A Modest Critique of Quine’s Web of Belief

By Daniel Tippens

Most of W.V.O Quine’s landmark essay, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” is devoted to a critique of the analytic/synthetic distinction.  Quine defines an analytic statement as either a logical truth – “Bachelors are bachelors” – or a statement that can be turned into a logical truth by exchanging synonyms –“Bachelors are unmarried men.”  One of the features of analytic statements is that they are devoid of factual content and are thus, immune to empirical disconfirmation.  Synthetic statements, on the other hand – statements like “the barn is on fire” – do express substantive facts and consequently are prone to empirical disconfirmation.   Logical Empiricists, like A.J Ayer, relied upon the distinction between analytic and synthetic in order to distinguish meaningful propositions from meaningless ones (so as to eliminate so-called “metaphysical” statements) and characterized analytic statements as entirely “linguistic,” insofar as they are about nothing more than the meanings of words.

Quine’s main point with respect to the analytic/synthetic distinction is that there can be no adequate, non-question-begging account of what an analytic statement is.  The argument would appear to leave us, then, with nothing but synthetic statements.  But in the last section of “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” Quine also challenges the Logical Empiricist idea that individual synthetic statements have their own conditions for confirmation and disconfirmation, in favor of a confirmation holism: the idea every statement’s verification is connected with the verification of other statements, all of which are ultimately answerable to experience. I’ll spell this out in a moment, but hopefully confirmation holism will sound a familiar bell since, in defending it, Quine invokes his famous metaphor of a “web of belief.”  And one apparent consequence of it is that ultimately every belief – mathematical and logical beliefs included – is revisable in light of empirical evidence.

To see why, consider the question of how revision of a belief occurs on Quine’s picture. The idea is that when recalcitrant evidence presents itself, it puts pressure on us to give up any number of different beliefs. Take a simple example: if I believe that it is sunny, and I walk out my door and see that it is not sunny, then my network of beliefs is inconsistent with my observations. When I encounter this evidence, I have a choice. I could give up my belief that it is sunny or I can give up my belief that I am not currently hallucinating, that there isn’t a giant spotlight above my house, etc. The point is that no piece of empirical evidence determines which belief we give up. Instead, it just indicates that we need to give up some belief, such that our network, and the evidence, remain consistent. Empirical evidence doesn’t put pressure on any particular belief, but rather our whole network of beliefs. This point, of course, is reminiscent of Pierre Duhem’s argument that when we perform an experiment, we are never testing between only two competing hypotheses. We might think that only hypotheses X and Y are in question, but really we are also testing the hypotheses that our microscopes work, our eyes are functioning properly, etc.

With this in mind, Quine goes on to suggest that mathematical or logical beliefs are packed more closely towards the center of our network. What this means is that while these beliefs can be revised in principle,  we only do so when we encounter a massive amount of recalcitrant evidence that places significant empirical pressure on our entire network of beliefs or a good portion of it. The reason for this is that revising a belief at the center results in the revision of many of the beliefs elsewhere – if we were to give up modus ponens, for example, we would be forced to revise the beliefs that we had deduced by way of it.  Of course, Quine can’t simply assert that our “center-beliefs” can be given up in light of empirical evidence – he needs to provide an example. So he cites the way in which work in quantum mechanics generated several paradoxes that were taken as recalcitrant evidence, thereby putting significant pressure on our belief-network and causing us to abandon the principle of distributivity.

Now for my (modest) critique.  It seems to me that Quine must admit that at least one belief is not susceptible to revision, in the face of empirical evidence, in order for his confirmation holism to work. Of course, if this is true, then it is not true that all beliefs are revisable in light of experience, as Quine wants to maintain.

What it is that prompts us, on Quine’s picture, to count certain observations as being problematic with respect to our network of beliefs, thereby causing us to feel the pressure to revise some of them? The most natural candidate is the law of non-contradiction, according to which propositions P and -P cannot be true simultaneously.

Consider our earlier example and suppose that I hold the belief that it is sunny. When I go outside and see that it is not sunny, I take the belief that it is not sunny into my network of beliefs. Now I hold two contradictory beliefs: that it is sunny and that it is not sunny, and so I must give up one of these beliefs, on pain of violating the law of non-contradiction. On this picture, then, the law of non-contradiction is the very thing that makes us feel that our network of beliefs is not consistent with our observations, leading us to undergo pressure to revise some of our beliefs.

Could we ever give up the law of non-contradiction, on Quine’s view? Imagine a scenario in which we have an overwhelming quantity of observations that act as recalcitrant evidence, placing empirical pressure on us, forcing us to reconsider the law of non-contradiction. If we are feeling this pressure, then the law of non-contradiction is causing it. So if we were to give up this law, it seems we would be using it in the process of giving it up, and this strikes me as incoherent.

One might respond by citing other principles to which we might appeal in giving up the law of non-contradiction. Quine, for instance, says that when we experience a large body of recalcitrant evidence at the periphery, we will be inclined to give up a center-belief for reasons of simplicity. Maybe we could give up the law of non-contradiction on these grounds.

I don’t think this reply can work. To see why, consider the distinction between a principle that makes us feel we need to give up some beliefs, and a principle that we use to decide which beliefs to give up. Simplicity is an example of the latter, for we consult it in order to decide which beliefs to keep, while the law of non-contradiction is an example of the former, for it is what generates our need to give up some beliefs in the first place. Only once the law of non-contradiction has done its work do we appeal to simplicity to facilitate our decision-making process.  So, giving up the law of non-contradiction on grounds of simplicity would still involve appealing to the law of non-contradiction.

Someone might also want to point out that people have, in fact, considered giving up the law of non-contradiction. Indeed, that is exactly what dialetheists, like Graham Priest think. Perhaps this demonstrates that regardless of the concerns I’ve raised, the law of non-contradiction can be given up, shielding Quine from my criticism.

It is not enough to show that the law of non-contradiction has, or can, be given up. One must show that the basis for rejecting the law was, or is, empirical evidence, as Quine did with respect to the principle of distributivity. Furthermore, I think I can safely dig my heels in the ground, here. If I am right that, on Quine’s view, the law of non-contradiction is what generates empirical pressure, and that this fact renders giving up the law of non-contradiction — on empirical grounds — incoherent, then I have firm footing to claim that, in the case of dialetheism, giving up the law of non-contradiction was either not done on empirical grounds or was methodologically incoherent. If the former answer is correct, then Quine is still in trouble. If the latter, then Quine could still be right, but has to admit that in some cases, we decide to give up beliefs on the basis of empirical evidence for incoherent reasons, which would seem a Pyrrhic victory.

References

Quine’s From a Logical Point of View (in which “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” appears).

http://www.naturalthinker.net/trl/texts/Quine,W.V.O/logicalview/Quine%20W%20V%20O%20From%20A%20Logical%20Viewpoint.pdf

SEP entry on dialetheism.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dialetheism/

 

48 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the essay,

    This topic relates closely to ideas discussed in a book by Brook Ziporyn that I am reading. The book deals with the historical use of the term ‘Li’ (roughly translated as coherence) in various Chinese philosophical traditions.

    Ziporyn refers the Taoist approach taken Zhaungzi as ironic Li. My reading is that this would allow for the dropping of the law of non contradiction ( with respect to foundations) within a coherent belief system. This approach would not allow one to speak of any absolute coherent foundational principal, the idea of foundation in any singular sense would be incoherent.

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  2. Dan,

    Keep in mind a spider web is organically dynamic. The spider builds, fixes and adapts it to context.

    The problem with belief is, as Seth alludes, when we try to make them absolute, rather than subjective and coherence flies out the window.

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  3. brodix: Without a fixed boundary in experience, all that coherence guarantees is a kind of internal consistency. But complete fictions can be internally consistent. Its precisely the observation statements and their ultimate epistemic priority that connects a belief system to the world and thus links justification to truth.

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  4. Hi DanK,

    In your comment to brodix is your ‘fixed boundary in experience’ a reference to Wittgensteins river bed metaphor? If I understand the metaphor correctly it implies a certain fixity of belief as a necessary condition/foundation or basis of assumptions that contains the flow of thoughts in conscious experience.
    But does not Wittgenstein also say:

    ‘but I distinguish between the movement of the waters on the river-bed and the shift of the bed itself:though there is now sharp division of the one from the other’

    As well as:

    ‘And the bank of the river consists partly of hard rock, subject to no no alteration or only an imperceptible one, partly of sand, which now in one place now in another gets washed away or deposited’

    This suggests to me that the river-bed is potentially also in a state of flux. This doesn’t seem so far to me from Quines web, the river-bed representing beliefs more fixed, more foundational, slower to be modified, but perhaps (even the rock part) open to revision.

    Contradiction doesn’t necessarily imply that the fluid experience must be made consistent within the fixed river-bed. If the fluid thoughts over-run the bed often enough in a similar way that might imply a shifting of the bed itself lead to more comprehensive coherence between beliefs and experience. If that makes any sense.

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  5. I typed the quote above incorrectly It should have read:

    ‘but I distinguish between the movement of the waters on the river-bed and the shift of the bed itself:though there is not a sharp division of the one from the other’

    Which makes more sense with what I was trying to understand/say.

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  6. Dan K,

    Much of one’s life experience is finding and fixing those boundaries. As I’ve argued elsewhere, reality is that relationship between energy pushing out and form pushing in. Whether it is a child exploring its world, social energies pushing out, while civil and cultural forces push back into, or galaxies, as radiation expands out, while mass and form coalesce in.
    The energy of consciousness moves to the future, as the form of the thoughts defining it recede into the past.

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  7. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/enhanced/exportCitation/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0068.2007.00647.x

    It is sometimes said that there are two, competing versions of W. V. O. Quine’s unrelenting empiricism, perhaps divided according to temporal periods of his career…logic-friendly Quine…and Radical Quine… [R]adical Quine holds that (correct) inferential practices themselves can change in response to observations….The purpose of this paper is to examine the law of non-contradiction, and the concomitant principle of ex falso quodlibet, from the perspective of the principles advocated by the radical Quine. We show that he has no compelling reason to accept either of these. To put it bluntly, neither the law of non-contradiction nor the rule of ex falso quodlibet is empirically confirmed, and these principles fare poorly on the various criteria for theory acceptance on the methodology of the radical Quine. So the radical Quine is led rather quickly and rather directly into something in the neighborhood of Graham Priest’s dialetheism (e.g., [1987]) .

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  8. I quoted Putnam on Quine v. Popper on the other thread. It seems to me that there is a Popperian falsificationist approach to the indeterminancy of translation argument. That is, in Quine’s example, I say “Neptune”, and you say “Neptune”, but while I mean the planet, you mean everything but the planet (I think this after the Star Trek episode). I originally conjectured you mean N1, but being scientifically minded I might try a few experiments by asking you, say 20, questions. I might even be a Socratic Gadfly interested in falsifying an hypothesis about your overall depth of ignorance. I guess this kind of fits in with Inferentialism and “meaning-as-use”.

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  9. Hi DanK. The paper is entitled “Where in the (World Wide) Web of Belief is the Law of Non-contradiction?” They cite Quine extensively, and come down on Dan T’s side.

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  10. Thanks David Duffy, I’ll take a look at the paper, though unfortunately the link you provided contains your ezpoxy access address within the URL, so I can’t access it, nor can anyone else, through there 😦

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  11. Dan,

    I was just pointing out why there is a tendency toward contradictory belief systems in the first place. That those “center belief systems” tell us not to look at the man behind the curtain.

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  12. DanT,
    some stray thoughts:

    Doesn’t the fact that we now have logical forms that were never dreamt of in classical logic itself suggest that the fundamentals of classical logic might need serious revision?

    Non-Euclidean geometry was originally devised as an intellectual challenge, and then discovered to work well in certain real-world situations. Doesn’t that suggest that dialetheism might be found to have practical applications in scientific research in the future? And doesn’t it also suggest that it is possible to imagine a world where we use monaletheistic logic in everyday use, while having dialetheism handy for specialized application. In that case, the ‘web of belief would certainly be revised – but in a manner that might be wholly coherent. Maybe not. Or maybe we won’t notice whether it is or not.

    Evidence has been gathering that subatomic particles (perhaps even atoms themselves) can actually exist in two places at the same time. Making claims on that basis would certainly violate the Law of the Excluded Middle. (The observation that ‘sub-atomic particle X is now at both place A and place B’ would not technically violate the LNC, I suppose, but sanctions the propositions:

    ‘At Time n, X is at Location 1’
    ‘At T n, X is at L 2’
    ‘At T n, X is at L 1 and X is at L2’
    ‘At T n, X is at both L 1 and L 2’
    ‘At T n, X is at L 1 or L 2’
    ‘L 1 is the place where we find X at T n’
    ‘L 2 is the place where we find X at T n’
    ‘L 1 is the place and L 2 is the place where we find X at T n’
    ‘L 1 is the place where we find X at T n and L 2 is the place where we find X at T n’
    ‘L 1 and L 2 are the places where we find X at T n’
    ‘L 1 or L 2 is the place where we find X at T n’
    And of course:
    ‘The principle that “no physical object can be in two places at the same time” is false’ (although it may still be usefully ‘true’ in macro-physics and everyday life) *

    Further, it should be noted that, given the speed of subatomic particles, at T n+1 (‘1’ identifying the shortest unit of time possibly measurable) the locations of X are indeterminate.(barring development of further measuring devices).

    This is an empirical issue; and there just seems to be some problems here. It should be remembered that Quine was something of a ‘scientismist’, and was aware that quantum theory was raising questions concerning how far our knowledge could extend into the basic stuff of the universe, and was perhaps trying to prepare us for the worst. It is possible that one day traditional logic will be found not very useful in describing that stuff, I don’t know.

    It may be that there’s an extra-epistemological process, a psychological process, we can rely on here. Considering how great the changes have been in the Western world-view since the 16th Century, it’s rather surprising that our brains haven’t exploded. Apparently humans have an enormous capacity to re-arrange their beliefs around the formerly inconceivable, when it actually happens.

    —–
    * There’s also a proposition I find difficult to formulate well; something like ‘Both L 1 and L 2 is/are the location of X at T n.’ I’m writing off the top of my head, I’m sure there’s a formal or symbolic expression for this in some logic. And there may other propositions I don’t see right now.

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  13. I tried to respond to the latest comments (by Liam and the two Dans) on my Popper post but the comment thread was closed. So if Dan Tippens doesn’t mind I’ll respond here. Later I may say something about his essay.

    In response to Liam: Yes I agree the discussion was fruitful. Just one quibble. Your little summary of your position seems to conflate logic and mathematics. And certainly you can see formal logic as a branch of mathematics. I’m not too fussed with how these things are categorized but it does seem useful to maintain a distinction between logic and maths. The former is generally seen as more general or basic. Formal logic was developed primarily as a way of clarifying the *foundations* of mathematics. And it also has closer links to natural language and ordinary day-to-day thinking than maths does. But I agree with you that we must look to pure and applied science (which grows out of those ordinary interactions you talk about) for substantive answers. And seeing science (and much commonsense behavior) as “applied logic” seems not unreasonable.

    Dan Kaufman wrote: “Horwich is a deflationist. If that’s what Mark is arguing for here, then it is utterly unobvious.”

    There are parallels (but also subtle differences) between Tarski’s approach and Horwich’s ‘minimal theory’. I don’t necessarily endorse the latter (more on this below) but I do think his view that the concept of truth is metaphysically trivial is on target. I also agree with some of Horwich’s general criticisms of the way much philosophy is done.

    Dan Tippens wrote: “… 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?”

    I haven’t got a fully worked-out position. As you know, I didn’t specifically address Horwich’s theory in the Popper piece but maybe I’ll do something which deals with this in the future.

    DT: “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.”

    Yes this sounds about right. Horwich’s theory, by the way, is supportive of the intuition behind the correspondence theory of truth in a very similar way to Tarski’s theory. Horwich is quite explicit: propositions are true or false *because* the world is a certain way, and science generally answers the questions regarding how it is.

    DT: “This passage in particular made me 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.”

    I wasn’t thinking of this specifically in terms of deflationism, just in terms of a contrast with the coherence and pragmatic theories both of which do provide a criterion of truth. But, as you suggest, this open-endedness does fit well with deflationism.

    DT: “… as you probably know I have intuitions that side with your general position.”

    Glad to hear it. For me these intuitions are crucial and – unlike in science – the further we move away from them and into theories of this or that, the greater the likelihood that we are distorting things.

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  14. Hi Ontological realist,

    “Does Quine also deny that A is A? If he denies that A is not non-A, does it not follow that he is also denying that A is A?”

    I don’t think Quine really denies any particular logical proposition in this essay, he just says that no statement is immune to revision. So all he would say, here, is that the proposition — that A is A — can be revised in light of empirical evidence.

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  15. Hi Ej,

    Could you tell me whether you think revising the law of non contradiction based on empirical evidence would require appealing to the law of non-contradiction? Indeed, the standard quantum mechanical evidence cited on this matter — involving superposition and what not — seems to only count as recalcitrant evidence against the law of non contradiction *because* of that very law!

    Is this not incoherent? Do you think it doesn’t matter? I’m curious because so long as I’m right about incoherence, here, then quine’s “scientism” — as you put it — seems unwarranted in the sense that it doesn’t demand as much respect if it makes changes to our beliefs based on incoherent reasons.

    Also, you pointed out the fact that we now have logical forms that were never dreamt of in the past, and so perhaps this suggests that classical logic is in need of serious revision. But remember that the issue is not whether logical statements can be revised, it is whether they can be revised based on *empirical evidence*. This is important because even Carnap, Quine’s opponent, agreed that some logical statements were open to revision. He just didn’t think it was an empirical issue.

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  16. Hi Mark,

    Glad to hear it sounds like I have a roughly accurate picture of your position. Yeah, I’m very attracted to deflationary theories of truth, and would love to see something from you on Horwich’s minimalism in the future. Fun fact: I actually took a class on truth with him, and he is one of people writing me a letter of recommendation for grad school!

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  17. I’m pretty burned out on this conversation. For what it’s worth, from Stanford:

    “At present the most noticeable competitors to correspondence theories are deflationary accounts of truth (or ‘true’). Deflationists maintain that correspondence theories need to be deflated; that their central notions, correspondence and fact (and their relatives), play no legitimate role in an adequate account of truth and can be excised without loss.”

    and

    “Deflationists argue that truth is a shallow (sometimes “logical”) notion—a notion that has no serious explanatory role to play: as such it does not require a full-fledged account, a real theory, that would have to take the form of a genuine generalization.”

    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth-correspondence/#8.4

    Given that Mark was making hay about correspondence, in light of concerns re: Realism and confidence in the truthiness of scientific theories, one can understand why someone familiar with Deflationism would not mistake Mark’s account for a deflationary one. Of course, one cannot read minds but only what is in the actual essay, so if Mark really meant something other than what the essay seemed to say, that’s fine.

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  18. Hi Dan-K,

    I see why one wouldn’t take Mark’s view to be deflationist, given all the things he said about realism, correspondence, and science. I just noticed that there were some things Mark said in his essay that suggested he has deflationist leanings, and I was trying to see if that was right.

    Also just throwing it out there that taking a class with Horwich on deflationary and inflationary theories of truth makes me at least familiar with deflationism 🙂

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  19. DanT,
    My thinking tends toward belief that humans will either find some way to keep their beliefs coherent, or learn to redefine their beliefs in a way that allows them to live with incoherence – including their understanding of logic itself. I also believe that this can occur in response to empirical data and experience. And I also suspect that this has already happened in the past, and that we may not be able to see this because of a psychological habituation towards thinking in a coherent manner that patches up (or ignores) inconsistencies as it goes along. Quantum theory is simply the most obvious, recent – and empirically based – moment raising this possibility. Doesn’t denial of this possibility itself risk an incoherence if it means denial also of empirical experience itself?

    We should remember that there are competing understandings of what even constitutes ‘truth’ and what we do with it. My own tends toward the pragmatic, that there is a convergence between the true and the useful, in response to the world as we find it in experience. But human experience has become rather complicated since the days of Aristotle.

    Would revision of the LNC require dependence on the LNC? and would this lead to incoherence? Both are possible; but it may not necessarily lead to the much feared ‘explosive’ incoherence whereby anything can be said. After all, humans have a number of ways to prevent just anything to be said, in a given context. But if they feel the need to speak of their experience and thought, they will develop the language to speak it. (A hundred or so years ago, ‘superposition’ would have meant precisely nothing!)

    Dependence on logic, as the final arbiter of truth, or of belief, or of human speech or behavior has proven very useful, and preferable to most forms of irrationalism; but some forms of seeming irrationalism have within them a reasonableness not reducible to traditional logic structures or claims. And as experience becomes ever more complicated, as seems likely – in the sciences, but also in social contexts – reason itself suggests we need to remain open to possible approaches to that experience that we haven’t previously considered, or that we thought unviable.

    We tend to read Aristotle as simply expounding the evident logic of the speech of his time. But what if his work on logic was a radical redefinition of how most people understood thinking and speaking at the time? Indeed, the complicated history of logic in ancient India suggests similar developments there; and my suspicion is that some form of paraconsistent logic will come to be recognized as, not an extention of traditional logic, but its ground of origin.

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  20. ontologicalrealist,
    ‘No material entity can be in two places at the same time;
    ‘X is a sub-atomic particle and as such is a material entity;
    ‘At time Tn X is at location L1;
    ‘At time Tn X is at location L2;
    ”At time tn X is at location L1 and at location L2’

    Until we interject superposition theory (which bandages the wound, but does not heal it), from this classical argument, no conclusion can be drawn; the best we can say is 1) the first premise is false, or 2) the second premise is false, or 3) our empirical observations are mistaken. In any event, the Law of the Excluded Middle gasps its last. And if we can say that the first premise is wrong*, but when we do so, we admit we are living in a universe ‘not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine,’ and all bets are off. The possibility that the experiential experiments into quantum physics can present us with evidence that A = -A becomes very real.

    Remember that we are here struggling with possibilities; there is no direct experience of ‘A = -A’ as yet that I’m aware of; The problem is that quantum physics has opened the door to the possibility of such.
    ——
    * Indeed, if we say that 2) is false, this leads us into a revision of the LNC – X is a material entity that lacks a necessary property of a material entity. 3) only tells us that we can’t trust our instruments or our experiences through them, in which case we raise the problem of whether we can know the world through such instrumentation; which eventually ‘explodes’ into extreme skepticism.

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  21. “an example of an experience which will prove that A is not A”: as well as EJ’s quantum realism example, anything involving vagueness or paradox. Like, is the screen I am reading this on white, or red, green and blue?

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  22. But which logic are we talking about. A year ago I did a MOOC from University of Munich on mathematics and logic which had a section on quantum logic among other non-standard logics. Excluded middle was only one standard logic axiom that was out for quantum logic. However much standard logic seems immutable it may be that it is simply tied to our level of meso-reality.

    It seems too that when we talk about these issues with the web of belief in our philosophical talk we postulate simple, non-specified webs. A similar problem has been noted with philosophical/armchair examples generally. But actual examples involve actual webs of contradiction, specific networks of logical difficulties, created by some empirical experience that doesn’t fit. Can we speak in such general ways about anomalies rather than looking, however tedious it might be, at detailed, actual networks of contradiction and anomaly as they ramify through actual webs of belief. Maybe there are different kinds of problems for different ‘shapes’ of web? In the course of an actual investigation, many of the apparent problems may disappear, simply because in a given instance, the web concerned quickly generates reductios, or links to clusters of multiple empirical experiences, which allow a weight of experience criterion to close off parts of the web from revision. The generality of the discussion is not helpful to me.

    Inigo

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  23. Hi Dan T, it’s nice to see from here and in commentary that you, Mark and I share similar sympathies surrounding this area of philosophy. I do agree with Dan that it would be hard to read Mark’s piece as deflationary, and I would probably not want to go that far myself… though there is a fit of sorts.

    Regarding your essay, you set out a basic challenge. Can one reject LNC based on empirical evidence without an appeal to LNC? I’m not sure if I can meet that goal completely, but I can get pretty close.

    In Mark’s essay I discussed my position that taking a commonsense* Realist approach involves accepting an axiom, from which one can build coherent models of the world based on one’s experiences where statements about correspondence would be meaningful (though caveated). Thus, I believe this “axiom” sits pretty close to the center of any Quinean “web”… at least one I would spin.

    The LNC is something I originally took to be another “axiom” (for want of a better word) that would rest pretty close if not dead center. But I changed my mind. On thinking about it I realized it is less a “truth-statement” or necessary condition of some kind that is placed within a web of facts, and might be better characterized as a disposition, a temperament… maybe an intuition?

    To continue the web metaphor it is not a point of fact (or experience) at some nexus point connecting other facts, but the general behavior of the philosophical “spider” to avoid placing inconsistencies within the web. Basically an aesthetic preference, sort of like consistency, which is not necessary but something people seem to have an innate drive to maintain and so strive to keep in place as a working principle.

    Regardless of whether my beliefs about the LNC are the best account or not, I came to this partly from empirical evidence which may serve the same purpose in answering your challenge.

    In bringing up physics, I was surprised that EJ didn’t use one of the simplest examples: the double-slit experiment. Based on evidence so far, primarily through double-slit experiments, matter at subatomic levels (or at least photons) will act as both a particle and a wave. This is entirely contradictory and has led many scientists to work with the empirical reality, they are simultaneously a wave and a particle, regardless of the logical problems it seems to entail. Many theories have tried to account for the disparity between logic and empirical observations (one producing one of Michael Crichton’s lesser books and movie adaptations). But the fact is maybe something can act as or be A and not-A, and we just do not know how or why. It is something we have to accept and so reject the LNC (at least as some ultimate, unavoidable fact).

    My guess is you will argue that this rejection involves an appeal to the LNC, but I will let you make that case. Instead I will advance what I think its rejection involves, and indeed is a principle which underlies much of any web-building activities: pragmatism.

    If the LNC fails to account for incoming evidence, I need no more reason to reject it than to say it just doesn’t work. Not that there is a case that LNC cannot exist and not-exist at the same time (which would have to be the appeal to LNC). Rather it is that using LNC as a linchpin principle (center of web) has been shown to not hold for all experiences and so is not necessarily useful (or true) everywhere.

    Do I get a cookie?

    ……………………..

    *-note, from now on I am going to use the term “commonsense” as Dan K used for Hume, to refer to the form of Realism I hold/advocate… though my sympathies do run toward stronger accounts such as Mark was attempting.

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  24. Hi DB holmes,

    “But the fact is maybe something can act as or be A and not-A, and we just do not know how or why. It is something we have to accept and so reject the LNC (at least as some ultimate, unavoidable fact).

    My guess is you will argue that this rejection involves an appeal to the LNC, but I will let you make that case. Instead I will advance what I think its rejection involves, and indeed is a principle which underlies much of any web-building activities: pragmatism.

    If the LNC fails to account for incoming evidence, I need no more reason to reject it than to say it just doesn’t work.”

    ____________________________________________

    Indeed you are correct…. that I would say that this still involves an appeal to the LNC :). I’m concerned about the last sentence here, where you talk about the LNC “failing to account for incoming evidence”, and how you need no more reason to reject it than to say that it “just doesn’t work.” My question would be, when does something count as failing to account for incoming evidence, and what makes us think it doesn’t work? For the reasons I gave in the OP, I suspect this is ultimately going to appeal to the LNC in some form or another, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything in your post that would quell this suspicion.

    Just to be clear, though, I’m willing to concede that the law of non contradiction can be revised based on empirical evidence (I said as much as the end of my essay), but I hold that it would have to be done based on incoherent reasons, at least on Quine’s picture.

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  25. Hi Inigo,

    “The generality of the discussion is not helpful to me.”

    _____________________________________

    I have to say, I kinda feel the same way about your comment. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, given its level of abstraction. Could you say more?

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  26. DanT –

    It seems to me the assumption here is that we form our beliefs by rationally weighing the empirical evidence. I don’t think that’s how belief formation really works. I think rational reflection can play a role, but I think most our beliefs including the more foundational ones mostly form behind the scenes and show up already formed with various degrees of emotional feeling attached to them. I don’t we generally directly decide what we believe, more often we construct arguments defending the beliefs we inhabit.

    I do think we can change our beliefs by learning to be more receptive to conflicting evidence, but even when this habit of receptive reflection leads to a new belief (at least for me ) it is not as though I spell out the evidence and say I am now going to believe ,such and such’ because I have noticed some logical problem with my prior belief. The new belief just emerges, and sometimes quite awhile after the initial reflection.

    So I’m with DB. If the LNC is instrumental in my foundational belief formation it is operating as some kind of background law of unconsciousness. This seems a bit incoherent to me.

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  27. Hi Dan, well I want to repeat that the view of the LNC (and how it relates to a Quinean web) that you argue for is not the one I have (and it seems Seth too, though I don’t go as far as Seth to reject rational weighing of evidence in total). So in a way I feel slightly constrained in having to argue against a position which itself feels asserted rather than proven, or at least argued such that I accept it. In short your position sort of begs the question whether the LNC is used in the fashion, or has the central position you describe, in a Quinean web.

    So with one hand tied behind my back… 🙂

    “My question would be, when does something count as failing to account for incoming evidence, and what makes us think it doesn’t work”

    Basically when an account stops having predictive value. It means we have applied an inaccurate assumption about it (perhaps taken as a false hidden premise).

    Where did the LNC come from, other than through consistent experiences of things for which the LNC was an accurate descriptor and so predictor of future experiences for those things? If we lived in a world where things readily had a capacity for holding opposite properties at the same time, the LNC would not have been thought of as the LNC but rather a contingent quality in the universe (an ObservedNC?) that we would apply to those things that were seen to exclude holding opposite properties.

    So given your example, since common experience is that it can only be sunny or not sunny (those properties are defined as mutually exclusive based on experience) we might use the LNC in the way your essay described.

    And since that picture pertains to most of our common experiences (and so the why we define most properties in a mutually exclusive way) the idea of non-contradiction seems ubiquitous, treated as a law, and (mistakenly) viewed as some central fact everything has to be connected to in a web, rather than just being a quality which most things we happen to experience share.

    In short we have confused seeming ubiquity with some standing, important, independent principle.

    As we have advanced our sets of experiences beyond “common” experiences, we’ve started bumping into cases where things that were considered mutually exclusive are not. My example was wave and particle. That starts to reveal that the LNC is first of all no longer really an “L”. And it is no longer useful as an assumed descriptor/predictor, at least for those classes of experiences beyond the common ones for most of human history.

    It may turn out as we broaden our range of experiences further, that outside of the common experiences humans have had up until now (limited in range and space/temporal position) the majority of objects/events in the universe can hold opposite properties (or were thought to be opposites) and so the LNC is actually ascribable (an accurate descriptor/predictor) for a minority of cases even if that minority makes up much of what humans experience.

    Either way, the ultimate “rejection” of the LNC was based on lack of descriptive/predictive value, (its application we thought was relevant to believed mutually exclusive properties) and not by appeal to the LNC. To demand that seems to demand more than I need. And I do not see how the account I gave is “incoherent”.

    In short, there is no such thing as the LNC. There are simply cases of mutual exclusion, which can only be decided by consistent experience of a thing (induction) such that it makes a rule that *looks* like the LNC practical to use (deductively) for that thing.

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  28. Hi DB,

    Just to be clear, I don’t reject our capacity to rationally weigh evidence (although I don’t think it is ever 100% pure rationality). I just think the effect of that process takes awhile to seep in and become a belief that disposes act or feel a certain way in response to what we observe. I don’t think it is a simple matter of deciding to have a certain belief.

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  29. Hi DB,

    “Basically when an account stops having predictive value. It means we have applied an inaccurate assumption about it (perhaps taken as a false hidden premise).”

    I feel I should raise the more general worry, here. How would you give up *this* predictive value rule, on quine’s view? When it doesn’t make accurate predictions any longer?

    In my essay I’m trying to point out that there will be some rule (or *maybe* several) through which we determine which beliefs we give up and which we keep, on Quine’s picture. I’m happy to say it doesn’t have to be the LNC, perhaps its your predictive value view — “when things stop making accurate predictions” (incidentally, I suspect you are still smuggling in the LNC here with what it means for a prediction to be accurate, but that won’t matter for my purposes right now).

    The point that I am trying to raise is that whatever the fundamental rule(s) are that we use to determine which beliefs to give up, there is going to be this incoherence worry that I raised in the essay, about using that rule in the process of giving it up. If we don’t use any fundamental rules, then I worry about the coherence of our web-of-belief updating system more generally, on Quine’s picture (hence my point in the essay that it would concern me if we scientifically advanced our beliefs based on incoherent, or at least a-rational, reasons).

    “Hi Dan, well I want to repeat that the view of the LNC (and how it relates to a Quinean web) that you argue for is not the one I have (and it seems Seth too, though I don’t go as far as Seth to reject rational weighing of evidence in total). So in a way I feel slightly constrained in having to argue against a position which itself feels asserted rather than proven, or at least argued such that I accept it. In short your position sort of begs the question whether the LNC is used in the fashion, or has the central position you describe, in a Quinean web.”

    I think you’re referencing back to what you said here…

    “The LNC is something I originally took to be another “axiom” (for want of a better word) that would rest pretty close if not dead center. But I changed my mind. On thinking about it I realized it is less a “truth-statement” or necessary condition of some kind that is placed within a web of facts, and might be better characterized as a disposition, a temperament… maybe an intuition?”

    I’m not sure what to make of this concern about, psychologically, if the LNC is a belief or some intuition or disposition. Among my concerns is that I’m not sure how it connects with Quine or, by extension, my essay. I’m talking about belief revision in the web in the way Quine does. At one point he says we gave up the principle of distributivity based on quantum mechanics, and in part through simplicity, and in another he talks about how we choose not to give up center beliefs much because it means we would have to give up the beliefs we deduce by way of them. I’m just using the same sort of language he does. In departing from the way Quine speaks, I’m no longer sure how this idea about a temperamental or dispositional state connects up with the topic. Maybe it could be turned into another criticism of Quine? That he has the wrong starting points about how belief revision works?

    re your question about where else we would have gotten the LNC from. I think we get plenty of things a priori, which is evident from the fact that we have developed mathematical principles and laws completely independent of reality, and only came to find much *later* that we might be able to apply them to represent some aspect of the world (if we ever found out that they could be applied at all).

    Here is another case: do you think we got the idea that some infinities are bigger than others through experience? It would be quite an implausible stretch, IMO, to say that we did.

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  30. Hi Seth, thanks, understood.

    ………………

    Hi Dan T, you are right that some of the arguments I was making were more appropriate for criticizing Quine and not you. Sorry about that. While I like Quine’s concept in general I have specific problems with it and should not have blamed you for using his concept (which you needed to do in order to criticize it).

    That said, I am still having problems with your concept of the LNC and how it functions within the web. I certainly don’t believe it is a primary or essential *rule*, even for Quine. I gave the example of a world where it was not so ubiquitous and I would think Quine would want to argue his web concept would work there as well.

    “In my essay I’m trying to point out that there will be some rule (or *maybe* several) through which we determine which beliefs we give up and which we keep, on Quine’s picture. I’m happy to say it doesn’t have to be the LNC, perhaps its your predictive value view — “when things stop making accurate predictions””

    Well, I thought I explained this, but I guess not well enough. I would agree that there are a couple “rules” to building a web but the principle one would be as I said earlier: pragmatism. I tried to define this as judging if something is useful, but perhaps it could be put as a question “does this help the web hang together?”, which could be modified to “does this help the web hang together the way it is currently connected?”. or better still “is the web hanging together well enough with the current connections?”

    I agree with you that “simplicity” was more or less a secondary rule to choose between alternative ways things can connect, rather than identifying a problem exists with current connections.

    To the question “what does hanging together *well enough* mean?” or “how does one identify a *problem*?” (I assume that’s where you will go) I’d say it means facts support one another in a way that they produce explanations/descriptions that remain coherent/consistent over time… which requires (because of that “over time” thing) a degree of predictive accuracy.

    This means the web doesn’t keep requiring adjustment/revision, and (when judging between alternatives) that a new conformation seems like it will prevent needing more adjustments/revisions (in addition to just being “simple”).

    So it is a question of how much work certain facts, or the way one has placed them, is required to maintain the web.

    For an empiricist, especially someone amenable to sciences, I would take that as an underlying assumption that if one is getting closer to an accurate model (or at least a “useful” one) less work is required to maintain as new information comes in (and needs to be placed within the web of other facts). And that is relatable to a spider who wants to build a web as efficiently as possible to get what it wants without having to keep rebuilding… needing to rebuild represents a *problem*.

    I don’t think (though it has been a while) that this conflicts with the language/concept Quine used, although it may represent some additional exploration of it (but hey I am supposed to be defending him!).

    “I think we get plenty of things a priori, which is evident from the fact that we have developed mathematical principles and laws completely independent of reality, and only came to find much *later* that we might be able to apply them to represent some aspect of the world (if we ever found out that they could be applied at all).”

    Uh-oh. That is for a separate debate. I wholly reject the idea math represents anything a priori. Abstraction is not “independent of reality” but extrapolations and manipulations of it (including “rules”) into potential spaces. And sometimes they “fit” phenomena we haven’t experienced, or realized we were experiencing. That does not create some “before experience” quality about it. I could draw several possible maps of the town next to mine which I have never seen, based on maps of other towns next to mine that I have seen. The fact that one of my extrapolated maps might actually fit the town I have never seen does not mean I had “a priori” knowledge about it, or facts about towns in general. Oh man… I started the debate anyway. Well I’m not erasing it now, but we can leave it (and you know my opening salvo). 🙂

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  31. Hi DB,

    “I would agree that there are a couple “rules” to building a web but the principle one would be as I said earlier: pragmatism. I tried to define this as judging if something is useful, but perhaps it could be put as a question “does this help the web hang together?”, which could be modified to “does this help the web hang together the way it is currently connected?”. or better still “is the web hanging together well enough with the current connections?””

    How do you give up this pragmatic principle then? based on pragmatic grounds?

    I should note that Crispin Wright gave a similar, though not identical, objection to Quine. He pointed out how since every belief in the web (even beliefs about which *other* beliefs to give up in the face of empirical evidence) can be revised, we have a methodological problem of figuring out which beliefs to give up. Every time I make a judgment, call it X, about which belief to give up, I can also decide to give up X. It would seem we ultimately just have to arbitrarily make a choice.

    And yeah, we shouldn’t go down the apriori road at this point… 🙂

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  32. I guess my disagreement is also more with Quine’s metaphor of a web of beliefs that responds to facts than with DanT’s logical take down of it. I thinks it is the rational focus on beliefs and facts and their modeled inter-relationship that I am having trouble accepting.

    I think the web metaphor with the central nodes more resistant to change and the peripheral nodes more malleable may be a useful one. Rather than a web of beliefs however, I think the web would be better described as one composed of heuristics with capacities fit respond to and cohere with environmental influences. The web is simultaneously receptive to the outside influences while it is producing predictions and expectations. When there is a lack of coherence between these two aspects there becomes a need to resolve the incoherence and that where the focus of mind moves. I believe this is the basic model a lot of the embodied mind ( or enactivists) folks like Karl Friston, Anil Seth, Andy Clark, Evan Thompson, and others have been pursuing. It also seems to me that Ryle would have some sympathies for this model.

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  33. A way to resolve dantip’s issue with Quine’s web and the LNC is by saying that deciding to use quantum logic on a particular aspect of reality does not imply that we are modifying our belief in classical logic when used in other contexts. It only means that we are using classical logic in some contexts and non-classical logic in others, the same way we use Euclidian geometry when discussing things happening on Earth and non-Euclidian geometries when discussing things happening in the universe at large.

    In particular, I doubt we would be willing to give up classical logic as far as correct argumentation is concerned (including the rationalization of what makes me decide to change some beliefs at the center of my web of belief). Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that all articles on non-classical logic are presented using classical logic, and all discussions on non-classical logics are always conducted by logicians using classical logic.

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  34. To put it in other terms, it’s ok to say “the electron is a particle AND the electron is a wave” (because that is what we observe), but it is not ok to say “the electron is best described by quantum mechanics AND the electron is best described by Newtonian mechanics” (because that would be a nonsensical argumentation). And I cannot think of any empirical result that would convince us that it is time to change our web’s belief in correct argumentation.

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  35. Hi Dan T,

    “How do you give up this pragmatic principle then? based on pragmatic grounds?”

    I don’t take that as a belief, but a functioning rule behind building a web. This may be something where you have to tell me/refresh my memory. While Quine talks about fitting beliefs together and rejecting them based on other beliefs, I don’t remember him arguing there could not be guiding principles/rules. Central beliefs are different than guiding rules. If you throw out the rule then the nature of what one is doing is different. The LNC (as I argued) might be considered a rule of some kind, but it would not be integral to the concept of web-building. I don’t see how you remove pragmatism from this pursuit, without deciding you are doing something other than trying to connect information in the most relatable manner.

    But if forced to admit Quine meant facts/beliefs alone had to support not just the contents and conformations, but the mechanics and intentions behind any web, then I have to admit I am unsure on what grounds one would reject pragmatism… except some modified form of pragmatism.

    So in that case, I would agree… if Quine was that stringent that he required facts trying to be fit within the web support the underlying mechanics and intentions required to build a web (counting as “central beliefs”) then there would have to be some very central belief whose rejection would have to be “arbitrary” or “incoherent”. Basically Quine’s web would have to rest on a “person picking themselves up by their own bootstraps” kind of belief.

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  36. The possibility that the experiential experiments into quantum physics can present us with evidence that A = -A becomes very real.

    Remember that we are here struggling with possibilities; there is no direct experience of ‘A = -A’ as yet that I’m aware of; The problem is that quantum physics has opened the door to the possibility of such.

    I don’t see any challenge at all for LNC or excluded middle. If a particle can be in two places at once then the premise that a particle can only be in one place is false. So there is no contradiction in any of the statements.

    If you have “L1 is the place where particle P is at t=n”, does that mean “There is one place where particle P is at t=n and that place is L1” – in which case it is simply a false statement if the particle is also at L2.

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  37. It seems to me that if you were to put LNC up for grabs then you would be committing yourself to taking nonsense arguments seriously.

    For example I might say “how do you know there is anything at all?” and you might answer that you can hold up this hand and then that hand, then there is at least two hands. But if you.really want to ditch LNC then the fact that there are two hands does not imply that there is anything at all that exists.

    There might be two hands and it might also be true that there is nothing at all.

    So you would have to agree that you don’t know if there is anything at all that exists.

    In other words putting LNC up for grabs commits you to taking seriously the kind of nonsense arguments that would make philosophy a self parody.

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  38. I’ve read Dan’s elegantly argued piece, and the comments, many of which I agree with. I think however that there is a certain amount of confusion which may be related to the way we tend to conceptualize basic logical processes as beliefs or laws or principles. I see the LNC as a kind of representation of our (prior) understanding of the meaning of or (which amounts to the same thing) how to use the word ‘not’.

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  39. Hi Dan T, I’m a bit confused by your liking both of Robin’s comments while arguing against what I said, when it reads to me as basically what I argued for.

    “In other words putting LNC up for grabs commits you to taking seriously the kind of nonsense arguments that would make philosophy a self parody.”

    Although it is put somewhat differently, the point is the same. Things like the LNC (as I argued at first not being a “fact” but a “rule” or “predisposition”) and what I called Pragmatism are underlying features of web-building that if you reject them collapse the entire enterprise. I think the LNC is less fundamental than pragmatism, but the point he makes here shows why it would be commonly held.

    Robin’s argument against EJ is pretty much like my pointing out that the LNC (if taken as a belief) does not hold for wave-particle duality (it holds for this or it holds for that, but is not mandated across all things rigidly), then extrapolated to show that there could be worlds where (though Robin seems to exclude this) the LNC doesn’t play as much a role.

    So I’m curious what distinction you are seeing between his argument and mine. It seems, given your prior criticism of my arguments, you should take this as a criticism of Quine and not a defence of the LNC given the conditions you set out.

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