Applied Epistemology, or, What Does “Real” Mean Anyway? August 9, 2008 | 05:11 pm

Anyone who has seen “The Matrix” knows that determining what is “real” is a lot trickier than it seems at first:

“The Matrix” demonstrates that our intuitive identification of “real” is easily fooled. Even that conception of “real” where you get people together and see what you can all agree on — called “intersubjective varifiability” — is a faulty and limited definition of “real”. So what out there is “real”, and how do we know? Phrased differently: how do we know what we know? That question is the driving query behind the vast philosophical field of “epistemology”, but that question has some interesting, approachable, and practical insights.

Let’s start with a subject near and dear to my heart: math.

The thing that drew me to get a math degree was the transcendental truth of math: no proof is ever “invented” in math, just discovered. Before Leibniz and Newton discovered calculus, the calculus was already true — those who laid the groundwork for them were exploring the exact same truth, and the calculus would be the exact same truth if it were discovered by someone else. If we had known how to do them earlier, derivatives would hold the same values, and the same facts would be true about integrals. No election had to be held to determine the truth of the calculus — no leap of faith or experimentation was needed: it was simply true, and it was true regardless of human validation. The proofs of the calculus are simply a demonstration that something we suspected to be true really was true, and that we weren’t going to encounter contradictions if we take it as truth. In mathematics, truth exists without people’s help, and all we can do is try to wrap our brains around it. This was — and is — the exciting part about math to me: once something is true, nobody can take that away from you.

As I learned more about math, I discovered something even weirder than this “transcendental truth”: mathematics was, at the end of the day, just a game we play with symbols. It is defined by symbols and the way in which you are allowed to manipulate them, and so it is completely distinct from the world that we experience day to day. The number “2″ doesn’t exist in a way that we can perform physical experiments on it, which is obvious, but what’s even weirder is that there is absolutely no reason why the number “2″ — an arbitrary construct — should have any bearing our real world. The numbers and all of math are defined and exist completely distinct from our day-to-day reality: they are just allowed moves in the game of “math”. Yet this game is so applicable to our day-to-day reality that we can make astoundingly accurate and often mind-boggling predictions based on it. There is an entire branch of physics devoted to exploring our reality through math…yet, at the end of the day, there is no mathematical proof that math should work that way! Yet experiment after experiment has confirmed that the most crazy mathematical models of reality still can be used to predict what is going to happen in our day-to-day world.

So math, taken as a basis for what is “real”, gives us some kind of solid footing. We know that things which are true in math are true in a way that even the Matrix can’t take away from us. Proving things out based on pure logic is the only way I know of to identify those things which are undeniably true, from foundation to conclusion. It’s extremely impressive. Unfortunately, if we limit our reality to math, we get a very limited reality indeed — the day-to-day world has no mathematical basis or capabilities for proof. Limited to math, we are stuck in a world of abstractions. So we need another mode of determining what is and isn’t real.

Enter science.

Actually, science has already entered the scene with the talk about experiments confirming mathematical predictions. The thinking goes that if someone can set up an experiment which demonstrates some fact about reality, and that experiments can be repeated by anyone else who wants to, then that experiment must be illustrating some kind of “real”. By composing these ideas through reasoning, we can build up a general understanding of our universe. This approach to defining “real” is called “empiricism”.

This idea is obviously a very powerful one in practical terms — everything we’ve gotten from science, and everything we’ve discovered from science, is predicated on this idea of understanding. And it’s so useful that it’s become the default way we think and talk about what is and isn’t “real”: when people talk about the new vogue of “evidence based” whatever, the word “evidence” means “experimental results”.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of problems with using empiricism to identify what is or isn’t “real”.

  • No Foundation — Why does empiricism work? What reason is there to think that just because the experiments worked the same way for other people, they’ll work the same way for you? At the end of the day, there is no actual firm proof that empiricism is a reliable way of knowing. While this is a somewhat pedantic concern, it’s always struck me as somewhat unsettling.
  • Vague Interpretations — Consider this scenario: someone decides to test the assertion that North Carolina BBQ makes you a better college student than Memphis BBQ. They follow a bunch of students in the North Carolina area, and a bunch of students in the Memphis area, and their study shows that the North Carolina students excel more than the Memphis students. Does that prove their assertion? How do you know? A popular alternative is to consider Louisiana — as the population increases, the coastline recedes. Does this mean Louisiana is sinking under the weight of its population? Why not? In an empirical setting, there is no standard to determine the “right” or “wrong” interpretation of the experiments. All you can do is add more experiments to the collection. And, unlike math, any interpretation provided by empiricism is subject to being disproved: empirical interpretations don’t have the same transcendental truth to them that mathematical truths do.
  • The Black Swan Problem — As the story goes, the term “black swan” was used in England for a long time to represent anything that was obviously false to fact. If it was not just fanciful, but patently ridiculous, then it was a “black swan”. Unfortunately, then they hit Australia and discovered that black swans really do exist. Now “black swan” means something completely different. The point of this story is that empiricism is limited to the experiences of those involved in performing and repeating experiments — it was a completely reasonable empirical assumption to say that a black swan didn’t exist, since nobody had encountered one. This problem comes out in a lot less obvious ways, like confirmation bias, which can be tough to check. So beyond the existent problems of lacking a foundation and not having clear interpretations, empiricism is innately tainted by the community performing the experiments and reasoning.
  • Limited Scope — How do you perform a test to determine if the soul exists? What experiment would determine how people would react to a different President’s handling of 9/11? How do you repeat an experiment to see if we can avoid the stock market crash of 1929? We came to science and empiricism because pure logic didn’t give us the answers we were looking for. But it turns out that empiricism itself has limited scope, in addition to all of its baggage. In particular, if you can’t isolate an event as a repeatable experiment, then empiricism has little — if anything — to say on the matter. Any kind of singular event is beyond the scope of empiricism, and if it isn’t repeatable and doesn’t have intersubjective verifiability, then the best empiricism can do to answer is say, “If it happened, it was weird.”
  • The Descartes Problem

That last problem is a whopper, so I’m breaking format for it. Descartes, while trying to figure out exactly what he could know without any other assumption, came down to one answer — cogito, ergo sum — “I think, therefore I am.” He realized that the only thing he could know for sure was that there was something there to ask the question.

Yet that statement about what is “real” isn’t either empirically or logically supported. There’s no math proof for the existence of my consciousness. Further, there’s no experiment you can repeat which demonstrates the phenomena of my consciousness. My consciousness exists and I can take that as undeniably “real”, but neither science nor math — empiricism nor pure logic — can account for that truth. So what is this new means of knowing?

I don’t have a good word for it. I’ve heard it called “subjectivism” before, and it dances near the old idea of “solipsism”, but I’m not sure there’s a word that’s used uniformly for it. But this means of knowing — which is undeniably legitimate — really rocks the world. It’s no longer legitimate to say “there’s no mathematical or empirical proof, therefore X doesn’t exist.” (not that it ever really was…), because we have at least one supposedly universal experience which fits in that category, yet certainly exists: our own consciousness. This realization seems to be what Dawkins and a lot of the atheistic crowd is missing out on.

Given subjective experience to be legitimate, the problem is that we — at least I — have no solid way of judging what subjective experiences are and aren’t “real”. I have to work from an innate kind of understanding, which is the very thing we originally laid out as subject to fault. Yet the very nature of subjective experience — like consciousness — provide their own innate validation, as Descartes explored. So maybe, in this particular realm, our innate kind of understanding has to do. It’s important, though, to not confuse the kind of facts that are known through subjective means with the kind of facts that are accessible through objective means. This realization seems to be what religious fundamentalists are missing out on.

So where does this leave us? We have pure logic, which is limited in scope but gives us solid answers. We have empiricism, which works okay as a practical basis but has no real justification for it. And we have subjectivism, which shakes up our conception of reality and what is or isn’t true by validating some things which aren’t accessible to anyone else. All three kinds of “real” has their purpose, but all three have some serious flaws. So I guess we’re still looking for a new, solid understanding of what is and isn’t “real”, but at least we’ve got a start for our current conversations.


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  • Bill Mill

    1) Another problem with empiricism that you didn’t mention is that many extremely valuable experiments would be morally reprehensible. Try testing this thesis: The drugs given to heart attack patients, in combination, are worse than not doing anything.

    (Not that I believe that to be true, I’m just saying it’s an example of a morally untestable hypothesis. My fiancee’s a doctor, and damn near every interesting experiment I think of is impossible to do.)

    2) What do you think of Bayesian epistemology (

    3) Could you clarify what you think the atheists have wrong? I tend to side with the bayesians; I think it was Robin Hanson who said that he’d be willing to bet very large amounts against the existence of god, but that he certainly had no evidence to disprove one.

    4) I hope you’re reading : Here’s a fascinating, relevant, post:

  • Robert Fischer

    1) There’s an entire problem with the modern (mathematical + positivist) epistemology when it comes to morality. In short — there is none. There’s no purely logical or experimental justification for the value of other human beings, or validation for Kant’s categorical imperative. You can validate some behaviors that are akin to moral behaviors, but if modernism defines your world view, then when the chips are down, if you can screw someone without personal consequence for your own gain, you do it.

    2) The problem with Bayesian epistemology is that it surrenders the high ground for practical wins. Instead of trying to know things are true for sure, you give up and just try to make guesses. This is fine for practical purposes, but it’s got a few problems that leave me unsatisfied.

    First, in surrendering the high ground, you basically give up trying to figure out what you can know for sure. There are undeniable truths: things that we have certainty about. In the game of symbols that is mathematics, 2+2=4, and that’s that. So what else can we know for sure? What forms does certainty take? Those are interesting questions to me.

    The second problem is that it’s got the utilitarian issue: sure, if we had access to metrics for things like “probability X is true” or “amount action X will increase overall happiness”, then you’ve got some practical footing. But actually determining those metrics is impossible, not least because they’re built on complete abstractions of simple cases (e.g. flipping a coin). What is the probability that X is true? The answer is going to have to be based on some other epistemological approach. So, practically, it’s not helping me much.

    So, in short, I find probabilistic epistemology to be theoretically lacking, and practically unapproachable.

    3) Well, God exists in some sense — minimally, God exists to the same extent that unicorns exist, in that there is some concept which has properties we could agree on that we can be discussing. So discussing whether or not “God exists” is a boring conversation: God does. Discussing in what sense God exists (Creator? Savior? Personal?), whether divine miracles are possible, or whether this “God” thing can be an active force in our experience are much more productive conversations.

    The problem that atheists seem to repeat — and I’m singling out Dawkins as the champion of this form of argumentation — is that they assert that given the lack of empirical or logical evidence for God, God must not exist. “Show me evidence,” they say, “and I’ll be a believer.” Granting that form of argumentation briefly: given the lack of empirical or logical evidence for Dawkins being a conscious being, Dawkins must not be a conscious being. “Show me evidence,” I say, “and I’ll be a believer.” Sure, he can certainly mimic behaviors that I recognize as reflecting my own conscious behaviors, but I’m also convinced of my own spectacular ability to anthropomorphize — to interpret reality in my image — so that’s not very convincing.

    There are things which are true which have no empirical or logical evidence, our own consciousness being the most indisputable. The extent of our experience with consciousness is subjective: in fact, it’s defined by the subjective nature of it. Even if you could hook probes up to my brain and echo my inner dialog, you would not have the experience of consciousness that I’m having, since the thing is defined by the very experience of it.

    Experiences of faith and salvation have been argued to be necessarily in the same subjective realm of experience since Kierkegaard. Martin Buber’s I and Thou carries on this theme.

    4) Following it now. Just researched the word “positivism” a bit more, based on the link. It’s not the construct I thought it was: it’s an extreme empiricism, not the transcendental logical/mathematical position I thought it was. So I’ll need to update my blog post to use the words the right way.

  • Bill Mill

    > Well, God exists in some sense — minimally, God exists to the same extent that unicorns exist

    You believe that Dawkins would disagree with that statement? I’ve never read him, so I can’t argue about him in particular.

    I’ve always found Sagan’s “Dragon in the garage” argument quite similar to what I’ve thought (I explicitly don’t say compelling – I like it because it matched my beliefs in retrospect. I don’t know quite what I found compelling evidence to attain my belief): .

    Which lines up nicely with the Bayesian probability epistemology: There seems to me to be a lot of evidence that God, in the Judeo-Christian conception at least, doesn’t exist, but no evidence of existence is not evidence of no existence. Therefore, I allow this type of God an extremely small probability of existence, but pending positive evidence, act as if its probability is the same as that of unicorns.

    I will have to read and think about your arguments against probabalistic belief more before I respond to them.

  • Robert Fischer

    You missed my argument about atheists — re-read the paragraph that starts with “The problem that atheists seem to repeat” and the one that follows.

    As for the probability epistemology — what’s the evidence that the Christian God doesn’t exist? And what do you mean by “exist” in that statement? Re-read the paragraph that starts with “3) Well, God exists in some sense”.

    I think exploring this one question will illustrate a lot of my problems with probabilistic epistemology in a really concrete way.

  • Sanjeev

    You say: “My consciousness exists and I can take that as undeniably “real”, but neither science nor math — empiricism nor pure logic — can account for that truth. ”

    I can’t understand the above is right. From what I have read. consciousness is completely accountable inside the brain. advances in neuroscience and technologies associated with it (e.g. fMRI), has helped us explain consciousness to a certain level. It is all explainable as electrical impulses in the brain: the firing of neurons. Yes, the technology isn’t perfect and can’t explain the subtle nuances of all brain functions just yet. But neuroscience is making steady progress in this area.

    Maybe I understand your statement wrongly. But basically, I am looking at it from a materialistic point of view.

  • Robert Fischer

    There are certainly physical things happening in the brain which correlate to reported conscious experience. However, the consciousness itself can’t be captured. For instance, when I close my eyes, I’m envisioning the lakeside cabin that my family used to have. Physiologically, they can see that there are synapses fire like the ones that fire when I see the picture for real. They can detect my lowering blood pressure and the like.

    However, despite seeing these consequences of experience, the experience itself is still unaccounted for. There is still a picture which exists somewhere which is unaccounted for: I can see it! But where is this “I” located, and where is the thing that is seen? The “subtle nuance” which is being missed in a materialistic approach is the very experience of consciousness itself!

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