Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Towards a Lexicon of Folly: Factard

Factard: Someone incapable of distinguishing conviction from certainty, treating a belief that X is true (a firm conviction of actuality, regardless of verification) as the knowledge that X is true (a cognizance of verified actuality). A factard may be otherwise intelligent and educated, this type of folly neither resulting from nor being equivalent to idiocy and/or ignorance. A factard is not necessarily a moron and/or an oaf.

Example 1: "The problem was not merely the extension of warfare and its exploitation on an interplanetary scale. It was also the science-fiction claim that mankind itself—fallen and corrupt, as Lewis knew—should be imagined as extending across the cosmos." (my italics)

To say that Lewis knew mankind to be "fallen and corrupt" is to ascribe verified actuality to a metaphysical theory, to treat an alethic model as an epistemic certainty. It is to say that existential actions result from and/or generate an essential state-of-being defined in spiritual terms -- "sin" or "grace" -- as a relationship to an Absolute Deity and its Laws. Since humanity can only be "fallen and corrupt" if it (and all material reality indeed) subsists within a specific metaphysical system, to say that one knows this to be so is to say that this metaphysical system is a verified actuality. The example above is therefore equivalent to an assertion, "I know that God exists." The logical response to such an assertion is, "How do you know that God exists?"

Where the answer offered does not refer to a decisive action of verification, but rather to a persuasive process of justification, where it reiterates the reasoning that underpins the alethic model rather than report the steps by which that model was proven to be not just valid but true, no matter how coherent and comprehensive the answer demonstrates that model to be, it does not legitimize the original assertion of knowledge. However justified, if a firm conviction of actuality is not verified, it is not a cognizance of verified actuality. It is not knowledge, only belief, and the person who made that assertion has revealed themself to be a frickin factard.

Where the answer offered does not even point to a persuasive process of justification, but rather to an intense sense of conviction, where it offers the experience of absolute confidence as the decisive action that legitimizes their assertion -- as in a statement like "I just know!" -- this is the conflation of conviction and certainty par excellence. Such a failure to distinguish belief and knowledge, an implicit disclosure that one is working on the principle of "I believe it so it must be true," is the very definition of a frickin factard.

Example 2: "The other is that reason reveals an underlying order so profound that even a robot can see that it is the handiwork of God. (my italics)

To say that a robot "can see" that the underlying order of reality "is the handiwork of God" is again to ascribe verified actuality to a metaphysical theory, to treat an alethic model as an epistemic certainty. It is to say that the complex order evident in existential reality is a product of deliberate design carried out by an Absolute Deity as named and characterized in a specific religious belief-system. To say the robot can verify this by observation is to say that it is a verified actuality the robot need only become cognizant of. The implicit assertion here is "I know that God created the world," which similarly begs the question, "How do you know that God created the world?"

In this example, the answer is coded into the original assertion. The teleological argument is implicit: to observe the complex order evident in existential reality is, in and of itself, the decisive action of verification; such complex order can only arise from design, so to establish the epistemic certainty of such complex order is to establish the epistemic certainty of the action of design having been carried out by a designing agency. Two follies in this argument are immediately obvious:

1) the specification of any such designing agency with the qualities of an Absolute Deity as named and characterized in a specific religious belief-system is entirely spurious, on par with taking a watch as proof not simply of a watchmaker but of Sylar, the psychopathic serial killing supervillain with a clockwork fixation, as named and characterized in the TV series Heroes; the spuriousness of such characterization is, of course, the satirical point of the Flying Spaghetti Monster;

2) the premise that "such complex order can only arise from design" is also entirely spurious, an absolutist axiom offered with no substantiation, and one that is, in fact, demonstrably unsound both in existential terms -- where the simplest principles enacted in a chaotic system result in the emergence of incredibly complex order without the action of a designing agency -- and in essential terms -- where a designing agency is, by definition, a being of such complex order that, by this premise, it too must be the product of another designing agency, which must in turn be the product of yet another designing agency, and so on, in an infinite regress.

The teleological argument is however more interesting for the folly it embodies as exemplar of the factard's conflation of conviction and certainty. This is because it predicates itself not upon a judgement of complexity ipso facto, but of a degree of complexity sufficient to induce conviction. Where it asserts that the order inherent in existential reality is "so profound" that one "can see that it is the handiwork of God," this is at root a valid description of human responses to complexity: as one becomes cognizant of higher and higher degrees of order one is quite likely to experience a higher and higher conviction that this order is the result of deliberate design. However, the teleological argument asserts that this notion becomes proven simply when the cognizance of order and resultant conviction of design become intense enough as a subjective experience that one's belief becomes absolute.

The only action of verification proposed here is, in fact, the decision to believe with an unqualified commitment that rejects all doubt, said decision being based on entirely arbitrary and personal dispositions: the extent to which we see pattern in the world; the extent to which we read pattern as purpose; the extent to which we deny the possibility of unpurposed pattern; the extent to which we allow firm convictions to become inflexible by disacknowledging contingency.

To subscribe to a teleological argument like this is to say, in essence, "I believe it so much, it must be true." And there is no weaseling out of this folly. Whether or not a high degree of belief can be justified on the basis of a high degree of order is entirely irrelevant if the argument is not presented as an explanation of faith but as an a assertion of knowledge; to say that one "can see" is not the same as to say that one "can't help believe". So it does not matter if the factard reiterates the reasoning that underpins their alethic model in terms of the connection they assert between pattern and purpose, since this establishes only grounds of belief, not epistemic certainty. The crucial import of this sort of teleological argument is the blatant disclosure it embodies, that the person utilizing it holds their action of subjective interpretation equivalent to the establishment of an epistemic certainty simply because that action was sufficient to induce a strong enough conviction. They cannot distinguish conviction from certainty. They believe that a belief held strongly enough is knowledge.

They are a frickin factard.

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I don't know whether it's worth bothering to leave a comment. Belief is a postulate. You can't prove it logically, you have to assume it in order for proofs to work. The tragedy of being human is that we're so limited in our cognition that we have to make a bunch of postulates about the nature of reality simply to function. In this view, belief is a certainty, simply because it has to be.

My personal favorite religion is discordianism. The great lesson of this religion is that you can believe in the most absurd deity imaginable, and when you do, your view of the world changes. It's not just what you believe in, it's that you believe.

And you have to believe in something.

Anyway, to ascend to the next level, try writing that blog message without any jargon whatsoever. It's a good exercise in reaching out to those who have different educational backgrounds than you do.

11:43 pm  
Blogger Jakob Schmidt said...

@Anonymous:
I think that you are grazing a point there, but "You have to believe in something" is simply to simplistic. There actually is an important difference between believing and knowing, and confusing them leads to exactly the kind of circular logic which Hal is attacking above.
However, the difference probably has more to do with the techniques of verification than with the question if something is, verifiably and once and for all, "known" to be true.
The term of "Knowledge", at least in a modern, scientific sense implies that you get to it by processes of verification and falsification which are understandable and repeatable by other persons. Therefore, knowledge is negotiable - if you say "We know from the shadow of this obelisk that the earht is a globe with a certain diameter", then in theory someone else can try to refute that knowledge on the basis of your process of verification.
"Belief" is (intuitively I would say, by definition) only verified by itself, it is necessarily absolute and unnegotiable. And yes, in that sense you have to believe in something because if you want to keep functioning, you have to adhere to some absolutes (Like "there's free will", or "there's a giant flying spaghetti monster in the sky"). You can reflect upon the notion that this is what you believe but not what you know, you may even decide to put this beliefs up to discussion, but with most of them, you just have to assume they are true.
That's not the problem. The problem is when you start thinking that the fact that you believe in something proves its existence in the same way the shadow of the obelisk proves the diameter of the earth. Because the process of getting knowledge from the shadow is in principle transparent for others, which allows them to challenge your knowledge. That's impossible if you try to use your belief as proof.
I don't want to sound as if scientific method is good and believing is bad, i just think that it's an important difference. The good thing about science is that - at least in theory - all knowledge is falsifiable, everything is open to debate. the reality of science might look very different because most processes are obscure to most non-specialists and because in the field of science, authority to speak and to generate knowledge has always been assigned highly assymetrically. And besides that, the scientific method brings along a whole slew of new epistemological problems ... however, there is a difference between proving something and thereby generating knowledge (which can be falsified) or believing something and acting as if this would constitute knowledge (which can't be falsified).

9:54 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

What Jakob said.

In this view, belief is a certainty, simply because it has to be.

No, if a belief is an assumption, a postulate, as you say -- and I completely agree -- this is simply to say we operate on the basis that it's true. So we subscribe to it. So we are convinced of it. It is a conviction. I'm all for convictions.

I'm not disputing that we operate on the basis that our convictions are correct; but this does not mean they actually have to be correct. That's just twaddle and tommyrot.

I mean, I operate on the basis that I won't get run over by a double-decker bus tomorrow, but tomorrow a double-decker bus may well prove me sorely wrong. Sadly, it's not a certainty that I won't get run over by a double-decker bus tomorrow. Gladly, it does not have to be a certainty for me to operate on the basis that this particular conviction is correct. I can make plans for the week ahead quite easily without having to check my diary and say, "Nope, not getting run over by a bus tomorrow. Wednesday's good for me."

But, OK, maybe you're missing the very specific epistemological sense in which I'm using the term certainty to refer to an established fact. Maybe all you're saying is that to operate on the basis that I won't get run over by a double-decker bus tomorrow I have to have a sense of certainty about it. That a belief entails a feeling of certainty as regards those postulates. When you say belief is a certainty because it has to be, maybe you just mean that to make my plans for the week, I have to be in this particular intellectual/emotional state of certainty as regards not getting run over by a double-decker bus tomorrow. Yes?

If so, you're missing the point: that I can be 99.99% confident that I won't get run over by a double-decker bus tomorrow, but if I claim to know this for a fact when it is only a belief, well, this would be a folly; it would make me a fool of a particular type, one who mistakes a working hypothesis for an established fact -- a factard. To be clear, the folly does not lie in simply behaving as if one's conviction were correct; it lies in the failure to see the difference between belief and knowledge. As Jakob says, you can reflect on the fact that you believe something but don't know it. The key folly of the factard is that in falsely labeling a belief as knowledge they assign it a value of "confirmed" which precludes any such reflection.

3:16 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

But OK, to address your point, (as I read it,) that certainty as an intellectual/emotional state is necessary for us to go about our daily lives, plan our weeks, and so on. Really?

I mean, granted I don't think I've ever come across anyone operating without any convictions whatsoever. Where you say we "have to believe in something," I rather think it's like saying you have to think something; belief is such a basic feature of cognizance that we're all in a state of belief to the extent that we're aware. But to talk of certainty in that sense is to talk of conviction without reservation, belief shorn of all doubt. To be certain -- in the attitudinal sense -- is to be convinced absolutely, to be 100% confident. If you say to me, "Look, I'm certain I'm not going to run you over when I drive the double-decker bus at you tomorrow," well, I'm taking this is an assurance that you have not one shred of doubt in your ability to brake in time (to the loud gasps and tumultuous applause of the audience for our death-defying stunt.)

So then, is it fair to say that we simply cannot operate without such absolute convictions? I'm not convinced. Actually, I rather think we can operate better without them.

My conviction that you won't run me over could be wrong, after all. Your conviction that you can brake in time could be wrong. Our mutual confidence in your ability to pull off this death-defying stunt may be misplaced. If in order to earn a bucketload of money from the audience gathered to see this daring feat we have to operate on the presumption that you can brake in time, we might nevertheless be well-advised to bear in mind the possibility of being proven wrong.

A small degree of doubt may be in order here. A modicum of reservations may be advisable. With such, I can better prepare for all eventualities by, say, making a will. You meanwhile might stand a better chance of braking in time if your supreme confidence is tempered with an awareness of your fallibility. I'd rather hope you were intently focused behind that wheel, keenly aware that braking a split second too late could render our bravado somewhat reckless. On your toes, so to speak.

Acknowledging the possibility that one's convictions may be proven wrong seems to me only sensible as a basic principle. One of the firmest convictions I have, indeed, is that if one is going to hold a conviction without even the tiniest of reservations, one should have a damn good reason for doing so. Without actual confirmation I'm inclined to say, well, shouldn't we at least have the basic reservation that our assumption is just that -- an unconfirmed assumption? This is, after all, a form of actual knowledge -- to know that we do not know something -- to wit, that which we believe but have not been able to confirm.

That's not even the scientific method; it's simple self-awareness. And the factard is a fool precisely because they demonstrate a lack of this self-awareness. They do not know, it seems, that they do not actually know something just because they believe it really, really super-muchly!

3:18 pm  

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