Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Rom 1 reply, 29: Worldview Foundations, Neurath's Raft (also, Quine's web and Rawls' reflective equilibrium -- also Lakatos' protective armour belt of auxiliary hypotheses) and grounding scientific, general and moral knowledge

It is always a challenge to tread in deep philosophical waters. But it seems that we need to do so for at least a moment; to deal with two issues that are emerging as pivotal. Namely, the issues that the foundations of our worldviews are where we will have to ground both mind and morals.

To do so, we need to look at two metaphors -- somewhat analogical parables, if you will -- that have been raised in recent decades to speak to the issue of coherence and warrant for beliefs (i.e. the grounding of beliefs that turns such into knowledge), and to address the sort of open-ended revisability that in our better moments marks science and other important areas.

The first is Otto Neurath's boat/ raft metaphor for justification in science as a collaborative (thus social) project leading to building a consensus for the time, and the second is Quine's spiderweb model. 

In the first, Neurath envisioned a raft or boat that was always under reconstruction in the midst of the stormy seas. In the second, Quine spoke of webs of beliefs that on the perimeter are much more open to revision, but in the centre which holds the web together, they are much less revisable but are in the end revisable too. We may add Rawls' remarks that wide coherence of beliefs leading to reflective equilibrium with an explanatory core, so that the equilibrium provides provisional justification. (I prefer warrant, but many use justification.)

Armour belts -- thick black areas -- for
Tirpitz and King George V
Lakatos, in describing scientific research programmes (or, paradigms), speaks in terms of the belt of armour on a Battleship or Battlecruiser that protects its vitals, especially its magazines. 

 The idea being, that the belt of auxiliary hypotheses, models, techniques etc deflects or blunts criticism aimed at a paradigm, and in the end is sacrificial. That core, if it helps enhance explanatory and predictive power of a theory, is productive and "progressive," but if it becomes little more than a way to patch holes after the fact, it makes the programme degenarative and in danger of being superseded.

HMS Invincible, hit in a turret, explodes
at Jutland, May 31, 1916

But, just as happened with the British Battlecruisers at Jutland on the afternoon of May 31st 1916, if the belt fails or there is plunging fire that breaks in where it is weak, the core with the vital but vulnerable magazines can go up, taking the whole ship with them. 

As a result of this danger revealed through heavy loss of life in battle, there was a paradigm shift -- a convergence in design of capital ships, leading to the fast battleship of the Second World War with its heavy protection, big guns, long range AND speed. 

Obviously, such views or images do capture a part at least of the picture: coherence is important. (So in my view is factual adequacy, so is adequacy of explanatory power and scope.)

My thought is, that on balance, the coherence-oriented views above do capture an aspect but not the whole. 

That is I accept that warrant of the system of our beliefs and of particular beliefs in it does require coherence, i.e. I believe that truth is unified and so all truth as God's truth, will fit together in the end, no matter how complicated the jigsaw puzzle.

Indeed, I so strongly believe this and view it as a powerful test of truth of explanations that I often cite Simon Greenleaf from his Testimony of the Evangelists on how important this is:
Internal coherence and external corroboration: Every event which actually transpires has its appropriate relation and place in the vast complication of circumstances, of which the affairs of men consist; it owes its origin to the events which have preceded it, it is intimately connected with all others which occur at the same time and place, and often with those of remote regions, and in its turn gives birth to numberless others which succeed. In all this almost inconceivable contexture, and seeming discord, there is perfect harmony; and while the fact, which really happened, tallies exactly with every other contemporaneous incident, related to it in the remotest degree, it is not possible for the wit of man to invent a story, which, if closely compared with the actual occurrences of the same time and place, may not be shown to be false. [p. 39.]

A Spider web, showing radial anchor-lines and
the spiral. (HT: D Allen, TAMU.)
BTW, I also particularly like the web metaphor for telling us that we run anchor lines from empirical anchor-points through to the core and back out again in a star-pattern, and then weave the whole together with a spiral that starts in a centre and goes from key point to key point in ever expanding loops. As the BBC describes: "Spiders create architecturally elegant webs by first laying down radial lines of dry silk, upon which they weave regularly spaced elastic spirals of sticky capture silk."

 I find the web visual metaphor particularly powerful.

Indeed, I like to use it as a base for designs of both curricula and web sites. Also, for software development through a cluster of phases from one generation to the next.

A spiral architecture for curricula

But, the very fact of the anchor-lines, tells us that the web has a foundation. It has to be both (a) coherent in a unified whole (it tells a plausible story), and (b) properly grounded (it must fit the cluster of anchor lines to the anchor points, here key facts and first truths).

Similarly, in a recent blog exchange on the issue of revisable coherence that is based on the cumulative work of a community of practitioners, as the framework of warranting claims, the same pattern emerges, of hidden foundations. 

For, the raft floats on the ocean, and must be strong enough -- must have enough coherence and integrity -- to stand the storms that are likely to come. 

The same appears, more subtly (but also even more illuminatingly in some ways), when one shifts metaphor to a space ship. The space craft must fit requirements of voyaging in space, and it must be able to support the needs of the crew. 

Thus, it must be based on a deep collaborative insight into both requisites and the materials, forces and contexts of nature. It too has a foundation.

In short, we are right back at the need for a finitely remote, adequate -- which does not mean, absolutely certain in all respects -- foundation as a basis for our systems of thought and praxis. Let me illustrate:

Of these metaphors, perhaps the most common is the Neurath raft.

Accordingly, let me now share a riff on that celebrated metaphor that I used in my blog exchange:
My focal issue is finitude of worldviews AND of warrant that has to meet logical, explanatory and truth tests.
Warrant has to terminate finitely (just like an algorithm . . .  [--> a step-by-step problem solving procedure like Long Division]), and our mental models of the world have to be finite, and are inevitably grounded. How well, is another story.
We may happily play around on the raft, remodelling as we drift — so long as we avoid making it fall apart into incoherence, given the lurking sharks [and that hints at where I will go in a moment] — but all of this socio-techno- physical activity and associated bounded rationality models have to rest on the supporting ocean.
Ground level reality.
Or else, the sharks have lunch.
That is, once we realise things can REALLY fall apart, we will be a lot less prone to get into glorified groupthink games. Justification is social but not just social. The raft can really fall apart, to the joy of the sharks.
So, pardon a very old fashioned notion.
As long as there is a difference between an intact raft (never mind repairs and debates over remodelling) and one that has fallen apart, we have two distinct alternative states that cannot both be true in the same sense and time and stable identity of state — which can all be expressed in more or less accurate words but all of it is a matter of reality first and foremost.
That is, I here point to the first principles of right reason as self evident foundational truths that have a reality that transcends debate talking points or social conventions on who has “won” a debate or power contest.
The sharks care a lot about the difference.
Those first principles of right reason are genuinely foundational and finitely remote. We ignore or subvert them at our peril.
Just ask the sharks.
Next, we can take up something like Royce’s error exists.
This is a statement in a language and inescapably has social aspects, but it also has objective, accurate and undeniable reference to the real world. It is not just a game called justification that we can make up rules for as we please.
Yes, cause-effect is distinct from ground-consequent (no-one here doubted that . . . it is key to some problems of evolutionary materialism . . . ), but the issue of truth is the bridge between them.
Hence, the classic differentiation between valid and sound reasoning.
Coming back, the point I have been underscoring is that worldviews and their claims are subject to the challenge of warrant. Why accept A? B. Why B? C. So, we face infinite regress, circularity or a finitely remote cluster of first plausibles. Some of these may be self evident [and I think there is a little matter of little errors in the beginning on this hence my focus on error exists as case no 1 of this . . . ], but others will have to be taken as plausible, without further warrant. Other than fitting into the system and providing adequate grounds.
The ocean is real and provides floatation. It also has the hopeful sharks.
Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to make and sail a viable raft to safe harbour.
That involves factual adequacy [it stands on the ocean and must be safe], coherence [it does not fall apart], and explanatory adequacy with elegant simplicity [neither an ad hoc patchwork that must fall apart sooner or later nor a simplistic and inadequate structure].
The sharks are waiting.
As we think about where we are taking our civilisation and key institutions in it like science, let us ponder the stormy seas and the possible sharks. END