Category Archives: Epistemology


Before discussing what I define as “truth”, lets go back and fill in a missing piece in the last discussion of knowledge. I was struggling with what to call unverified impressions one has about an item, or the invalid content of a framework of ideas where the proper validation has not been done. (In reality, these are both the same, though stated “nicely” and then “harshly”). In conversation with our “discussion group” (in this case, one person) last week, I was immediately given an answer – these are opinions. After some consideration, I think I can agree with using that term to mean these un-validated ideas. As an aside, I often find myself unable to find the right word for a thought – even when the right word is obvious in retrospect.

Alright, on to truth. This whole train of thought about knowledge and truth revolves around the problem of intrinsicism vs. subjectivism – usually asked in the form – “where is Truth, in the external world around us, or in our understanding of that external world?”. This seems to be an ageless battle throughout the history of philosophy, and was only answered satisfactorily by Ayn Rand (and perhaps stated most clearly by Leonard Peikoff). Without trying to present the full importance of Rand’s solution to the problem here, Objectivism answers that the content of a concept of a particular item is neither in the thing itself (intrinsicism) or in one’s own mind (subjectivism), but is in the relationship between the thing and one’s mind. This is not easily understood, and it is not my intention to try to describe this central tenet of Rand’s epistemology here. What I want to focus on for the moment is the common use of the word truth, and how I prefer to use that term.

Truth seems to be commonly used to indicate an absolute statement about of the nature of a thing in itself, completely separated from our understanding of that thing. As such, I think the very use of this term implies an intrinsicist viewpoint. The Truth in this sense can never be completely known, so the argument would go, and hence we can never be certain of what we know. In the full implication of this viewpoint, the Truth exists in a separate Reality from the world that we can know – this is the Platonic world of Ideals, and leads to the Kantian (and ultimately Existential) view that we cannot know anything about Reality. As you can see, I reject all of these implications, and hence refuse to use the term Truth in this sense.

Now, it is the case that things exist in an absolute state of being – a thing is what it is, regardless of what any consciousness may know about it. (This is axiomatic – “Existence Exists”). However, it is also axiomatic that our knowledge of a thing (using my definition of knowledge) is certain. If we have completely integrated our understanding of a thing with the rest of our knowledge, then what we know of a thing is absolutely correct, though it is also incomplete. New observations of a thing may bring evidence that we need to expand our concepts regarding this thing, but it will not contradict our existing knowledge, it will only require an expansion of our concepts.

So, we have the nature of a thing as it exists – what I’ll call its absolute state of being – and we have our valid conceptual understanding of that thing. I use the word “truth” to indicate a measure of the completeness of our understanding against the absolute state of being of a thing.  In principle, this is a quantitative measurement; in practice, it can only be evaluated in contrived examples.  A conceptual framework can be completely untrue if it is malformed (if the entire framework is actually an opinion), and if none of it matches the absolute state of being.  Assuming knowledge instead of opinion, then all parts of the framework are true, yet the measure of truth will generally not be perfection (say 100%), because there will be additional aspects of the absolute state of being which have not been perceived, or have been perceived but not yet integrated into the conceptual framework.

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A Definition of the Term “Knowledge”

The following stems from a conversation I had a couple weeks ago with our weekly discussion group, after a question about the meaning of Truth was raised.

When dealing with philosophical matters, I find that one of the most difficult, yet essential, problems we face is in carefully defining what various terms mean.  More often than not in serious conversation, I will find that what I mean by a particular word is at odds with what others interpret that word to mean.  Perhaps this is an issue only of my idiosyncratic use of some words, but I am convinced such problems are very widespread.

The word “knowledge”, as applied to a particular item or field of items, I understand to mean the accumulated content of a concept or a hierarchy of concepts an individual holds regarding those items.  By “content of a concept”, I mean the common attributes or variables that have been abstracted from the observation (physical or mental observation) of concrete examples.  Per Ayn Rand’s framework, these common attributes, with their measurements omitted, define the concept.  I further limit the application of the term knowledge to those conceptual frameworks which have been created with appropriate use of reason – insisting in each step of construction that the framework is integrated with the rest of the individual’s knowledge. 

I’ve been struggling to find an appropriate word to describe the content of invalid frameworks of concepts in which proper validation has not been performed, and haven’t yet resolved this problem.  My limitation allows the use of the term knowledge to imply certainty – we are certain of the accuracy of our knowledge.

It should further be noted that I limit the term “knowledge” to apply exclusively to the content of an individual’s conceptual framework.  There is no social knowledge under this definition, though there certainly is shared knowledge.  The attempt to communicate knowledge between individuals – through conversation, writing, public speech – I recognize as at best partially successful.  Separate individuals can develop similar conceptual frameworks through communication, but these knowledges will never be exactly matching.  This issue merits its own phrase, and I call it “the problem of communication”.

Next up – defining truth.

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The Present

I run an astronomy course for homeschooled children of elementary and middle school ages.Last night’s session wasmy lecture entitled “Distance and Time”, dealing with the rather fascinating fact that in astronomy we are always observing events in the past. Although most educated adults “understand” this fact superficially, spending a couple hours talking about the ramifications of this fact as I expand the range that we’re discussing from the Moon (at about 1.25 light seconds from Earth) to the most distant objects observed by the Hubble Space Telescope (at about 13,000,000,000 light years from Earth) creates a lot of discussion in the class.

Last night, near the very end of the lecture, the youngest member of this class – age 8 I think – asked a very, very profound question. I had driven home the point repeatedly that everything we see happened in the past – even watching me across the room, the light they were seeing had left me a few nanoseconds before they “saw” it. His question (slightly paraphrased):

If everything we see and experience happened in the past, does the Present exist?

This question amazed me on several levels. In his actual phrasing of the question, it was clear to me that this was not an accidental stumbling upon a deep question – he really did have an inkling of what he was asking. The amount of experience he attempted to integrate in that instant was a huge surprise. I am still trying to follow how his mind could have created that question at such an early age.

I had no real hope of answering him in a manner he could understand, but that didn’t stop me from trying. Here is an expansion of what I told the class, in which I tried to explore the issue of observing very short time intervals. Although this was a somewhat technical answer (that no one in the room understood, perhaps including myself at the time), it has lead me further to consider just what the concept “Present” may actually represent.

Similar to how a computer functions, the human mind has a “clock rate”. Unlike a computer, which can perform billions of elementary calculations per second, the human brain’s neurons can fire at most 500 times a second.To receive and recognize visual information may require the firing of dozens of neurons, which brings our visual “frame rate” to maybe 10-50 frames per second. (This makes some sense, since a movie shot at 15 frames a second will appear visually “jerky”, while one shot at 30 or 60 frames per second generally looks smooth). For concreteness, let’s say the mind can receive one frame in 1/50th of a second. That means that anything happening in less than 1/50th of a second will be experienced as simultaneous.

Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. So, using our 1/50th second frame rate, anything that we observe within a range of about 3720 miles at a given instant in “global time” will appear to happen simultaneously. In some psychological sense then, our experience of “Now” has a range of 3720 miles.

As I said, this argument confused us all. And what I’ve written here is much clearer than what I said in the class last night – yet I’m still musing over what it means epistemologically, and what it means for our concept of Time.

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Experience of the Rate of Time

How quickly time appears to pass depends on the “clock” against which change in the perceived world is compared. By a clock is meant a separate stream of change appearing simultaneously with the perceptions being timed. There are what I’ll term “objective clocks”, whichconsist of aperiodic motion with a nearly-constant period. These occur overa vast range of scale – the ticks of a clock, beats of a heart, length of a “day”, of a “week”, and of seasons, the extent of a lifetime. We develop a concept for the time intervals of these clocks through our repeated exposure to them. Against an objective clock, one can obtain an objective measurement of elapsed time – one whose scale is independent of subjective interpretation. When I say this, however, it must still be recalled that all time experience requires an entity with memory – to retain the perceptions of the clock “ticks” and the phenomenon being timed – and consciousness, so that a concept of time interval can form.

However, we also experience a more psychologically-based time measurement, which lacks the uniformity provided by a clock. Let me express this first through some examples.

Let’s start with “anxious waiting”. When we are waiting, time appears to pass very slowly. Waiting in a line, sitting through an uninteresting meeting or class, getting delayed while travelling, all of these cases can be catagorized as time dialation caused by anxious waiting. Time also appears dialated during emergencies, which would appear to be the complete opposite experience. However, I suggest that these two experiences – of anxious waiting, and of severe fearful excitement, have a common feature. When I am anxiously waiting, my mind wanders over a long list of items that I could – or should – be doing, instead of passivelyfacing the wait that I am currently compelled to experience. I consider with increasing emotional concern the impact of my lack of activity on meeting my day’s schedule, achieving my short term goals. My mind is occupied with a continual stream of various thoughts, andnegative emotions are engaged. In an emergency, I experience a similar mixture of heightened mental activity – in a desparate search for actions to relieve the emergency – combined with intense negative emotion. Under both of these circumstances, time is subjectively slowed.

Time passes quickly when our mind is focussed narrowly on a single stream of thought. If I spend an afternoon working on a single mathematics problem with no other distractions, the hours will pass by rapidly. The more narrow the field of consideration, the more rapidly time appears to pass. In the extreme, when we sleep peacefully, time passage appears instantaneous. Notably, if we sleep poorly, or are disturbed by dreams, negative emotion stirs, and we have a “long night”. Not to be trite, but time does indeed pass quickly when we are “having fun” – positive emotion, coupled with a narrow mental focus, or a lack of focus, speeds the subjective passage of time.

Attempting to generalize from these observations, I suggest that the subjective rate of time is a function of the level of mental activity. The more “mental states” we experience in a fixed interval of (objectively measured) time, the longer that interval appears to last. I further conjecture (based again on self observation) that the rate of change of mental state is in general higher when we areexperiencing negative emotion, than when we experience positive emotion. The link to our experience of time durationcan be explained if we are comparing the rate of change in our external world to the rate of change in our mental state – that is, if our mind’s actions are the “clock” against which we are measuring time.

I fully recognize that this hypothesis is very incomplete. Note that I have not defined “mental state”, nor can I explain the conjecture that rapid change of mental states generally give rise to negative emotion. I will next attempt to sketch – still realizing this is only a suggestive sketch – of what I mean by mental state.

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Its About Time

The ideas I am going to express about the nature of Time are based on the thoughts of Emmanuel Foroglou, as presented in a series of posts in a Yahoo group he ran from 2001 into 2002. As of this date, the Yahoo Group in question is still available, though inactive, as “Rational_Values”, and can be viewed by the public. The thread in which the discussion on time occurs is entitled “The Universe and Time”. The whereabouts of Dr. Foroglou are less certain, and more can be discovered about his history through any Web search. Although inspired by Foroglou’s discussion (which I have not fully reviewed as of this date), I do not mean to say that Foroglou has stated what is said below, nor that he would necessarily agree with all of my ideas.

Time is not a metaphysical property of the Universe. It is, rather, an experience of a conscious mind observing change in the Universe. Change, and more specifically, causal change, is a metaphysical attribute of the Universe. The experience of Time is the comparison of two differingperceived states of being. In order to compare two states of being, the capability of storing and retrieving perceptions must be present – the entity experiencing Time must have a memory.

A concept of Time must arise from an ability to measure the relative rates of change of multiple streams of perception. This is a complicated (though accurate) statement of the requirement for a “clock” against which to measure Time. An absolute clock is not required, merely a periodic occurence within one’s perceptions which has a time interval remaining roughly constant, and which occurs in parallel with the stream of perception to which a time interval is to be assigned. Simple clocks that are generally available to Man include the length of a day, the duration of seasons, or at the other end of the scale, one’s heartbeat. Note that these “clocks” need not be perfectly periodic, nor absolute. I’ll have much more to say about the experience of intervals of time in later discussions, in the presence or absence of an external clock.

Returning to the consideration of the relationship between the Universe and Time, we must be very careful with the definition of Universe. I define the Universe to be equivalent to Being, and to include all that has existed, currently exists, and will exist in the future. Note that with this definition, there can be no discussion of “multiple” or “parallel” Universes – as if these exist, they must not be separate from the Universe as defined. More relevant to the current discussion – and an opportunity for significant semantic confusion – the Universe as defined does not change. Change occurs within the Universe, but the Universe (encompassing past, present and future existence) cannot be said to change. This leads to a confirmation of the assertion that the Universe is time-less. The Universe as defined has no past nor a future – past and future are contained in the Universe.

This is not to imply that the future is pre-determined. The future is not determined by the past nor the present, though it is caused by the past and present. The source of confusion in associating pre-determination with a time-less unchanging Universe is purely a lack of grasping the meaning of the definition of the term Universe.

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“Let’s not make this into a Science Project”

This is a phrase I’ve heard with increasing frequency in my career as an optical engineer, usually coming from the mouth of a manager with an engineering background. The context is typically either the beginning of an investigation into the cause of a significant anomaly, or near the completion of the development of a new technique of manufacture or verification testing. My reaction has always been one of disgust, followed by confusion. The phrase is used almost as an apology, as the real intent of the manager is actually to do some limited experimentation, but is used to indicate that a strong limit is to be set on the extent of the experiments. My confusion stems from not at all understanding what the manager means by the term “science project”, and why such a person would be using “science” as a derogatory term. I now believe I have an answer to my confusion.

Engineering is the practical application of scientific knowledge to produce material items of value for Man’s use. Engineering presumes the existence of science, and each engineering field relies upon the existence of one or more fields of science containing an understanding of the phenomena which the engineers will create and control to Man’s advantage. Most engineers have a respect for the science upon which their careers rely, though most would admit to either not having the depth of knowledge, or the interest, in pursuing a scientific career.

What would cause an engineer to have a disinterest in science? One aspect of the difference typically between an engineer and a scientist is the level of education completed. The term “scientist” almost always applies only to individuals who have obtained a doctorate; most engineers are not doctorates. Although the resulting inequality in academic background can cause arrogance on the part of the scientist, and a latent envy in the engineer, I do not think this is the primary source of the engineer’s disinterest in most cases.

Rather, there appears to be a prevalent attitude that scientists are overly “theoretical”, and are therefore somehow removed from the “practical” concerns of the engineer. Rephrasing this, engineers may see scientists as Rationalists whose analytical constructions do not fully apply to the “real world”. Scientists may conversely see engineers as Pragmatists who fail to fully understand the science underlying their empirical experimentation and tinkerings. (Of course, I am speaking in gross generalizations here – not all scientists and engineers relate in this manner – but I do believe this is the general trend).

And so, what we see here is yet another manifestation of the analytic / synthetic dichotomy originally promoted by Kant. The engineer who has implicitly accepted the division of knowledge along these lines sees Science (and more fervently scientists) as impractical, and believes only in what he can observe through experiment. Analysis is generally rejected as insufficient “proof” (truth obtained by reason alone can contain no knowledge of “things-in-themselves”), and the engineer seeks confirmation in direct experience. However, he then faces the problem of empirical uncertainty (truth obtained by observation alone can never be certain). Experimentation can never be sufficient to establish certainty – there always seems to be another test that could be (should be?) done.

It is the engineering manager that needs to confront and solve this apparent paradox. The epistemology he has come to accept creates the paradox – he fails to see the certainty that comes (and can only come) from a proper union of the use of theory and experiment – the use of the Scientific Method. What is needed in this situation is precisely a “science project”, because only a project based in Scientific Method can lead to an understanding of the phenomenon under consideration, and can avoid an infinite progression of meaningless experimentation. Instead of declaring this need, the manager makes an irrational appeal to limit the effort arbitarily. Far too often, the results are at best exuberantlywasteful, and at worst insufficiently misleading.

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I’ve owned a copy of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for probably 20 years now. After an initial attempt at reading this, it has sat on my various bookshelves – usually far away from the Objectivist shelf – and tempted me with its evil. Finally, I picked it up a couple weeks ago and began trying to comprehend its pages, under the motivation of knowing one’s enemy. I am reading Kant gradually, as a challenge to my understanding of Objectivism, as an exercise in learning through contrast.

The basic premises of Kant are easily dismissed – this entire work rests on the falsedichotomy of Analytic versus Synthetic propositions, further supported by the presumption that the human mind comes pre-formed with a-priori knowledge. Nonetheless, it is equally important to resolve each of his detailed arguments into the categories of the completely incorrect in premise and argument, vs. the correct, but argued from erroneous assumptions. Where possible, I would like to be able to counter his erroneous conclusions with more than merely a negative evaluation,and providea positive explanation of an alternative conclusion.

In the opening sections of Kant’s text, after revealing his overall thesis in a lengthy introduction, he begins building evidence for the existence of a-priori synthetic knowledge by considering the concepts of Space and Time. The concept of space, he declares, is not arrived at through experience of the senses. The observation of individualized entities, separated in location, pre-supposes and invokes the concept of space. He places emphasis on the fact that while we can visualize objects being in space, we can also accept that space may exist devoid of objects. Because we can understand space in the absence of entities, we must therefore not need entities – and their observation – in order to comprehend the properties of space. Therefore, we must be able to intuit space without requiring experience. Space is then an a-priori synthetic concept.

Against this description, I offer the following. The newly born infant fails to comprehend the concept of space. His very first observations of the world through his sensory apparatus will not result immediately in an understanding of individuality of entities. All is a continuous blur of light, sound, smell, and touch.

In the very first moments of life, the infant begins the learning process. His limbs move about and make contact with objects. The brain begins to form connections between the motor movements of his various muscles and the sensations of touch from epidermal nerves. His other senses are also immediately active.The eyes at first are unfocussed. Through a rapid process of learning, the brain associates clarity of sight with levels of ciliary muscle contraction (the muscles controlling focus of the eye’s lens) for various content of his visual field. Both the sequence and magnitude of motor movements associated with various sensations of touch and sight, and the training of the focussing mechanism of the eye form the first yardsticks by which the concept of distance, and therefore of space, is learned. A third distance and orientation measuring sensation is hearing, which learns distance from the magnitude of a sound, and direction from the differential timing of the reception of sound between the two ears. (The use of differential timing to determine orientation is well-documented in neuroscience – I found this to be an amazing fact).

After a very short period of time – as little as a few hours, at most a day – the human infant will begin formulating an understanding of space from these sensual observations. The brain will accumulate remembered – trained – connections between motor movements and sensations. Space will be understood and measured by the muscular motions required to reach a nearby object. Sight and hearing will at first be secondary checks on the measurement of distance and orientation. As the space intuition matures, over weeks and months, sight and hearing will become increasingly the dominant source of spatial information. Finally, over a period of years, the spatial intuition will become increasingly generalized to account for distances beyond the child’s immediate experience.

As evidence that spatial intuition is gained through experience, and that the process of internalizing and learning the concept of space can last years, if not a lifetime, consider the following examples. A young child will only begin to understand the distance to a specific destination after having repeatedly travelled to that destination using the same means of transport.Say Iwalk my 2 year olddaughter to the end of our driveway repeatedly (a distance of about 400 ft), and then on other days walk her to a nearby park (a distance of about 1/4 mile). She will soon understand the relative length of time it takes us to cover these two distances, and since the mode of transportation is constant, she will begin to grasp the relative distances involved. If I then drive her past the end of the driveway, and past the park, and on into town (about 4 miles away), she will similarly begin to grasp those relative distances. Notably, there can result some confusion at first – specifically about the distance to the park – it will simultaneously seem far away at walking speed, and close at hand at driving speed. (As you can guess, I’ve heard thisconfusion in the form of a complaint – “Why does it take so long to get to the park, Dad?” “Because we’re walking there”).

In later years, it remains true that until an individual travels a given distance, or farther, it is hard to grasp that distance. Even though my geography is rather accurate, I didn’t fully understand the size of the United States until I flew from New York to San Diego a few years ago (and properly integrating that experience is definitely complicated by the changing of time zones – even though I abstractly understand the effect, I still “feel” that flying from California to New York takes more time than flying from New York to California). Saying that the Moon is 380,000 miles from Earth does not communicate its distance completely. Watching men travel on a spacecraft whichtravels100 miles to reacha lowEarth orbit in 30 minutes,forover threedays to reach the Moon brings clarity to the meaning of that distance (though this is a confused example physically, due to deceleration along the way,these flights still improvedour understanding of the distance). Similarly, it is undoubtably true that no one can claim an understanding of the distance to the nearest star, let alone the sizes of galaxies or distances between them.

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The Quest for a Thinking Assistant, Part I

Throughout my career, both as an engineer and as a lifelong student on a large host of topics, I have repeatedly faced the problem of how best to organize information in an external representation to reflect and aid in my internal understanding of a field of study. By “external representation” I mean anything from a simple handwritten notebook to an online database of facts. I have tried a great variety of methods (and have succeeded in gaining a greater variety of knowledge) over the years, but none have been sufficient to allow me to refer back to them at a future date to efficiently recall and recover my internal knowledge to a level I deem acceptable.

A spiral-bound notebook was generally the first method to which folks of my generation were introduced. While reading a text, or listening to a lecture series, notes are taken in a serial manner by hand. The structure of the serial notebook is static, editing is difficult to impossible, so any later effort to reorganize the material to better represent the abstractions and relationships arrived at through contemplation of material requires a reproduction of the material in a new notebook. Folding in a second source of material – merging notes from a lecture with notes from a text, for example – is equally difficult. A small step up is the loose bound notebook, which at least allows insertion of later material, but the other serious problems of static text remain.

And then personal computers arrived. Static text was no longer a problem, though the process of collection of material remained handwriting, or required reading, or listening torecorded lectures,in front of a terminal. I used a rather slick word processor (ChiWriter), which allowed the use of mathematical symbols (my main interest in that period being mathematics of dynamic systems), but I rapidly found the process of creating and organizing a large electronic notebook daunting. The structure of the notebook was generally dictated by the first large text I read on a topic. Then subsequent material had to be manually merged into this structure until it became evident that the structure was imperfect and needed a different hierarchy. Dealing with the mess of reorganization in a flat word processor made the whole thing terribly arduous and distracted mightly from the process of learning.

Next came Think Tank, a DOS program which was really no more than an outlining program. This was marginally better in principle, as larger sections of text could be manipulated in a collapsable grouping, but the program was not really intended to hold large bodies of text, and – with my interests still primarily requiring mathematical notation – lack of anything other than ASCII input made the tool fairly useless.

More recently, I have examined the use of “mind mapping” software systems (MindManager by MindJet is a commercial product, though FreeMind and CMaps are equivalent or even better freeware systems). At first, these looked more interesting, by allowing a more general mapping of concepts and relationships in a not-necessarily hierarchial order. However, these tools fail on two counts. First, there remains the clumsiness of dealing with large amounts of detail in a pictoral representation (there are offered solutions to this, but they consist of mere hyperlinks to documents). But the more fundamental failure is that knowledge is hierarchial, and allowing for freeform relationships between concepts leads to a much more confusing, and ultimately non-rational, representation of the data to be organized.

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Convincing the Determinist

A being whose thoughts and actions are “determined” in the sense discussed previously, has no control over those thoughts. The very process of “reasoning” is therefore not under the being’s control. Logic, being the art of proper reasoning, therefore has no meaning to this entity, as it cannot willingly apply the practice to its thinking process.

I will use the term “determinist” to indicate a person who claims a belief in determinism, though I maintain that a person who truly “believes” determinism and has therefore integrated all of his knowledge and actions with this fundamental belief, embodies a contradiction, and therefore cannot truly exist. Such a person would not feel that decision making, no matter how trivial, is necessary as a conscious effort – indeed no “willful” effort can exist. In the attempt to be internally consistent to determinism, the individual will see every action and thought as “instinct”, and will be reduced to acting on instinct alone. In human form, such an individual will not long exist. Nonetheless, I will adapt the use of the term “determinist” as indicated above, although those who typically call themselves “determinists” are far from consistent in their actions and thoughts, and therefore would not be represented by this label. Specifically, most of the engineers and scientists who claim to believe determinism are not worthy of this label.

The determinist sees no meaning in Logic. Hence, logical arguments, such as I have been describing, will have no interest to him. In his opinion, I am pre-determined to make this argument, and he is pre-determined to reject it. He need not think about it logically, indeed that action would be non-sensical. The entire discussion, then, would be reduced to a series of meaningless sounds exchanged between individuals. This is clearly what the nominalist philosophers concluded – the “meaning” of a word is arbitrary and deeply subjective. Humans build their internal representations of the World in a determined manner. Two such knowledge systems may or may not share elements in common. Hence, the meaning of specific words may not be assumed to be consistent between any two individuals. True communication of ideas is consequently impossible to verify for the participants in a conversation. And that which cannot be verified (according to this school of thought) cannot constitute knowledge.

Hence, the determinist is left on his own to experience the truth or fallacy of his beliefs. In daily life, the very presence of free will permits him to evade focusing thought on the evidence presented to him by his perceptions. He, of course, fails to see this. Should he engage his rational faculty, and should it draw the conclusion that his actions are not and need not be arbitrary, he will reject this conclusion as the product of Logic, and resume his unfocussed “belief” in determinism. There would appear to be no way out of the determinist’s contradictions.

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To “believe in determinism” entails a fundamental contradiction.

By “determinism” is meant a hypothesis that all of the actions, perceptions and – most importantly – thoughts of any living being are caused by physical processes. This is a generalization of the proper notion of causality as applied to all physical entities in the Universe, and is a commonly accepted tenet among scientists and engineers who have been educated in the fields of physics and mathematics. When confronted with the phenomena of the human mind, these individuals who have been intellectually reared upon the strict use of logic feel a compelling need to explain its observed functionality. In the absence of an accepted explanatory theory for the human mind, generally this results in either an appeal to religion (God, the all-powerful, need not require the action of physics to create a mind), or physics itself – the mind is formed by a machine which rigidly obeys the law of causality, and whose actions must therefore be determined.

I myself have struggled with understanding the necessary invalidity of determinism, and the axiomatic nature of its opposite – free will. Although I have “internalized” an acceptance of the axiom some years ago, I had forgotten the logical arguments proving the self-evident nature of human free will. It is the purpose of this post to present and expound upon this very simple argument, and to investigate its use in attempting to refute determinism to its adherents.

I must give credit to our discussion group [visitors to this blog can read notes from various meetings at the bottom of this page] for raising this perennial issue again last week, after which there ensued a lively discussion, part of which is paraphrased here.

The argument against determinism is actually quite simple to state. If all thoughts are determined, one can never be certain of one’s “knowledge” – for all that one apparently “knows” has also been pre-determined. Reflexively applying this to the assumed knowledge of determinism, one cannot be certain that determinism is an accurate hypothesis.

Expanding this argument further, a being whose “thoughts” are exclusively determined through mechanical actions of physical processes can have no personal control over the content of his “mind”. In particular, what he feels he knows of the real world is not under his personal control, and therefore cannot be validated by him independent of yet more determined actions and thoughts. Under no circumstances can this being attain certainty in knowledge, and therefore cannot be properly said to have knowledge of anything. This being’s sense of certainty or uncertainty with respect to any proposed truth is in itself determined, and may therefore be at odds with reality. Specifically, then, the validity of the hypothesis of determinism must itself be in question, despite the most adamant statements from the being that he “knows” or “believes” it to be true.

This then is the argument that leads to the declaration that free will is axiomatic and inescapable. Every statement of certainty invokes the necessity of free will. This is the meaning of the statement heard in Objectivist literature that in asking the question itself, one invokes free will. A determined being is incapable of actually questioning his reality – the question he asks cannot be validated as an honest question (he is determined to ask the question whether he cares to have it answered or not), and the answer he accepts is arbitrary with respect to the Truth, as he is determined accept it as True.

Going further, he who claims a belief in determinism must reject the concept of learning, and with it the validity of Logic. Logic is the art of correct thinking; however, if one’s thoughts are pre-determined, there is no right or wrong manner of thinking – there is merely the action of a machine over which one has no personal control.

There will be more on this topic to follow…

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