Comments on “Rationalism’s responses to trouble”

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Probability Before Pascal

Linas Vepstas 2020-02-25

“Probabilism” is also an older term, associated with Catholicism, and having to with the liklihood of some act as being sinful, or not. In one variant interpretation of it, it was a numerical average of the number of opinions of religious authorities, for or against. In other formulations, it was sufficient to find just one scholar who supported a given position; this eventually lead to the crisis of “Laxism” in the Catholic Church, as you could usually find some opinion that supported your desired course of action. Laxism was ultimately rejected, but you can see a modern variant of it, continuing to this day in Islam, where any Mullah can decree a fatwah for just about any action, never mind that as a whole, the collection is self-contradictory.

All this is explored in a marvelous book, “The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability before Pascal”, James Franklin . It starts in Ancient Egypt and Judaic traditions, and moves on to the concept of a “Half-Proof” in Medieval times, namely, that in a criminal case, you needed two witnesses to testify. The foundations of this other concept of “probability” were so strongly laid, that they live on in our modern justice system, with terms such as “probable cause”, “preponderance of evidence” and the like.

The book is a review of the history of probability, liklihood and evidence, up to the very first steps where it was formalized as a mathematical discipline. It’s greatest revelation (to me) is that Western society, especially Law, is founded on strong ideas developed by the Scholastics (and others) of Medieval times. The cross-over is that law is the rationalization and codification of intuitive moral precepts (thus, it’s anchoring in religion). It’s not science, as we know it; its the attempt to apply rationality and evidence to intuitive ideas about crime and well-being.

There’s also Ian Hacking’s

Peter 2020-02-26

There’s also Ian Hacking’s The Emergence of Probability which covers some of the same ground. I remember it being a mostly good read, although Hacking’s one of those authors who has certain tics - I often found myself saying, “oh, that’s just another Hackingism” at some sticky point and moved on. It’s been quite a while so I can’t remember what I thought those tics were…

This is a bad ontology, for

Kaj Sotala 2020-07-03

This is a bad ontology, for any imaginable purpose, but it is not false.

But isn’t it a good ontology for the purpose of demonstrating a bad ontology? :-)

minor edits and other comments

Brian Slesinsky 2020-08-11

I tried replying by email to your tinyletter post, but I don’t know if that email works, so I’m reposting here:

Rationalism, encountering nebulosity, attempts to reinterpret it as linguistic vagueness, or as uncertainty. That doesn’t work because these are three different issues.

There’s a speedbump for the reader because it’s not clear at first what “these three” refers to; the previous sentence isn’t a simple list. Maybe say “That doesn’t work because nebulosity is distinct from the other two issues.”

An epistemology is an explanation of knowing. Key epistemological questions are: “What is knowledge? What is a belief? How can we get true beliefs and eliminate false ones?”

This sounds very philosophical. Do practical questions also count? Such as: what counts as valid identification to your bank, what counts as evidence in a trial, or what is an allowable source for a citation in Wikipedia? Whenever there is a dispute, procedures arise for deciding what to believe.

This is a bad ontology, for any imaginable purpose, but it is not false.

You might want to give an example of a more successful (but still nebulous in spots) ontology, like the tree of life?

This pattern recurs because the rationalism’s

It seems there is an extra “the” in this sentence.

Imaginary Literary Critique

Linas Vepstas 2020-08-15

I’m re-reading this essay, and am particularly struck by Borges’ list. It has a marvelous consistency to it; it documents the workings of the inner mind of a country peasant - the earnest thinker, the one you might encounter at the end of a long pleasant summer’s day, after all work has been done, and one has rested a bit. The question is a reasonable one to pop into thought, as there were animals seen throughout the day: chickens in the yard, wild beasts at the fringes of field and forest. The mind wanders: What is an animal?

Of course, all the King’s beasts are the King’s, and there will be unbearable trouble if the warden catches you hunting them. So of course, 1. The warden doesn’t know about the stuffed muskrat in the shed, but that was already found dead, so can’t be blamed for that. So, of course, 2. the embalmed ones. Oh gosh, there are so many animals! How could one list them all? There are dogs, they’re good at hunting. Let’s say, 3. those that are trained. (....)

Summer’s feast is coming up. Just a few weeks away. Much work left to be done, to prepare for it. There will be a roast. Pigs. 4. suckling pigs. Roast suckling pigs. Mmmm. There will be many guests. You must come! Much work left to be done.

I can’t think of anything else. That’s pretty much it. What else could there be? (......) 5. Mermaids. Do you think dragons count as animals? There are so many, gryphons and things. Surely they’re animals. 6. Fabulous ones. Argh! There’s that damned dog again. Go dammit. How am I gonna deal with it? Thief. 7. stray dogs. Stray dogs are animals. Everything included in the present categorization is an animal, so 8. Of course. That stray dog reminds me of the fox I saw yesterday. I must have surprised it, it was hunched over something, trembling. But strangely salivating, teeth bare. Maybe rabid. 9. those that tremble as if they were mad. I guess anything is an animal, there are so many. 10. innumerable ones. I once saw a book, and it had pictures in it, very fine. If I could show it to you. Pages and pages, you would just open it, and there would be a picture of an animal. A drawing. A painting. That’s not what its called. An engraving? I don’t remember what they called it. Here: 11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush. There were so many. 12. others.

Wife steps to the door. Says I’ll have to mend the vase before summer feast. Cat broke it. 13. those that have just broken a flower vase. Evening is upon us, time to go inside. Standing up, straightening one’s legs. One last glance towards the distant edge of the woods, a hint of movement. A shimmering, maybe a breeze in the aspens. 14. those that from a long way off look like flies.

This is my pastoral classification of animals. It’s very natural. It’s complete. It lists them all. We’ve thought about everything in the entire universe. Mermaids! My man! Think it! All of them! It’s a good listing. Proper work for an evening.

Thought was required

David Chapman 2020-08-15

Brian — Thank you so much for these! Extremely helpful. I’ve incorporated all your suggestions. Adopting them required a little additional writing.

I’m sorry it took so long to respond; it took me a few days to get to do that.

Linas — Cute, thank you!

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