A statement of philosophical principles

Epistemic status: This is my philosophy. There are many like it, but this one is mine. It is not anything especially unusual or particularly sophisticated.

I’ve noticed in a couple of discussions recently that my philosophical positions are both somewhat opposed to what might be considered normal (at least among non-philosophers) and may seem internally contradictory.

It also occurred to me that I’ve never really properly explained this to people, and that it might be worth writing up a short position statement.

So, here is the philosophical basis on which I live my life. You can think of it as a rather extreme combination of moral relativism and mathematical formalism.

  1. Words, and the concepts behind them, are made up and have no objective meaning or basis.
  2. Statements cannot thus really be “true” or “false” (though they may be deductively true in the context of a certain set of premises and logic).
  3. Reality exists only because if it doesn’t then exist is not a useful word, so existing is defined mostly by reference as the thing that reality does.
  4. Perception of reality is intrinsically flawed and what we perceive may be arbitrarily far from what “really” exists (if we accept our senses, then empiricism shows us that it’s quite far. If we don’t accept our senses, we’re already there).
  5. We are probably not ever going to be capable of accurately modelling or predicting the universe. Even if it’s in principle possible we’re probably not smart enough.
  6. All value systems are subjective and culturally determined.
  7. Morality is some complex mix of value system and prediction, so it’s certainly subjective and culturally determined, but also probably beyond our ability to actually formalise in any useful way even once we’ve already pinned down a value system.

…but if we take any of that too seriously we’ll never get anything useful done, and even if there’s no objective value to getting useful things done, subjectively I’m quite fond of it, so…

  1. We should use words in a way that achieves a broad consensus and seems to be useful for talking about what we observe.
  2. Accept a reasonably large body of knowledge as a useful working premise, but occasionally backtrack and note that you’re explicitly doing that when it leads you astray or causes disagreements.
  3. Treat reality as if it exists in a naive objective sense, because it hurts when you don’t.
  4. Don’t worry about it too much. If there’s an all-powerful demon faking your perception of reality, there’s probably not much you can do about it. Also see previous item – that reality which you perceive exists (even if any given perception may not be valid), because otherwise exists isn’t a very useful word.
  5. We can do a surprisingly good job at our current level, and just because we can never achieve perfection doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve what we’ve got.
  6. But I like mine, and it includes a term for a certain amount of forcing itself on other people (“hurting people is bad and I don’t really care if you think you have a culturally valid reason for doing it”).
  7. Doing the right thing is hard. Do the best you can. Don’t sweat the grand theory of morality too much, but pay attention when it comes up.

So as a result I temper the extreme relativist stance with a solid dose of pragmatic instrumental reasoning and pretend that I believe in philosophical naive realism because it’s much better at getting the job done than refusing to even acknowledge that such a thing as a job might exist and that it could be done if it did.

A lot of these theses are for me much like the way in which I am an atheist: I consider them to be obviously correct as a sort of “ground state” truth. It’s not that they’re necessarily right, it’s just that in the absence of evidence to the contrary they seem like a good default position, and nobody has provided evidence that I find convincing (and in some cases I’m not sure such evidence could exist even in principle). Maybe there’s a platonic realm of ideals after all, but formalism works perfectly well without it and if such a thing existed how could we possible know?

I probably got very excited and/or angsty about all this at one point as a teenager, but eventually I realised that maybe I just don’t care that much. Does it matter if the table I stubbed my toe on really exists? Does it matter if there is actually such a thing as a table? Either way it still hurts, and if I want something to eat my meals on I’m going to struggle to buy one from ikea without acknowledging the concept of a table. For most things I actually care about, life is just easier if I go along with naive realism.

But it’s important to me to understand that I’m just pretending. Particularly because it makes it much easier to acknowledge when I’m wrong (which I’m not always good at, but that’s not surprising. Just because I have a philosophy doesn’t mean I’m good at following it), and to understand where other people are coming from – politics is much easier to understand if you understand that value systems are subjective and arbitrary. No reason that I have to accept those values, mind you (my culturally determined subjective values frequently strongly prefer that I don’t), but it’s helpful to know where they could be coming from.

And in general I find there’s a certain useful humility to affirming that I have no access to any objective source of truth nor ever will, and that that’s OK.

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