably know I have intuitions that side with your general position.

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  19. I remember writing an undergrad essay on how I liked deflationist accounts because they seem to be able to satisfy our correspondence theory intuitions without carrying the same metaphysical baggage. So I wonder if Mark is really a deflationist, but sounds like a robust correspondence theorist given the language employed in the essay. His metalanguage analysis struck me as similar, though certainly not identical, to a disquotational theory of truth.

    This passage in particular made curious:

    “But Popper emphasizes that his version of the correspondence theory (based as it is on Tarski’s semantic theory of truth) is not designed or intended to yield a criterion of truth.”

    This sounds a bit like a deflationary picture, right? Namely, that propositions don’t have some property of truth or falsehood, and so we don’t need to figure out what that property is.

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