On The Nature of Premises:
Impossibility of proof but the importance of disproof
Among other courses, I teach history of political ideas and interestingly, the principal text I use is the same one I used when I took the course more years ago than I care to document. I like the course although, being survey in nature, it does little depth plumbing. Still, it keeps my recollection of collected wisdom (as well as of collected errors) fairly fresh.
I recall that course most of all because of how sequentially enamored I became with each philosopher as we studied him (can’t recall studying a her, so times have certainly changed, as they should – OK, I am afraid of feminists, I admit it), but how confused I was that obvious truths could be so contradictory. For several years I assumed that, as was the alleged case in religion, contradictory truths merely involved understanding mere humans were incapable of attaining. Then I learned about “premises”, pesky things, easy to manipulate in order to attain desired results. Kind of like the endings in historical novels or government propaganda, – we start with the conclusions, look for the facts necessary to support them, perform the analytic exercise in logic and finally, based on that inverse logical process, find the premises that fit. We are then surprised when the “logical” conclusions fail to conform to reality.
Eventually I realized that the fault primarily involved two things, the inverse nature of the operation and the premises. Logical analysis is always perfect inter se (it may be that I am also afraid of Spock) but faulty premises frequently (albeit not always) lead to wrong conclusions. And that’s where the philosophical trick lay: philosophers construct their own premises and thus justify their own philosophies through seemingly logical exercises.
After years of playing with premises (I’d admit to decades but that would hint too strongly at my advanced age), I realized several things. First, thanks to David Hume (thanks Dave), that self-evident premises are not necessarily correct premises and that in philosophy, almost all philosophers rely on premises incapable of being proved accurate. That is the seeming nature of most if not all fundamental principles which is why, even in mathematics and physics, we have theories rather than absolute truths, what Hume called “conventions”, “premises” we treat as though they were true because, generally, they function and thus they are convenient and useful, at least for the time being. However, good mathematicians and good physical scientists (unlike too many philosophers and almost all politicians), generally acknowledge the limitations inherent in conventions and theories and maintain open minds (OK, not always, – possibly hardly ever, but they at least know they should) when events prove their theories wrong. Social scientists (like moi), not so much; – we rely too much on emotion.
What I have learned, and it is important, is that while it is usually impossible to prove premises definitively, it is definitely possible, through trial and error (the scientific method) to prove that many premises are wrong and thus, through a process of observation based elimination, to get closer and closer (at least statistically) to some form of truth (or at least, to more useful conventions).
I wonder how politicians would feel about that? Horrors!
Further the Tobyist observeth naught, at least for the nonce.
 © Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2011; all rights reserved