COMMENSAL ISSUE 99


The Newsletter of the Philosophical Discussion Group
Of British Mensa

Number 99 : January 2000

ARTICLES
July / August 1999 : Various Artists

ACTION UNDER UNCERTAINTY

To start off PDGList, I gave a digest of an email dialogue between myself and June Emerson, repeated below. To make it clear who's speaking to whom, I've concatenated the contents of each email into a single paragraph, maybe not aiding the legibility. There follow various postings made on list. I hope you can make sense of these as some of them were comments interleaved within prior postings.

June Emerson to Theo Todman (1st July 1999) : I would be interested to know whether anyone has read The Happiness Purpose by Edward de Bono, and what they thought of it. In particular his 'proto-truth' coinage. I tend to agree with Goethe about Truth 'To be uncertain is uncomfortable, but to be certain is ridiculous.' Proto-truth could be one way of clothing that uncertainty.

Theo Todman to June Emerson (4th July 1999) : I agree with you about universal uncertainty. What we need is a method of rational action under uncertainty - ie. not all statements are equally dubious, so we can't just believe what we like.

June Emerson to Theo Todman (16th July 1999) : A 'method of rational action under uncertainty' is certainly a positive thing to aim at, but the word 'method' implies something that is definite and precise enough to be written down and referred to. Don't think that is available to us. The only thing that can be done, I feel, is to keep working on the agent (oneself) so that its actions become / feel progressively more rational (under uncertainty). Working on oneself by thinking, reading, arguing, exploring, considering mistakes and misjudgements to extract the maximum useful information from them etc. etc. gives one the impression of positive progress, and that's probably the best a normal mortal can hope for. The sharing of these discoveries to help others progress further faster, (without preaching or telling people what they should do) is another important aspect of the business.

Theo Todman to June Emerson (24th July 1999) : When we talk about "acting under uncertainty", working to improve the individual's chances of knowing how to act, while laudable & rational, is not really what I had in mind. We are in the situation today where the knowledge-base is so vast that an individual has no way of mastering it ever, be he or she ever so diligent. The uncertainty is incorrigible for practical purposes. That's why I'm looking for a method that's more generally applicable than an individual "must try harder" dictum. My thoughts run mainly along the lines of what authorities to accept & which to reject or question - indeed what rational questioning now involves and which heresies are rational. I noted there's a newish book out (reviewed not altogether positively in the July 1999 issue of Philosophy) - Appeal to Expert Opinion : Arguments from Authority (Douglas Walton, Pensylvania State University Press, 1997).

June Emerson to Theo Todman (5th August 1999) : You say you are seeking to find 'what authorities to accept and which to reject or question'. Surely one has to question pretty well everything ? Haven't we always ? Does there being a lot to question, rather than somewhat less, make any difference ? I'd be interested to read Appeal to Expert Opinion and will keep an eye open for it. .... (there follows an extract from a Newspaper column written by June, Ed.) ...

'A philosopher wrote to me recently 'We are in the situation today where the knowledge-base is so vast that an individual has no way of mastering it ever, be he or she ever so diligent'. He spoke as if this was something new and worrying, but surely it has always been so. A century ago were there people who had read all the books in the world and memorised their contents ? It is true that, because of the Internet, masses of information is more quickly and easily available than it used to be, but none of us actually needs most of it in order to lead a full and satisfying life. It is there to be found when needed, judged and assessed and then applied, just like knowledge gained from the printed page of yore. Coming down a telephone wire doesn't make it more interesting, more necessary or more accurate. Information seems to me to be a commodity, like money, or flour or butter, to be used. It's such things as wisdom, farsightedness, compassion and understanding that are the really valuable things. Using information wisely, rather than worrying about the vast quantities of it that are washing about in cyberspace, is surely the goal. Sorry to rabbit on about that, but his statement was annoying me today and I had to tell someone.'

Theo Todman to June Emerson (15th August 1999) : I think we're at cross purposes with respect to Expert Opinion, and I've evidently neither explained myself well nor taken into account differing backgrounds and a lack of shared context. My thoughts on the subject are coloured very much by physics and the sort of issues that have recently arisen in Physics SIG. I think the last time anyone could reasonably claim to have had a grasp of all culture relevant in his society was some time in the 16th century - I can't remember the reference at the moment - it was someone like Erasmus, I expect. Since then, you're right, universal mastery has become more and more impossible - this isn't something that's arisen recently. However, since the Renaissance the specialisms have become increasingly inaccessible, simply because of the amount of background study required, and the fact that the techniques required to investigate them are no longer the common property of educated people. The situation hasn't been made worse but rather better by the advent of the internet. I think there are two aspects to the inaccessibility of knowledge. One aspect is straight information overload - lots of effectively trivial stuff, but more than any one person can cope with. The other is a skill deficiency problem. It's not just that there's so much out there on the web (I hadn't mentioned this, after all), but that much of what is out there (on the web and elsewhere) cannot be understood. We have a controversy going on within Physics SIG where a retired mathematical physicist has given us his advice (with which I substantially agree) that "popular science" books are "a snare and a delusion" in that they give the reader the impression that he/she understands what's going on when, in fact, this cannot be the case because the material cannot be understood without the relevant mathematics. Further, this mathematics is not easily acquired - degree level maths is only for starters. Mensa is full, it seems, of people who want to prove Einstein wrong, or else they have a beef about some interpretation of quantum mechanics. However, they don't have the appropriate background to justify them having any unorthodox opinion whatever on the subject. I dare say this is true of other disciplines as well - someone wrote an abjectly silly piece in Mensa magazine recently about Shakespeare being Christopher Marlowe (or some other notable - I forget who). Mensa crawls with heretics of every description. What are we supposed to do by way of validation of their claims ? Well, we've usually not got the time to investigate thoroughly. I imagine addressing "Shakespeare" heretics would only involve reading a fairly small number of fairly accessible books; but, maybe I only think this because I've not had much exposure to literary criticism. But if someone reckons he's got a new theory of gravitation, how do you prove him wrong to his satisfaction ? You'd have to argue from a detailed understanding of General Relativity theory, which not many people could understand however long they were to work at it; and no-one would attempt this study unless it meant a lot to them since we're talking about many months if not years of full time study. Alternatively, you could just dismiss the thing on the grounds of lack of richness or excessive ad hoc-ness or whatever within the alternative theory, assuming you had a sufficient background to understand the basics of both the heresy and the orthodoxy. Your suggestion that "we should question pretty well everything" sounds fine in principle, but is, I would suggest, impossibly impractical if you mean thoroughly checking something out. And thoroughly checking everything out doesn't bear thinking about. On a slightly different tack, I listened to some of my colleagues at work "questioning" whether or not the Americans really had landed on the Moon, or only on a Hollywood film set, citing various alleged anomalies with the photographic / televisual "evidence". I don't know how the Americans were supposed to have got away with this stunt without the rather unlikely connivance of the USSR. It just strikes me that conspiracy theories abound, and their refutation (or very occasional acceptance) depends on a great web of beliefs, "data" and "knowledge" that we cannot personally verify. Finding a rational way through this maze is what intrigues me. We each feel we have our own informal method, because we do come to conclusions & decisions, but how are we to make these decisions as rational as possible. When is it right to back a heretic ?

Bob Williams to PDGList (19th August 1999) : Since I didn't read the book (The Happiness Purpose by Edward de Bono, Ed), I am not sure what "proto-truth" is. The question of "to be certain is ridiculous," however, seems to be the same sort of argument that often arises in discussions of philosophy. Someone will argue that we cannot know for certain that we are real, that what we see is real, that black is black or that white is white. I think the entire line of thought is silly and is the result of too much contemplation. Man knows lots of things as facts and knows them accurately enough to safely regard them as certainties. Quibbling over accuracy or arguing that we may actually live in a dream world is not my idea of sound thinking. If we know something well enough to use the knowledge productively, we know it quite well. The fact is that man knows so much about science (of course we know that future generations will consider us to be quite ignorant) that we can build nuclear reactors, space ships, radio telescopes, jet airplanes, television sets, computers, very precise clocks, lasers that can operate on the human eye, etc. I contend that all of these and the uncountable other accomplishments of mankind are based on truth that is so precise that it is wasteful to argue that it is not certain. We do have a large collective database of experiences, primarily because of technology that has allowed us to record and save ideas and observations. I think that much of that has led us to greater certainty. One example is the study of DNA. It has led to more precise understandings of various kinds, ranging from certainty of parentage to the understanding of causes of some diseases. Of course, increased knowledge does raise new questions and sometimes causes previously accepted explanations to be destroyed. It is absolutely true, not only in Mensa, but the other Hi-Q societies that some very bright people think that their thoughts are more sound than is justified. They seem to believe that since they are smart, they can use home-brew logic to make observations and determinations that are way beyond their sound knowledge base. I recall the discussions we had elsewhere in which a guy made all sorts of pronouncements concerning aspects of physics about which he had little real understanding. He considered himself to be an expert on quantum mechanics and even black holes. When I questioned him about it, he informed me that he had taken one college level course in quantum mechanics and that he obviously understood the subject quite well. This is a general phenomenon. As you probably know, I spend a lot of time reading text books on the subject of psychometrics. I am frequently appalled by the ignorant assertions made by journalists and even educators with respect to IQ, testing, etc. A good example to support the mathematics prerequisite comment is psychometric g, which is almost entirely a mathematical commodity. It is virtually impossible to understand what is meant by g unless one understands how it is determined by factor analysis. If people cannot find ways to determine what is credible and what is not, they cannot manage to pass information on to the next generations. A young physics student can do a sampling of experiments to see for himself that the basic facts of physics can be verified, but he cannot test every item that he must ultimately know in order to become a functioning physicist. Scientists generally deal with this problem by the use of peer review. It is not perfect, but it at least gives focus to claims that cannot be verified and which are at odds with what is believed to be true by other scientists. If we are trying to obtain information about a scientific truth, we can look to see if it is supported by independently conducted experiments; we can look to see if it is reported in respected and juried journals; and we can ask ourselves about the reputation of the individual who is reporting the information. Outside of science, we do not have these checks. In matters of ethics, religion, philosophy, and art, the meaning of truth is not the same. It may be worth considering whether truth has meaning outside of science and mathematics. In my opinion, the greatest motion picture of all time was Antonioni's Blow-Up. In it, he examined the question of whether reality depends on evidence and environment.

June Emerson to PDGList (30th August 1999) : I hadn't realised you (ie. me, Ed) were talking from a Physics angle when you wrote originally about this subject. I was approaching the 'Acting under uncertainty' thing from the 'who the hell are we, why are we here and why are we making such a dog's breakfast of things' point of view. By 'questioning everything' I mean that although many certainties seem pretty certain, there is always the possibility that they may be disproved tomorrow. Was it Popper that said everyone thought all swans were white for hundreds of years, which was 'proved' by repeated sightings. It wasn't until Australia was discovered that the 'fact' was demolished. So I feel that most 'truths' or certainties should be regarded as somewhat provisional. This doesn't mean you have to do major research on everything (unless that is your career) but just keep an open mind about things, and act on what seems to be the certainty at the moment, but with a proviso in the back of your mind. I notice that as soon as people start talking philosophy, more often than not, they are instantly on to Einstein and God and suchlike, but probably haven't given much thought to why one finds it difficult to get on with one's closest relatives or make the wage packet last the month. Consciousness, emotions, the spiritual life (not religious), smooth interactions in work and a full, rich personal life, are the microcosm which, if it can be got right, can then spread to the macrocosm. I have a theory that if a course of action feels right for you and your children it is then right to use towards your friends, your workmates, your town, your country and for international understanding. A touch of humility and a willingness to use 'mistakes' to learn new things.... all this is the stuff of the philosophy that is my area of interest - Life. What else have we got ?

Theo Todman to PDGList (30th August 1999 ) : With respect to Bob Williams' post of 19th August, Bob is probably correct to point out the ridiculousness of universal doubt. There are many things it's not rational to doubt, even though they may in fact be false (like the "all swans are white" example in June Emerson's post). The important thing is for us to remember our assumptions and why we made them. The question of peer review, raised by Bob at the end of his post raises a couple of points. Firstly, it has been said on this account that science is just the consensus of a community. This has hitherto been false, partly because the scientific community splits into rival subgroups. Where this hasn't been the case, this may have broken down (eg. in the USSR in certain disciplines). It does require the abiding conscientiousness of the scientific community. Of course, there is a reality out there that is not under the control of social conventions or political control, so the truth will out in the end. However, most of us do rely on scientists to be truthful, as we rely on Doctors to treat us correctly. The reason I do so is that the whole point in becoming a scientist, and putting up with the hard work, poor remuneration and low profile, when they could be better off in finance or the law, is that they want to follow "the truth" where it leads (and hence don't want to follow these alternative careers !). As scientific paper qualifications become easier to obtain, remuneration improves and public acclaim increases, maybe these assumptions won't apply. Or maybe my assumptions are naive in the first place and it's the competition and the fear of being found out cheating that keeps them on the straight and narrow ?



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