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English Philosophy

Beware of unnecessary commitment

The most elementary and valuable statement in science, the beginning of wisdom is, “I do not know”.

It may seem strange for me to open a blog post on the philosophy of knowledge and science with a video clip and a quotation from a rather cheesy episode of Star Trek The Next Generation (Where Silence Has Lease), a science fiction show not celebrated for its scientific accuracy. However, that quotation hit me like a ton of bricks when I saw that episode the first time more than twenty years ago. It has the same kind of wisdom as the ancient pronouncement, attributed to the god in Delphi by Socrates:

Human beings, he among you is wisest who knows like Socrates that he is actually worthless with respect to wisdom.

(This quote is at 23b of Socrates’ Defense [traditionally translated under the misleading title “Apology”] by Plato, as translated by Cathal Woods and Ryan Pack.)

The great teaching of these two quotes is, in my view, that one must keep an open mind: it is folly to think, mistakenly, that one knows something, and one should always be very careful committing to a particular position.

Of course, not all commitments are of equal importance. Most commitments to a position are limited: one might commit to a position only briefly or tentatively, for the sake of the argument and for the purposes of testing that position (these recent blog posts of mine on philosophy are of just this kind), or one might commit to a position in an entrance exam, for the purpose of gaining entry to a school. Some commitments are permanent: for example, knowingly allowing surgery to remove one’s colon is a powerful and irreversible commitment, but then, so is the decision not to take the surgery if one has a diagnosed colorectal cancer (although that decision may be reversible for a while, but not indefinitely).

The key thing, in my view, is to make only necessary commitments. Remember my previous post, where I argued that life is a big gamble? A commitment is necessary, in my view, if it follows from making a real-life bet with real-life consequences. For example, if one acquiesces to the removal of one’s colon as a treatment for colorectal cancer, one is betting one’s life on that decision, and thus the implied commitment to its superiority as a treatment (compared to, say, just eating healthily) is necessary. Conversely, a commitment is unnecessary if it is not connected to any real-life decision with significant stakes.

One thing that bothers me about the current paradigm of science (in all disciplines I am familiar with) is a fetish for unnecessary commitment. A researcher is expected to commit to an answer to their research question in their report, even though, most times, all they manage to do is provide evidence that will slightly alter a person’s probability assignment regarding that question. In most cases, this commitment is unnecessary, in that the researcher does not bet anything on the result (though there are significant exceptions). This fetish has the unfortunate consequence that statistical methodology is routinely misused to produce convincing-sounding justifications for such commitments. Even more unfortunate is that most studies pronounce their judgments based only on their own data, however meager, and all but ignore all other studies on the same question (technically speaking, they fail to establish the prior). Many other methodological issues arise similarly from the fetish to unnecessary commitment.

Of course, necessary commitments based on science occur all the time. If I step on a bridge, I am committing myself to the soundness of brige building science, among other things. We, the humanity, have collectively already committed ourselves to the belief that global climate change is not such a big deal (otherwise, we would have been much more aggressive about dealing with it in the decades past). Every day, we commit ourself to the belief that Newtonian and Einsteinian physics are sound enough that they correctly predict that the sun rises tomorrow.

But it is unnecessary for me to commit to any particular theory as to why MH370 vanished without trace, since it is only, pardon the expression, of academic interest to me.

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