Kent Worthington on Certainty and Error
How Ideas Work Review Series: Part V
G. Stolyarov II
A Journal for Western Man-- Issue XLIV-- December 20, 2005
Note: This is the fifth of five articles discussing Kent Worthington’s innovative book, How Ideas Work. The first four articles are “Kent Worthington on Consistency and Contradiction,” “Kent Worthington on Similarity and Difference,” “Kent Worthington on Cause and Effect,” and “Kent Worthington on Inference and Proof.”
In the fifth and final chapter of How Ideas Work, “Certainty and Error,” Kent Worthington discusses the importance of conscious human judgment—“the process of making choices, a process no man can afford to evade” (122). The man who acts confidently and efficiently in his life does not evade judgment: he embraces it, along with the standard on which all proper judgment is based: certainty. The standard of certainty can demolish a whole host of fallacies claiming the inevitability of doubt in a broad range of fields from science to romance to filosofy.
Throughout the course of his life, every man must form tentative conclusions, or hypotheses, whose validity is not definitively established. But the existence of hypotheses is no negation of certainty. On the contrary, it validates the need for certainty. Hypotheses are tentative because they are in the process of being ascertained, of being further tied to reality through additional evidence needed to turn the hypothesis into a conclusion known beyond doubt to be true. There would be no purpose in a forming any hypothesis if could never be conclusively verified.
In order to serve man effectively, a hypothesis needs to be tied to reality. People are capable of forming arbitrary hypotheses with no connection to the actual requirements of existence. The man who develops a hypothesis about whether one must always eat meat loaf first or mashed potatoes first
has no clue where this alternative came from; he has no clue what to do with this idea. Instead of becoming a crucial part of his judgment, his hypothesis undermines the process by which he makes choices. It paralyzes his judgment, leaving him to act by default. (124)
In order for a hypothesis to be empowering and not crippling, it must be rooted in reality; it must have some certain knowledge as its basis. The man who does consider certainty possible forms hypotheses about what he does not yet conclusively know using evidence that he already knows beyond any doubt. It only so happens that this evidence is not yet sufficient to confirm the specific hypothesis in question—but more evidence will either conclusively confirm or reject the hypothesis. For a man who has a goal to discover a given truth or fix a given problem, nothing less than certain knowledge will ultimately suffice. Otherwise, he has no standard to guide him, no way of gauging his success, and no way of even knowing what success would consist of and whether it is possible.
Whenever a man has a goal, he is faced with an alternative: does he analyze the relevant entities based on their actual characteristics, discover the relevant causal relationships, and develop a method on their basis—as the rational man does—or does he subvert the responsibility of thinking for himself to an authority which allegedly “has all the answers”—as does the savage who consults the witch doctor whenever he is not certain on how to proceed?
A rational man with a goal evaluates hypotheses pertaining to that goal via a specific method. He conceives of a set of conditions that would be necessary for a given action and a set of conditions that would be sufficient—and then goes about ascertaining whether these conditions actually exist. As he eliminates some possibilities, the remaining ones become more probable. Once a he examines the probable hypotheses with greater scrutiny and obtains definitive evidence in their favor, they become certain and achieve the status of absolutely valid conclusions (126-128).
Certainty is accessible to every man who seeks it. The historical enemies of certainty have attempted to deny it by equating it with omniscience and using the non sequitur that certainty is impossible because omniscience is impossible. This malaise is especially present in modern “science” and has its embodiment in Werner Heisenberg’s pseudo-scientific, anti-knowledge, anti-truth “uncertainty principle.” Mr. Worthington explains:
‘Omniscience,’ a foolish concept that refers to nothing in reality, is a trap. To use it as a standard for knowledge is a disaster. Yet the witch doctor pretends to be a know-it-all. This is why the savage goes looking for him, rather than for evidence. The savage can be excused for falling into this trap; he has not even heard of the concept ‘evidence.’ The influential modern physicist Werner Heisenberg cannot be excused, however.
Heisenberg could not find the solution to a problem he considered worth pursuing: identifying the location of sub-atomic particles. Rather than confess that he could not find the means to measure their location, he announced that he had found something else: ‘the principle of uncertainty.’ Because man cannot know everything, Heisenberg insisted, man cannot be certain of anything. Mercifully, this is not a principle. It is an ill-conceived idea built on ‘omniscience’ as the standard, not on reality. It is nonsense (130).
Werner Heisenberg was guilty of a willful, massive corruption of the human conceptual apparatus. He used his individual failure to solve a given problem to proclaim with unwarranted hubris that no one could ever solve that problem. Paradoxically, this assertion is itself an unwarranted claim to omniscience on Heisenberg’s part. He claimed to know that, for all eternity, nobody would be able to solve the problem—just because his own techniques fell short of that goal.
If believed, Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” is an immense roadblock and obstacle to the pursuit of knowledge. It deters the gullible from pursuing the truth on the basis of an “authority’s” arbitrary proclamation that the truth is unknowable. Unfortunately, this doctrine of man’s powerlessness is enshrined in today’s academic “scientific” orthodoxy; hence, rational men must use means outside said orthodoxy to fathom reality.
Mr. Worthington explains that one cannot ever legitimately use doubt about something to undermine the possibility of certainty about anything. To do so would be to commit the fallacy of the “stolen concept,” which Ayn Rand identified. The concept of doubt depends on the concept of certainty in order to be valid. To be in doubt means to be short of the standard of certainty with respect to a given hypothesis. However, to be short of a standard means that the standard has to exist in the first place. The very existence of doubt among men means that certainty is possible (131). No other standard but certainty works, because only certainty can tie ideas to reality—and without being tied to reality, ideas are just useless and often harmful floating abstractions.
Just as man is capable of certain knowledge, so is he capable of error. But when man errs, there is a reason why does—a reason that can be identified and corrected. Mr. Worthington identifies the cause of error as subordinating a fundamental. The root of human success lies in identifying primary/derivative relationships among real entities and pursuing the primary relationship first—whence the derivative relationship should inexorably follow. All error consists of subordinating the primary to the derivative, of pursuing the derivative for its own sake, without the primary to function as a necessary prerequisite. This, alas, is what too many people in today’s hedonistic culture do in their “romantic” relationships, pursuing sexual intercourse for its own sake:
How does a romantic relationship work? How can a relationship that seems to be romantic go wrong from the start? How is it that someone can wake up the morning after, only to realize: That was a big mistake? Did he disregard what it is that he values about the other person, and plunge into sex without it? Did he subordinate what is primary to what is derivative? The sex should derive from the value judgment. See the error? The order of procedure is wrong. (134)
When people “rush into” sexual intercourse without ascertaining that they consider their romantic partner the highest embodiment of their values, disappointment and misery are bound to result, because the intercourse—the derivative—was pursued for its own sake, without and in preference to the valuation—the primary. Knowing the fundamentals and staunchly refusing to subordinate them to the derivatives can avoid pseudo-romantic relationships that should not have been entered into in the first place—while encouraging true romance, where genuine mutual valuation is present.
All errors are made conceptually; man’s perceptual faculties—his senses—function automatically and infallibly. Even when man perceives mirages in the desert, or straight straws that appear bent in a glass of water, he is not perceiving reality falsely. He is perceiving entities in specific contexts. The interaction of the straw with the glass of water and the human eye does, in fact, produce a bent appearance for the straw due to the refraction of light. The interaction of the desert sun with the human eye does in fact produce images of entities—because of the nature of the sun and the human eye, the context in which this interaction takes place.
Ideas, too, are held in a certain context, but the context is not—unlike a perceptual context—automatically accessible. Man, a volitional being, can choose to apply ideas outside their context, with grievous consequences. Mr. Worthington tells of the ludicrous and absurd extent to which the “mainstream” takes out-of-context thinking:
Today, dropping context is actually rewarded in the intellectual realm. In 1998, the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Amartya Sen for a mathematical model of how goods get to people. Yet Sen had openly stated that his explanation ignored the differences in the ability of men to produce goods. Can this be? In his analysis of distribution, did he explicitly disregard production? Someone please invite Sen and the Nobel committee to a birthday party. Forget about baking the cake; just get them to explain how to distribute it. Some party! (142)
But thinking out of context is not the worst error man can make. The worst and most destructive error derives from arbitrariness. An arbitrary idea is one for which no evidence exists. Hypotheses asserted arbitrarily are nothing but detrimental; they do not have a shred of evidence to support them; they are not tied to reality; they cannot give men guidance as to what exists and how to act toward it. Arbitrary hypothesizing abounded during the Middle Ages—as it does in today’s academia. Mr. Worthington discusses this unfortunate tendency:
In the 12th century learned monks called Scholastics were notorious for hypothesizing arbitrary questions. The most famous of these questions was this: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? They pondered these questions endlessly, and for the same reason the legendary jackass ponders to death the question of which bale of hay to eat first. Such questions are arbitrary, formed without a shred of evidence. A contemporary of the Scholastics cleverly exposed the nature of their foolish question by demanding, ‘Bring us some angels and a pin and we will damn well find out.’ But you are not required to be clever. With an arbitrary assertion, with any idea formed for no reason in particular, simply dismiss it outright.
Sadly, the Scholastic tradition appears to have survived at Cornell University. In 1998, freshman applicants to that school were asked to submit an essay on ‘a conclusion you have reached about a question with no provable answer’ (144-145).
Questions “with no provable answer” are arbitrary; they are irrelevant to reality and ought not be pursued in the first place. The function of Cornell’s essay prompt was not to lead students to discover truth, but to convince them that there existed matters of “opinion,” as opposed to matters of fact, where truth does not matter, where one might as well have one view or the other—with neither view based on any objective evidence. This is a devastating trap for young minds that desperately need knowledge and certainty in every area of their lives.
After his analysis of error, Mr. Worthington proceeds to discuss how men should act. To act successfully, man requires the guidance of principles, which are “generalization[s] formed as guide[s] to a range of action” (147). Man starts at principles whenever he pursues a goal; the simple goal of crossing the street begins with the principle of looking both ways. Principles enable man to annihilate any conflict between his mind and his body by harmonizing his actions with his goals—so that his thinking and his acting aim toward the same purpose, instead of warring with each other and tearing him in two (147).
Mr. Worthington reviews the classification of principles to determine the manner in which one should derive them: “A principle is a type of generalization. A generalization is a type of universal. A universal is a type of proposition. And, of course, a proposition is a type of idea” (148). A principle is a generalization derived by reference to the law of causality; the evidence required to form principles is causal evidence. The “ought” imperative in a principle is simply “a shorthand way of expressing the causal generalization” (149). Mr. Worthington uses the example of the causal generalization, “Looking both ways is necessary to crossing the street,” and transforms it into a principle: “Any instance of crossing the street should be an instance of looking both ways” (149). Ayn Rand, in her monumental refutation of the is-ought dichotomy, wrote that every “is” implies an “ought.” Mr. Worthington shows that the “is” is the causal relationship and the “ought” is the principle—the causal generalization. The two are inseparable from one another.
How does one find the proper principle for a given situation? One pursues the same method as in finding the cause of a given action. One broadens or narrows existing principles until one arrives at one that fits the particular context one is examining—a principle that is both necessary and sufficient for the fulfillment of one’s goal or the explanation of the part of reality one seeks to understand. This is the task of every individual man; instead of credulously referring to authority for answers, every man must autonomously broaden and narrow the principles at his disposal, until he discovers the truth (151-152).
The proper approach to science involves the application of principles—which genuine scientists, like Archimedes, Newton, Darwin, and Pasteur have done with remarkable efficacy. A scientific theory is “a principle applied to a scientific pursuit” (152). The essential function of principles in science is the same as its function in all other areas of life; science must, however, treat principles in a far more rigorous and systematic fashion than man typically applies them to everyday matters. This systematic rigor in the application of principles forms the basis of the genuine scientific method, which Mr. Worthington describes:
The starting point for scientific inquiry is to identify the proper theory, the principle that applies to a particular problem. This theory is then applied as a standard of certainty. Hypotheses are formed consistent with the theory. They are evaluated through a gradual accumulation of more evidence, evidence accumulated by controlled experimentation and observation. A hypothesis, if proved conclusive, will confirm the theory. And confirmation is important to science, because error is possible throughout the rigorous, systematic process. But confirming a theory is a matter of emphasis, not new knowledge. It must not be confused with proving a hypothesis, which is new knowledge. (152-153)
The modern “scientists” have, unfortunately, renounced this method—which relies on certainty at its core—in favor of the age-old error Mr. Worthington had debunked in Chapter 4: the equation of generalizations with conclusions. More specifically, modern scientists fail to distinguish theories from hypotheses.
Theories are sets of principles, which are generalizations—whereas hypotheses are tentative conclusions. One is not like the other, and theories cannot be approached in the same way as hypotheses. Approaching theories as hypotheses implies a view of theories themselves as tentative, with no standard of certainty to ever verify them. From this fallacy derives the popular bromide among contemporary scientists that a given principle is “just a theory,” vulnerable to refutation anytime.
Because new hypotheses with regard to geometry, fysics, and biology are constantly examined and validated or rejected, modern scientists assert that the foundational theories on which those hypotheses are based—Euclid’s geometry, Newton’s mechanics, and Darwin’s evolution—have been refuted. In fact, there has been nothing of the sort. The only way good hypotheses can be formed is if the proper theories are used as evidence for them. No hypothesis can ever refute the Euclidean, Newtonian, or Darwinian theories—which have already been validated with certainty—beyond the possibility of rational rejection. Any hypothesis that purports to deny them is not only arbitrary—unwarranted by any evidence in reality—but also false, as it openly negates true theories about reality (154-155).
Modern “science” has abandoned the scientific method and has degenerated into a mere collection of statistics—wherein every conceivable statistical correlation is mistaken for evidence of causality. Mr. Worthington, however, had demonstrated in Chapter 4 that statistics can never validate generalizations—whose truth can only be ascertained by reference to essentials. Statistical correlations have been used to pass off as scientific a whole host of absurdities—including assertions that man’s industrial activity causes global warming, that criminals are not responsible for their own behavior, that the business cycle occurs naturally, or that addiction is an inherited trait (156). Without the firm guidance of principles and theories, modern “science” will continue to make these blunders—and remain useless for any genuinely rational thinker in pursuit of truth.
Reality is knowable—but only if one’s method recognizes certainty as possible. There can be no legitimate possibility for doubt without a possibility for certainty; there can be no scientific method without accurate theories at its foundation—and without a clear distinction between hypotheses and theories, which are not the same. Scientists who have explicitly rejected the guidance of filosofy have acted arbitrarily and accomplished nothing of value. Like Werner Heisenberg, they misled millions of people into believing mind-crippling falsehoods. How Ideas Work provides a fundamental alternative to the “mainstream’s” wallowing in perpetual uncertainty by teaching a clear, rational method, using which one can gain knowledge of truth. I salute Mr. Worthington for this accomplishment, for, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nothing can bring peace but the triumph of principles.”
You can order How Ideas Work at http://www.howideaswork.com/.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent filosofical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician and composer, contributor to organizations such as Le Quebecois Libre, Enter Stage Right, and the Autonomist. Mr. Stolyarov is the Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator and a Senior Writer for the Liberal Institute (http://www.liberalinstitute.com). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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