A little knowledge

I've just come across an intriguing remark by Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human:

A little knowledge is more successful than complete knowledge: it conceives things as simpler than they are, thus resulting in opinions that are more comprehensible and persuasive. (578)

Let us put aside the question whether anyone can have complete knowledge of anything, for what Nietzsche says won't be affected much if "complete knowledge" is replaced with "adequate knowledge" or "sufficient knowledge". First of all, note the "it" in "it conceives things as simpler than they are", which refers to "a little knowledge" rather than to the knowing agent. This sounds strange, because "a little knowledge" does not have a mind and cannot think. The German original is "es kennt die Dinge einfacher, als sie sind", and the literal translation of "es kennt" should be "it knows". Of course "it knows" does not sound any less strange than "it conceives", but I think what the whole expression means is "this is knowledge of things as simpler than they are". The "it" in "it conceives" or "it knows" is a dummy pronoun.

So, a little knowledge is knowledge of things as simpler than they are. Or more precisely, a little knowledge of X is knowledge of X as simpler than X really is. But why does "a little" imply "simpler"? This is because what is involved is knowledge of X rather than knowledge of part of X. If one's knowledge of X is little in the sense of being knowledge of merely part of X, then it is not necessarily simpler --- one's knowledge of part of X can be as complex as it (i.e. the part) really is, while the knowledge is still little compared to knowledge of the whole X. However, if it is knowledge of the whole X, it cannot be both little but not simpler.

A little knowledge results in "opinions that are more comprehensible and persuasive". Here the opinions are obviously opinions of the knowing agent --- the opinions are more comprehensible and persuasive to the knowing agent. But why are the opinions more comprehensible and persuasive to him? Well, because they are based on knowledge of things as simpler than they are. It is the simplification that makes the opinions comprehensible and persuasive. If the agent sees things as they really are, the complexity involved will perplex and humble him.

Nietzsche says "[a] little knowledge is more successful than complete knowledge. Successful in what sense? I can only think of one answer: successful in the sense of being treated as knowledge. The more one knows, the more one is not sure that one knows.


Visions and arguments

In an interview Hilary Putnam was asked "What makes a good philosopher?"; his response, though vague, was candid and enlightening:

No one thing. Just as there are different sorts of poet and different sorts of scientist, there are different sorts of philosopher. What made Kierkegaard a great philosopher was not the same thing that made Carnap a great philosopher. If one has to generalize, I would agree with Myles Burnyeat who once said that philosophy needs vision and arguments. Burnyeat's point was that there is something disappointing about a philosophical work that contains arguments, however good, which are not inspired by some genuine vision, and something disappointing about a philosophical work that contains a vision, however inspiring, which is unsupported by arguments. (Andrew Pyle (ed), Key Philosophers in Conversation, p.44)

He did not elaborate on these remarks, simply adding that "'vision', 'argument', and 'support' can mean many different things". These words certainly can mean many different things, but whatever they mean, it seems that the two kinds of disappointment Putnam spoke of can still be characterized a bit further in a completely general way: Arguments not inspired by some philosophical vision are disappointing because it is not even clear why we should take them seriously in the first place; a philosophical vision not supported by arguments is disappointing because it may very well be nothing but an intellectual fantasy. To mimic Kant: Arguments without a vision are blind; a vision without arguments is empty.

The relation between philosophical visions and arguments is, to some extent, analogous to that between scientific theories and confirmatory experiments. There is, however, an important difference. A scientific theory usually carries implications for how it can be confirmed experimentally, but a philosophical vision does not carry implications for how it can be supported by arguments. If there is a theory (about some kind of natural phenomenon) such that no experiment can be designed, at least in principle, to confirm it, it is doubtful whether it should be considered scientific at all. By contrast, a philosophical vision that is not supported by arguments may not be considered any less philosophical. Another way of putting it is that philosophy is more tolerant of empty talk than science is. This may be, alas, why there is more bad philosophy than bad science.


Living forwards and changing the past

In Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the narrator makes the following arresting remarks about the past and the future:

People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.

These remarks make an interesting contrast with what Kierkegaard famously says about life (in his journal for the year 1843):

It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.

The two passages are at least in tension, if they don't seem outright contradictory. If life "must be lived forwards", how can the future be "an apathetic void of no interest to anyone"? And if we can "change the past", doesn't that mean there is a sense in which life can be lived backwards? Both passages are insightful, and I think there is a way of understanding them so that they are not only compatible but also support each other.

First of all, we all know that the past cannot be changed, not literally. Our understanding of the past, however, can change. The past is important to us because "life must be understood backwards", and we can't help living forwards with a particular understanding of the past. It is the understanding of the past that counts, not just the past in itself. Although the same past can be understood differently, we can't change our understanding of the past at will. But we can change it indirectly, that is, by living forwards in a particular way. This is the sense in which people can "change the past" by being "masters of the future".

But why are living forwards and changing the past related this way? Because the past and the future form a narrative, and this is how we see our lives --- as stories unfolding. Different possible futures would result in different stories and hence different contexts in which the same past could be understood very differently. The past is already, as it were, written, but the future is, we believe, still open. The future in itself may be seen as an "apathetic void", but it is of great interest to us when seen as part of a continuous story.

What we want to create is not a better future (understood independently of the past), but a better life story --- better in the sense that the past can be understood in a way that makes it less likely to "irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it".


Fine-tuning and Omnipotence

The fine-tuning argument is an attempt to show that the universe is designed. The basic idea of the argument is simple: the parameters of physics and the initial conditions of the universe are such that if some of them, such as the cosmological constant and the gravitational constant, were slightly different, the universe would not have existed. There might still be a universe, but a short-lived or unstable one that does not allow life chemistry, and hence no life --- the universe is intentionally fine-tuned for life.

Let us assume that the physics used in the argument is all correct. Let us even assume that there is no other explanation of the apparent fine-tuning of the universe than that the fine-tuning is actual and intentional. That is, let us assume that the universe does have a fine-tuner or designer.* Call the designer D. What attributes should we ascribe to D? It is clear that D has to be extremely intelligent and powerful (designing a whole universe is no small task!), but do we have reason to believe that D is omniscient and omnipotent?

Although D does not have to be omniscient to design the universe, D may be omniscient. We have no reason to think one way or the other as far as the fine-tuning argument is concerned. However, if D is intelligent enough to avoid doing things that are unnecessary, we do have reason to believe that D is not omnipotent. Consider the following argument:

(1) D fine-tunes the universe for life.
(2) If D is omnipotent, D does not need to fine-tune the universe for life.
(3) D is intelligent enough to avoid doing unnecessary things.
(4) Therefore, if D fine-tunes the universe for life, D needs to do it that way. [from (3)]
(5) Therefore, D needs to fine-tune the universe for life. [from (1) and (4)]
(6) Therefore, D is not omnipotent. [from (2) and (5)]

Anyone who accepts (1) and (3) has to accept the conclusion that D is not omnipotent if she also accepts (2). People who employ the fine-tuning argument certainly accept (1), and it is safe to assume that they accept (3) as well. Do they accept (2)? They have to accept it if they accept all of the following claims:

- If D is omnipotent, D is capable of creating life that is not carbon-based.
- If D is omnipotent, D is capable of creating life of some form in a universe that is utterly different from ours (with different parameters of physics and initial conditions).
- If D is omnipotent, D is capable of creating life of some form even in a short-lived and unstable universe.

They have no reason not to accept these claims because none of the consequents of the conditionals describes an ability to do something that is logically or metaphysically impossible.** So they have no reason not to accept (2).

If God is omnipotent, then D is not God. This is presumably disappointing news for those who employ the fine-tuning argument.

 * The fine-tuning argument does not give us any reason to think that there can only be one designer, but for my purposes here it's not necessary to consider the possibility that there is more than one designer.
** Some philosophers argue that 'omnipotence' is an incoherent concept. Here I assume for the sake of argument that the concept is coherent and that the only things an omnipotent being is incapable of doing are those that are logically or metaphysically impossible.


Having fun with Žižek

Let us ruminate over the following little speech by Slavoj Žižek:

You know, happiness is for me a very rebellious category. It enters the frame immediately. You have a serious ideological deviation at the very beginning of a famous proclamation of independence -- you know, happiness is overrated. If there is a point in psychoanalysis, it is that people do really want or desire happiness, and I think it’s not necessarily bad that it is like that.

For example, let’s be serious: when you are in a creative endeavor, in that wonderful fever --- “My God, I’m onto something!” and so on --- you're mimicking happiness. You are ready to relish the real thing. Sometimes scientists --- I read history of quantum physics or earlier of radiation --- were even ready to stomach the whole package, including the possibility that they will die because of some radiation and so on. Happiness is, for me, an amoral category.

And also, we may actually want to get what we think we don't want. The classical story that I like, the traditional monogamous scenario: I am married to a wife, relations with her are great, and I think I don't want a mistress, and all the time I dream, “Oh my God, how terrible if I had a mistress . . . ,” I’m not a saint, but let us say, “A new life is terrifying and a mistress would open up a new life for me.” You know what every psychoanalyst will tell you quite often happens? That then, for some reason, you have a mistress, you realize you have wanted a new life all along.

You thought, this is not what I want. When you had it there, you found out that it was a much less complex situation, where what you want is not really to love another woman but to keep her as an object of desire and nothing more. And this is not an excessive situation. I claim that this is how things function. We really want what we think we don't desire.

Pretty profound, right? Only that it is not really a speech by Žižek. The real speech is here, the content of which is almost the opposite of the above ‘speech’:

I would like to suggest a criterion for fake profundity: Any seemingly profound words have fake profundity if they still look profound after being ‘oppositized’.


Knowing the truth versus avoiding error

Normally, we want to know the truth and we want to avoid error. There is no reason why we can't achieve both. William James argues, however, that these are "two ways of looking at our duty in the matter of opinion"; not just two ways, but "ways entirely different". As he explains:

[T]hey are not two ways of stating an identical commandment, they are two separable laws. Although it may indeed happen that when we believe the truth A, we escape as an incidental consequence from believing the falsehood B, it hardly ever happens that by merely disbelieving B we necessarily believe A. We may in escaping B fall into believing other falsehoods, C or D, just as bad as B; or we may escape B by not believing anything at all, not even A. (James, 'The Will to Believe')

Avoiding error indeed does not guarantee knowing the truth, but the relation between these "two separable laws" is much closer than suggested by James's explanation. In most cases when a person acquires the true belief that p, she thereby avoids the error of believing that ~p. The avoidance of error in these cases is not just "an incidental consequence", for it has to do with the logical relation between p and ~p. Certainly we all have inconsistent beliefs, but if a person is aware of believing that p, she cannot at the same time believe that ~p (unless the belief is unconscious). This is especially so when the belief acquired is a result of rational inquiry.

James's target here is William K. Clifford, who advocates the principle that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence" (Clifford, 'The Ethics of Belief'). Call this Clifford's Principle. As James understands it, Clifford's Principle "treat[s] the avoidance of error as more imperative [than the chase for truth], and let[s] truth take its chance"; for James, Clifford's Principle is in effect "Better go without belief forever than believe a lie". If this was how Clifford's Principle should be understood, then we could follow the principle simply by refraining, insofar as we can do so, from acquiring new beliefs. No new beliefs, no new false beliefs.

But this understanding can't be correct, for Clifford's Principle is a principle of rational inquiry. Rational inquiry is a pursuit of truth (some would argue it is a pursuit of knowledge, but knowledge entails truth), and a principle that can be followed simply by not acquiring new beliefs is not a principle of rational inquiry. No new beliefs, no new true beliefs either.

If we follow Clifford's Principle, we won't have unjustified beliefs. Since unjustified beliefs are more likely to be false than true, we can avoid error by following Clifford's Principle. But avoiding error this way is for the sake of knowing the truth; it is a means rather than an end. What Clifford's Principle explicitly tells us is that it is wrong to have unjustified beliefs, but the implicit message is that we should have justified beliefs. And the purpose of having justified beliefs is not avoiding error, but knowing the truth.

James finds it "impossible to go with Clifford" and is "ready to be duped many times [...] rather than postpone indefinitely the chance of guessing true". He believes that "worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world". He is right, and one of those things is being duped and thinking it is a way of knowing the truth.


"What if you're wrong?"

Richard Dawkins's answer to the question "What if you're wrong?" (asked by a Liberty University student at Randolph College in 2006) received so much attention that the short video of his rapid-fire little speech got over three and a half million hits on YouTube. Someone has made an animated collage which nicely illustrates Dawkins's points:

Although Dawkins used a lot of examples, he made his main point clearly when he said "there's no particular reason to pick on the Judeo-Christian god, in which by the sheerest accident you happen to have been brought up". His point is not:

(1)  Since you have acquired your religious beliefs in such and such a way, these beliefs are questionable (or false).

It is:

(2)  You would have acquired utterly different religious beliefs if you had been brought up in a different religious tradition, and these different sets of religious beliefs are equally unjustified. So you have no more reason to accept one of them rather than the other.

(1) is an instance of the genetic fallacy, while (2) merely points out the lack of justifying reason for preferring one religion over another. That (2) is Dawkins's main point is also supported by his last remark: "What if you're wrong about the great Juju at the bottom of the sea?"

Dawkins's main point is clear enough (which explains why it is so forceful), but it doesn't stop someone like William Lane Craig from insisting that Dawkins committed the genetic fallacy:

Craig the great strawman maker... (Sigh). Alvin Plantinga, who is a more sophisticated thinker than Craig, fails to offer a more reasonable response to Dawkins's main point. Actually, he's responding to Philip Kitcher, but Kitcher's point is the same as Dawkins's:

For all their doctrinal disagreements, Muslims, Jews, and Christians agree on many things. If, however, you had been acculturated within one of the aboriginal traditions of Australia, or within a society in central Africa, or among the Inuit, you would accept, on the basis of cultural authority, radically different ideas. You would believe in the literal truth of stories about the spirits of ancestors and about their presence in sacred places, and you would believe these things as firmly as Christians believe in the resurrection, or Jews in God's covenant, or Muslims in the revelations to the Prophet. (Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, p.141)

Plantinga's response sounds a bit deeper than Craig's, but is no less missing the point:

Kitcher points out, as others before him have, that most believers accept the religion in which they have been brought up. And that can be worrying: if I had been brought up in medieval China, for example, I would almost certainly not have been a Christian. Fair enough; and this can induce a certain cosmic vertigo. But doesn't the same go for Kitcher? Suppose he had been born in medieval China, or for that matter medieval Europe: in all likelihood, he would not have been skeptical of the supernatural. As I say; this can induce vertigo; but isn't it just part of the human condition? (Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, p.62)

Again, Kitcher's (and Dawkins's) point is not that religious beliefs are questionable because believers have been brought up to accept those beliefs, but that believers have no more reason to accept the religious beliefs they have rather than some other religious beliefs. Kitcher makes the point straightforwardly this way:

The trouble with supernaturalism is that it comes in so many incompatible forms, all of which are grounded in just the same way. (p.142)

Since these incompatible forms of supernaturalism are grounded in just the same way, we have no reason to prefer one form over another. Most believers stick to their religious belief simply because they have been brought up to accept them blindly.

It is indeed part of the human condition that we have all been brought up to accept certain beliefs, but it is not part of the human condition that we should not question these beliefs. Plantinga is right that Kitcher would not have been skeptical of the supernatural if he had been born in medieval Europe, but that doesn't mean Kitcher's skepticism about the supernatural is no more justified than medieval religious beliefs --- they are not incompatible forms of the same kind of belief system that are grounded in just the same way.


Proving a negative

A. C. Grayling remarks in his short essay 'Proving a Negative' (in Thinking of Answers, pp.32-34) that "[t]he claim that negatives cannot be proved is beloved of theists who resist the assaults of sceptics by asserting that the non-existence of God cannot be proved." (p.32) It is indeed not uncommon for a theist to challenge an atheist with the question 'Can you prove that God doesn't exist?', where the rationale for posing the question is that it is impossible to prove a negative. It is, however, a little strange that Grayling does not mention also the fact that some atheists (and agnostics) like to invoke this very same principle of folk logic when they argue against theism: they would insist that the burden of proof lies with the theist because it is impossible to prove a negative but possible, and sometimes easy, to prove a positive.

In any case, it is puzzling why there are so many people who accept the principle that it is impossible to prove a negative , for the principle seems obviously false. If 'a negative' means simply 'a negative proposition', then anyone who accepts the law of non-contradiction (i.e. '~(p & ~p)') has to accept that there is at least one negative that can be proved: the law of non-contradiction is a negative proposition and it can be proved in classical logic. Relatedly, propositions of the form "'p' is not false" are negatives in this sense. Assuming bivalence, proving that 'p' is not false is equivalent to proving that 'p' is true --- unless propositions of the form "'p' is true" cannot be proved, it is possible to prove a negative.

Perhaps for those who accept the principle in question 'a negative' here means 'a negative existential proposition' (i.e. a proposition of the form 'There is no x' or 'x does not exist'). Grayling does not tackle the question why people accept the principle in question, but he does give a simple counterexample: "consider how you prove the absence of pennies in a piggy-bank. You break it open and look inside: it is empty." (p.34) I think most people would agree that doing so proves the negative 'There are no pennies in the piggy-bank'. So, even when 'a negative' means 'a negative existential proposition', it is still clear that a negative can be proved.

Perhaps the universe of discourse is supposed to be unrestricted when the principle in question is applied. It is easy to prove that there are no pennies in the piggy-bank, but, it may be claimed, it is impossible to prove that there are no unicorns, period (though it can be proved rather easily that there are no unicorns in your closet). There are two problems here. First, if the difficulty of proving that there are no unicorns anywhere in the universe is due to our technological limitations, then those who accept the principle in question have to clarify what they mean by 'impossible' when they claim that it is impossible to prove a negative. It is at least not a metaphysical or logical impossibility. Second, it is not clear that the universe of discourse matters here. It may be easy to prove that there are no unicorns in your closet, but it is difficult to prove that there are no invisible unicorns in your closet. And it seems impossible to prove that there are no unicorns of the following kind in your closet: unicorns that are undetectable unless they allow you to sense their presence.

If it is impossible to prove that God does not exist, it may be because God is undetectable unless God allows us to sense her presence, rather than because 'God does not exist' is an unrestricted negative existential proposition. It remains a puzzle to me why there are so many people who accept that it is impossible to prove a negative.


The normativity of life's meaningfulness

The question about the meaningfulness of one’s life is a normative question, and an answer to it is a normative judgment. If I understand that a meaningful life is better than a life that is not meaningful, and judge that my life is meaningful, I will see that the judgment has normative implications for what I should think, what I should do, what I should be, and what I can reasonably expect of others as far as their evaluative attitudes toward my life are concerned. If others agree with my judgment that my life is meaningful, they will see the same implications.

As Christine Korsgaard points out, “[c]oncepts like knowledge, beauty, and meaning, as well as virtue and justice, all have a normative dimension, for they tell us what to think, what to like, what to say, what to do, and what to be” (The Sources of Normativity, p.9; italics added). When we apply these concepts to make judgments, we make normative judgments. This is the case when the concept of meaning (or meaningfulness) is applied to a human life. Suppose I ask the question about my life’s meaningfulness and answer it positively, that is, I make the judgment that my life is meaningful. Such a judgment has implications for me with respect to my thought and action: it is not just that the judgment implies some possible things that I can think or do; it is that it makes claims on me and I admit that it has authority over me. In other words, I feel the normative force of the judgment that my life is meaningful.

Why does the judgment that my life is meaningful have normative authority over me? First of all, such a judgment is not subjective --- it is not, as some may put it, just a matter of one’s opinion. The judgment that my life is meaningful is intersubjective or interpersonal. And second, the judgment has to be justified, rational, or supported by good reasons. I am rationally compelled by the judgment to think or act in certain ways rather than others. Putting these two aspects together, the judgment ‘My life is meaningful’ is, as Allan Gibbard puts it in his discussion of normative authority, “interpersonally valid” (Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, p.155).

When I judge that my life is meaningful, not only do I have a positive evaluation of my life, a positive answer to the question of who I am, and a good reason for my existence, I also have a clear answer to the question of how I should live my life --- what I should think, what I should like, what I should say, what I should do, and what I should be. It is difficult to see how the judgment can have normative implications for me and for others, and can significantly constrain or direct my life, if I understand the meaningfulness of my life to be something purely subjective, something depends solely on what I happen to believe, feel, desire, or value. In order to have normative authority over me, such a judgment has to be, like other normative judgments, at least in some respect intersubjective if not objective too. The normative force of such an evaluative judgment has to come, at least partly, from something beyond my subjective perspective in the sense that the correctness of the judgment is not simply up to me.

This is why there is a significant difference between ‘My life is meaningful’ and ‘My life is meaningful to me’. I would not be altogether satisfied if the latter was all I could truly say as an answer to the question about my life’s meaningfulness. There would be something wrong with my understanding of meaningfulness if I believed that my life is meaningful simply because it is meaning to me. In this respect judgments about meaningfulness are like judgments about beauty: if I want to know whether I am beautiful, the answer ‘I am beautiful to me’ is not going to be good enough to me. Even if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there has to be at least one beholder other than oneself.