Two Cents

From: Michael Conrad <>
Date: Thu 28 May 1998 - 17:03:16 CEST

Dear FIS friends,

   I have watched with great interest the development
of the FIS discussions. It seems to me to have been
a very productive discussion, and I think we can all
thank Pedro Marijuan for organizing and orchestrating

   Unfortunately, I have been too overwhelmed during
the past period to engage in this discussion, and I
am afraid that this is likely to continue for some months--
maybe forever. I blame the four horseman of the
informational apocalypse: courier mail, fax, phone,
and email. Well, I also blame bureaucracy and
myself--for overcommitment.

  Nevertheless, as I have a hit a one day break
in an incessant stream of impending
deadlines, I will below try to get my two cents
in on the latest issue that has come up.

Two Cents: One for Objectivity and One for Subjectivity

    Consciousness is undoubtedly one of the most
fundamental and difficult problems of human
existence. There are a number of problems
with a similar character: whether the universe
is finite or infinite, whether it has an origin and
will it have an end, is mathematical truth within
or above the material world, and so forth.

  Such problems were referred to as "antinomic"
by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. It means that
equally credible arguments can be given to both
sides of the issue.

  Natural science, by and large, directs itself
to the description of nature in a way that
can be verified by experience and, in the case
of mathematics, to discoveries in the abstract
realm that can be verified in definite way. At one
time the extreme (logical) positivist philosophers
argued that experimental verification and logical
proof should be the criterion for mathematical
truth. The clarity advocated by this program brought it
into some difficulties. It is not possible to make the
criterion clear and precise. "Two plus two are four or
time is green and purple all over" satisfies
the criterion of logical truth, for example.
Furthermore, it has become clear that the
experimental and logical methods have limitations
even in the domains to which they are suited. Even
more to the point: it is hard to specify precisely
what domains they are suited to. Thus, the
computer scientist attempting to build artificial
intelligence is bound to face the issue of consciousness.
So is the neuroscientist who is interested in intelligence.
So is the physicist who is interested in the physics
of the observer. And so it goes.

   It is reasonable, under these circumstances, that
many people working in natural scientific and mathematical
fields would want to reconsider the issue of consciousness.
It seems to be inseparable from the empirical and logical
questions that are their traditional purview. But it does
not mean that the issue of consciousness has lost its
antinomic character. We may all be attracted to this
or that view, just as we may be more or less attracted
to different particular philosophical perspectives in general.
The expectation that common agreement will be reached, as
it frequently is in biochemistry or topology, is not so well
placed though. Why should not different individuals have
different views on these matters? Can you ever make
arguments that will compel the determinist to believe
in freedom, or to compel the free will man to believe he does
not have the freedom to wiggle his toe or not wiggle his toe?

   I propose a principle of philosophical relativity. The principle
asserts that scientific theories should be open to different
interpretations on antinomic issues. The interpretation is
like a coordinate system in physics. If there is no good reason
for choosing one coordinate system over another, then they
should be equally good (the principle of physical relativity).
But in practice you still need a coordinate system. The lab
frame might be the best for some purpose. Similarly, in
pursuing natural science questions it may be necessary
to have a point of view; it may indeed be impossible not
to have a point of view. But it should, according to the
principle of philosophical relativity, be possible to
transform from one to another point of view and still
maintain the essence of the empirical or logical result.

  I would even regard this as a useful guide to the construction
of scientific theories, just as the principle of physical relativity is.
Quantum mechanics and Goedel's theorem are steps in the
right direction in this respect, though not completed steps.
They are open to many different antinomic interpretations.
How could a scientific theory that enforces either determinism
or free will meet the criterion of universal public acceptance
that is the ideal of traditional scientific theories? The fellow
who believes he has free will will say, with justification,
that it contradicts the facts of his experience. The fellow who asserts
determinism is entitled to assert the opposite. The best theory,
according to the principle of philosophical relativity, is one that
is constructed so that as nearly as possible it is open to antinomic

   I have been told, by the philosopher Deborah Conrad, that philosophical
relativity is a bad term. It has the implication that truth is relative.
Well, I made a mistake then. I was borrowing the term from physical
relativity, and going back further, making a twist (or stretch) on Poincare's
conventionalist approach to science. It seems to me that the principle of
philosophical relativity, by isolating the intepretative framework from
aspects that retain their publically accessible character as one transforms
from one to another interpretative framework, raises the standards of truth.

  Of course, many questions arise. What if there is disagreement about
what is antinomic and what is not? The boundaries may be vague. How
does the principle apply to the historical sciences, where counterfactual
conditionals enter? Could it in practice lead to a breakdown of standards,
to exaggerated (or underexaggerated) claims about the effects of smoking,
for example, that are justified on the basis of philosophical relativity? As
indicated above I would regard the principle as an attempt to preserve as
nearly as possible the objectivity and public verifiability that traditionally
characterize science, but without denying the the ultimate inseparability
of these questions from interpretative ones that are antinomic. The
interpretative ones become the coordinate system that we cannot
escape; but we can choose which coordinate system that we dwell in,
and indeed can choose different ones for different purposes (including
aesthetic purposes). The philosophical relativity principle is
a principle of tolerance.

Michael Conrad
Dept. of Computer Science
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan 48202 USA
Fax: +313-577-6868
Received on Thu May 28 17:05:20 1998

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