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For We Are Living... In An Empirical World

05/28/05

  03:44:03 am, by Nimble   , 1020 words  
Categories: Thoughts

For We Are Living... In An Empirical World

I've wanted to spill my personal philosophy for some time now. It's made a little harder in that, not having taken Philosophy of any sort, I lack some of the spot-on philosophy - I wouldn't know Logical Positivism from a hole in the ground.

That said, I think in many ways, Empiricism is as good a label as any, but even Empiricism casts a pretty wide net, so I'm going to have to chip at the sides of the stone to get the shape I wish to convey.

Basically, I believe that knowledge is conditional. We can make associations, strong associations between things that can hold up in numerous situations, but that we can't simply extrapolate reality out of that, especially with phenomena out of range of direct observation.

Take gravity. We've been dealing with it so long, that you think we'd actually understand it by now. I can guarantee you, though, that the reasoned-out-from-math "it's because space is bent" explanation isn't what actually goes on under the scenes.

We make assumptions, based on previous work and the experience of our senses, to colour our interpretations. This isn't a bad thing. There's a philosophy called Naive Empiricism which implies "make no assumptions", but if we built up from first principles every time, we would make progress at an utterly glacial rate. Regardless of whether we're wrong about something, the knowledge, based on assumptions or not, is useful. We just need to be aware that when contradictions start mounting, that we don't need to tell the naked emperor that he has clothes on.

A train of thought I constantly find myself at odds with is the thought that if something ought to be true, that it is true. Teaching kids abstinence and avoiding sex education ought to cause less teen pregnancies, therefore it does, even when, if you go to the actual statistics, it's verifably false.

The ironic thing here is, that in many ways, these folks, who often overlap with the "values" folks, aren't being illogical, they're being too logical, and they don't test their logic against the real world.

Pure logic works great in math, and great in computers, but if you try boiling reality down to a couple of logical statements, then work out a great truth prefectly logically, the real world will reward you for trying to remove all the detail by behaving differently.

Then there are the pathological liars, the people who present opinions that they either know are not true, or don't care if they're true. It's all in the pursuit of their agenda, truth be damned. It applies to members of the far left (PETA, some of Greenpeace) as it does to the far right (Coulter, Limbaugh), authoritarians (Bush, Rove) and charlatans (psychics, some televangelists).

It's hard for an empiricist to compete, because it takes a lot longer to find the truth, run the tests, what have you, than it does to just make [alternate word for feces] up. I respect those who try to take the time to dig the real things out, which is why I'm a fan of Al Franken, Barbara Walters and Jon Stewart (what is it about the smart comedians who can cut through the mess in the political vomitorium? :) ), and why the mass roping of people into an agenda without them knowing it is making what's going on south of the border here one of the most distressing periods in recent U.S. history I've ever been witness to.

I'm also a fan of shows that present an empirical bent. Desmond Morris' The Human Animal for sociology perspectives, Nanny 911 for parenting perspectives. There was a show - wish I could remember its name - where a pet psychologist would come in and help figure out why your dog was 'afraid of the toaster' (that was one smart dog :) ).

I like to indulge in the occasional idealism (and next to some cynics - hi, Robert! - I look idealistic), but quite frankly, I like to see what is, and practical ways of improving it.

Of course, I'm drawn to science, which often (but not always, as I've blogged about before), as the search for what is. It's the pleasure of finding things out. It's also the pleasure of helping enlighten. I carry out lots of obscure information - and it's an utter delight sharing it with people.

I also think that reality is pretty complicated, and that anyone who regularly makes absolute pronouncements one way or the other is profoundly full of it.

I also think that, despite the fact that we're unlikely to be describing reality properly in most spheres of human endeavour, that we can get closer, even to the stuff that we can't ever directly observe, with enough effort.

In that regard, I find myself agreeing with some truth-seekers, and sharply disagreeing with those who seek truth through obscurity.

I find the current rash of "Intelligent Design" (which really, really is Creationism in a lab coat) activism completely disingenuous. The poster boys of the movement are not out to seek the truth; they are merely out to push an agenda, and it is an obscurantist agenda, one of "oh, we can't understand that - don't go asking too many questions" that has no place in a science classroom. Ah, but I'll rant about that again another time.

I think that the best moral codes can actually be empirically observed, and that they rank amongst the finest examples of economics - in the sense of people getting what they want - around. There are some universal truths, some of which have been codified, and there are situational truths. I don't mean some namby-pamby moral relativism where you coddle a murderer 'cos he was "feeling bad" - no, no, no, HELL no. Rather, spend time with your hard-to-get-along-with grandmother, but not so much that you come home and yell at your wife and kids. That kind of economics.

Well, it's a pretty large nutshell, but that's me in it.

I don't know how much this will help the folks who know me know why I do what I do, but perhaps it will be a handy future reference :)

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