On Philosophy

August 23, 2007

Epistemically Indifferent

Filed under: Epistemology — Peter @ 12:00 am

There is a general epistemic principle which states that if you are unable to distinguish between two states of affairs in any way then the difference between them is epistemically irrelevant, and thus that we are justified in just assuming one of them to be the case (either of them to be the case). Since we can’t distinguish between them where it matters the two will be in perfect agreement, and can disagree only where it doesn’t matter. I say “where it doesn’t matter” because the claims they disagree on must be claims which I am completely unaffected by; if I could be affected by them then I would be able to distinguish between the two states of affairs, which we assumed couldn’t be done. Thus the distinctions between them really don’t matter, as long as we take a reasonable perspective on what does matter.

One common application of this principle is in dealing with the possibility that the world is a dream or a simulation. Really this is a family of possibilities, which contrast a reality that is exhausted by the world to a reality in which contain an exact copy of the world plus some extra elements which don’t make a difference to it. The question is then posed “how do we know that we aren’t in such a situation?”, and our inability to answer is supposed to raise serious skeptical doubts and possibly undermine our entire theory of knowledge. Applying the principle reveals that the differences between these situations, which our inability to distinguish is supposed to be worrisome, are different only in ways that don’t matter. Sure we can’t know about whether there are any extra elements to reality, assuming they don’t interact with the world, but they are completely unimportant. Thus the question “how do we know we aren’t in such a situation?” is revealed as a kind of pseudo question; it tries to disguise a completely unimportant distinction as an important one.

Now lets consider a similar situation, the fact that every well thought out system of truth validates itself while rejecting other such systems, as I described a few days ago. So in one sense we can “know” that a particular system of truth is indeed the best system while working within it, but there is another sense in which we cannot know, by outside standards, which system is the best. Applying our principle to this situation we are forced to conclude that where it matters they are all in agreement, and only disagree on matters that aren’t important. At first glance this seems absurd. Clearly they disagree on matters of some importance, possibly great importance. But, upon closer inspection, the suggestion that their differences are irrelevant makes a great deal of sense, as long as we accept that within different systems of truth the same terminology is used to talk about different things.

But before I expand on that point I must first take a stand on what matters. What matters, I claim, is only what we possibly might need to take into account in order to achieve some specific result. And that means, essentially, sense data (because achieving a result can only be confirmed by observation, and thus to put ourselves in the position to make that observation requires at most a theory that can account for sense data and the way they change). The simplest system of truth that accomplishes that is some kind of empiricism, which leads to the least convoluted framework possible for predicting all our observations exactly. This is not to say that this kind of empiricism is the one best system of truth, just that it captures everything that matters. Now some might object, claiming that non-empirical ethical rules matter, for example. But they have missed the point of all this. Sure, such non-empirical ideas might affect which goals we choose, but once we have chosen on them the empirical theory must be relied upon to see that they are actually met. The non-empirical ideas in question themselves don’t matter, because since different systems of truth endorse different ones it is clear that they must not matter, otherwise we could work backwards from them to pick a system of truth, which clearly can’t be done. (Or, in other words, since they themselves are justified by a system of truth trying to lean on them is just another way of getting the system of truth to endorse itself, which shows nothing.)

Now suppose out empirical system of truth says that the volcano is erupting. And suppose Bob (of Bob-ism) disagrees, and says that the volcano isn’t erupting. It is tempting to understand these two claims contradicting each other. But what is really going on is that we have two very different kinds of claims. The empirical system says that “the volcano is erupting”[e], [e] to designate that it is a claim about the world revealed by our senses. And Bob claims “the volcano is not erupting”[b]. Bob’s claim is about the Bob world, the ultimate reality as revealed to Bob. The claim “the volcano is erupting”[e] is equivalent to “our senses are deceiving us into believing that the volcano is erupting”[b], and so when properly understood there is no disagreement between the Bob-ists and the empiricists when it comes to things that matter, there is a disagreement regarding whether the ultimate reality revealed to Bob exists and what it is like, but that is a disagreement about something that fundamentally doesn’t matter.

This same kind of reasoning can be extended to all cases where what I am calling empiricism is in disagreement with some other system of truth. I’ll provide one more example. Let’s say that under the empirical system of truth we have defined consciousness as a certain kind of brain activity. And certainly other systems of truth may claim that consciousness is non-physical, and thus seem to disagree with the empirical system. However, what we call consciousness is simply a matter of words; the fact of the matter is that those kinds of brain activity, called conscious by the empirical theory, remain no matter what they are called. Whether this non-physical consciousness exists or not is besides the point; both theories must agree on what does matter, about what is physically going on inside and how it is connected to behavior and perception. And, as strange as it may sound, whether the claimed non-physical consciousness exists or not simply doesn’t matter, because it can play no useful role when planning to achieve some outcome.

I lean towards empiricism or something like it because it is the simplest way to account for all that matters. And I am only interested in doing philosophy about things that matter. I cannot stop someone else from creating a complicated metaphysical framework involving all kinds of non-physical entities, nor from appropriating words that I would use to describe purely physical entities to label its parts. There is no “right” way to use words, so I cannot fault them from using words differently. But I can choose largely to ignore their work, if I wish, (although it does make for fascinating reading), because it just doesn’t matter.

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