Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hidden Justificationism

Justificationist thought pops up just everywhere. Take this quote from a conversation I had recently about Rand and quantum physics:

Philosophy branches out from metaphysics, through epistemology out to ethics and then politics. If Ayn Rand's epistemology is incorrect, her politics will be even worse. So why do you like her if her philosophy is wrong?

What the above actually means is: "If you have any mistakes in your theory of epistemology, you cannot make good moral decisions". And it's not just that that is nonsense; it's justificationist nonsense. It requires a Perfect Theory of epistemology. Presumably before you can have that, you have to have a Perfect Theory of metaphysics. All your beliefs must be true and justified. This may not look obvious at first, because the person I'm quoting is not structuring their assertion like an infinite regress, but rather as a kind of infinite progress. They require one to have perfect version of the theories with the most reach before you can have good theories with less reach.

Obviously the problem with this assertion is that it's illogical, but it is important to see that the nature of the illogicality is "knowledge is justified true belief". That way it's easy to ignore such a misconception; instead of having to wade through all the tangled strands of nonsense, you can simply understand that this hatred of mistakes is unwarranted, and that in your philosophy you are not searching for any Ultimate Truth, and that is sufficient.


  1. Ooh name drop, 'quantum physics'. You might sound less like a poseur if you refer to it as quantum mechanics instead.

  2. Maybe the question meant:

    How is Ayn Rand's philosophy a best theory in support of capitalism if parts of it fail? What parts don't fail and why don't the mistakes in the other parts interfere? Why doesn't philosophy need to branch out neatly in the order she specifies?

  3. Anon, your ignorance betrays you, I'm afraid. Quantum physics is, here, the correct term to use. Quantum mechanics refers to the laws of quantum physics specifically as applied to mechanics; I wasn't talking about that. I was talking about quantum physics. I fail to see how an amateur but otherwise accurate understanding of physics labels me a poseur?

    Leo, there are certain central truths in Rand's theory, such as: it is better to live responsible for yourself rather than leeching off other people and allowing them to leech of you. That being a moral statement which is, to the best of my understanding, true. There were other things that she said that were false, such as: all goods have an objective value. That being a metaphysical statement which is, to the best of my understanding, false. Being as objectivism is a philosophy, she talks about all these things as being fundamental truths about reality, with reach, and therefore connected to each other; she considers them all to be necessary parts of the explanation of reality. But in fact, I think, this is not so. The fact that goods do not have an objective value does not mean that it is false that it's better to live for yourself than for others. It does not prevent me from recognizing that the moral statement is true while the metaphysical statement is false, and adopting only the moral statement into my own worldview which, I hope, will also contain true metaphysical theories. Naturally, if both my metaphysical theories and my moral theories are true, they will be logically compatible with each other. If they are not, I can see already that I must have made a mistake. If they appear to be logically compatible, perhaps I have still made a mistake, but it is possible that I have not, since a property of true theories is that they are compatible with each other.

  4. "it is better to live responsible for yourself rather than leeching off other people and allowing them to leech of you"

    Doesn't such a moral statement need to be grounded in a metaphysical understanding of what the nature of people is?

    "There were other things that she said that were false, such as: all goods have an objective value. That being a metaphysical statement which is, to the best of my understanding, false."

    Why is it false, if you care to explain?

  5. No, we already know what people are, for that purpose.

    AFAIK goods have a value relative to each other and to the amount that a person wants them. An apple, on its own, is not intrinsically worth 42 pence. It's only worth that if someone is willing to pay 42 pence for it. If nobody is, but someone is willing to pay 30 pence, then the apple is now worth 30 pence.

  6. I have to give you credit for a good response, it would fool most amateurs. But no, there is no meaningful distinction between 'quantum physics' and 'quantum mechanics'. Physicists use the two terms interchangeably. If you were to adopt, say, commutation relations (which are equivalent to the uncertainty principle) and unitarity, Schrodinger's equation would naturally follow. Also, any other quantum theory like QCD or GWS still obeys all the laws of 'quantum mechanics' at some level, not just the 'principles of quantum physics'.

    I am genuinely curious, which popular physics book did you get this distinction from? Or is it the result of your own reasoning? This is why I called you a poseur, because you presume to understand subtleties in a field which is far beyond your current understanding.

  7. "No, we already know what people are, for that purpose."

    Doesn't that knowledge of what people fall under metaphysics? What is the knowledge we already have about people that make that moral statement good?

    (Not sure if we are understanding ourselves)

  8. Leo, I believe we do already have a good enough understanding of what a person is for the statement "it's bad to leech off other people" to be meaningful. Trying to define "people" further, for this purpose, seems to me to be on the same level of asking "how do I know that there is really a chair in this room?".

    But perhaps I have misunderstood what you are suggesting I do?

  9. Anon, I confess I have read very few popular physics books, and I am certainly not a physicist of any description. As a result, I do not consider my own knowledge remotely adequate for answering such a question.

    Curious about your assertion that quantum mechanics would be a better term to use, I checked my terminology with David Deutsch (, who explained the difference between the various terms and provided me with the information I gave to you. Much as I dislike argument by authority, I am willing in the absence of any better theory of my own to accept David's explanation.

    I am, however, told that the terms "quantum physics" and "quantum mechanics" are also used informally to mean "quantum theory". Though since my initial usage was more formally accurate, I don't see that there would have been any particular merit in using "quantum mechanics" instead, even if informally it may mean something similar to what I intended.

  10. Hmm, is this justificationism, or just the myth of the framework? Can you explain how it's justificationism?

  11. Lulie, I believe it is justificationist because it requires the moral assertions to be justified by a 100% true theory of metaphysics first.

    It's the myth of the framework too, though.