virus: Axioms versus falsification of theories

Eric Boyd (
Fri, 19 Sep 1997 04:05:39 -0500

Greetings, all.

Iíve got a temp connection worked out here at Queensu, until I get my
permanent connection up. Meantime, Iíve been reading the Virus Digests.

Lots of interesting stuff going down.

First: God. (start with the easy questions, right :-) )

> Date: Tue, 2 Sep 1997 21:17:24 -0700
> From: Richard Brodie <>
> Subject: virus: A memetic revelation
> As they say in The Forum...
> Life is empty and meaningless.
> And the fact that it's empty and meaningless is empty and meaningless.
> Attaching a value to the fact that all our meaning is made up is
> making the same mistake as when we don't realize that all our
> meaning is made up.
> That said, life is meaningless only on one level.
> The other day I had a revelation. My first?
> The revelation was that God exists.
> It is perfectly possible, scientifically, for God to exist.
> Just as memes exist, though not based in physical reality, they are an
> emergent property of the human nervous system.
> God is an emergent property of the billions of minds on the planet.
> The Spirit is a tangible force that is created, not creator, of
> the human mind. This force exists and causes things that no
> individual or group is consciously causing, just as the human
> mind causes things unbeknownst to the underlying cells of the body.
> Complexity theory tells us that the nature of an emergent
> phenomenon is unpredictable from and unrelated to the mechanics
> of its underpinnings.
> So the fact that all our memes are empty and meaningless does
> nothing to negate the possibility of a meaningful God, an
> emergent property of memes.
> The INSTANT I had that revelation, I felt a tangible shift in
> my feelings, my energy. Since that day, now a couple of weeks
> ago, I have been lovingly and peacefully accepting and creating.
> Wow.
> Contact.

I first read this, and thought... yea. This is what Iím saying with my
ChurchÖ "Spirituality is Subjective", "The Power of Faith", "Circular
Constructs"... it all flows in.

But Iíve decided Iím wrong, based mostly on what David McF said:

> My point is that I can believe in
> your "god" and remain an atheist while many (most?) self-proclaimed
> theists wouldn't consider their god to be yours any more than they
> would identify their god with TV or the Internet. Why do you call
> the human memetic superorganism "God"?

I just donít think I can honestly say that the memetic superorganism,
which Iíve envisioned *as* God, is actually what people mean when they
say "God"[3]. Because it isnít. Even if that "is what it is"Ö

Which brings me to my next point. Iím very tired of this Objectivist
debate, already. But hereís my $0.02[2] anyway:

First, I want to talk about Axiomatic systems in general. The idea of
axioms is that you accept *something* (can be just about anything) and
use that to prove other, related, things. This is what mathematics is
all about. Cartesian geometry postulates five axioms, and derives
everything else from that. Amazing how useful a *model* it is of the
universe. But it is only a model, and a bad one at that. For two of
the axioms donít actually hold in our universe! (I believe it was: 2) A
straight line is the shortest distance between two points and 5)
parallel lines never meet. Neither of these correspond to the observed
universe... they are *falsified* (a key wordÖ more later))

Now, axiomatic systems are sometimes good ways to model the universe.
They run into problems, however, because you *do* have to assume the
axioms are true. These axioms are then used to "justify" Ė "prove" Ė
other things. A justificational stance.

The other way to build knowledge, which doesnít rest on the metaphysical
"cloud" of axioms Ė I like to call mathematics a "Thought Castle in the
Sky"[1] Ė is Pancritical Rationalism. (PCR) It is a non
justificational stance. It is a falsificational stance. The scientific
process: make a guess. Try your damnedest to prove it wrong. If it
still holds, accept it as "provisionally" true, in the areas you
tested. Hereís a sweet quotation: (this is no longer a valid
"The new framework permits a rationalist to be characterized
as one who is willing to entertain any position and holds all
his positions, including his most fundamental standards, goals,
and decisions, and his basic philosophical position itself,
open to criticism; one who protects nothing from criticism by
justifying it irrationally; one who never cuts off an argument
by resorting to faith or irrational commitment to justify some
belief that has been under severe critical fire; one who is
committed, attached, addicted, to no position."

Iíd just like to say that a PCRist is not attached to PCR, either. PCR
is just the best "model" of how to learn about the world they know of.
If you can *falsify* itís claim to learning powers, and show that some
other system is better (observed results), fine. In a way, PCR is the
reverse of the axiomatic system... it says *never* accept axioms.
Everything is provisionary. "Anything goes" as long as it stands up to
a rigorous falsification test.

More on *models*: it is very possible in physics at the university level
to *model* the problem, using some differential equations, and to set up
an *unsolvable* problem. Just one little mistake. Frosh like to think
that every math problem is solvable, since mathematics corresponds to
the real world, right? Iím afraid it ainít soÖ 1+1=2, but that doesnít
mean 1 apple + 1 orange = 2 orpples! Assumptions are made in the
translation to the "mathematical model" (like instantaneous changes with
respect to time, absolute points in space, the five Cartesian axioms,
etc. etc. etc.), and in order to make sense of the answer, those
assumptions have to be "undone" at the end. Many thing we learn in
physics class have to do with "fuzzing" the math answers. Significant
figures, error bars, a list of "assumptions made". Chemistry is the
same way. Every serious thermodynamic answer makes assumptions about

In a similar way, *every* axiomatic system makes assumptions. As long
as you are aware of that, theyíre fine. But *awareness* is key.

A=A is only a model, and the map is never the terrain. One must be
prepared to abandon A=A if it gets falsified. But more than that,
actually, one of the first requirement of science and PCR is that the
statement to be analyzed must in principle *be* falsifiable. If it
ainít, itís either a "tautology" or an "axiom" -- and neither of those
are useful at all, for the first is *useless*, and the second is
assumption making. (are there any other possiblities besides these two,
and their combinations?)

Another thing Iíd like to mention, while Iím here: E-Prime. This
language modification kills the entire debate. "is" should no longer be
a part of English, as it misleads millions of otherwise smart people.

Some links for E-Prime:

Now, an Objective universe. A useless concept if ever there was one,
for whatever the universe is, it is, right? Why do we feel the need to
model the *entire* universe. Why does it matter if it exists out there,
if we *know* it exists in here (my little head)? Anyway, all Iím saying
is that even if the universe is all in my head, itís still fun,
meaningful and real, to me. And really, we are selfish creatures at
heart. My universe. Mine! Mine! You canít have it!

But anyway :-)

I want to mention, in passing, that Axiomatic systems rely on "The Power
of Faith" -- you have to believe in your axioms to make them work, just
like you have to believe in God for Him to help you. Thus "The
Objectivist" and "The Fundamentalist" are finally equated.

But really, despite coming across here as in favour of the
falsificationist standpoint, what Iím really a user of both.
Engineering, really, is about using the theories of science *like*
axioms, and building machines from what they tell us. Since I canít do
everything, I have to trust the body of knowledge coming in from
"authority": my Profs. Sure, our classes have "labs", but we donít get
the chance to *verify* everything we learn, let alone try to falsify
it. I have to believe; I have to stand on othersí shoulders, who
themselves stood on othersí shoulders, ad nausium. "Faith" may be a
cardinal Virus sin, but itís necessary. I have to accept "The
Fundamentals of Physics" as "The Word of <Science>" -- and science, like
Brodieís God, is just another part of the human memetic superorganism.


I would also like to thank Prof Tim for his "television art" -- very
insightful!; and Ken McE for the bit on meaning and "nakedness" --

[1] Thought castles. In "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance",
Pirsig says "Phaedrus remembered a line from Thoreau: "You never gain
something but that you lose something." And now he began to see for the
first time the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained power
to understand and rule the world in terms of dialectic truths, had lost.
He had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the
phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of
power and wealth Ė but for this he had exchanged an empire of
understanding of equal magnitude: an understanding of what it is to be a
part of the world, and not an enemy of it." Pg. 372 Those "empires" are
"Thought Castles in the Sky"Ö models, assumptions, understandings
*abstracted* from the world, although (in theory) based upon it.

[2] Actually, this turned into quite a monster. Maybe itís my $2
worth... or perhaps Iím talking through my hat, and Iíve wasted your
time. Maybe it is all meaningless after all. Maybe God does exist.
Maybe... doubt is a cardinal virtue. Perhaps the biggest one.

[3] "God exists"... an unfalsifable theory. Axiomatic, methinks. But
perhaps it's tautological as well. Sort of depends on how you define
it, eh? If God *is* existance (like some Buddhist's believe) then the
statement is the Objectivist "Existance exists": tautological... whereas
if God is a personal God who simply never intervenes ("Christianity")
then His existance is axiomatic: you have to assume it, for you cannot
prove it, and it is unfalsifiable. Thus do I refute thee, God! <VBG>