Certainty

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains:
Knatz.com / Teaching / Society / Social Epistemology /

Knatz.com already comes out loud and clear in agreement with Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine’s challenge to scientific certainty. (See Prigogine is Right!, 1998.)

Ilya Prigogine
thanx wikimedia

Today I want to emphasize a Ludwig Wittgenstein comment on the subject: from a pamphlet of the same title: Certainty.

Wittgenstein asks how for example a man in the street could be certain that he had never been to the moon. Ask the subject:

“Have you ever been to the moon?”
“No.”
“Are you sure?”
Continuing to paraphrase Wittgenstein, not quote: “Yes.”
“Are you certain?”
“Yes.”
“So certain that God himself couldn’t prove otherwise to you?”

There: that should pause any of us. Wittgenstein goes on (pk still paraphrasing): have you never slept? Could not some demon have carried you to the moon and back while you slept? Have you been perfectly conscious every moment of your life? no gaps?

Cut to another perennial Knatz.com tack: The legend has it that King Oedipus sought the murderer of his predecessor on the throne, Oedipus himself being an abandoned child, left by those delinquent in their commission to murder him, but raised as a prince in a neighboring country. In his young masculinity he had fought a traveler for right of way and killed him: continuing right on about his own travels. When a country with a vacant throne calls for a king, Oedipus is sent to them. He marries the widowed queen and rules. Now he’s looking for the regicide.

Oedipus
Oedipus At Colonus, Giroust

“Tell us, oh King, have you ever committed regicide?” “Certainly not.”

But of course it turns out, Oedipus being among the first to see, that the killer of his predecessor was indeed he: the king had been the snooty traveler on the road years before.

The things one feels absolutely certain about are never true.
Oscar Wilde

Oedipus had not inquired of his combatant’s identity: just vanquished him. Neither had the fallen king inquired after Oedipus’ identity. (And had he, Oedipus wouldn’t have known the true answer!) (And wouldn’t have known that he didn’t know it.)

Now: imagine the question asked differently: “Have you ever killed a king?” “No.” “Have you ever killed anyone?” “Of course. I’m a grown male, am I not? Raised as a prince, have I not been? Of course I’ve killed men.” “Where any of them a king?” “Er, not that I know of.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. Not that I know of is a very different answer from No.

Clearly common sense rejects Wittgenstein’s allowance for absurd possibilities. But common sense is proved wrong time after time. Given enough time and enough population all sorts of absurdities will happen. In the case of Oedipus, the story has it that the gods had destined Oedipus to kill his father and to marry his mother. The royal parents are told the prediction. They seek to avert their fate by killing their son. But they hire a softie to do the job. The compassionate assignee spares the boy, leaving him out of town. Some other softie finds the kid, recognizes his garments to be of quality, and gives him into the adopted care of the neighboring royalty: previously childless. He grows up proud, licensed: and kills the first guy to cross him: his biological father.

The Greeks drew all sorts of theological and existential lessons from their story: can’t circumvent fate for one. But I don’t care about that. I mention Oedipus again to ask the following in this context:

Have you ever killed a god?

Has your group? the group you support with congruent behavior? by paying taxes? by allowing yourself to be drafted: to school? into the army?

Common sense will say no, will be certain.

Vary the question:

Have you ever killed anyone?
Has your group?

We’re sent to Sunday School young so we’ll learn a few myths, a little theology, inherit the group’s superstitions, while we’re too young to make any sense of it. The Greeks would deny that they’d ever killed a god, assuming that they’d recognize the god: and behave. But Christianity tells a different kind of story: the God comes humbly; veiled as a human; apprentices as a carpenter; preaches wearing a simple robe … Furthermore, that God, before he’s killed, says that “the King” shall say, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren,

Ye have done it unto me.

Now: once again:

Have you ever killed a god?

Every day!

(How about “every minute”?)

2006 01 18 I don’t believe that the quest for certainty is genetic, I don’t believe it is natural or was ever inevitable: until agricultrure produced excess food on finite land: land which fallout from the excess food soon demanded be expanded. I believe that certainty is an eidolon of kleptocratic civilization.

The hominid foodgatherer turns over a leaf: maybe there’s a beetle under it. Mmm, protein. The family walking the grasslands is cautious: you can never be sure where danger, or opportunity will appear. Entering the wood though they’ll be “twice” as cautious: little opportunity, lots of danger.

(If the hominids had had flamethrowers, would they have sterilized everything rather than chance stepping near a snake?)

It’s centralized powers, hierarchical powers, that need certainty: how many bussels of wheat will we produce next year? What will we have to pay for oil?

All sorts of things spin from that. The gatherer-hunter, seeing a thicket that may conceal game, or a predator, may probe the thicket with a spear: or throw the spear from a distance first before probing by hand. Similarly, troops thinking a building may conceal guerillas, may torch the building just to be sure. Sure there may be kids in the building, but which is more iimportant? kids? or me and my men? Ah, but afterwards, headquarters, the press …, you may be sure will be sure that the torched building concealed terrorists.

All that relates to why the more kleptocratic the culture, the more omnipotent their god will be.

The more kleptocratic the culture,
the more omnipotent the God will be.

Surprise!

On another occasion I scribbled something related:
Christians know what’s going to happen. Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats. Evil will be defeated; Good will triumph. For ever.

No surprise there.

The science of old betrayed the same kind of hubris. Scientists too wanted predictive certainty: in advance. Mathematicians too thought they could prove things: steam-rolled those who would question their confidence. But these days scientists like Bateson distinguish between predictable and unpredictable sequences: convergent, divergent. Now the faith is that the unpredictable, the random, will never become predictable: it won’t matter how much more we learn: God can’t say exactly how the glass will shatter. That it will shatter, any of us can say; but exactly in what pattern? at which instant or at what temperature the water will boil? No.

Christians believe that their church knows just what God is going to do. Fine, so long as God is controlled by that church. But does either the church or its proprietary God know what god is going to do? or evolution? or pk?

Well, pk can’t do much: he’s never been allowed the resources (especially not that of communication, of reaching response). But the universe? The universe has all the resources: at least it does if you include in the “universe” all of the universes: Sentiens (/Pathologica), Persona … resources not even guessable yet.

Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine knows that he doesn’t know. He also knows, better than most, what he does know.

Note: I half paraphrase, half quote the King James red letters.

Social Epistemology

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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