On Probabilistic Thinking

· Personal Investigations

*Originally written, July 2011

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. ~ I Corinthians 13.12


Philosophers have long accepted the concepts of both justifiable knowledge (epistemic) and experiential/acquaintance knowledge. Experience is real and certain beyond external debate, despite the impossibility of logical justification. “I have a headache” has no justification and cannot be debated. It is just true. However, we humans lead such complex lives that simple experience cannot fully equip our minds. We cannot just experience something without rationalizing, analyzing, and formulating that experience into the larger schema of our existence. We strive to understand the way of things, to understand ourselves and how we relate to the world around us. Since we do not wish to threaten our mental and psychological security by basing our understanding (and thus our relations) upon anything less than what is actually true, we place the highest priority upon establishing a satisfactory knowledge of at least what we think is truth. We observe, we experience, we rationalize, and we formulate all that we can gather about this truth and attempt to reduce it into principles of truth that we can easily grasp in our minds, giving us that sense of certainty about ourselves.

However, we humans have a serious cognitive problem ~ we are limited by what we can know in several ways. Firstly, we are limited by the fact that without having the ability for a knowledge of universal relation (state of omniscience, see my essay ‘Ascension: Climbing The Ladder Of Knowledge’), we cannot be certain that our accepted ideas about truth are accurate. We can make predictions about truth, hypotheses that can be tested and tried under all known circumstances, but since all known circumstances in itself is dependent upon our knowledge, it is still only a prediction of what we believe to be actual, independent truth. Secondly, we are limited by the fact that we are subject to time, whereas universal truth is time-independent. (The universal nature of truth can be pictured as a common thread that permeates all existence throughout all time. See my essay ‘On Existence.’) As humans, we cannot possibly know what has not yet actually occurred in time. By these, we are limited to only speculation and prediction of the actual truth.

Speculation and Prediction

Since we are cognitively limited in our attempts to know for certain the actual truth, and since our complex minds and imaginations often demand that our reach exceed our mental grasp, we have developed a mental tool that ‘bridges’ that limitation in an attempt to establish the boundaries of actual truth ~ probability. Of course, the term ‘probability’ usually brings images of mathematics to mind, and in a sense, what I am about to say is nothing more than mathematical probability. But rather than consciously crunching numbers in order to come out on the blackjack table, we often subconsciously analyze situations probabilistically in order to predict, or know, an outcome. Just to start our day, we predict when the sun will rise, we predict when we will need to leave in order to arrive at work on time, and we predict that our work day will proceed as usual based upon one simple principle ~ that’s the way things normally happen. Sparing the non-mathematicians a detailed description of normality, suffice it to say that ‘normal’ is simply what occurs at a high frequency, a high enough probability that we can depend upon it and mesh our lives around it.

But knowledge of the normal is not always knowledge of the actual truth. We may have forgotten that Daylight Savings Time occurred while we slept. We may encounter unusually heavy traffic on our way to work that causes us to be late. We might get to work and find the boss waiting to fire/promote/recommission us. We might find an infinite number of unusual or abnormal actual circumstances that cause our truth prediction model to fail. It fails because we do not have the ability to know universal, actual truth. Even for the most experienced among us, our knowledge of the actual is extremely small, limited to the things we have experienced and acquainted (more on this in my essay ‘On Acquaintance and Experience,’ pending completion). This is the point where philosophical skeptics would give a unanimous “Aye!” and leave the debate with a newly-earned sense of victory. They would say that, though truth exists, it is not at all possible for us to achieve a knowledge of it.

So is this to say that we have no knowledge at all? Certainly not. What we have is a reduced form of knowledge ~ knowledge of a principle. Logically speaking, we can indeed defend that we have knowledge of a principle that may or may not follow actual truth. We can know what our normal work day is like, even if, due to abnormal circumstances, that is not what actually happens. Our knowledge of that principle is relatively dependable, if not certain. This knowledge of the principle may in fact be so dependable and accurately predictable of the actual that technologies of incredible design can function, technologies such as the electron microscope, which employs an immensely small probability of electron tunneling effect and which employs it well enough to give representations of particles on an atomic level. As in this case, knowledge of the principle can demonstrate seemingly miraculous certainty and ability. Yet it is still not knowledge of the actual. No one can say with certainty that any one electron will or will not tunnel at a given time. Knowledge of each electron’s behavior is dependent upon an omniscient knowledge of what actually happens, a knowledge that is beyond our capacity to imagine, much less grasp. Because of our human limitations, we must rely upon reduced, fathomable forms of knowledge that enable us to make predictions about the actual truth and that make our lives livable.

Boundaries Of Truth: The Actual And The Principle

Principles are our way of grasping the otherwise unattainable universal truth. So far, I have shown how this process of simplification and reduction is necessary for the human mind, but there remains a pivotal question: Is it accurate to say that having a grasp of reduced principles is adequate to completely grasp complex forms of actual truth? Hopefully at this point, the answer should be an obvious “No,” shown earlier by the concept of unusual circumstances. Yet we humans still attempt to grasp as much of the truth as we can. The means we use are by attempting to establish various forms of ‘boundaries’ upon truth, rendering it in ‘chunks’ or portions that can be grasped and justified by priorly justified portions. That is what the study of epistemology is all about.

But if these portions are dissected on the basis of principle rather than actual, can we say that what we have is actual truth? Not at all, for all we can say is that we have an estimate of truth based upon probability that can come in varying degrees. So our next step is to attempt a refinement of our probability in order to establish the boundaries of actual truth by the process of elimination, leaving the highest probability of actual truth as the result. We teach and test based upon this very principle: Students are tested in greater and greater degrees, and in theory, only those who truly know the material in question will pass the test. This is a simple implementation of conditionals, “If…, then…” that make certain outcomes more improbable unless the conditionals are met. We thus attempt to show what is true by designing a “fool-proof” system of these conditionals.

These conditionals, however, are entirely based upon principles and probability. This approach attempts to ‘bind’ the complex (actual) by use of the reduced (principle) forms. That is why absolutes (Aristotle’s First Principles) cannot be epistemically bound ~ the bonds are weaker than the beast. Epistemic approaches work well within the realm of principle, a realm where principles can be justified by prior principles while allowing for the error of probability. But when regression presents its inevitably mortal blow to epistemology, we are left questioning everything we know. Like De Carte’s cogito, ergo sum (I think; therefore, I am), we can only be certain of what we experience by acquaintance ~ not of what we predict by justified extrapolation.

This is not to say that we have no means of attaining knowledge, as a Skeptic would claim. It is simply to say that we must, as fallible humans, realize that ultimate truth is beyond our limited grasp. We can see and understand these reduced principles, which do indeed render to us a rudimentary picture of truth, but we see through a glass, darkly. For us, there will always be unusual and unexpected events and circumstances that make us question ourselves. But apart from our extremely limited number of experiences of the actual, principles are all we have by which to live and learn.

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