Thursday, June 30, 2011

It Sounds Reasonable

Is It True?

If you follow The Stone in the NYT, (and who doesn’t?), you will have been following discussions on logic and reasoning, and the apparent difference in the two approaches to truth.

GARY GUTTING recently examined a study called “The Argumentative Theory Of Reasoning”, and the readers responses turned out to be more argumentative than reasonable. So he attempted to clarify the first article by re-writing his conclusions in a different order;

From The New York Times;

We systematically focus on data that support a view we hold and ignore data that count against it.

These facts suggest that our evolutionary development has not done an especially good job of making us competent reasoners.  Sperber and Mercier, however, point out that this is true only if the point of reasoning is to draw true conclusions.  Fallacious reasoning, especially reasoning that focuses on what supports our views and ignores what counts against them, is very effective for the purpose of winning arguments with other people.  So, they suggest, it makes sense to think that the evolutionary point of human reasoning is to win arguments, not to reach the truth.

This formulation led critics to objections that echo traditional philosophical arguments against the skeptical rejection of truth.   Do Sperber and Mercier think that the point of their own reasoning is not truth but winning an argument?  If not, then their theory is falsified by their own reasoning.  If so, they are merely trying to win an argument, and there’s no reason why scientists — who are interested in truth, not just winning arguments—should pay any attention to what they say.   Sperber and Mercier seem caught in a destructive dilemma, logically damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Philosophical thinking has led to this dilemma, but a bit more philosophy shows a way out.  The root of the dilemma is the distinction between seeking the truth and winning an argument.  The distinction makes sense for cases where someone does not care about knowing the truth and argues only to convince other people of something, whether or not it’s true.  But, suppose my goal is simply to know the truth.  How do I go about achieving this knowledge?  Plato long ago pointed out that it is not enough just to believe what is true.  Suppose I believe that there are an odd number of galaxies in the universe and in fact there are.  Still, unless I have adequate support for my belief, I cannot be said to know it.  It’s just an unsupported opinion.  

Knowing the truth requires not just true belief but also justification for the belief.

Star Spangled Banner

Read all about this famous banner at the Smithsonian.

Why Stars?

Strong evidence indicates that Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was responsible for the stars in the U.S. flag. At the time that the flag resolution was adopted, Hopkinson was the Chairman of the Continental Navy Board's Middle Department. Hopkinson also helped design other devices for the Government including the Great Seal of the United States.

For his services, Hopkinson submitted a letter to the Continental Admiralty Board asking "whether a Quarter Cask of the public Wine will not be a proper & reasonable Reward for these Labours of Fancy and a suitable Encouragement to future Exertions of a like Nature."

His request was turned down since the Congress regarded him as a public servant.

From the Federal Citizen Information Center.

Just One More Thing

In case you missed it, there is a very nice obituary for Peter Falk in the NYT.

Today’s Relatively Appropriate Song;

Reality Is Beautiful

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