Non-Euclidean geometry does not prove Euclid was wrong

Possibly the most misapplied data in philosophical discussions is the fact of non-Euclidean geometry. The usual story is that for two thousand years, it was believed that Euclid’s Fifth Postulate was true and self-evident, but then the development of non-Euclidean geometry (or possibly the use of non-Euclidean geometry in a physical theory) proved that Euclid’s Fifth Postulate is not true.

This story has been used to counter the notion of self evidence as a source of knowledge and it has been used against Kant’s notion of space as an intuition. However, the claim is false. The discovery of non-Euclidean geometry had no bearing on on the truth of Euclidean geometry (although it did prove that the Fifth Postulate is independent), and because non-Euclidean geometry has no bearing on the truth of Euclidean geometry, its use in a physical theory, even a true physical theory, also has no bearing on the truth of Euclidean geometry.

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Self Evidence and Self Reference

The notion of self evidence as a justification for knowledge has fallen from its two-and-a-half millennia rule as the beginning point of all science and philosophy to the low point where today it can be casually dismissed as Peter Suber does here:

Self-evidence seems to be a byproduct of culturation or paradigm-influenced perception, not a theory-free anchor by which to judge theories. New discoveries have forced us to unlearn the self-evidence of the commensurability of all numbers, the motionlessness of the earth, the parallel postulate of Euclid, and most recently the naive definition of a set as any collection of any elements.

What I found striking about this list is that although it is very typical of arguments against self evidence, not one of the items in it strongly supports the point. I’ll go over each example except for the one about Euclid which I put in a separate post.

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Can Humans Observe the Quantum?

William C. Bushell and Maureen Seaberg think that human beings can directly “observe” the quantum (hat tip: Instapundit). Their evidence is a collection of experiments exploring the limits of human sensory abilities. Unfortunately, they are equivocating on the meaning of words like “observe”, “see” and “hear”, and this equivocation is then used to inflate the significance of the finding and to justify their pseudo-mystical proposals.

For example, they say that we can “see” light at the level of one quantum (essentially, that means one particle of light–you can’t have any less light than that), but owls and cats can see much lower levels of light than people can. Does that mean that owls and cats can see below the quantum level? Obviously, that makes no sense, so what could this mean? Well, when you “see” light at the quantum level, you don’t really see anything, at most you get a vague impression. What the experiments show is that if you ask people to stare into a device and push a button when they think they detect something, their button presses are a bit better than you would expect from random chance (and let’s note that there is similar statistical evidence for the existence of E.S.P).

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Causality, Free Will, Prognostication, and Fixed Points

John C. Wright explains why time travel is annoying: because it seems to be incompatible with causality and free will. He describes some ways around that particular problem, but the solutions create additional problems.

Prognostication (seeing the future) is different from time travel and can be made compatible with free will and causality. Basically, the idea is this: knowledge of the future effects how the free-willed prognosticator acts, and thus causes changes in the future, which can potentially invalidate what the prognosticator knows about the future.

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How the Age of Exploration Undermined Scholastic Science

The science of the middle ages is called scholastic science. It was based largely on the science of Classical Greece although it was not static and there were various changes and additions over the centuries. Naturally, there were some important conflicts between Catholic doctrine and Greek science, but in the thirteenth century, a Dominican friar named Thomas Aquinas helped to meld Aristotle’s science into Catholic doctrine. By the fifteenth century, Aristotle’s physics was the physical science of Europe.

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The Apostle Paul vs. the Maverick Philosopher

From Romans 1:18-20

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

Bill Vallicella, aka the Maverick Philosopher argues that Paul’s argument here is unsound (if viewed as an argument) because Paul is begging the question. I’ll get to his argument in a moment, but before I do, I’d like to mention the assumption that Paul’s argument is about individual guilt determined by individual action. Most modern Christians would likely agree with this assumption, but a possible alternate reading is that Paul is talking about the corporate guilt of humanity as a whole. For every civilization where we have a history going back more than a couple of thousand years, they did at one time believe in a creator god of some sort.

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The Cause of Godwin’s Law

Godwin’s Law states that if any Internet conversation goes on long enough, the probability that someone will draw a comparison to Hitler approaches 1. In non-pseudo-probabilistic language, that means that people use comparisons to Hitler a lot. I was recently poked for exhibiting Godwin’s Law. At first, I took umbrage–it’s a rather juvenile response to ignore the content of someone’s argument in order to poke them for being … I don’t know, unoriginal? Predictable? Banal?

But it got me to thinking–Godwin’s Law is a purely empirical pattern, like the observation that the stars and planets follow certain predictable paths in the night sky. But most everyone believes that patterns have underlying causes (actually, I claim that everyone believes this unless they are “educated” out of that belief). For example, the patterns in the night sky are due to the law of gravity acting on large extraterrestrial bodies. Can we come up with a similar cause behind Godwin’s Law?

Here is my answer: modern Western society has become so morally fragmented that there are almost no examples left of large-scale bad behavior that almost everyone knows about and agrees on. If you bring up the Reign of Terror, the Armenian Genocide, the Bataan Death March, or the Japanese rape of China, most people won’t know what you are talking about. If you bring up the mass murders of Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot, then a left-winger is likely to offer justifications, and you will not get your point across. If you bring up the Crusades, the American treatment of the Indians, or American involvement in Vietnam, a right-winger is likely to offer justifications.

So, when you find yourself debating a stranger who you know nothing about, and you want to make a point by drawing a comparison to an event everyone knows about and agrees was horrific, then there are only two things that you can reasonably expect the other person to agree on: the Holocaust and the American history of slavery. There are a few Holocaust deniers and slavery justifiers around, but they are so rare as to be inconsequential, so those are your two choices.

This causal explanation for Godwin’s Law suggests a more general law with Godwin’s Law as a corollary:

Gudeman’s Law: In any internet forum, f, involving moral/social/political discussions among relative strangers, there will be a characteristic set, E(f), of Great Evils that are used for comparison and illustration within that group. This set will match the common political leanings of the members of the group.

Godwin’s Corollary: In any internet forum, f, involving moral/social/political discussions among relative strangers, if f is populated mostly by native English speakers, then E(f) will include Hitler. If there are no other political commonalities within the group, then E(f) will include only Hitler.

American Corollary: In any internet forum, f, involving moral/social/political discussions among relative strangers, if f is populated mostly by Americans, then E(f) will include American slavery. If there are no other political commonalities within the group, then the only other member of E(f) will be Hitler.

Fisking Patterico on Trump

Trump has recently threatened to release illegals into sanctuary cities, cities that refuse to enforce immigration laws or help the federal government enforce immigration laws.

Patterico is in high dudgeon over this speech. He writes:

Donald Trump has finally revealed that he does not actually care about the dangers posed to Americans by illegal immigrants. He has revealed that his talk about sanctuary cities — one of the few points on which I agreed with him — was insincere.

The reasoning behind this claim will appear shortly, but let me point out to begin with that Patterico has always been certain that Trump is insincere about practically everything, so his accusation in this particular case is not startling.

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Aristotle and Aliens: Who Knows the Real World?

The planet Pitch is covered in deep warm oceans. It is inhabited with intelligent starfish called Pitchians who wander about the dark depths of their home ocean, feeding on their world’s version of clams and oysters. Pitchians have no sense of sight and no sense of touch, just smell/taste and hearing with a form of echolocation. The Pitchian’s senses do not work at all like ours. If we could get into a Pitchian mind, we would hear nothing but sounds of different pitches and tones and volumes. There would be no sense of space like humans have. Larger objects produce louder echos, softer objects produce fuzzier echos, moving objects produce echoes with a shift and/or a doppler effect, but to the Pitchian, this is just a difference in quality of sound, it does not  give a spatial intuition. It’s sort of like when a human hears two notes played on the same guitar at the same time. We do not sense two different sounds, but one sound with a special quality depending how the two notes harmonize.

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The Hazards of Thomism

Thomism is the unlikely child of Aristotelian science and Catholic theology birthed by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth Century. Thomistic philosophers always sound smart when they talk, and they should because they’ve had a thousand years to develop their act. In my experience, professional Thomist philosophers are careful and clear in their expositions, making sure they they don’t use a difficult concept without first laying it out in a way that modern readers can grasp, but Thomist philosophy in internet comment forums tends to be offered in ways that seem abrupt, impatient, and often scornful.

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