Thursday, February 02, 2006

Robert LeFevre - How Do You Know For Sure?

Index: Robert LeFevre Commentary Abstracts

Continuing his previous discussion, LeFevre debates the nature of Truth, Principle, and Predictability. There should be plenty in this talk to interest those who wish to understand the nature of conviction, belief, and how different people can come to have such diverse opinions about the world. Tangentially, it also points the way towards why any state serious about its own longevity should establish educational and emotional control over its subjects, to successfully manage their attitudes, beliefs, and convictions.

How Do You Know For Sure? - MP3 Audio File

Truth, which is part of objective reality, is the only thing that we can count on as human beings. However, the nature of truth has baffled some of the finest minds that have ever existed, so how do we discern it? Those things that exist within objective reality exist independently of human judgement and irrespective of human opinion. And we can only discover these truths within the context of how these things relate to other truthful things. This relativity is not the same as saying that no reality exists, as some subjectivists have claimed. But as human beings this is the only route open to help us discover the truth.

Take, for instance, the Law of Gravity. In normal circumstances, if someone drops a piece of chalk it will fly, with increasing speed, towards the current centre of the Earth. But this is only relative to our current gravitational situation. If another massive body would come close to the Earth in the future, we might instead see pieces of chalk leap upwards out of our hands. This would not invalidate the Law of Gravity. However, it might cause us, in the mode of Newton gazing upon the Moon as it hung in the evening sky, to enhance our understanding of underlying gravitational principle. Evidence of any such Law, or principle of nature, can change, according to the context.

We know, or think we know, many truths. We have discerned them from understanding the many related principles underpinning them. Take, for instance, the substance of wood. It is relatively durable to human contact, generally malleable with metallic tools, usually flammable if dry, and unless waterlogged, something that usually floats.

(At this point, Bob quickly uses an interesting word, natatorable or natatorible, as a descriptor for something which floats. I couldn’t find this word on the Interweb, but I did find natatorial, something which swims, and natable, something possessing natability, which is the ability to float. All these words descend from the Latin natator, for swimmer, which itself comes from natatus, the past participle of natare, to swim. Going even further back in time, natare may itself derive from nesos, the Greek word for island, which we can detect in many modern words such as Poly-nesia, indicating a place with many islands. Incidentally, there are several species of Ironwood which are too dense to float.)

Knowing the properties of wood, we can assume that products made from wood will assume the woody characteristics (e.g. durability, malleability, flammability, and natability). We have ascertained the nature of wood. We have thus gained a measure of Predictability about what can be done with it. A desk made from wood will also be durable, malleable, flammable, and natable. The nature of a wooden desk is therefore predictable, if we know the nature of wood.

LeFevre states that we only stay alive because of such predictability. If we sow a wheat crop, dependent on growing conditions it may or may not grow into wheat; but it will definitely not grow into pumpkins or mouth organs. And as we move through the Stone Age and past the Arable Age, this predictability is what develops into scientific method; that is the ability to put different pieces of nature together to predict consequences.

These consequences must be achievable by anybody following the correct method. If the method A + B – W gives you X, if only one person can do this, then this is magic. If anyone can do it, it is science. The principles behind the method should be independent of human judgement. Indeed, men never invent such principles, they merely discover them.

If the results of a particular method keep changing then we have not yet fully discovered the correct principles underlying the process. For instance, if someone buys a vehicle and discovers that one of the operating pedals does different things on different days, they have a problem. If we can’t predict how some device will work, it is no good to us. A brake pedal that sometimes accelerates the car is worse than unusable; it is dangerous.

So how do we learn how to predict?

Borrowing from the Thomist concept of John Locke’s Tabula Rasa (the blank slate, or literally, from the Latin, the scraped tablet), LeFevre postulates that as babies we reach out and discover predictability through personal association. If something has meaning to us, e.g. we cry out and our mother comes, we begin a process of predictive learning. If something has no meaning, e.g. we turn our head to the left and our mother fails to come, we create no associative linkage between the two unrelated events.

(For those interested in the psychology behind the ideology of the blank slate, and the arguments against it, I can highly recommend Steven Pinker’s seminal book on the subject, the appropriately entitled The Blank Slate.)

This associative learning is all done at an egocentric level, because human beings are first and foremost individuals. Everything in our world has significance to us, as discovered by personal inference. We therefore form opinions about that of which we are personally aware. Even as tiny infants we are constantly discovering principles, especially those which enhance our livelihood and security. So when we discover that by moving a certain muscle group we can predictably get a thumb into our mouths, this is a great day of predictive insight.

But in the case of crying out, one day the mother may fail to come when called for. One day the mother may even be repelled by the crying. What the child discovered about crying out was probability rather than predictability. On the fateful day the mother disobeys her order to respond, for whatever reason, the world is turned upside down for the child. This failure of prediction leads to emotional trauma and screaming. Gradually over time, however, as individuals we begin to form more concrete opinions about that which is properly predictable (or at least very highly likely probable).

Once we have collected a group of highly probable predictions into a set of opinions, we may form a mental attitude. This attitude gives us certainty about the world and emotional conviction about what works and what doesn’t work. We have gone beyond assumptions and developed beliefs. We know we are right.

(Though we are wrong to think so – listen to LeFevre’s second talk.)

Man is an actor and must do more to survive than a passive botanical species, like a tree. Man needs belief to back up his rational action, to enable his survival. With certainty, conviction, and belief we can plan for the future; intelligent cognitive action finally becomes possible. But there is a downside. This conviction can create the attitude that we have removed imperfect probability and achieved perfect predictability.

Because we are creatures of the human mind who can never fully know all the facts about objective reality, as we discovered in LeFevre’s second talk, we will eventually make mistakes about predictability, just as the child made with crying. And such mistakes can cause the same emotional outburst as experienced by the briefly neglected crying child.

The government predicts that it will solve world poverty. It has all the facts and all the resources necessary to do so. And yet we realise, after a while, that their prediction has turned to ash, and that world poverty has, if anything, grown worse despite their action driven by their belief. This creates uncertainty in our minds.

And it is this growing uncertainty in the world which LeFevre promises will occupy him in many of his subsequent talks.

(Let’s hope his prediction comes true!)

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