08 August 2011

Assuming Objectivity

This is the next round in my exchange with Greg Byshenk.
My original post, Do You Believe in Zero?, and the discussion begins
My long reply to Greg, Do You Believe in Time and Mind?
Greg's Reply, God and Existence

I seem to be making some very different assumptions about the world than you are.

I assume for the purposes of scientific inquiry that there is an objectively existing world. There are a great many things about which there is a fact of the matter that can be determined by the social process of science. However, that process is still social in nature and is not all-encompassing. An objectively existing world is an assumption not a fact. Following the lead of Lakoff & Johnson again, if I say, “Grass is green.” then in common parlance it will be taken to be a true statement and what is meant by that statement is that there is some quality inherent in grass that makes it green. But when looked at in detail, scientifically, there is nothing about grass that is inherently green. It is the confluence of illumination, reflective properties and our bodily structures that gives grass it's greenness and my statement is scientifically false. There is a fundamental incompatibility between these two levels of analysis, that is, everyday experience and scientific knowledge, such that truth can only be determined by taking one perspective or another. There is no reconciliation possible and simply dismissing one level as wrong does nothing to further conversation with people who operate at the other level. Science is fundamentally dependent on the similarity of biological and technological structures between practitioners for it's findings. Correspondence is not a universal standard of truth, it is necessarily relative to the level of analysis that is assumed.

You seemed to dismiss the idea of levels of analysis when you rejected that at some level of analysis the features that make up our concepts of faeries have a basis in reality. Yet you seem to privilege the scientific view as absolute, as if to say the statement, “Grass is green.” must be a delusion given that scientific analysis shows that there is nothing green in grass. Given my purpose of communicating, then I find the dismissal of levels of analysis an untenable position to take. But you may not share my purpose of communicating, you may prefer to be right. I will certainly concede that you are right based on the assumption that your purpose is not to communicate with those who operate from different levels of analysis. If, however, you share in the purpose of communicating with those who are operating from a different level of analysis, then I believe you are wrong to take that position.

I take purposes to be central to ideas of truth, reality, knowledge and ignorance, in fact, they do not exist outside of purposes. I do not take purposes to be necessarily accessible to consciousness, but some form of purpose is always present nonetheless. Purposes may be biological or cultural in origin (other sources are also possible), and purposes serve as organizational principles for behavior.

I suppose one of my purposes is to communicate across a landscape of controversy around the concept of 'god.' (I don't necessarily know all the purposes that guide my behavior.) In formulating my position in this landscape I am trying to accommodate diverse views. I am being trained in scientific disciplines at Reed and want to be true to those disciplines. I am also a member of a religious community that explicitly states that science and reason are one of six sources of wisdom which also includes direct experience and traditional religious texts.

Notice that for me the high value I place on the purpose of communicating partly determines what is real and true. So to turn it around, if one of your purposes is to defend science as a universal standard of truth and reality and you place that purpose in higher regard than communicating, then your purpose is playing a significant role in what you take to be real and true.

I have previously presumed that your purposes align to some degree with mine, I may have been mistaken. I brought up the levels of analysis of our ideas of faeries and god to add nuance to the understanding of what constitutes useful concepts. But that point does not win the argument of what is real, as you pointed out. However, I am not interested in winning the argument about what is real. I am interested in formulating a position on the term 'god' that enables me to have respectful and honest dialogue about how people who accept the concept of god at face value behave in the world.

In order to deal with another person productively I have to take into account the levels of analysis they operate from. I chose to use a little girl as an exemplar because it precludes, on practical grounds, the idea that I could simply point out how wrong she is about the world. As I presented her situation it is irrelevant whether her knowledge is true or not, what matters is ensuring that she does not harm herself or anyone else.

re: Ignorance

I take ignorance to be the inability to organize information to serve your purposes. Everyone lacks information so more important than acquisition of information is the question of how well you organize your limited store of information to integrate more. I take an educated person to be one who is open to a diversity of information and capable of integrating it in useful ways. Volume of information is less important than organization of information. I presume that it is possible and undesirable to organize your information to be closed to further development. So, in essence, education is more productively conceived of as cartography (the organization of information for purposes) than as delivery (the conveyance of information from one place to another.) In my way of thinking more information does not educate you, if your mind is organized to be closed then more information will either be ignored or consistently re-framed to reinforce your ignorant view.

An educated person organizes information in a way that enables them to incorporate information that contradicts their current position, this is where the 'god' concept can be detrimental. If you organize your concept of 'god' to preclude the incorporation of contradictory information then you have a problem since you are inherently lacking vast amounts of information and some of it will inevitably contradict your view. But this is true of any concept, not just 'god.' I am just as concerned about views of 'science' that preclude new information, like the findings that the correspondence theory of truth is not compatible with a suite of findings from cognitive scientists. Many scientists have taken the universality of the correspondence theory of truth to be defining of 'science,' yet it may not be empirically supported, so that's a helluva conundrum. If scientists can't incorporate contradictory information, then they are just as ignorant as the religious folks who can't incorporate contradictory information.

In Summary

I am not committed to a particular definition of “real” or “true.” I am committed to communicating and working with people to get things done in the world. I expect values and purposes to guide our use of language and how we choose to interact. Definitions will, to some degree, follow values and purposes. Attempting to establish eternally fixed definitions that presume to be independent of a specific point of view is a fool's errand.

However, when building a bridge over the Willamette River I want to communicate based on a confluence of the user's, the engineer's and the architect's levels of analysis. I expect that the bridge will perform duties at multiple levels of analysis simultaneously, both serving as a reliable support for those who want to cross it and as an artistic statement about the place it occupies. (Portland is currently dealing with at least 3 different bridge debates.)

When attending church I expect my minister to operate at a level of analysis that is different from engineers and architects. Of course, I also share certain values with my minister which includes our espousing scientific sources of knowing as important. On the other hand, I am, occasionally, concerned that other ministers, who may not share my values, use their ministry to induce hatred and violence. And I am also occasionally concerned that humanists also incite hatred through their demonization of theists by accusations of delusional thinking.

I oppose the derogatory labeling of people regardless of their position in society. This is a reflection of both my values and a practical view of what it takes to communicate and work with people to get things done. I am not concerned about what they take to be “real” and “true” except to the degree that it enables me to find the common ground necessary for us to communicate about how important it is to not do harm, to provide care, and to ensure that everyone lives dignified lives.

[If you are interested, some other authors besides Lakoff & Johnson who have wrestled with similar issues around embodied minds: Mark Changizi (on perception in particular), Evan Thompson and Alva Noe.]
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