Time, Passion and Certainty

Julius Thomas Fraser, founder of the International Society for the Study of Time and author of “Of Time, Passion and Knowledge” 1975, wrote in “Time, Conflict and Human Values” 1999 “Science does not supply absolute certainty; that can come only from unquestioned dogma. What good science does is this: it raises the incomprehensible to the level of the obvious, and then it shows that the new obvious is incomprehensible. I should add immediately that good art is always both obvious and incomprehensible, and therefore paradoxical”. Fraser was obviously not only a timesmith but also a wordsmith. In his work on the theory of time as conflict he articulated that the search for truth is prompted by the mind’s propensity for whatever is enduring, whatever seems to defy death, and that a working definition of truth is the recognition of permanence in reality. However, as there is no permanence, knowing what is believed to be true has been a perennial source of unresolved conflicts. His hypothetical conclusion is that the historical function of the search for truth has been the creation of conflicts, and through them, social, cultural, and personal change: an evolutionary model.

Alexander Argyros referred to and elaborated upon Fraser’s world view in a book “A Blessed Rage for Order: Deconstruction, Evolution, and Chaos” 1991 and linked Fraser’s hierarchical view of time with that of Popper’s three worlds. Like Popper, Fraser and Argyros recognized that the best available model for the universe is an evolutionary one. Upper levels of organization are constrained by lower levels but not reducible to them. Above a certain degree of complexity all computers become increasingly upredictable. Even mathematics, as Russell and Whitehead corroborated is not a source of timeless verities.

Is it a fearful desire to stop the march of time that has enshrined inductivism in university curricula? Is the mere thought of knowledge not being based on a concrete foundation of the senses just too horrific to contemplate? Is the conflict between remnants of medieval world views and an ever shrinking globe not just played out in the Middle East but also in esteemed Western campuses?

Karl Popper’s world view was painstakingly crafted and re-crafted over decades and the lynchpin of it is that our best knowledge remains conjectural and always susceptible to revision. He has been accused by David Stove in “Anything Goes” 1998 and other papers as being a leader of some sort of irrationalist cult. What was his intellectual crime? He deigned to question the underlying logical basis of induction. Indeed he did more than that he inferred that induction is logically invalid. It is “guessing” dressed up with some sort of logical accoutrements. The king of induction has no clothes, Popper’s sin was that he spoke this out loud.

Popper found a grip for the process of knowing, falsifiability. He lifted conjecture to its rightful position; guesswork and intuition are the source of our knowledge. He relied on the modus tollens:

If the guess is true, such and such will follow
Such and such do not follow
Therefore the guess is not true.

In Popper’s view we cannot verify our guesses/hypotheses but we can test them.

Inductivists, however, cannot tolerate the dethroning of induction to being but a form of guessing, they strain after certainty or justification, truth as justified “true” belief. Is that circular or not? If we have only seen white swans that should make a guess that all swans are white true or probably true? Are we seeking truth that corresponds with reality or comforting probabilities? Justified belief is a poor replacement for objective truth. Truth is not subjective.

Guessing is not a bad thing in our search for truth nor are probabilistic techniques. They are all we have, the trouble is that possibly fine and complex guessing techniques such as Bayesian inference are dressed up as being more than conjectural. What is wrong with doubt? We as with all life forms guess all day long, we wouldn’t get out of bed if we did not assume that it was possible that we would survive the day like we did every other day. How do we know we will? We don’t. No matter what probability we would like to put on it.

P.S. What did Karl Popper mean by the term induction? In “Realism and the Aim of Science” p 147 he stated “By induction I mean an argument which, given some empirical (singular or particular) premises, leads to a universal conclusion, a universal theory, either with logical certainty, or with ‘probability’ (in the sense that this term is used in the calculus of probability).

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