The "perspectivist" metaphor from India: 4 blind men feeling the elephant.

We're sighted, but blind like those men in that our knowledge is limited; we seek the perceptions of other people from different circumstances, in order to discover the limitiations of our own.

Peter Myers, August 29, 2001; update November 26, 2010. My comments are shown {thus}.

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(1) Fallibilism as a theory of knowledge (2) Falsifiability as a criterion for dismissing theories (3) Addenda

(1) Fallibilism as a theory of knowledge

New thoughts about Stalin are forcing my mind into a mental overload, trying to reconcile things that seem contradictory: stalin.html. I keep remembering the "perspectivist" metaphor from India, of the 4 blind men feeling the elephant. One felt the trunk, one the tail, one a leg, one another part, and each got a different perception of what an elephant is.

We're sighted, but blind like those men in that our knowledge is limited. Therefore, we seek the perceptions of other people from different circumstances, in order to discover the limitiations of our own - in order to discover which things that we thought absolute, are in fact relative.

Karl Kautsky said that the Romans discovered "how strong and dangerous" Judaism was: kautsky.html. Today the West, after centuries of thinking that the Jews were another heretical Christian sect, is making the same discovery. Yet I maintain that Judaism, like many medicinal substances, is beneficial in small doses: the Jews have their own insights, and one can learn from examining their perspectives, even if not wanting to be subject to them.

David Hume made the remarkable statement, "Good and ill are universally intermingled and confounded ... Nothing is pure and entirely of a piece" (The Natural History of Religion, XV). In our selves, in other people, in religious institutions, and in every society. That doesn't mean they're all on a par; it does mean however, that in exorcising a perceived evil, we are likely to throw out the good with it, so mixed are they. Russians, discarding the evil parts of Communism, threw out the good parts too.

In this site, my object is to show that a reasonable case can be made, but I'm not trying to close off debate. Rather, I advocate keeping all debates open.

Ockham's Razor, and the old "Principle of Verification", are used to enforce official scepticism against dissident ideas, which are set a high bar to prove themselves. The Dogmatic Sceptics assume a proposition wrong unless it has been proved true.

Some decades ago, university philosophy departments peddled the idea that all philosophical issues could be resolved by defining our words carefully, reducing debates about the real world to debates about words. Part of this approach was the idea that complex words could be defined in terms of simple, more atomistic, ones. The problem is that even simple words such as "the" or "a" can only be defined via complex words such as "definite" and "article", which in turn require complex words for their definitions. These varieties of reductionism entailed an infinite regress. Meanwhile the said "philosophers", abusing their power at the top of the academic hierarchy, were excommunicating views they disliked as "meaningless".

I happen to be a Fallibilist, like my arch-rival George Soros. Soros, the best-known presenter of Fallibilism today, puts it this way:

"the ultimate truth is beyond the reach of humankind ... nobody has a monopoly on the truth ... We must promote a belief in our own fallibility to the status that we normally confer on a belief in ultimate truth. But if ultimate truth is not attainable, how can we accept our fallibility as ultimate truth?"

More on this theme at soros2.html.

Soros keeps articulating this as the core of his epistemology. See his article in Atlantic Monthly (Feb 92): http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/97feb/capital/capital.htm.

Even Albert Einstein was something of a Fallibilist. He said, "... I think that there are many things in the universe that we cannot perceive or penetrate and that also we experience some of the most beautiful things in life in only a very primitive form. Only in relation to these mysteries do I consider myself to be a religious man. But I sense these things deeply" : http://www.sacred-texts.com/aor/einstein/einbucky.htm.

Fallibilism was enunciated by, among others, Karl Popper; he also argued that theories cannot be Verified, but only Falsified.

This theory of Falsification posits that one can DISPROVE a paradigm (an interlocking set of concepts and hypotheses), by finding internal contradictions, or its failing a test in physical reality, but one cannot PROVE a paradigm (unless it be tautological, or deductive from assumed axioms).

Similarly, Thomas Aquinas argued that, although we can prove that God exists, we cannot understand God, except in a negative way: we can know what God is NOT, but not what God IS: murray.html.

For a Fallibilist, we live in a world where subjectively we feel certainty, while yet acknowledging that we COULD be wrong.

By Falsification, the onus is on the sceptic to disprove the new idea: unless disproved, all ideas can be considered on the table, in a probabilistic universe of competing viewpoints.

Even the nature of "proof" is problematical: is a hypothesis "proved" or "disproved" when 51% of the experts in that field agree so; or when 99% agree? Could not all 100% agree, and yet later be found wrong?

Should the views of credible people who are generalists, or experts in another field, be taken into account? Fred Hoyle, for example, constantly escapes from his little "box" of expertise.

Who is the arbiter of credibility? Who decides admission to the debate? Or publishability? Do we need some secular equivalent of the Pope to certify a proof?

The desire to finalise debate, to shut the door on one issue after another, is a feature which academic humanism has inherited from the dogmatism of the Catholic Church, where certainty is appropriate because revelation comes from on high. There is no need for a secular equivalent for these dogmas - whether the dogmatism of Marxism, of Radical Feminism, of simplistic versions of the Evolution theory, or of the Big Bang theory.

School textbooks for able students should present not "the consensus of experts", theologically finalised as at present, but the raging debates between experts. Such front-line debates should be highlighted, and students encouraged to enter them; could there be anything more stimulating to young minds?

Whereas dogmatisms emphasise human knowledge, Fallibilism emphasises human error, the limitations of our knowledge, its provisional nature and revisibility. Leaving all debates open is a way of recognising that limitation, of allowing for uncertainty. It is a matter not of solipsism, absurdity or relativism, but of prudence. The greatest achievement of medieval philosophers was, not systematic theology, but the discovery that the more we know, the more we are aware of what we don't know.

John Courtney Murray puts it this way: `The biblical paradox, that God is at once unknown and known was transformed into the theological paradox, that the knnowledge of God is an ignorance. Cyril of Jerusalem summed up the patristic insight when he said: "In the things of God the confession of no knowledge (agnosia) is great knowledge (gnosis)"` (The Problem of God, p. 66) murray.html.

Let's apply Fallibilism to two key scientific issues: (a) the Origin of Life (b) the Big Bang.

In school textbooks, Evolution Theory is usually presented in terms of life arising on Earth, without any connection to life elsewhere in the cosmos, by a process of Spontaneous Generation. The Big Bang is usually taken as gospel. Astrophysicists Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe challenge both of the above. They claim that the universe is eternal, without beginning or end, and that life on any planet is seeded from elsewhere in the cosmos, by bacteria etc. present in comets, meteorites, and even in interstellar dust or dark matter. They claim that Life comes only from Life, not from Non-Life, i.e. they uphold the old Ontological distinction between Living and Non-Living Matter. They have written many books presenting their evidence; here is some of it: http://www.panspermia.org/.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on its front page of August 1, 2001, a few weeks before Hoyle's death, their latest discovery of bugs 41 kilometres high in the Earth's atmosphere. Paul Davies was quoted pouring cold water on it. You might think that the SMH's coverage implies that the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe line is widely known. It's not; it's basically ignored in school and university textbooks that I have seen.

They write, in their book Our Place in the Cosmos, "The popular belief is that the Copernican Revolution and the inquisition of Galileo are things of the past. Human societies, it is claimed, have progressed beyond the stage when such outrages could happen again. In this book we show that the Copernican Revolution is far from over, and that society has not improved since the sixteenth century in any important respect. If anything the situation may have got worse, with the successes of the Industrial Revolution conferring upon human beings a degree of arrogance not seen before. The dogma has shifted from an Earth-centred Universe to the equally unlikely idea that life, which is the most complex and amazingly intricate phenomenon in the entire cosmos, must be centred on the earth. The new dogma has Judeo-Christian roots, but today its custodians are scientists rather than the high priests of the church" (p.1).

Now by Occam's Razor, one would probably side with the present regime, since it is so widely supported. i.e. Occam's Razor is a conservative epistemlogical principle, buttressing whatever seems logical or simple, in terms of the accepted views of the time. If science were taught on Fallibilist lines, Hoyle & Wickramsinghe would be presented alongside the Spontaneous Generation & Big Bang theories.

(2) Falsifiability as a criterion for dismissing theories

I accept Falsifiability as a "rule of thumb"; but Kelley L. Ross elevates it into a Principle of Falsifiability, a successor to the Principle of Verification.

Is the Principle of Falsifiability falsifiable? Is the Principle of Verification verifiable?

If not, then they can be no more than "rules of thumb".

Kelley L. Ross writes, at http://www.friesian.com/popper.htm,

{start Kelley L. Ross material}

Sir Karl Popper (1902-1994)

... The most important question about Popper for The Proceedings of the Friesian School is why he says that, rather than a Positivist, he is more a Kantian in the Friesian tradition:

{quote} It seems to me that the view here upheld is closer to that of the 'critical' (Kantian) school of philosophy (perhaps in the form represented by Fries) than to positivism. [The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Hutchinson of London Ltd., 1959, 1977, p.105 note] {endquote}

He undoubtedly says this because Fries had held that synthetic propositions a priori, or the First Principles of Demonstration, do not need to be proven. This follows from Hume and Kant's definition of "synthetic" (can be denied without contradiction) and from Aristotle's definition of "First Principles" (are not justified by derivation from other propositions). Since Popper thought that justification works through falsification, and never through verification, he obviously agreed that such propositions do not need to be proven in the sense of logical derivation. It is now common in science to use falsifiability as a criterion for dismissing theories or claims as parts of science. Popper's own critique of Marx and Freud as unfalsifiable was a classic study {but the word "falsifiability" does not appear in the index of either volume 1 or volume 2 of The Open Society and its Enemies: popper-vs-toynbee.html}, and the salutary influence of the principle in discussion of psychics or astrology is occasionally seen.

{As the Principle of Verification was once used, Is the theory of "falsifiability as a criterion" - attributed to Popper - itself falsifiable? How? Is the Principle of Verification itself verifiable?}

Popper, however, misunderstands the rest of Fries's theory, accusing him of "psychologism" in the sense that Fries supposedly relies on a psychological or subjective sense of certainty to justify instances of immediate knowledge. This is not true. On the very page cited above, Popper says:

{quote} I admit, again, that the decision to accept a basic statement, and to be satisified with it, is causally connect with our experiences -- especially with our perceptual experiences. But we do not attempt to justify basic statements by these experiences. [ibid. p.105, boldface added] {endquote}

Whether or not there is a causal relation between perceptions and statements or beliefs is actually irrelevant, and Popper commits a grave error by dwelling on it. We justify statements about experience by reference to the objects of experience. There is in fact no other way to justify them except by memory, hearsay, or inference. ...

{end Kelley L. Ross material}

(3) Addenda

"What we should do, I suggest, is to give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it be beyond our reach." -- KR Popper (1963) Conjectures and Refutations http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Karl_Popper

I agree with this; it's reminiscent of the concept of the Veil of Unknowing. It does not mean that we should abandon the quest for knowledge; rather that we will never "get there" in a definitive sense.

The greatest achievement of medieval philosophers was, not systematic theology, but the discovery that the more we know, the more we are aware of what we don't know. "In the things of God the confession of no knowledge (agnosia) is great knowledge (gnosis)": murray.html.

The differences between Karl Popper and Arnold Toynbee over the interpretation of Karl Marx's philosophy. Should Karl Marx be viewed as a social scientist, or as the prophet of a religion? Did the Totaliarianism of the Soviet Union derive from Plato's Republic, or from Judaism? popper-vs-toynbee.html.

George Soros chose Popper as his guru; but Popper "blessed" Soros & his Open Society Foundation by accepting the first "Open Society Prize" from him, and by delivering a lecture at his Central European University in Prague; George Soros' role in promoting privatisation and "minority" politics: soros.html.

The Apotheosis of Albert Einstein: einstein.html.

More on Dissident Scientists: science.html.

Write to me at contact.html..

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