Archives for category: Epistemology

A few years ago it came as something of a surprise to me to learn that UFOs and associated paranormal phenomena are not merely dismissible as misunderstood natural phenomena, hallucinations, dream experiences, psychopathological ideations, desperate frauds, and the like. There is a strange-yet-physical reality to these data that I had previously dismissed.

I was aided in getting over my “skeptical” programming — and more open to the vast volume of UFO reports and evidence — by the lesson I was learning, simultaneously, involving new information about the end of the last Ice Age, which turns out to be hugely significant for our understanding of religion, civilization and Homo sapiens sapiens.

How so?

We now know that there were indeed worldwide floods — that, in other words, the Deluge was real, if not entirely congruent with Biblical or other mythic accounts. With a reality now almost certain behind the worldwide mythology of a universal flood — or multiple ones, as Plato’s lore instructs — then other universal myths also had to be considered, including the possibility of a race of superhuman/non-human civilizers, tales of giants, and, of course, the tropes of Enoch and Ezekiel . . . “wheels within wheels.”

But what the reality behind the data is, I know not. The extra-terrestrial alien hypothesis, of which I was familiar from science fiction as well as the popular craze from the days of my youth, Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods (1968), seems a natural enough conjecture.

But others must be considered, as I did yesterday.

Nevertheless, it remains the case that the ET/Alien Hypothesis looks pretty good. It turns out that the Carl Sagan’s early work involving the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence was a scientific exploration of what we now think of as the Ancient Alien Hypothesis, not SETI:

[P]eople who think they know Carl Sagan invariably know him the way that influential individuals and powerful institutions in charge of his legacy want them to know him. All along, throughout the course of his 40-year professional career, Carl Sagan believed that advanced extraterrestrials exist and that they have been to Earth. Carl Sagan was an ancient alien theorist, convinced that human civilization was a gift from visiting aliens.

The truth is that from 1956, when Sagan was a 22-year-old whiz kid at the University of Chicago hobnobbing with Nobel laureates, until December 20, 1996, the day of his death, Sagan not only believed in ancient aliens, he single-handedly built a scientifically rigorous model that makes it possible for ancient alienism to hopefully, one day soon, become a legitimate field of inquiry.

Donald Zygutis, The Sagan Conspiracy: NASA’s Untold Plot to Suppress The People’s Scientist’s Theory of Ancient Aliens (2013).

Now, sure, author Donald Zygutis may overplay his hand in the passage quoted above. Did Sagan “believe” in the ancient alien hypothesis? Or did he merely continue to float it as a conjecture worthy of scientific investigation?

As I often warn my friends: on matters of an unsettled nature, my beliefs may not be as important or as interesting as my suspicions,

In any case, Sagan did elaborate the ancient alien hypothesis before von Däniken:

Sagan thought that in a few centuries, humans will have developed the technology for interstellar travel. If that is true, he pondered, shouldn’t aliens, having civilizations possibly millions of years older and millions of year more advanced than ours, have already been to Earth? In the 10-year period between 1956 and 1966, he wasn’t writing popular books, appearing on the Johnny Carson Show, or hawking the virtues of space exploration to the masses; he had his nose set to the grindstone, engaged in the most ambitious project of his life: to build an airtight science-based argument that Earth has been visited by advanced extraterrestrials.

Zygutis quotes one of Sagan’s lines of conjecture:

Some years ago, I came upon a legend which more nearly fulfills some of our criteria for a genuine contact myth. It is of special interest because it relates to the origin of Sumerian civilization. Sumer was an early—perhaps the first—civilization in the contemporary sense on the planet Earth. It was founded in the fourth millennium B.C. or earlier. We do not know where the Sumerians came from. Their language was strange; it had no cognates with any known Indo-European, Semitic, or other language, and is only because a later people, the Akkadians, compiled extensive Sumerian-Akkadian dictionaries.
The successors to the Sumerians and the Akkadians were the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians. Thus the Sumerian civilization is in many respects the ancestor of our own. I feel that if Sumerian civilization is depicted by the descendants of the Sumerians themselves to be of nonhuman origin, the relevant legends should be examined carefully. I do not claim that the following is necessarily an example of extraterrestrial contact, but it is the type of legend that deserves more careful study.
Taken at face value, the legend suggests that contact occurred between human beings and a non-human civilization of immense powers on the shores of the Persian Gulf, perhaps near the site of the ancient Sumerian city of Eridu, and in the fourth millennium B.C. or earlier.

This is not really all that “out there.” But in this passage Sagan explores one angle of the possibility:

There are three different but cross-referenced accounts of the Apkallu dating from classical times. Each can be traced back to Berosus, a priest of Bel-Marduk, in the city of Babylon, at the time of Alexander the Great. Berosus, in turn, had access to cuneiform and pictographic records dating back several thousand years before his time.

Carl Sagan, in Sagan and Shklovskii, Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966).

There are many reasons to doubt the theory that Sagan developed. But it deserves careful attention. That most “smart people” dismiss it says no more about it than the academic and political support for fiscal stimulus programs says about the merits of Keynesianism.

And “smart people” should wonder: why are they so easily led to shaming techniques and irrational, social bullying paradigm defenses?

Similar to the case of “conspiracy theories,” a term of derision parlayed by the CIA via the major media in the late 1960s to direct citizens’ attention away from the bizarreries of the facts in the case of the JFK assassination, the bad odor of the ET Hypothesis (to explain what we have so far learned about UFOs) and the Ancient Alien Hypothesis (to fill in the lacuna in our knowledge of the fast growth of civilization after the fifth millennium B.C.) may in part be the result of a psy-op from the masters of psy-ops within the Deep State.

Sure, much nonsense surrounds these two related theories. There is a lot of cringe in popular accounts — I have seen Ancient Aliens (2009-) and its ilk, and its standard “could it be” meme gets mighty annoying after its third iteration. But “smart people” are supposed to be resistant to ad hominem and guilt by association techniques. We wouldn’t dismiss Einstein’s two theories of relativity because television science fiction and college freshman get them horribly, horribly wrong. Though we use ridiculousness and poisoned fruit notions as rules of thumb, if we are ruled by intellectual rules of thumb only, and not a philosophical and scientific epistemic, we must relegate ourselves to the lowest form of ideologue.

It has been my experience in dealing with scoffers about UFOs and the like: they do not know much about what they are talking about, and though they keep demanding “evidence,” they tend to ignore lots of evidence.

Applying Occam’s Razor is a fine thing. Considering the simplest theories without multiplying “explanatory entities” is great. But epistemological shavers don’t get to damn whole sets of data. The idea is not to multiply explanatory entities needlessly, not diminish the number of facts to be explained.

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…change a paradigm!

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?

No.

“Extraordinary claims” are extraordinary in context of accepted dogmas. A very ordinary bit of evidence can falsify an accepted dogma, easily. And with such a falsification, or a series of them, a perspective cascade can invert our notions of ordinary and extraordinary quite fast. We are all aware of paradigm shifts. These are catastrophic/eucatastrophic in nature, and what was once extraordinary becomes ordinary in almost the blink of an eye. 

The maxim “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” may best serve not as a legitimate epistemic standard but as a conceit to preserve status quo paradigm defense, and thus allow corrupt scientists and others to rig data sets, hide evidence, and distract the attention of honest researchers and innovative thinkers.

Claims require evidence. Sure. But claims to facticity are not all we deal with in our thinking. There is conjecture, supposition, assumption, counterfactuals, what-ifs — all are legitimate in their place. 

Of course, juggling these is hard. We all make mistakes. And we need epistemic maxims, like the “extraordinary claims” warning, like (better yet, but still tricky) Occam’s Razor. Unfortunately, folks commonly adopt a lazy attitude regarding these maxims, making of them too much, and of critical thought generally too little. 

Discovering truth is a tricky business.

I have been spotty so far, not being a scientist or a professional philosopher, etc., etc. But many confident assertions made by public professionals appear increasingly iffy and wayward and even perverse.

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Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

Philosopher Jan Lester offers what he says is a new paradigm for libertarianism. Though old hands at the philosophy may raise an eyebrow at the daring of such a claim — and I am, by this time, one of those old hands — it is not as if libertarian social philosophy were all shipshape and Bristol fashion.

Looking at his essay “The Three Great Errors of Most Libertarians,” I found myself not at all shocked by his alleged novelty — though novelty there is. From a perspective of critical rationalism (via Popper, Lakatos, Bartlett, and others), Mr. Lester advances three alternatives to most libertarian ideology and rhetoric:

  • Instead of “justificationism” and the eternal search for the Foundations of Ethics and Politics, Lester insists that we stick to the more humble and honest task of offering conjectures about which we are open to debate.
  • Instead of characterizing our normative theories in terms of “deontological” or “consequentialist” terms, recognize that they are “more like two sides of the same coin.”
  • Instead of waffling and arguing in a circular fashion, develop an explicit, sufficient and necessary “theory of freedom.”

This last point points to the most obvious need, but it is not one that many libertarians recognize as an actual problem. There is an awful lot vagueness and hand-waving among libertarian theorists. And some concepts get jumbled together, like “self-ownership” and “negative freedom” and so forth. Hearkening back to classical liberal days, Lester focuses on non-interference — Henry Sidgwick would have understood this — and develops it as a prohibition of “proactive constraint.” I have not adequately confronted this understanding of liberty, so as I prepare to read his book, Escape from Leviathan: Libertarianism Without Justificationism, I will try to keep an open mind.

I am sympathetic to his general perspective, and, so far, seem to agree on quite a lot. I do have a different way of looking at freedom than many libertarians — and this has been one reason for my odd position in the libertarian movement: I am a member of no faction, and hail not from the School of Rand or School of Rothbard, but, instead, from the School of Nozick . . . without having ever been a Nozickian.

Odd man out, I.

So, before I lash out at Lester’s paradigm, or drop mine, I will put them to the test, which would also mean essaying to discover whether the two might be compatible.

As far as the deontic/consequentialist debate goes, anyway, we are on the same side. I found this “controversy” very interesting in my early 20s, since it was a major feature of libertarian intellectual discussion in the 1980s. I soon decided, however, that most discussions of this were hopelessly muddled or, at the very least, red herrings. My late boss R. W. Bradford, writing as Ethan O. Waters, did not exactly make the issue clearer, in the pages of Liberty magazine in its first year. I went a different direction, taking consequentialism chiefly as a meta-ethics.

Regarding Lester’s anti-justificationism, well, this strikes me as a terminological issue. He denies this. I am more in line with C. S. Peirce than Karl Popper, so I see all this “critical rationalist” talk as just another form of fallibilism, whereas he regards it (I think) as quite distinct. I may have read both Popper and Lakatos, I confess to having devoured their work only in small doses: this is not an area of anything but a passing familiarity for me. So, I should practice caution. Still, I will drop a hint: Jan Lester believes that philosophy is not about words, it is about the world. That is certainly a nifty slogan. It reminds me of Husserl’s “to the things themselves!” I think philosophy cannot help but be about words — and definitions, too — because words are our chief tool for engaging with concepts. He calls them theories and conjectures, and that is fine, except it seems a long way around to say something fairly obvious.

But I could be wrong. Indeed, all this jumps the gun of reading his book.

So, if I have not read this book, and the cited essay is brief, how do I know what Mr. Lester holds to? Well, a year-and-a-half ago a friend of mine and I interviewed Mr. Lester at length. And this week I finally turned the Skype session into a video, which is now up as a series on YouTube:

Where Libertarians Go Wrong:

  1. Introduction: Why “Critical Rationalism
  2. Error One: Seeking a foundation or justification
  3. Error Two: Taking sides between deontologism and consequentialism
  4. Error Three: Lacking an explicit, necessary & sufficient theory of freedom

By the way, I had intended to do this all last year. But the best laid plans of mice and men, the gang’s all here in the glee club, and all that.


Jan Lester’s Escape from Leviathan. And me.
Definition of a word most people are not familiar with, from the Century Dictionary.

3 Great Errors

It is not a common term, this “agnarchism.”

Do a Google search: most hits come back to me and mine. As I have readily admitted before, it is not my coinage, but it was coined for me. Way back in Liberty magazine days, I would often explicate my basic take on political philosophy: I am more confident of the direction we should go than how far.

I hold that, human nature being neither infinitely malleable nor absolutely adamantine, we cannot know where, exactly, the possibility boundary of social action and policy lies the further we are from instantiations of any given imagined possibility. We must withhold judgment, at least admit a high degree of fallibility about the ideal legal-political realm. Especially if we accept as given that current taboo boundaries enable so much exploitation, misery, confusion, and needless death.

But my agnosticism in ideology is a bit more precise, as well as extreme. I am pretty confident that moral reasoning does not readily justify a State. That is philosophical anarchism. But I am much less confident that moral reasoning is perfectly matched to human nature. I suspect there may be something like an Incompleteness Theorem in the ethical domain. I fully accept that social morality rests upon notions of universalizability and reciprocity — but I am not certain that human beings can, in fact, establish and maintain a workable advanced society solely on the basis of the social statics of universal laws and reciprocal habits of action.

IMG_1239Human beings are primates. We share a lot with other primates. And these similarities are not limited just to violent chimp and peaceful bonobo and hierarchical gorilla. There is some individualistic orangutan in us, too. And, alas, no small amount of baboon.

The human acceptance of hierarchy seems more than adaptable to coercive orders. Indeed, I see a lot of evidence that most humans demand coercion and readily supply coercion. Force is a heady tool, quite addictive. Can man curb the habit not cold turkey but limit it to defense and retaliation?

I do not know.

Which makes me not an anarchist (which is what I confess I would like to be) or panarchist (which is what I am on alternative weekdays), but an agnostic-about-the-state. I do not believe that the State is moral. I just doubt that morality is all it is cracked up to be. The State may be inevitable, an ugly, hateful necessity.

And I have held this position explicitly for more than three decades. Traces of my philosophy can be found in the first twelve volumes of Liberty. But I never really wrote it out in full.

Which brings me to Jan Lester, author of Escape from Leviathan (2000), an excellent and challenging treatise as well as an eminently accessible essay, “The Three Great Errors of Most Libertarians” (2013). I am happy to report that I do not make all three of the errors he identifies. But perhaps I do make one or two. Over the next few weeks, I aim to consider Lester’s “new paradigm” for libertarianism. And I will, if I manage to follow through, report on my explorations here, at discriminations.info.

At top, notice Lester’s list of errors, which I have, with some effrontery, perhaps, put in imperative form: J. C. Lester’s Three Commandments for Libertarians. In his original form they are

  1. The error of seeking a foundation or justification
  2. The error of taking sides between deontologism and consequentialism, etc.
  3. The error of having no explicit, necessary, and sufficient theory of liberty

And, to prove that “most libertarians” make these errors, just ask philosophically minded libertarians what they think of this list. I bet most would indeed be shocked by at least one of them, perhaps two or all three.

But wait: I have already made an error!

You see, we cannot prove anything, says Lester. Nothing can be “supported”; there can be no “justification.” All we can do is offer conjectures and respond to criticism.

As you may guess, Lester is a critical rationalist. And by that he means he follows in the tradition of Karl “Conjectures and Refutations” Popper, as elaborated by Imre Lakatos, W. W. Bartley III, and others.

Or maybe that would be Karl “Objective Knowledge” Popper. Or Karl “Realism and the Aim of Science” Popper. Could it be Karl “The Poverty of Historicism” Popper?

But before I draw out some not-very-funny joke about intension and extension and book titles, I will simply confess: I do not really disagree much with critical rationalism, though I come at it from the critical commonsensism of C. S. Pierce and his pragmatics of meaning. What separates me from this philosophy is language, word choice. J. C. Lester insists that words like “proof” and “support” and “justification” have no place in legitimate epistemology (not to mention epistemics). And I see his point about the use of the first of those words, for I still hold (if without much enthusiasm) to a variant of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, and agree that matters of existence map orthogonally from a logical plane. Logic relates to the realm of essences. It does not provide us truth so much as validity. Logic may track the truth of concepts in the purely conceptual realm, but not existents in the external world.

Or something like that. I could be wrong.

To me, though, good indications of the truth about the world constitute “support.” A preponderance of the evidence “justifies” belief. I am not too disturbed by this sort of word usage. More importantly, I strongly suspect that matters of normativity hold to distinct operations and principles of their own (Bentham coined the term “logic of imperation” to handle this aspect of everyday “reality”), and that justifying a norm and justifying an act and justifying a belief are three distinct things.

So, Lester’s first challenge is something I will have to think about. I may be expressing confusion, here. It is late . . . in the morning . . . (why am I not asleep yet — it is nearly seven antemeridian!) . . . and it has been years since I have read what little I have tried of Popper, or what I have read of Peirce, and all the rest. I have been struggling with Meinong recently, and my struggle has not yet ended.

Miles to go before I sleep.

As I will explore in other entries, I am generally in agreement on Lester’s second contention, and in general approach (if not content) regarding his third. Amusingly, Lester calls himself an anarchist. He seems confident of that, though his method seems so fallibilist I am just no sure why he does not identify, with me, under the agnarchist label.

As I go through Escape from Leviathan, and as I edit a video conversation I had with him and Lee Waaks on Sunday, I hope to “live blog” the Lesterian paradigm in this venue for some time to come.

And I will place the videos here, as I put them into final form. We talked, the three of us, for over two hours.

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escapefromleviathan