Re: virus: Fundamentals

Marek Jedlinski (
Fri, 29 Mar 1996 01:21:03 +0100 (MEZ)

On Thu, 28 Mar 1996, ken sartor wrote:

> I believe in things that can be empirically shown. On issues
> that have no data, i withhold judgement. I distinguish between
> personal belief (regardless of strength) and 'proof'.

Yes, but how _do_ you make this distinction? What I'm going to say
scares me plenty sometimes, but: isn't *everything* we "know"
a sort of belief, ultimately? Even as you read a fool-proof hardcore
logical argument, you are free to accept or reject it; and there must
be a (mostly unconcscious) moment when you make that decision -if you
decide to accept the proof, you choose to believe it expresses a "truth."
What I mean is that very, very rarely do we get to actually VERIFY
a proof - we lack knowledge, or sources, or the necessary mental

In daily, mundane interactions, I probably accept a lot of things
on the basis of many factors which need not have anything to do with
logic - say, the "appeal" of a text or person, or how well it meshes
with my existing set of convictions, or my general state of well-being
at the moment (tiredness, stress - I will also make MISTAKEN decisions
which may or may not be amended later!) - or, finally, even assorted
irrational factors (example: I've been delving into Postmodern thought
for a few years now, planning a PhD in AmLitCrit, and while I have to
acknowledge a lot of po-mo findings on the basis of logic alone, I
still refuse to internalize them and hold them true, simply because
if they ARE true, I can see no way ahead, no exit out of the blind
alley of "text", in the po-mo sense. I am not quite ready for the
end of the world, and if Derrida and his ilk are right, then there is
little more to even think of. So I reject these premises, however logical,
much as I once rejected the belief in Christian God. My objection towards
postmodern thought is largely irrational; I *think* it must be flawed,
but the ultimate reason I renounce it is probably that it does not
fit well into what-I-would-like-the-world-to-be.)

In science, I stand even less chance of being able to verify a statement,
a piece of knowledge. It has been said on this list recently that evolution
is still, after so many years, merely a theory (even if supported by an
overwhelming set of observations). And then:
a) there is more than one geometry, more than one logic. The final straw
that made me emotionally indifferent towards my parents' religion was
when I found out there were so maby OTHER religions around, each
claiming to be the one that will save you... If you can choose a
religious system then the whole idea becomes a sad joke. The worse
thing is that sciences are no different - there is more than one
geometry, more than one logic.
b) Any system of knowledge is ultimately based on axioms which are
*assumes* truths, unproveable by definition. Hence any scientific
system is based upon a belief, no matter how natural that belief
may seem to us.
c) Science has often been wrong. For a few weeks now TIME magazine
has been running a "healt report" column, listing "good news" and
"bad news" stemming from recent research. Well, the scary part is
that most of the pieces they print are really corrections to
previously "well-known" (read: widely believed) facts - quote from
the last issue: "It may be time to toss the beta carotene pills. In
the second slam this year, scientists find that daily supplements do
nothing to lower the chances of dying from cancer . . . Still,
eating fruit and vegetables rich in the nutrient appears to reduce
the risk of disease; researchers now suspect that this is due to an
overall healthy diet and not to beta carotene."

- well, "researchers now suspect" something our grandmothers' mothers
had known for ages... But they'd be called quacks back then, and today.

And more - I believe we are even further detached from the "essence"
of what we think we know/believe: having read a text and accepted it,
don't we in fact accept as true only our *understanding* of the text,
which itself may or may not be in accordance with what its author meant
to say (WHICH, in turn, may or may not be exactly what went into the
text in the first place...)

Overall, I believe [handy English phrase for "I think I know"...] that
what we "know" to be true are but fuzzy approximations (don't ask me
approximations of what, I don't have a clue :) The greater part of
our knowledge is second-hand and it seems unlikely that there would be
no "data errors" during transmission. Empirical knowledge, I think,
is not exempt from this - because its validity relies on (a) the validity
of the experiment, (b) validity of our interpretation of the experiment,
and (c) our final "understanding" of it. Each of these stages is prone to
error. (Remember that old goofy joke about a scientist who "proved"
that dogs hear with their legs? The dog would respond to 'come here'
until the scientist amputated its paws... Somehow I think this may have
happened in science more than once, on a subtler level.)

I'm sorry, this has gone beyond all polite length. Just a question
to anyone who has cared to read me so far: is there anything you
are absolutely positively sure you KNOW (as opposed to: believe),
except maybe "cogito ergo sum"? I mean, seriously. Is there any
knowledge, based on logic or empiricism, that you hold to be
absolutely unquestionable? Myself - I looked and looked, and
didn't find a thing, at least not one that would pertain to the

> One acts however one wishes. This does not require any
> judgement of the universe.

Oh, but the "wishes" part depends to a great extent just on our
judgement on the universe (whether or not you believe in the
existence of God, for one, or afterlife).

Just my $0.02 wrench in the works...


Note: This message originated solely in my brain, which      
has no authority to speak for other parts of my body.