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Embracing Radical Uncertainty

In the early-1980s, West Germany was experiencing an epidemic of motorcycle thefts approaching 150,000 per year. Then, out of nowhere, these thefts dropped precipitously. By 1986, just 54,000 motorcycles were stolen. This kind of change in criminal behavior is rare, and no one seemed to know why it had happened. Various theories began to emerge. Was it tougher law enforcement and penalties, or did thefts fall with unemployment? Or maybe it was the result of some sort of new government outreach to troubled youth?

The real answer turned out to be about as mundane as possible: around 1980, the West German government imposed a helmet law. Since most motorcycle thefts were crimes of opportunity (and motorcycle thieves didn’t generally roam the streets carrying helmets), when the police spotted a helmetless rider they had a good chance of a two-fer arrest. The risks associated with stealing a motorcycle went up and the number of thefts declined. There is no discernable moral to the story except that the world is a complex, unpredictable place; changing one thing means changing innumerable other things.

Complexity and contingency are at war with an important facet of human nature. Human beings are unique in the way we tell stories about ourselves. Given the vast array of often conflicting data we gather through our senses, the human mind seeks patterns that lead us toward causal theories (outcome “C” is the result of factor “A” or, sometimes “A plus B”). Our minds are big, and they require furnishing. For the human mind, any answer is preferable to an unresolved mystery.

Causal Wheat and Contingent Chaff

In contemporary times, this theorizing and pattern-seeking has been raised to the status of science we call research studies. In diverse areas of life—health, technology, social sciences—we generate formal studies that are intended to help us understand and influence the reality in which we live. These studies have as their primary method efforts to isolate the discrete factors, inputs, and variables that are “really” behind what’s going on, to separate the causal wheat from the contingent chaff.

But what if this approach stands our true situation on its head? What if the world we live in and constantly shape and reshape through our values, beliefs, actions, and even our genes, truly is as unpredictable and contingent as the “noise” that surrounds our narrow social and economic policy interventions suggests? What if the noise is the signal?

These are the questions and themes that journalist Michael Blastland explores in his recent book, The Hidden Half: How the World Conceals its Secrets. Blastland’s message, like his subject matter, is both simple and complex. We are surrounded by problems and challenges which need to be fixed. To navigate these difficulties, we need theories about their causes, data about when and where they occur, and interventions, built on our theories and data, to address them. We build our actions around chains of logic that, to our eyes, appear water-tight but in reality are riddled through with unknown unknowns.

This combination of urgent need and incomplete understanding (what Blastland thinks is better described as a state of “pig-ignorance,” although that may be a bit hard on the pigs), is leading us into research cul-de-sacs in many domains. His book is replete with discouraging examples. Problems large and small, from the level of individuals to communities to nations are subject to what he calls “radical uncertainty”—a version of the “man plans, God laughs” dilemma.

Faulty Assumptions

Consider some of the assumptions we regularly make in medicine: Studies show a connection between high cholesterol and heart disease. We have drugs to reduce cholesterol. Unfortunately, they are effective for only 1 in every 24 people for whom they are prescribed. Have you been told that eating bacon causes colon cancer? Maybe, but for 100 people eating four pieces of the sweet/salty stuff daily (to borrow from Christopher Buckley in Thank You for Smoking, a high dose, even by industry standards) there will be 6 cases of colon cancer compared to 5 among less hearty eaters. Figuring out who among the heavy consumers will be the unlucky sixth is virtually impossible. So instead, we stick to the population-level findings and transform an occasional morning pleasure into an experience larded with fear and guilt.

Even research on medical treatments get swallowed up in the quicksands of quality, application, and replicability. One researcher set out to replicate 53 of the most important findings in the field of hematology-oncology (treatment of blood cancers); only six successfully replicated, an 89 percent failure rate. A meta-analysis of 146 studies that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine between 2001 and 2010 found that many of the conclusions from these studies were being ignored, and that as much as 40 percent of commonly used medical procedures were either ineffective or actually harmful.

In the social sciences, Blastland’s look at several foreign aid programs helps to illustrate how clear, seemingly simple, problems do not yield to our logical solutions. One project sought to support the construction of toilets in India where the absence of basic sanitation continues to be the source of infant mortality and other human misery. One would think building toilets to be a relatively straightforward enterprise. Then the contingencies began to interfere. Giving money to families to build toilets ended in funds being diverted to what the families perceived to be more urgent needs. Reimbursing for toilet construction didn’t work either because the families lacked other ways of financing the construction. The program directors reverted to grants but required that families attend a class on the importance of building the toilet. Finally, the toilets got built but appeared to make no difference to health outcomes because either a) people didn’t use them, or b) not enough toilets had been built to make a dent in the sewage problem.

Inconsistent Results

Further complicating the research picture is the fact that what works in one place may not work in another, and vice-versa. Aid organizations estimated that cow ownership in India would add significantly to family incomes and improve nutrition. The cows were dutifully supplied but nutrition didn’t improve and incomes went down due to the increased cost of maintaining the cow. A clear case of an unworkable intervention? Maybe not. The same scheme was found to improve both nutrition and incomes in Uganda. As Blastland notes, our efforts are subject not just to uncertainty, but radical uncertainty. An approach to a problem works here but not there; now but not then; for this person but not that one. As the director of the toilet project said, “Causality is really . . . really . . . hard.”

Blastland sees the contingency rule even behind such things as free trade and populism. At a macro-level the case for trade and against protectionism is unassailable. When nations specialize everyone has the chance to get richer and indeed they have. With the expansion of relatively free global trade, global wealth has skyrocketed and poverty has been dramatically cut. The problem with the analysis is that it ignores the local impact of trade that rides below the top-line benefits.

Citing the work of MIT economist David Autor, Blastland says that before trade normalization with China, the U.S. had about 400,000 textile production jobs, a tiny fragment of an economy with 150 million workers. These jobs were, however, concentrated in a handful of Southern states, and in some counties accounted for 1 in 6 jobs mainly for white, male workers with only a high school education or less. Man-splaining to these workers that their pain at lost employment and community in single-industry towns was the other end of enormous gains being made by their fellow citizens living elsewhere or the impoverished of China and Southeast Asia was unpersuasive in the extreme, adding to the cascade of forces that brought us the presidency of Donald Trump. Jumping over the pond to England, when a government official explained to a Newcastle housewife how the impact of losses to GDP from Brexit would vastly outstrip any savings on money transferred to Brussels, she responded, “That’s your bloody GDP, not mine!”

If reliable, replicable knowledge is so hard to come by and so fraught with unintended consequences, why bother trying to understand? The first answer is straightforward: we pursue knowledge and seek to solve problems because that’s what human beings do. Just as our ancient ancestors scanned the savannah for signs of lions, so we are engaged in a constant process of threat assessment and mitigation. We can no more stop seeing problems, hypothesizing about their sources, and trying to fix things than we can stop breathing. The second answer is equally obvious: through patient trial and error processes, humanity has made enormous advances against ignorance, poverty, and disease. More of that, please. But in the process, let’s not lose sight of how limited and conditional our knowledge often is.

The Haunting Pretense of Knowledge

The underlying challenge Blastland points to is that we are now dicing knowledge and insight so finely that many of our conclusions just don’t hold up. As one wag in biomedical research says in the book, “unfortunately, we are still very successful”; too successful, in fact, to be credible. The pressure on researchers to show positive outcomes, and thereby sustain funding from government and industry, means that institutions or even researchers themselves often suppress failures, depriving scholars and the public of the benefits derived from analyzing failure, a proper understanding of the contingency of knowledge, and the opportunity to ask why our approaches to research lead to such contradictory, unsatisfying, and frequently false-positive outcomes.

When it comes to addressing the research crisis, Blastland sounds suspiciously like a libertarian, complete with quotes from F. A. Hayek on “the pretense of knowledge”. Markets, Blastland says, are the best available model for understanding how the world around us works. Human existence is a massive, unintelligibly complex system (or perhaps better, a system of systems) that is constantly morphing and changing based on the actions of individuals, communities, and nations nestled in unique cultures shaped by constantly changing circumstances. Any attempt to understand motivations and behaviors needs to proceed on the basis that they are dealing not with a photograph but with a fast moving picture. Life’s plot is unpredictable.

Our interventions in the world, from medicine to economics to social science, must be conditioned by experimentation and a willingness to think hard and adapt as life “talks back”. Especially in the realm of policy, we need to acknowledge that our cause-and-effect understandings are hazy “bets” on the future and that we need to anticipate and plan for unexpected outcomes. Most importantly, Blastland says, we should “treasure our exceptions” and look for ways of collecting narratives of individual experiences that help explain them. As Daniel Boorstin, the former Librarian of Congress, said, “The greatest obstacle to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” The only plausible approach to such a state of affairs is to embrace uncertainty and humbly inquire, “What is it trying to tell us?”

Reader Discussion

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on October 31, 2019 at 09:43:56 am

Delighted that a post-modern noticed the above but fail to see how this even hints at radical uncertainty. It's like suggesting that the Pythagorean formula is wrong, because I've incorrectly measured an example triangle and made a mathematical error. Perhaps, a better title would be "sounds" communicate proper humility.

Reason, medicine, theology, philosophy, grammar, cannot err, but humans pretending that discursive understandings and reasonings are knowledge can certainly be wrong. The attainment of knowledge may be discursive, but knowledge itself cannot be untrue or it has been wrongly categorized.

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Shane Walker
on October 31, 2019 at 13:04:54 pm

" The pressure on researchers to show positive outcomes, and thereby sustain funding from government and industry, means that institutions or even researchers themselves often suppress failures, depriving scholars and the public of the benefits derived from analyzing failure, a proper understanding of the contingency of knowledge, and the opportunity to ask why our approaches to research lead to such contradictory, unsatisfying, and frequently false-positive outcomes."

Michael Mann and the Hockey Stick, anyone?

The effect of the condition in the above quote is to Limit Inquiry and as the author AND essayists suggests, it is open inquiry and an acceptance of countervailing facts / observations that leads to a higher (yet perhaps never "ultimate) certainty.

Yet, let us not conflate the market economy for the market of ideas. The former may properly adjust pricing and interest; to date, only the most radical Hayekians (which he himself would not do) would argue that such a market may apprehend truth (certainty).

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gabe
on October 31, 2019 at 13:12:04 pm

Then again, SOME forms of inquiry / research are as defective as the "certainty" about which the author writes.

https://www.breitbart.com/politics/2019/10/31/nearly-400k-in-taxpayer-funds-to-study-why-transgender-latinos-avoid-cancer-screenings/

then again, it may simply fit into the "grant harvesting" so prevalent in the social Sciences.

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gabe
on October 31, 2019 at 13:42:13 pm

Thanks for the comments. To be clear, my own view is not that truth doesn't exist only that it is something we usually seek to approach rather than fully grasp. The empirical method, when it is reduced to finding certainty rather than attempting to describe a larger, and incompletely conceived reality frequently leads us the "fatal conceit" Hayek warned of. While we're looking for the signal we should also pay attention to the noise. We do not control reality; reality controls, or at least shapes, us to a significant degree.

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Brent Orrell
on October 31, 2019 at 14:06:26 pm

So, you essentially hold to the public position of the Academicians that Augustine interacted with in "Against the Academicians?"

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Shane Walker
on October 31, 2019 at 14:19:05 pm

Well, not having read it, I am loath to comment. In general, I live among and love academicians just not scientism. I prefer a blend of empirical and narrative analysis that seeks to combine the learning and precepts embodied in tradition with scientific observation.

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Brent Orrell
on October 31, 2019 at 16:44:20 pm

An approach to a problem works here but not there; now but not then; for this person but not that one.

Rather like a Pooka!

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nobody.really
on October 31, 2019 at 16:58:00 pm

Love that.

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Brent Orrell
on October 31, 2019 at 19:14:27 pm

The world may be complex, but it is not entirely unpredictable. The Universe is governed by universal laws of cause & effect in the physical and metaphysical realms. We know some of them but I doubt we know all of them, and so it is impossible for human beings to be able to predict all the possible outcomes of a sequence of cause and effect.

It was the view of America's Founding Fathers that adherence to God's commandments would ensure better outcomes for you and the people around you. For example, if you follow these commandments, you are showing respect for the God-given rights of others. Their lives, families, property, reputations, expectations of justice, and good relations with their neighbors are more secure than if you did not. And vice versa. When the members of society who more or less observe this code reaches a certain threshold, probably a high percentage, then they are capable of getting and keeping a government good enough to protect their Liberty.

Societies where most people do not observe even the rudimentary principles of the Judeo-Christian moral code, such as before, during and after the French Revolution, do not enjoy any kind of social security or a government good enough to protect them. And the resulting Chaos makes it difficult of impossible to live in peace and freedom, with justice and prosperity for a greater number of people, and relative happiness for men and women of good will. Life in such a society would be miserable.

The fact that this is a predictable equation proves to me that there is some kind of just and merciful creator who governs the universe, and to whom we are all equally accountable.

Go back and read the Declaration of Independence and tell me what you didn't see before.

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Standing Fast
on October 31, 2019 at 23:42:47 pm

Gabe,

Michael Mann and the Hockey Stick, anyone?

I think it is useful that you bring up Professor Mann in the context of this essay, because the concept of uncertainty as described here touches on many themes:

1.) The limitations of expertise. There is a common notion that "experts" are such because in their fields, they are less afflicted with uncertainty than others, and that therefore, their predictions and declarations are associated with a greater degree of confidence. This concept does have some logical appeal, however its application is prone to error and fallacy because even if an expert may have a greater degree of certainty regarding a particular question, this may still not be sufficient to be useful. The fellow in China who came up with the one child policy was supposedly an expert. Lysenko was an "expert." The guys behind the savings and loan fiasco, the housing bubble, "weapons of mass destruction," etc--all "experts." The "expert" who developed the frontal lobotomy won a Nobel Prize for his expertise, and his degree of certainty that he had tamed mental illness. "Expertise" often creates the illusion that uncertainty is inconsequential, and therefore "experts" should be trusted with the important decisions of ordinary people. A non-expert may have considerably less uncertainty about his own circumstance than someone's whose expertise applies to generic populations.

2.) The importance of skepticism. Skepticism is part of the human mind's tools for dealing with uncertainty. It is fundamental to the scientific method, and in fact, to reason. Skepticism is an acknowledgement of uncertainty. One discouraging development in modern discourse is that skepticism is (often) not addressed with further data, argument, or evidence but with hysteria, denunciation, and bullying. This is particularly evident with regard to climate issues. It is odd that the currently fashionable spokesperson for progressive environmental policy is someone who is quite obviously not an expert, yet is at the forefront of confronting skeptics. Perhaps this is an indication that no one deserves to be called a climate expert. There is, quite obviously, a great deal of uncertainty regarding climate matters, and this uncertainty is justification enough for skepticism. The facade of certainty in the face of persistent predictive failures is also reason to pay more deference to skepticism and less to "consensus."

3.) Uncertainty has a necessary place in human life. Uncertainty is not necessarily a nuisance, getting in the way of humankind's march to to perfection. There are situations in which it is both useful and desirable. There is a genetic test that can determine if a family member of a person with Huntington's Disease will also get the disease. Some people prefer to forego the certainty that the test would provide because of how they fear that knowledge would affect their lives. Less dramatically, some people do not want to know the sex of an expected baby; the uncertainty brings a particular type of anticipation and joy. Uncertainty of outcome is a surrogate for the fairness of a process or competition. People's interest in sporting events would likely suffer if the outcome of every contest were a foregone conclusion. (Screw the Patriots). There are entire industries, e.g. insurance and derivative securities that exist because of the inevitability of uncertainty.

4.) Uncertainty can be used strategically. Asymmetries in uncertainty confers advantages. It is helpful for a maneuvering army that its enemy be uncertain of it s dispositions and movements. Securities laws require maintenance of uncertainty and limitation of information so as to suppress insider trading, which allows the certain to profit at the expense of the uncertain. Uncertainty is often intentionally created to confer a strategic advantage to one interest or another. This is observed with respect to language. There is new-found uncertainty as to the meanings of what were once unremarkable words: safety, violence, woman, hate, equality, supremacy, etc. This uncertainty is not an organic part of everyday existence; rather it is a pathogen introduced into discourse for factional advantage. The word 'woman," for example, has not evolved to be more precise, and thus a more reliable and useful expression of common understanding. To the contrary, ambiguity has been manufactured with the goal of uncertainty.

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z9z99
on November 01, 2019 at 10:36:37 am

Z:

Absotively: (see my comments the other day at https://www.lawliberty.org/2019/10/30/founding-deists-and-other-unicorns-mark-david-hall-christian-founding/
on propositional vs prescriptive knowledge.

Nutshell version:

Propositional truth: THAT which may NOT be questioned as an entire metaphysical system rests upon it.

Prescriptive knowledge: THAT which MUST be questioned as it is capable of being disproved.

It strikes me that far too many experts have arrogated to themselves, based upon their "expertise" / certainty, the authority, ( a near medieval Scholastic authority, perhaps) to promulgate Propositional Truths as a substitute for prescriptive observations and conclusions. And as with our Medieval" authorities", to them accrues certain powers and advantages.

Does it not strike one as odd that those putatively engaged in "prescriptive" observation / study would be so prone to abandon the very method, the employment of which by these experts, is their sole claim to knowledge?

As for "To the contrary, ambiguity has been manufactured with the goal of uncertainty" - Yep!
However, it may very well be that this uncertainty is proffered with a view toward reinforcing the NEW Propositional Truth that "bloody biology" matters not one whit and that the resultant uncertainty compels us to abandon the *biological* certainty, known by our species for millions of years, that male is male and female is female.

To question this would be akin to question the Ptolemaic Model of the Heavenly orbits!

Again, Z, thanks for your "uncommon" common sense.

seeya

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gabe
on November 01, 2019 at 14:31:20 pm

"Human beings' march tp perfection"?

That is a Progressive notion, and I think flawed. Human nature does not change with the times. Our attitudes about things can change, and has, a number of times over the millenia of our existence.

Attitudes change because we are capable of recognizing connections between causes and effects, and over time we develop knowledge and understanding of what that means. The accumulation of this wisdom is part of our instinct for survival. When we are headed in the right direction, things go better. When we are headed in the wrong direction, things get worse.

If you do not understand what I'm saying, it's time for a Reality Check. Get thee to a Twelve-Step Group. You don't have to be addicted to alcohol or drugs, there are groups for ordinary folks, like Co-Dependents Anonymous.

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Standing Fast
on November 01, 2019 at 14:45:44 pm

The context of the phrase went totally over your head.

If you do not understand what I’m saying, it’s time for a Reality Check

It is not obvious that you understand what you are saying.

Try again.

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z9z99
on November 01, 2019 at 15:12:29 pm

"The world may be complex, but it is not entirely unpredictable"

Did I miss something here. I have not observed either the essayist or the author (or for that matter any of the commenters) asserting that the world is entirely unpredictable.

To the contrary, I observe many comments asserting the opposite:

That the issue of our time(s) (and earlier times as well) is that certain people assert that not only IS the world fully susceptible to accurate predictions but that it is THEIR predictions which MUST be given preference and acknowledged as Propositional Truths.

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gabe
on November 01, 2019 at 15:22:21 pm

Okay, I'll bite. Maybe the context of the phrase in question is over my head. And maybe I don't understand what I am saying. Please explain, then, in what context you were speaking and in what way I do not understand what I am saying.

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Standing Fast
on November 01, 2019 at 17:48:02 pm

Standing Fast:

"It was the view of America’s Founding Fathers that adherence to God’s commandments would ensure better outcomes for you and the people around you."

and

"Go back and read the Declaration of Independence and tell me what you didn’t see before."

As to both quote 1 & 2:

Yes, this is certainly true.

However, you must admit of the possibility that:

1) with respect to #1, such a sentiment was but one, albeit a rather important and deeply held one (and also correct to my mind), of a number of sentiments. Is it not also true that following the Enlightenment, another sentiment / intellectual trend was evident amongst the founders; namely, eudamonianism, the belief that the goal of human existence was human happiness and that the individual human being was not just capable of striving for this but OUGHT to so strive.

2) The DOI also evidences this transition to eudamonianism with its professed and aspirational goal for individual human happiness and that the just end of government is to secure / enable (BUT, critically NOT PROVIDE0 human happiness. Contrast this with earlier definitions of both the purposes of government and of the individual. The individual was expected to defer "happiness" until the afterlife and government was NOT expected to promote or even encourage human happiness. It was to maintain order AND the established Truths of the era.

I am not here denying the Christian component of the founding. to do so would be needlessly argumentative and downright unserious. I am suggesting however that if this were a Christian founding, it was a non-traditional Christian Founding augmented by a revised and more secular understanding of the aims of both governance and individual human beings.

As for Deism, it matters not what or how they are defined. This was a Deism with distinctly Christian antecedents and sentiments. Clearly, it was not an Islamist Deism, as their preferred intellectual / philosophical stance is that of the most extreme "voluntarism", whereas OUR Deists (if that be what they were) clearly adhered to all of the "civil" norms that you rightly mention above and THESE were in part an outgrowth of Christian doctrine and practice over the preceding one and a half millennia.

Much went into the thinking / beliefs of these men; each element had a differing impact upon them.
Isn't that how it always is.

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gabe
on November 01, 2019 at 18:07:51 pm

The Pooka comment:

I have the impression that the author of the article has a superficial view of what is involved when we attempt solutions to problems. The chain of Cause and Effect that creates the problem goes back to the beginning of creation. We cannot say how far back we must go to start formulating our solution--obviously not necessary to go back however many billion years astronomers think the Universe is now, but much further back, I think, than is usual.

It all depends upon what we find. As shown in his example of the motorcycle thieves, sometimes not very far at all. But, the social and political problems I pay attention to have everything to do with morals, manners, customs and laws of our society, and how they gave changed since our nation's founding. This requires an intensive investigation of many generations back into ancient times. Yet, to understand many factors involved in what I perceive to be a tragic dismantling of America's noble traditions in our time does not have to take a lifetime of research. If we ask a lot of questions and set our prejudices aside, we'll get there.

I have found that there is no such thing as a stupid question. And if you are not afraid of venturing into unknown territory with an open mind (no preconceived theories, no assumptions) the answers usually come. In my own research, I've found that what I learned in California's K-12 & college is mostly bunk.

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Standing Fast
on November 01, 2019 at 23:58:10 pm

Standing Fast,

Maybe the context of the phrase in question is over my head.

Let's try this:
If someone were to write "The President is not a superhero, hunting down vampires," would you conclude that the point of the sentence is that vampires exist? What is the significance of the independent clause "[t]he President is not a superhero?"Would you paraphrase that sentence as "Vampires are real?" If the answer is "yes," then we are not likely to get very far, and we should probably wish each other well and move on. If the answer is "no," then do the following:

1.) Substitute the noun "Uncertainty" for "The President;"
2.) Substitute "nuisance" for "superhero;"
3.) Substitute "getting in the way of" for "hunting down;"
4.) Substitute "mankind's march to perfection" for "vampires."

Does the revised sentence now mean that "human beings can be perfected?" or some similar notion that focuses on the modifying clause rather than the independent clause "[u]ncertainty is not necessarily a nuisance?"

in what way I do not understand what I am saying.

Firstly, I did not say that you do not understand what you are are saying. I said, quite plainly, that it is not obvious that you understand what you are saying. You may, or may not, but it is difficult to conclude that you do from what you wrote.

You made assertions about changing attitudes and accumulation of wisdom. This is all fine and good. You may be right, you may not be. It is hard to tell because you support your understanding with the rather trivial insights that "[w]hen we are headed in the right direction, things go better. When we are headed in the wrong direction, things get worse." All that is missing is a citation to Chauncey Gardener.

You then seek to bolster your argument with the rather unpersuasive claim that people who do not understand what you are saying need a "Reality Check," (caps in original. Is this a trade name?) and should seek some form of counseling. One can only wonder at the puzzled looks that ensue at Overeaters Anonymous when a new attendee sobbingly confesses that the reason he is there is because he doesn't understand the Allegory of the Cave.

You may have some insightful and valid views. If so, I would respectfully suggest that you present them with reasoned argument.

Best to you,

Z

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z9z99
on November 02, 2019 at 13:07:01 pm

Boy, what a knucklehead I am.

Half of this comment ought to have been posted on the "Founding Deists and Other Unicorns" essay.

sorry! The grandkids ate my Snickers bars.

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gabe
on November 02, 2019 at 16:29:20 pm

Gabe,

Please expand a little on the distinction between Propositional truth and prescriptive knowledge.

Aristotle distinguished between "theoretical logic" and "practical logic." The goal of the the former was "truth," and of the latter "action." Theoretical truths are logically consistent and should not, er...in theory, admit to exceptions. A theoretical truth is therefore undone by a single counter-example. A practical truth does accommodate some degree of inconsistency and exception, "close enough," to be useful in daily life, as it were.

So, in your understanding, do propositional truths allow for exceptions? Is propositional truth a synonym for "axiom," "a statement or proposition which is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true?"

Does prescriptive knowledge have degrees of validity? Is this knowledge invalidated if it is shown to have exceptions, or does it remain useful even if it is not universally applicable?

Best,

Z

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z9z99
on November 04, 2019 at 16:41:52 pm

Re: Your comparison of the two sentences"

1. "Uncertainty is not a nuisance, getting in the way of mankind's march to perfection."
2. "The President is not a superhero, hunting down vampires."

I see the similarity of the two sentences, but I will dispense with the second because the first one will do.

First, the sentence as written is unclear because it is ambiguous and can be interpreted a number of ways as you have shown.

Second, the sentence has two unrelated clauses that can be taken separately and still be complete thoughts even though the second clause is not a complete sentence on its own. And separated this way, they can be seen to be unrelated. This is why the sentence is not clear.

Third, because the second clause cannot stand alone as a complete sentence, it is dependent upon the first clause to complete its meaning.

Fourth, the sentence must be understood to mean that if uncertainty is not a nuisance, then it is not getting in the way of mankind's search for perfection.

Fifth, that assertion begs the question whether uncertainty is a nuisance and whether it is getting in the way of mankind's search for perfection.

Sixth, these questions beg two other questions, whether mankind is searching for perfection and whether mankind is perfectible.

Seventh, I know there are human beings who believe mankind is perfectible and are either searching for that perfectibility or are convinced they have found it. I am not one of them.

That is because I believe that human nature is inherently flawed, I believe God created mankind with the ability to make moral choices (good vs. evil: good outcomes vs. bad outcomes). He gave us His commandments as a standard and a guide for making moral choices. He did this because we have the innate capacity to learn from our own or other people's mistakes. This means we can accumulate knowledge and understanding and pass it on to others. This means we can have better outcomes.

It does not mean we are perfectible. We retain our flaws, and we retain our ability to make moral choices. The most we can do is teach our children to make moral choices and hope they follow our example. What we achieve is habits of Common Sense & Common Courtesy, and eventually Wisdom & Virtue.

The opposite of Wisdom is Foolishness. The opposite of Virtue is Vice.
Foolishness and Vice are not the path to Happiness.

I know there are people who believe God isn't finished with us yet, and someday mankind will be perfected. I hope this is true because if so, then I think the Kingdom of God will be a place where Liberty is established and His Will (for mankind to live in Peace, Freedom, Prosperity, Blessing and Happiness) will be done on Earth. I think that is what the Bible is all about.

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Standing Fast
on November 04, 2019 at 17:02:14 pm

Standing Fast,

Okay, if that's what you came up with, I am content with my earlier reply. Have a nice day.

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z9z99
on November 04, 2019 at 20:03:07 pm

Ah gee, you mean you aren't going to explain why?

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Standing Fast
on November 04, 2019 at 20:36:07 pm

No, I am confident that the readers of this site do not need me to explain. They can read things like:

"...the sentence has two unrelated clauses that can be taken separately and still be complete thoughts..." followed by

"...they can be seen to be unrelated," followed by

"... the second clause cannot stand alone as a complete sentence, it is dependent upon the first clause to complete its meaning" and decide for themselves if you are persuasive, or even making sense. Whether they do or not is not my concern, but if it matters to you, go for it.

I also suspect most readers use "begs the question" properly.

Best to you.

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z9z99
on November 05, 2019 at 14:03:02 pm

Do you not know how to break down a sentence to figure out what it means? Lawyers have to do this all the time.

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Standing Fast
on November 05, 2019 at 14:50:01 pm

Again, I am content to leave it to the readers of this site to decide. I do note that your last post contains no substantive thought, not even anything trite, like “the opposite of Virtue is Vice.” If you see a point in persisting on your tangent, then good luck to you and go with God.

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z9z99

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