Nate Smith

Knowledge Claims

18 posts in this topic

Because there is no evidence of the existence of God, it seems to me that one should only be able to go so far as claiming, “I do not believe in God.” Yet I think Objectivists make the stronger claim, “There is no God.”

To use an analogy, I have no knowledge or evidence of the existence of someone with the same name as myself living in the same city that I live in. Therefore I am willing to say that “I do not believe there are any other Nate Smith’s in Hartland, WI”. But I am not willing to say that “There are no other Nate Smith’s living in Hartland, WI”.

Just one more:

“I do not believe that Honda makes a pick-up truck” (since I honestly don’t know if they do), but I won’t claim that “Honda does not make a pick-up truck” (because they might).

What is the proper epistemological principle(s) that applies to these situations? Thanks.

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Because there is no evidence of the existence of God, it seems to me that one should only be able to go so far as claiming, “I do not believe in God.”  Yet I think Objectivists make the stronger claim, “There is no God.” 

To use an analogy, I have no knowledge or evidence of the existence of someone with the same name as myself living in the same city that I live in.  Therefore I am willing to say that “I do not believe there are any other Nate Smith’s in Hartland, WI”.  But I am not willing to say that “There are no other Nate Smith’s living in Hartland, WI”. 

Just one more:

“I do not believe that Honda makes a pick-up truck” (since I honestly don’t know if they do), but I won’t claim that “Honda does not make a pick-up truck” (because they might).

What is the proper epistemological principle(s) that applies to these situations?  Thanks.

Objectivism distinguishes between an *arbitrary* claim, and ones which are within the realm of proper reasoning/epistemology (where one can at least classify propositions as possible, probable, and certain, because they are evidence based.)

Based on straightforward empirical evidence, it is easy to imagine the *possibility*, at least, of another Nate Smith in a city, contrary to knowing otherwise. There is nothing in the nature of existence which would contradict such a simple possibility.

One can also posit that Honda *might* make a pickup truck, again contrary to knowing for sure, because Honda makes different kinds of motor vehicles and it's no great stretch to think that they might make that kind of specialized motor vehicle.

But "God" is entirely different. It is a screwed up non-concept from the get-go. First there is no possibility of defining it in any rational terms. "Omniscient/All-powerful being" is the usual fuzzy idea that religious people have. No finite being could either be omniscient or all-powerful, because both violate the most fundamental known law of existence, the Law of Identity. Everything about this non-concept violates every other bit of knowledge in existence. It is about as arbitrary a thought as one can arrive at.

I have mulled over a refinement on the usual Objectivist concept of the arbitrary, in that there are differing levels of arbitrariness. In a sense there's a difference between an arbitrary idea which has seeming plausibility because it appears to consist of a combination of realistic attributes, extended to an impossible degree - and between a truly arbitrary string of nonsense ("weiru wejr poi sdkfj wpoeri", is a literally arbitrary sequence of characters randomly typed on a keyboard and makes no intelligible statement whatsoever. You could call it, in a sense, an arbitrary statement, but in another sense it does not even rise to the level of a statement or proposition.) So, despite the fact that "All knowing/All powerful being" is just as arbitrary as "weiru wejr poi sdkfj wpoeri" conceptually, there is the illusion of something real being discussed because the component concepts have some referent in existence ("being", "knowing", "powerful", "all".)

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Because there is no evidence of the existence of God, it seems to me that one should only be able to go so far as claiming, “I do not believe in God.”  Yet I think Objectivists make the stronger claim, “There is no God.”

Actually, my understanding is that Objectivism makes an even stronger claim, namely that the very concept of God is invalid.

To use an analogy, I have no knowledge or evidence of the existence of someone with the same name as myself living in the same city that I live in.  Therefore I am willing to say that “I do not believe there are any other Nate Smith’s in Hartland, WI”.  But I am not willing to say that “There are no other Nate Smith’s living in Hartland, WI”.

Just one more:

“I do not believe that Honda makes a pick-up truck” (since I honestly don’t know if they do), but I won’t claim that “Honda does not make a pick-up truck” (because they might).

In each of these two instances, the former statement accurately reflects the state of your knowledge, whereas the latter statement does not. With God, his supposed infinite nature is such that he does not qualify even to be considered real or not.

What is the proper epistemological principle(s) that applies to these situations?  Thanks.

Most generally, that you always clearly assess and identify the state of your knowledge in regard to whatever issues concern you. The arbitrary has no epistemological significance. See ITOE and OPAR for an in-depth analysis of what this entails.

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[...] "God" [...] is a screwed up non-concept from the get-go.

Generally monotheist religionists don't hold that "God" is a concept (in the Objectivist sense of a mental integration of two or more units of a thing). "God" is a proper name, they hold. I too hold "God" to be a proper name -- for a singular mental entity the monotheists have imagined.

Compare "God" to the concept "unicorn." It refers to two or more imaginary mental entities, though ones composed of elements of sense-perceptible reality (horns and horses). The "characteristics" of God are not elements of reality but are supposed to be "beyond" it, as you note later in your post.

By contrast to the usual floating, strictly monotheist idea of "God," polytheists and henotheists -- such as the ancient Greeks and Romans -- did have a concept of "god." A valid concept? No, not outside the realm of imagination. But at least the characteristics of gods were drawn from reality, mostly. Such gods were like men in many ways, but with powers beyond man while still being limited.

Of course, there are Christians who believe that "God" is the name of a very old but very muscular man who sits on a throne in heaven. Around him are his son, Jesus, as well as the angels, and -- vaguely hovering in the background -- the Holy Spirit. These Christians "see" their God as henotheist pagan Greeks saw Zeus: Basically a man with really big powers, surrounded by other man-like entities, and frequently fighting with less powerful, but seemingly indestructible opponents -- Satan, for the Christians.

A tentative lesson I would draw from this array of gods is that the believers impose their own epistemology on their idea of god. The more rationalist the believers are, the more floating is their idea of God or gods. The more empiricist the believers are, the more concrete-bound is their idea of God or gods.

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Generally monotheist religionists don't hold that "God" is a concept (in the Objectivist sense of a mental integration of two or more units of a thing). "God" is a proper name, they hold. I too hold "God" to be a proper name -- for a singular mental entity the monotheists have imagined.

[...]

A tentative lesson I would draw from this array of gods is that the believers impose their own epistemology on their idea of god. The more rationalist the believers are, the more floating is their idea of God or gods. The more empiricist the believers are, the more concrete-bound is their idea of God or gods.

Very interesting analysis as usual, thanks.

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So I think I can summarize the previous comments as such:

The correct statement given my knowledge of Hondas is that “I do not believe that Honda makes a pick-up truck”.

I may make the stronger statement about (the Christian) God, “God does not exist” because of the impossible attributes assigned to him. Because his existence would require a contradiction, the stronger claim is justified.

Now what if I were to meet someone who claimed to believe in (a non-Christian) god, and when that person was asked to describe what they believed in, what was described involved no contradictions*? Would I then only be able to make the claim that “I don’t believe in your god, not due to any contradictions, but simply because I have no evidence for its existence”?

(* I admit that when I suppose this possibility I am not asserting much in the positive sense. Eliminating all of the contradictory attributes of God may not leave much left. If that is the case, then of course this is a bad example.)

As another example, how do these principles apply to Unicorns or Pegasi? Or if someone says they believe in ghosts, what claims can we make? On what grounds am I able to claim that neither exist? Am I only able to claim that I don’t believe in them?

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Now what if I were to meet someone who claimed to believe in (a non-Christian) god, and when that person was asked to describe what they believed in, what was described involved no contradictions*?

Drawing from your own experience with this situation, could you offer an example description?

As another example, how do these principles apply to Unicorns or Pegasi?

Could you describe the circumstances -- and therefore context -- in which these problems have arisen in your life? Knowing what you are dealing with would make it easier -- at least for me -- to know how to respond.

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Generally monotheist religionists don't hold that "God" is a concept (in the Objectivist sense of a mental integration of two or more units of a thing). "God" is a proper name, they hold.]

What is the appropriate term for the mental unit represented by a proper name? If I do not have a "concept" of Ayn Rand, or a "concept" of, maybe, my favorite chair, what should I say that I "have" in this context?

...and -- vaguely hovering in the background -- the Holy Spirit...

...and frequently fighting with less powerful, but seemingly indestructible opponents -- Satan, for the Christians...

LOL Those are very humorous mental images. Thanks for that! :D

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So I think I can summarize the previous comments as such:

The correct statement given my knowledge of Hondas is that “I do not believe that Honda makes a pick-up truck”. 

The correct statement given your knowledge of Hondas is "I don't know whether Honda makes a pick-up truck or not."

I may make the stronger statement about (the Christian) God, “God does not exist” because of the impossible attributes assigned to him.  Because his existence would require a contradiction, the stronger claim is justified.

I say that God does not exist because I have no evidence to the contrary. That one person or a multitude says otherwise isn't proof of the positive statement "God Exists". The multitude used to believe the earth was flat. Since consciousness does not rule the universe, their belief didn't make the earth flat.

Now what if I were to meet someone who claimed to believe in (a non-Christian) god, and when that person was asked to describe what they believed in, what was described involved no contradictions*?  Would I then only be able to make the claim that “I don’t believe in your god, not due to any contradictions, but simply because I have no evidence for its existence”? 

(* I admit that when I suppose this possibility I am not asserting much in the positive sense.  Eliminating all of the contradictory attributes of God may not leave much left.  If that is the case, then of course this is a bad example.)

As another example, how do these principles apply to Unicorns or Pegasi?  Or if someone says they believe in ghosts, what claims can we make?  On what grounds am I able to claim that neither exist?  Am I only able to claim that I don’t believe in them?

First of all, a concept of god that holds no contradictions with reality would have to be some kind of Spinozistic pantheism, which means that god is everything. In such a case, what need is there for god? Unless you are stating that one of the attributes of the universe is a consciousness, which would be required if you are saying anything different from the statement "Existence exists", the concept of "god" is meaningless. If you are attributing consciousness to existence, then I would want something that shows this to be a valid statement.

In every case you mention, however, nothing more than an assertion is being made, whether you are talking about the existence of gods, God, unicorns, flying horses, or ghosts. One takes no notice of assertions. The rule is the Onus of Proof: The onus of proof is on he who asserts the positive.

In cases where someone is asserting something they believe on faith, I remind them that faith is not an argument for anything except the absence of evidence. If it were otherwise, they would not believe on the basis of their faith, but would present the evidence underlying their belief.

It is my experience that having any kind of discussion about any belief based on faith is a non-starter. What you are discussing are personal feelings, not facts of reality. You cannot argue with someone's feelings.

.........

"To rest one's case on faith means to concede that reason is on the side of one's enemies -- that one has no rational arguments to offer."

Ayn Rand

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What is the appropriate term for the mental unit represented by a proper name?

Depending on the context, I would say "idea" (in its most general use) or "image" (if I am thinking of what something looks like).

Your question is an intriguing one. I realize, now that you have asked, that an idea for a thing that has a proper name is like a concept in at least two important respects. First, both are mental entities. Second, a concept (as a single mental entity) subsumes many propositions (statements). For example, the concept "chair" contains, "Its purpose is to provide a place to sit on." Likewise, my idea of John Smith, contains the proposition, "He is a carpenter," or, "He is five feet, ten inches tall."

I wonder, what are other differences and similarities between (1) a concept, and (2) an idea which subsumes a thing which has a proper name? Are they the same except for the process of their formation -- in the case of a concept, a mental integration of two or more units isolated and defined by certain characteristics?

P. S. -- Where in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology does Ayn Rand discuss concepts as subsuming or implicitly containing propositions about the units integrated? I cannot find the passage.

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What is the appropriate term for the mental unit represented by a proper name?

Depending on the context, I would say "idea" (in its most general use) or "image" (if I am thinking of what something looks like).

Your question is an intriguing one. I realize, now that you have asked, that an idea for a thing that has a proper name is like a concept in at least two important respects. First, both are mental entities. Second, a concept (as a single mental entity) subsumes many propositions (statements). For example, the concept "chair" contains, "Its purpose is to provide a place to sit on." Likewise, my idea of John Smith, contains the proposition, "He is a carpenter," or, "He is five feet, ten inches tall."

I do not think that any of this is correct. As I understand Miss Rand in ITOE, a word denotes a concept and a concept denotes the concretes it subsumes. Concepts subsume concretes, not propositions. Proposition are statements that themselves contain and relate concepts. And, a proper name is a word which directly denotes a concrete.

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Depending on the context, I would say "idea" (in its most general use) or "image" (if I am thinking of what something looks like).

Your question is an intriguing one. I realize, now that you have asked, that an idea for a thing that has a proper name is like a concept in at least two important respects. First, both are mental entities. Second, a concept (as a single mental entity) subsumes many propositions (statements). For example, the concept "chair" contains, "Its purpose is to provide a place to sit on." Likewise, my idea of John Smith, contains the proposition, "He is a carpenter," or, "He is five feet, ten inches tall."

I do not think that any of this is correct. As I understand Miss Rand in ITOE, a word denotes a concept and a concept denotes the concretes it subsumes. Concepts subsume concretes, not propositions. Proposition are statements that themselves contain and relate concepts. And, a proper name is a word which directly denotes a concrete.

[bold added]

From Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd edition, p. 178, Ayn Rand says:

There is a passage in the book where I said every concept stands for a number of implicit propositions.

I have not been able to find the passage she refers to. From p. 179:

Prof. B: But wouldn't you agree that implicit in every concept are all the propositions stating all the facts [a child] needed to form that concept?

AR: That's right.

Stating ideas in one's own words has a pitfall: using the wrong words can lead to confusion either in one's own mind or in each reader's mind. I said "subsumes" and "contains." Ayn Rand says "stands for." As usual, Ayn Rand's wording is best.

Most importantly, I failed to make explicit what I thought was implicit: A concept implicitly stands for ("contains, subsumes") a number of propositions. I thought that was obvious when I said a concept "contains" propositions. Obviously it wasn't obvious. Now I know.

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I do not think that any of this is correct.

[bold added.]

One of the things I said was that concepts are mental entities. Is that incorrect?

As I understand Miss Rand in ITOE, a word denotes a concept and a concept denotes the concretes it subsumes. Concepts subsume concretes, not propositions. Proposition are statements that themselves contain and relate concepts. And, a proper name is a word which directly denotes a concrete.

[bold added for emphasis.]

One thing, among others, that I have learned from this discussion is that "to denote" means "to name."

I agree with most of your summary. However, concepts do "stand for" -- Does that mean the same as "subsume"? -- propositions. The relationship between concepts and the propositions that they stand for is an implicit one.

What I would like to discuss further is the relationship between a proper name and an external concrete. Epistemologically that is a direct relationship. However, when I say to myself, "Marianne" (the name of a close friend), at the same time I have in mind an image of her. In fact, I cannot think or say "Marianne" without that image being present, at least fleetingly. Further, that word stands for a set of implicit propositions: Marianne has auburn hair. Marianne has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Marianne works hard and relaxes like a cat.

Here is another example. When I say "Patricia," I again have an image in mind immediately. And likewise the name stands for a set of implicit propositions. However, Patricia died in a mountain climbing accident. She does not exist. Only my memory of her exists -- as an image and as a set of implicit propositions.

My question then is: What is the cognitive status of those names and images? Can a proper name stand for only the concrete, or, in the absence of the external concrete, can it stand for a mental entity -- such as an image and implicit propositions?

I know the name of Patricia, the image of Patricia, and the set of propositions about her all exist -- as mental entities of some sort. Does only the name have epistemological status?

I don't think so, based on introspection, but I do have an uneasy inkling that I may be conflating epistemological issues with psychological phenomena.

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From Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd edition, p. 178, Ayn Rand says:
There is a passage in the book where I said every concept stands for a number of implicit propositions.

I have not been able to find the passage she refers to....

I think she was referring to this:

"Every concept stands for a number of propositions. A concept identifying perceptual concretes stands for some implicit propositions; but on the higher levels of abstraction, a concept stands for chains and paragraphs and pages of explicit propositions referring to complex factual data." (ITOE, p. 48)

Stating ideas in one's own words has a pitfall: using the wrong words can lead to confusion either in one's own mind or in each reader's mind. I said "subsumes" and "contains." Ayn Rand says "stands for." As usual, Ayn Rand's wording is best.

Most importantly, I failed to make explicit what I thought was implicit: A concept implicitly stands for ("contains, subsumes") a number of propositions. I thought that was obvious when I said a concept "contains" propositions. Obviously it wasn't obvious. Now I know.

More generally, "subsumes" in the context you originally stated implies integration of units, whereas "stands for" as used by Ayn Rand in the reference means something else. In the section of ITOE which was quoted Miss Rand spoke of implicit propositions in the context of concept formation and definitional issues, not as subsuming all general facts related to the concept. This is one reason I objected to your "Likewise, my idea of John Smith, contains the proposition, 'He is a carpenter,' or, 'He is five feet, ten inches tall'."

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I do not think that any of this is correct.

[bold added.]

One of the things I said was that concepts are mental entities. Is that incorrect?

No, of course not. Sorry if my "any" was too broad; I meant it to apply to the two main points.

However, concepts do "stand for" -- Does that mean the same as "subsume"? -- propositions.

No, they do not mean the same. As mentioned in my previous post, the propositions are neither subsumed by nor are they contained in the concept. The concept is the material from which the propositions may eventually be formed by a proper consciousness, which is the meaning and significance of "stand for" related to "implicit proposition." But the meaning of "subsumes" is that the propositions are integrated as units under the concept, which is much different.

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Drawing from your own experience with this situation, could you offer an example description?

Could you describe the circumstances -- and therefore context -- in which these problems have arisen in your life? Knowing what you are dealing with would make it easier -- at least for me -- to know how to respond.

Unfortunately, I don't have any examples to give. I'm not basing this off any particular experience. I can just imagine a Christian who sees the contradictions slowly amend what they claim god to be. I'm not sure what that would become though (there were some good comments earlier in the thread addressing this). As I mentioned, I don't have anything positive to assert, just a belief in a non-contradictory god. For this reason, the unicorn or ghost examples may work better for my question.

So I think I can summarize the previous comments as such:

The correct statement given my knowledge of Hondas is that “I do not believe that Honda makes a pick-up truck”. 

The correct statement given your knowledge of Hondas is "I don't know whether Honda makes a pick-up truck or not."

If I am not mistaken, these are both correct claims given the context. Would you agree?

I say that God does not exist because I have no evidence to the contrary.

I have trouble with this position. If this is the case, why don't you claim that there are no other Nate Smith's in Hartland, WI? You have no evidence to the contrary.

I think the point you made about the onus of proof was an important one. Without the proof supporting the positive claim, it is arbitary. If I meet someone who claims to believe in ghosts, I ask for their reasons. If there are none (that are rational), I would assert that "I don't believe in ghosts" because to do so would be arbitrary. But assuming that there are no contradictions in the concept of ghost, I don't see how one could make the claim, there are no ghosts.

I am content to live with this as the correct principle, but I would have to admit that I can't be as bold as I might have been in claiming that things like unicorns or leprechauns don't exist.

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I just noticed a separate thread on this forum which is relevant to this one. It's brief, but the point is that arbitrary claims are neither true nor false.

http://forums.4aynrandfans.com/index.php?showtopic=1578

Given this, the claim that "unicorns exist" is not false, just dismissible. I think this implies that it would be incorrect to claim "unicorns don't exist". One should just dismiss it as arbitrary.

This leads me to another question, about making negative claims (i.e. A claim that 'X is not true', where X is some proposition). I can think of two ways in which negative claims can be validated:

1) If I can show that the proposition X would lead to some contradiction, then I could properly assert that "X is not true". The God example would fit in this category.

2) If I prove that some alternative to X (and also mutually exclusive) is true, then X must be false. For example, if someone claimed that the sky is red, I wouldn't dismiss that claim as arbitrary. I would say, 'No, the sky is blue, and since it can't be both at the same time and in the same respect, the sky is not red'. (A or not-A)

Are these the primary two ways in which one can 'prove' a negative?

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I can think of two ways in which negative claims can be validated:

1) If I can show that the proposition X would lead to some contradiction, then I could properly assert that "X is not true".  The God example would fit in this category.

2) If I prove that some alternative to X (and also mutually exclusive) is true, then X must be false.  For example, if someone claimed that the sky is red, I wouldn't dismiss that claim as arbitrary.  I would say, 'No, the sky is blue, and since it can't be both at the same time and in the same respect, the sky is not red'.  (A or not-A)

Are not both of these examples of contradiction?

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