Truth and Expectation

Suppose I see a man approaching from a long way off. “That man is pretty tall,” I say to a companion. The man approaches, and we meet him. Now I can see how tall he is. Suppose my companion asks, “Were you right that the man is pretty tall, or were you mistaken?”

“Pretty tall,” of course, is itself “pretty vague,” and there surely is not some specific height in inches that would be needed in order for me to say that I was right. What then determines my answer? Again, I might just respond, “It’s hard to say.” But in some situations I would say, “yes, I was definitely right,” or “no, I was definitely wrong.” What are those situations?

Psychologically, I am likely to determine the answer by how I feel about what I know about the man’s height now, compared to what I knew in advance. If I am surprised at how short he is, I am likely to say that I was wrong. And if I am not surprised at all by his height, or if I am surprised at how tall he is, then I am likely to say that I was right. So my original pretty vague statement ends up being made somewhat more precise by being placed in relationship with my expectations. Saying that he is pretty tall implies that I have certain expectations about his height, and if those expectations are verified, then I will say that I was right, and if those expectations are falsified, at least in a certain direction, then I will say that I was wrong.

This might suggest a theory like logical positivism. The meaning of a statement seems to be defined by the expectations that it implies. But it seems easy to find a decisive refutation of this idea. “There are stars outside my past and future light cones,” for example, is undeniably meaningful, and we know what it means, but it does not seem to imply any particular expectations about what is going to happen to me.

But perhaps we should simply somewhat relax the claim about the relationship between meaning and expectations, rather than entirely retracting it. Consider the original example. Obviously, when I say, “that man is pretty tall,” the statement is a statement about the man. It is not a statement about what is going to happen to me. So it is incorrect to say that the meaning of the statement is the same as my expectations. Nonetheless, the meaning in the example receives something, at the least some of its precision, from my expectations. Different people will be surprised by different heights in such a case, and it will be appropriate to say that they disagree somewhat about the meaning of “pretty tall.” But not because they had some logical definition in their minds which disagreed with the definition in someone’s else’s mind. Instead, the difference of meaning is based on the different expectations themselves.

But does a statement always receive some precision in its meaning from expectation, or are there cases where nothing at all is received from one’s expectations? Consider the general claim that “X is true.” This in fact implies some expectations: I do not expect “someone omniscient will tell me that X is false.” I do not expect that “someone who finds out the truth about X will tell me that X is false.” I do not expect that “I will discover the truth about X and it will turn out that it was false.” Note that these expectations are implied even in cases like the claim about the stars and my future light cone. Now the hopeful logical positivist might jump in at this point and say, “Great. So why can’t we go back to the idea that meaning is entirely defined by expectations?” But returning to that theory would be cheating, so to speak, because these expectations include the abstract idea of X being true, so this must be somehow meaningful apart from these particular expectations.

These expectations do, however, give the vaguest possible framework in which to make a claim at all. And people do, sometimes, make claims with little expectation of anything besides these things, and even with little or no additional understanding of what they are talking about. For example, in the cases that Robin Hanson describes as “babbling,” the person understands little of the implications of what he is saying except the idea that “someone who understood this topic would say something like this.” Thus it seems reasonable to say that expectations do always contribute something to making meaning more precise, even if they do not wholly constitute one’s meaning. And this consequence seems pretty natural if it is true that expectation is itself one of the most fundamental activities of a mind.

Nonetheless, the precision that can be contributed in this way will never be an infinite precision, because one’s expectations themselves cannot be defined with infinite precision. So whether or not I am surprised by the man’s height in the original example, may depend in borderline cases on what exactly happens during the time between my original assessment and the arrival of the man. “I will be surprised” or “I will not be surprised” are in themselves contingent facts which could depend on many factors, not only on the man’s height. Likewise, whether or not my state actually constitutes surprise will itself be something that has borderline cases.

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Idealized Idealization

On another occasion, I discussed the Aristotelian idea that the act of the mind does not use an organ. In an essay entitled Immaterial Aspects of Thought, James Ross claims that he can establish the truth of this position definitively. He summarizes the argument:

Some thinking (judgment) is determinate in a way no physical process can be. Consequently, such thinking cannot be (wholly) a physical process. If all thinking, all judgment, is determinate in that way, no physical process can be (the whole of) any judgment at all. Furthermore, “functions” among physical states cannot be determinate enough to be such judgments, either. Hence some judgments can be neither wholly physical processes nor wholly functions among physical processes.

Certain thinking, in a single case, is of a definite abstract form (e.g. N x N = N²), and not indeterminate among incompossible forms (see I below). No physical process can be that definite in its form in a single case. Adding cases even to infinity, unless they are all the possible cases, will not exclude incompossible forms. But supplying all possible cases of any pure function is impossible. So, no physical process can exclude incompossible functions from being equally well (or badly) satisfied (see II below). Thus, no physical process can be a case of such thinking. The same holds for functions among physical states (see IV below).

In essence, the argument is that squaring a number and similar things are infinitely precise processes, and no physical process is infinitely precise. Therefore squaring a number and similar things are not physical processes.

The problem is unfortunately with the major premise here. Squaring a number, and similar things, in the way that we in fact do them, are not infinitely precise processes.

Ross argues that they must be:

Can judgments really be of such definite “pure” forms? They have to be; otherwise, they will fail to have the features we attribute to them and upon which the truth of certain judgments about validity, inconsistency, and truth depend; for instance, they have to exclude incompossible forms or they would lack the very features we take to be definitive of their sorts: e.g., conjunction, disjunction, syllogistic, modus ponens, etc. The single case of thinking has to be of an abstract “form” (a “pure” function) that is not indeterminate among incompossible ones. For instance, if I square a number–not just happen in the course of adding to write down a sum that is a square, but if I actually square the number–I think in the form “N x N = N².”

The same point again. I can reason in the form, modus ponens (“If p then q“; “p“; “therefore, q”). Reasoning by modus ponens requires that no incompossible forms also be “realized” (in the same sense) by what I have done. Reasoning in that form is thinking in a way that is truth-preserving for all cases that realize the form. What is done cannot, therefore, be indeterminate among structures, some of which are not truth preserving. That is why valid reasoning cannot be only an approximation of the form, but must be of the form. Otherwise, it will as much fail to be truth-preserving for all relevant cases as it succeeds; and thus the whole point of validity will be lost. Thus, we already know that the evasion, “We do not really conjoin, add, or do modus ponens but only simulate them,” cannot be correct. Still, I shall consider it fully below.

“It will as much fail to be truth-preserving for all relevant cases as it succeeds” is an exaggeration here. If you perform an operation which approximates modus ponens, then that operation will be approximately truth preserving. It will not be equally truth preserving and not truth preserving.

I have noted many times in the past, as for example here, here, here, and especially here, that following the rules of syllogism does not in practice infallibly guarantee that your conclusions are true, even if your premises are in some way true, because of the vagueness of human thought and language. In essence, Ross is making a contrary argument: we know, he is claiming, that our arguments infallibly succeed; therefore our thoughts cannot be vague. But it is empirically false that our arguments infallibly succeed, so the argument is mistaken right from its starting point.

There is also a strawmanning of the opposing position here insofar as Ross describes those who disagree with him as saying that “we do not really conjoin, add, or do modus ponens but only simulate them.” This assumes that unless you are doing these things perfectly, rather than approximating them, then you are not doing them at all. But this does not follow. Consider a triangle drawn on a blackboard. Consider which of the following statements is true:

  1. There is a triangle drawn on the blackboard.
  2. There is no triangle drawn on the blackboard.

Obviously, the first statement is true, and the second false. But in Ross’s way of thinking, we would have to say, “What is on the blackboard is only approximately triangular, not exactly triangular. Therefore there is no triangle on the blackboard.” This of course is wrong, and his description of the opposing position is wrong in the same way.

Naturally, if we take “triangle” as shorthand for “exact rather than approximate triangle” then (2) will be true. And in a similar way, if take “really conjoin” and so on as shorthand for “really conjoin exactly and not approximately,” then those who disagree will indeed say that we do not do those things. But this is not a problem unless you are assuming from the beginning that our thoughts are infinitely precise, and Ross is attempting to establish that this must be the case, rather than claiming to take it as given. (That is, the summary takes it as given, but Ross attempts throughout the article to establish it.)

One could attempt to defend Ross’s position as follows: we must have infinitely precise thoughts, because we can understand the words “infinitely precise thoughts.” Or in the case of modus ponens, we must have an infinitely precise understanding of it, because we can distinguish between “modus ponens, precisely,” and “approximations of modus ponens“. But the error here is similar to the error of saying that one must have infinite certainty about some things, because otherwise one will not have infinite certainty about the fact that one does not have infinite certainty, as though this were a contradiction. It is no contradiction for all of your thoughts to be fallible, including this one, and it is no contradiction for all of your thoughts to be vague, including your thoughts about precision and approximation.

The title of this post in fact refers to this error, which is probably the fundamental problem in Ross’s argument. Triangles in the real world are not perfectly triangular, but we have an idealized concept of a triangle. In precisely the same way, the process of idealization in the real world is not an infinitely precise process, but we have an idealized concept of idealization. Concluding that our acts of idealization must actually be ideal in themselves, simply because we have an idealized concept of idealization, would be a case of confusing the way of knowing with the way of being. It is a particularly confusing case simply because the way of knowing in this case is also materially the being which is known. But this material identity does not make the mode of knowing into the mode of being.

We should consider also Ross’s minor premise, that a physical process cannot be determinate in the way required:

Whatever the discriminable features of a physical process may be, there will always be a pair of incompatible predicates, each as empirically adequate as the other, to name a function the exhibited data or process “satisfies.” That condition holds for any finite actual “outputs,” no matter how many. That is a feature of physical process itself, of change. There is nothing about a physical process, or any repetitions of it, to block it from being a case of incompossible forms (“functions”), if it could be a case of any pure form at all. That is because the differentiating point, the point where the behavioral outputs diverge to manifest different functions, can lie beyond the actual, even if the actual should be infinite; e.g., it could lie in what the thing would have done, had things been otherwise in certain ways. For instance, if the function is x(*)y = (x + y, if y < 10^40 years, = x + y +1, otherwise), the differentiating output would lie beyond the conjectured life of the universe.

Just as rectangular doors can approximate Euclidean rectangularity, so physical change can simulate pure functions but cannot realize them. For instance, there are no physical features by which an adding machine, whether it is an old mechanical “gear” machine or a hand calculator or a full computer, can exclude its satisfying a function incompatible with addition, say quaddition (cf. Kripke’s definition of the function to show the indeterminacy of the single case: quus, symbolized by the plus sign in a circle, “is defined by: x quus y = x + y, if x, y < 57, =5 otherwise”) modified so that the differentiating outputs (not what constitutes the difference, but what manifests it) lie beyond the lifetime of the machine. The consequence is that a physical process is really indeterminate among incompatible abstract functions.

Extending the list of outputs will not select among incompatible functions whose differentiating “point” lies beyond the lifetime (or performance time) of the machine. That, of course, is not the basis for the indeterminacy; it is just a grue-like illustration. Adding is not a sequence of outputs; it is summing; whereas if the process were quadding, all its outputs would be quadditions, whether or not they differed in quantity from additions (before a differentiating point shows up to make the outputs diverge from sums).

For any outputs to be sums, the machine has to add. But the indeterminacy among incompossible functions is to be found in each single case, and therefore in every case. Thus, the machine never adds.

There is some truth here, and some error here. If we think about a physical process in the particular way that Ross is considering it, it will be true that it will always be able to be interpreted in more than one way. This is why, for example, in my recent discussion with John Nerst, John needed to say that the fundamental cause of things had to be “rules” rather than e.g. fundamental particles. The movement of particles, in itself, could be interpreted in various ways. “Rules,” on the other hand, are presumed to be something which already has a particular interpretation, e.g. adding as opposed to quadding.

On the other hand, there is also an error here. The prima facie sign of this error is the statement that an adding machine “never adds.” Just as according to common sense we can draw triangles on blackboards, so according to common sense the calculator on my desk can certainly add. This is connected with the problem with the entire argument. Since “the calculator can add” is true in some way, there is no particular reason that “we can add” cannot be true in precisely the same way. Ross wishes to argue that we can add in a way that the calculator cannot because, in essence, we do it infallibly; but this is flatly false. We do not do it infallibly.

Considered metaphysically, the problem here is ignorance of the formal cause. If physical processes were entirely formless, they indeed would have no interpretation, just as a formless human (were that possible) would be a philosophical zombie. But in reality there are forms in both cases. In this sense, Ross’s argument comes close to saying “human thought is a form or formed, but physical processes are formless.” Since in fact neither is formless, there is no reason (at least established by this argument) why thought could not be the form of a physical process.