Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

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Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby Дерсу Узала » Thu May 27, 2010 1:52 am UTC

On the danger of “fundamentalism:” is there any potential for constructive debate? Unquestioning faith in a belief system (for the purpose of this question, I limit myself to mean with respect to text-based religious belief) seems to exclude the possibility of authentic discussion. But, intercultural dialogue is so important it must be striven for. Is this an idle hope?

My main curiosity in the discussion of the difficulties of interpretation is in the ramifications of various interpretations on culture, and vice versa. Faith in scripture has been used throughout history to justify cultural decisions (lawmaking etc.), and cultural surroundings surely impact textual interpretation as well. Since an undeniable aspect of intercultural relations in this period in history is in dealing with fundamentalist movements, is it possible to make positive change in relations without mutual cognizance of the inherent uncertainty of any interpretation? From a philosophical standpoint, to what extent is an openness to other interpretations of one’s holy text necessary in allowing dialogue (or, at least, an openness to the possibility that there exist other interpretations)?

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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby Buddha » Thu May 27, 2010 2:24 am UTC

Absolute faith is mutually exclusive to constructive discussion. If you want to discuss something, you have to be willing to accept that your views on it might be wrong.
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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby guenther » Thu May 27, 2010 3:41 am UTC

I'd say the answer is more complicated than "open minds are better" or "closed minds are better". And I bet it's even more complicated than some optimal point between them. At the society level, I suspect we need both open and closed minded individuals. Sometimes we are wise to adhere to our principals, but when those principals cause us short-term pain, the open-minded folk will seek out less painful alternatives while the closed minds will doggedly stick to their guns. But other times it's imperative that we progress beyond outdated cultural habits, so the more progressive minds lead the way while the more conservative ones drag us down. In the big picture, I think a diverse mix is important.

At the individual level, I think we should be open-minded to other people's perspectives, but there are times when we need to strongly adhere to principals.
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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby Gelsamel » Thu May 27, 2010 4:02 am UTC

guenther wrote:I'd say the answer is more complicated than "open minds are better" or "closed minds are better". And I bet it's even more complicated than some optimal point between them. At the society level, I suspect we need both open and closed minded individuals. Sometimes we are wise to adhere to our principals, but when those principals cause us short-term pain, the open-minded folk will seek out less painful alternatives while the closed minds will doggedly stick to their guns. But other times it's imperative that we progress beyond outdated cultural habits, so the more progressive minds lead the way while the more conservative ones drag us down. In the big picture, I think a diverse mix is important.

At the individual level, I think we should be open-minded to other people's perspectives, but there are times when we need to strongly adhere to principals.


I agree absolutely. While I think on an individual level one shouldn't ignore argument and evidence, on a societal level I think it takes all kinds... literally all kinds. We need all types of opinions and views, including those fundamentalist and possibly abhorrent ones, so that we can discuss and progress properly as a society. That being said, if society itself (as opposed to individuals) lapses into a fundamentalist view then that is bad... we need society itself to be receptive to change at all times, but we need a full spectrum of ideas coming from within the people themselves in order to find the best direction to push society in.
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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby BlackSails » Thu May 27, 2010 4:17 am UTC

Open mindedness is good, but its possible to be so open minded that your brain falls out.

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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby Iv » Thu May 27, 2010 8:23 am UTC

Also keep in mind that absolute faith is a very rare condition. The most extremist/fanatical persons usually did not spend much time thinking about their belief system. Attacking it from a logical point of view is often hard when the person doesn't appreciate the value of rational/logical thinking, but it can really shake the faith of someone to show that an atheist family can be caring and loving.

Fanatics are often armored against rational thinking but too often we forget that they also believe in obvious lies so easy to disprove without logical arguments. A lot of fanatics are under 20. That really says something.

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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby BlackSails » Thu May 27, 2010 1:47 pm UTC

In response to felstaff:

I am completely serious. It is good to consider other people's point of view, but not when their point of view is patently absurd. There is no reason to be so open minded that you seriously consider astrology, homeopathy or female circumcision. One of the main arguments of alternative medicine witch doctors is "you are just being closed minded!"

There was a case in India where the mayor of some town had the slums on one side of his office razed so he could enter from the east, since his advisors told him it would be better for him. Being that open minded that you knock down people's homes on the advice of astrologers causes serious damage to people and their lives.

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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby Роберт » Thu May 27, 2010 1:57 pm UTC

BlackSails wrote:In response to felstaff:

I am completely serious. It is good to consider other people's point of view, but not when their point of view is patently absurd.
But if you don't consider it at all, how do you know it is patently absurd? There are things, like quantum physics and the theory of relativity, that certainly seem absurd at first glance.

There does need to be some sort of filtering function to decide how much consideration need be given certain ideas, including things such as known reliability of the source. But to not give an idea any consideration at all makes it impossible to have a good guess whether or not the idea has potential merit.
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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby Indon » Thu May 27, 2010 2:01 pm UTC

Building a bit on what guenther's saying, I don't think open-mindedness or closed-mindedness should really come into things.

If you have the ability to percieve and understand reality, and the introspectiveness to understand when you might not be percieving or understanding it correctly, then you should be able to determine the optimal course of action in discussions, including self-evaluation.

That is to say, we should not occupy a place on a simplistic continuum, but apply a set of skills properly. A failure to be 'open' or 'closed' enough in mind is simply a failure to apply one of these skills.
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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby Дерсу Узала » Thu May 27, 2010 6:21 pm UTC

A lot of subjective analysis is required in order to make a judgement on whether any point of view is "better." The parties must first be in agreement about the basis from which one is building a definition of "better," in any case. And if the basis itself is the subject of discussion, no agreement can be reached, except in the trivial case. Therefore, I discourage judgements of this kind as ultimately irrelevant.

Without making such a categorization, I would like to ponder whether it would be possible to communicate in terms of faith without referencing the certain assumptions about absolute truth which a fundamentalist would unequivocally judge for "correctness".

My opinion is that without the humility necessary to admit that one is uncertain, no meaningful communication can be reached, because every statement may be judged in an absolute manner—whether it is in agreement or disagreement with a certain maxim or other. The problem with fundamental confidence (in the veracity and unicity of a certain interpretation of a holy text, for example) is that one who bases his logic in such absolute definition disqualifies reëvaluation, and thereby bars the execution of the processes of logical evaluation. I would like to be persuaded that I am wrong, and that there is logical room for progressive exchange even between two differing fundamental perspectives (because this would be meaningful in the context of inter-cultural and inter-religious communication on a large scale) but this seems to be unfortunately contradictory, does it not?

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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby somebody already took it » Thu May 27, 2010 9:07 pm UTC

If you have the ability to percieve and understand reality, and the introspectiveness to understand when you might not be percieving or understanding it correctly, then you should be able to determine the optimal course of action in discussions, including self-evaluation.

What is being optimized by the optimal course of action in discussions?
Дерсу Узала wrote:My opinion is that without the humility necessary to admit that one is uncertain, no meaningful communication can be reached, because every statement may be judged in an absolute manner—whether it is in agreement or disagreement with a certain maxim or other. The problem with fundamental confidence (in the veracity and unicity of a certain interpretation of a holy text, for example) is that one who bases his logic in such absolute definition disqualifies reëvaluation, and thereby bars the execution of the processes of logical evaluation. I would like to be persuaded that I am wrong, and that there is logical room for progressive exchange even between two differing fundamental perspectives (because this would be meaningful in the context of inter-cultural and inter-religious communication on a large scale) but this seems to be unfortunately contradictory, does it not?

What are the properties of communication that is being classified as meaningful or progressive?
Also, what are the opposing ideas that form the contradiction proposed in the final sentence?

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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby Headshrinker » Thu May 27, 2010 9:48 pm UTC

Being open minded doesn’t mean that you believe everything, i am open minded about astrology, I take their idea that stars move millions of light-years just because of earth events i think about it (not for very long I might add) and decide that they don’t. If I was being close minded i would reject it without any thought.

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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby Indon » Fri May 28, 2010 1:24 pm UTC

Headshrinker wrote:Being open minded doesn’t mean that you believe everything, i am open minded about astrology, I take their idea that stars move millions of light-years just because of earth events i think about it (not for very long I might add) and decide that they don’t. If I was being close minded i would reject it without any thought.


I'm pretty sure the causation in Astrology is the other way around - that is to say, these distant stars have an incredibly intricate and high-level effect on events on Earth.
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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby Cleverbeans » Wed Jun 02, 2010 4:21 am UTC

Buddha wrote:Absolute faith is mutually exclusive to constructive discussion. If you want to discuss something, you have to be willing to accept that your views on it might be wrong.


There are entire math departments full of individuals having constructive dialog who have absolute faith in their claims at this very moment, and would soundly mock you for suggesting they could be wrong.
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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby khanofmongols » Wed Jun 02, 2010 4:44 am UTC

It is foolish to have absolute faith in anything in general because then no amount of evidence will convince you otherwise. The logic of Baynesian inferenceis that you can update your beliefs based upon evidence.

In updating one's beliefs one can use the formula: [math]P(B|E)=\dfrac{P(E|B)P(B)}{P(E|B)P(B)+P(E|not B)P(not B)}[/math]
Where E stands for evidence and B stands for belief

For instance: say that you are completely convinced that the earth is 8000 years old. Then the expression simplifies:


[math]P(B|E)=\dfrac{P(E|B)*1}{P(E|B)*1+P(E|not B)*0}[/math]
[math]P(B|E)=\dfrac{P(E|B)}{P(E|B)}[/math]
[math]P(B|E)=1[/math]

Even if there is a billionth of a chance of the scientific evidence being observed if this belief is true and 99 percent chance if it isn't true, you will still be completely faithful in your original belief.
However if you make you degrees of belief in beliefs very close to one or zero, you can change that belief based upon evidence. So yes openness is nessesary to uncertainty if you want to change your beliefs rationally and be able to find things out.

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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby Dark567 » Wed Jun 02, 2010 12:59 pm UTC

Cleverbeans wrote:
Buddha wrote:Absolute faith is mutually exclusive to constructive discussion. If you want to discuss something, you have to be willing to accept that your views on it might be wrong.


There are entire math departments full of individuals having constructive dialog who have absolute faith in their claims at this very moment, and would soundly mock you for suggesting they could be wrong.


The thing with math is that things can be proven to absolute certainty, because all mathematicians do is take definitions and manipulate them. They aren't doing any science so they don't need evidence to back up any claims. Math is a good example of something where uncertainty isn't necessary, sometimes its even outright deconstructive.
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Re: Is an openness to uncertainty necessary?

Postby skeptical scientist » Wed Jun 02, 2010 4:51 pm UTC

khanofmongols wrote:For instance: say that you are completely convinced that the earth is 8000 years old. Then the expression simplifies:
[math]P(B|E)=\dfrac{P(E|B)\cdot 1}{P(E|B)\cdot 1+P(E|\text{not } B)\cdot 0}[/math][math]P(B|E)=\dfrac{P(E|B)}{P(E|B)}[/math][math]P(B|E)=1[/math]

You made a mistake going from the second-to-last line to the last line: you can't divide by 0.

On a more serious note, I agree that some amount of uncertainty is necessary for a Bayesian framework to work, and that such a framework is extremely powerful. So yes, uncertainty is necessary. But the amount of uncertainty Bayesianism requires is very small once we have a large amount of evidence for a given belief, sometimes to the extent that we should simply ignore our uncertainty and act as if we are completely certain, at least until some new strong evidence comes up which causes us to update our beliefs. So from a purely Bayesian point of view, we don't actually have 100% confidence that the sun will rise tomorrow, and matter is made of tiny particles, and humans and chimps share a common ancestor, and so on, but for all practical intents, these are all certainties.

Long story short: uncertainty is necessary, but only to the extent required by evidence.

Dark567 wrote:The thing with math is that things can be proven to absolute certainty, because all mathematicians do is take definitions and manipulate them. They aren't doing any science so they don't need evidence to back up any claims. Math is a good example of something where uncertainty isn't necessary, sometimes its even outright deconstructive.

Actually, uncertainty is quite common in mathematics departments, because mathematicians spend most of their time working on problems where the answers are unknown. One of the lessons of mathematical research is that even when you are extremely confident you know that a conjecture is true, it pays to occasionally work on disproving it anyways. I would say that mathematics is a very good teacher of skepticism, even if it does aim to provide absolute certainty. One good reason for this is because to be a good mathematician, it is vitally important to distinguish between a proof and something which looks like a proof but may have some subtle holes.

(Also, Gödel taught us that absolute certainty is impossible anyways.)
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[]Y

Postby Dark567 » Wed Jun 02, 2010 5:12 pm UTC

skeptical scientist wrote:
Dark567 wrote:The thing with math is that things can be proven to absolute certainty, because all mathematicians do is take definitions and manipulate them. They aren't doing any science so they don't need evidence to back up any claims. Math is a good example of something where uncertainty isn't necessary, sometimes its even outright deconstructive.

Actually, uncertainty is quite common in mathematics departments, because mathematicians spend most of their time working on problems where the answers are unknown. One of the lessons of mathematical research is that even when you are extremely confident you know that a conjecture is true, it pays to occasionally work on disproving it anyways. I would say that mathematics is a very good teacher of skepticism, even if it does aim to provide absolute certainty. One good reason for this is because to be a good mathematician, it is vitally important to distinguish between a proof and something which looks like a proof but may have some subtle holes.

(Also, Gödel taught us that absolute certainty is impossible anyways.)



I understand that most mathematicians are uncertain on many proofs, and it pays to be that way. But there are still proofs that exist that mathematicians are in fact absolutely certain of. Godel taught us no such thing. He taught that there existed unprovable truths that existed within mathematics. As a matter of fact he proved this with absolute certainty. Godels incompleteness also only applied to systems which had sufficiently strong arithmetic. If you actually create a system of "weak" enough arithmetic, Godels theorem no longer applies.
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Re: []Y

Postby skeptical scientist » Wed Jun 02, 2010 5:53 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:I understand that most mathematicians are uncertain on many proofs, and it pays to be that way. But there are still proofs that exist that mathematicians are in fact absolutely certain of. Godel taught us no such thing. He taught that there existed unprovable truths that existed within mathematics. As a matter of fact he proved this with absolute certainty. Godels incompleteness also only applied to systems which had sufficiently strong arithmetic. If you actually create a system of "weak" enough arithmetic, Godels theorem no longer applies.

I think you may be unaware of some of the history here. At the time Gödel published his incompleteness theorems, David Hilbert had organized a program to find a way to formalize mathematics in a precise language manipulated according to well-defined rules, which could then be proven to be complete and free from errors, and have other nice properties. Before Hilbert's program, philosophers of mathematics such as Frege proposed a foundational approach based on what we now call "naive set theory". However, numerous paradoxes had been discovered in naive set theory, such as Russel's paradox and the Burali-Forti paradox. This led to a "foundational crisis", and Hilbert's program was a proposed response to this crisis: come up with a complete consistent formal system and do all of mathematics inside that system, and you're safe. But Gödel's two incompleteness theorems showed that such an approach was fundamentally flawed: you can invent your formal system, but you can't do all of mathematics within it, since if it is consistent and strong enough to even prove basic facts of arithmetic (and describable in some finitistic way) it is necessarily incomplete. Moreover, you can never be sure that your formal system is consistent, since if you could prove it was consistent using your nice finitistic methods, it would necessarily be inconsistent.

So Gödel convincingly put an end to the program of demonstrating that mathematics was free from contradictions. And since any theorem of mathematics is only as sound as the axioms it was proved from, Gödel did cause serious problems for the goal of absolute certainty in mathematics. That said, people who have serious doubts about the consistency of ZFC are extremely rare, and those who doubt that PA is consistent are even rarer.
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Re: []Y

Postby Dark567 » Wed Jun 02, 2010 6:07 pm UTC

skeptical scientist wrote:
Dark567 wrote:I understand that most mathematicians are uncertain on many proofs, and it pays to be that way. But there are still proofs that exist that mathematicians are in fact absolutely certain of. Godel taught us no such thing. He taught that there existed unprovable truths that existed within mathematics. As a matter of fact he proved this with absolute certainty. Godels incompleteness also only applied to systems which had sufficiently strong arithmetic. If you actually create a system of "weak" enough arithmetic, Godels theorem no longer applies.

I think you may be unaware of some of the history here. At the time Gödel published his incompleteness theorems, David Hilbert had organized a program to find a way to formalize mathematics in a precise language manipulated according to well-defined rules, which could then be proven to be complete and free from errors, and have other nice properties. Before Hilbert's program, philosophers of mathematics such as Frege proposed a foundational approach based on what we now call "naive set theory". However, numerous paradoxes had been discovered in naive set theory, such as Russel's paradox and the Burali-Forti paradox. This led to a "foundational crisis", and Hilbert's program was a proposed response to this crisis: come up with a complete consistent formal system and do all of mathematics inside that system, and you're safe. But Gödel's two incompleteness theorems showed that such an approach was fundamentally flawed: you can invent your formal system, but you can't do all of mathematics within it, since if it is consistent and strong enough to even prove basic facts of arithmetic (and describable in some finitistic way) it is necessarily incomplete. Moreover, you can never be sure that your formal system is consistent, since if you could prove it was consistent using your nice finitistic methods, it would necessarily be inconsistent.

So Gödel convincingly put an end to the program of demonstrating that mathematics was free from contradictions. And since any theorem of mathematics is only as sound as the axioms it was proved from, Gödel did cause serious problems for the goal of absolute certainty in mathematics. That said, people who have serious doubts about the consistency of ZFC are extremely rare, and those who doubt that PA is consistent are even rarer.


If the system is consistent, it is also non-contradictory. There in fact is no problem with proving mathematical statements as free from contradictions, its just that some mathematical statements cannot be proved. Incompleteness does not prevent consistency and does imply mathematics has contradictions.

Besides for the real topic of this thread, Godels completeness theorem will suffice as a counter example that there are things we shouldn't be uncertain about.
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Re: []Y

Postby skeptical scientist » Wed Jun 02, 2010 6:15 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:If the system is consistent, it is also non-contradictory. There in fact is no problem with proving mathematical statements as free from contradictions, its just that some mathematical statements cannot be proved. Incompleteness does not prevent consistency and does imply mathematics has contradictions.

Besides for the real topic of this thread, Godels completeness theorem will suffice as a counter example that there are things we shouldn't be uncertain about.

You seem to be only thinking of the first incompleteness theorem, and forgetting there is also a second incompleteness theorem. The point is we can't actually know whether a system is consistent, except when we know that it is inconsistent.
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Re: []Y

Postby Dark567 » Wed Jun 02, 2010 6:29 pm UTC

skeptical scientist wrote:You seem to be only thinking of the first incompleteness theorem, and forgetting there is also a second incompleteness theorem. The point is we can't actually know whether a system is consistent, except when we know that it is inconsistent.


Err... Sorry. I meant that it something like PA can be consistent, not general mathematics. For example you should be certain about the statement "if ZFC is consistent, than PA is consistent".(and of course understanding the mathematics behind this statement) So although you are not certain about either one, you can be certain that if ZFC is true then PA is true.
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Yakk wrote:The question the thought experiment I posted is aimed at answering: When falling in a black hole, do you see the entire universe's future history train-car into your ass, or not?


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