Epistemology Without Weights and the Mistake Objectivism and Critical Rationalism Both Made

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on Sun, 2013-07-07 17:14

Objectivists accuse Popperians of being skeptics. Popperians accuse Objectivists of being infallibilists. Actually, both philosophies are valuable and largely compatible. I present here some integrating ideas and then a mistake that both philosophies share.

Knowledge is contextual, absolute, certain, conclusive and progressive. The standard of knowledge is conclusiveness not infallibility, perfection or omniscience.

Certain means we should act on it instead of hesitating. We should follow its implications and use it, rather than sitting around doubting, wondering, scared it might be wrong. Certain also means that it is knowledge, as opposed to non-knowledge; it denies skepticism.

Absolute means no contradictions, compromises or exceptions are allowed.

Contextual means that knowledge must be considered in context. A good idea in one context may not be a good idea when transplanted into another context. No knowledge could hold up against arbitrary context switches and context dropping.

Further, knowledge is problem oriented. Knowledge needs some problem[s] or question[s] for context, which it addresses or solves. Knowledge has to be knowledge about something, with some purpose. This implies: if you have an answer to a question, and then in the future you learn more, the old answer still answers the old question. It's still knowledge in its original, intended context.

Consider blood types. People wanted to know which blood transfusions were safe (among other questions) and they created some knowledge of A, B, AB and O blood types. Later they found out more. Actually there is A+, A-, B+, B-, AB+, AB-, O+ and O-. It was proper to act on the earlier knowledge in its context. It would not be proper to act on it today; now we know that some B type blood is incompatible with some other B type blood. Today's superior knowledge of blood types is also contextual. Maybe there will be a new medical breakthrough next year. But it's still knowledge in today's context, and it's proper to act on it.

One thing to learn here is that a false idea can be knowledge. The idea that all B type blood is compatible is contextual knowledge. It was always false, as a matter of fact, and the mistake got some people killed. Yet it was still knowledge. How can that be?

Perfection is not the standard of knowledge. And not all false ideas are equally good. What matters is the early idea about blood types had value, it had useful information, it helped make many correct decisions, and no better idea was available at the time. That value never goes away even when we learn about a mistake. That original value is still knowledge, considered contextually, even though the idea as a whole is now known to be false.

Conclusive means the current context only allows for one rational conclusion. This conclusion is not infallible, but it's the only reasonable option available. All the alternative ideas have known flaws; they are refuted. There's only one idea left which is not refuted, which could be true, is true as far as we know (no known flaws), and which we should therefore accept. And that is knowledge.

None of this contradicts the progressive character of knowledge. Our knowledge is not frozen and final. We can learn more and better – without limit. We can keep identifying and correcting errors in our ideas and thereby achieve better and better knowledge. (One way knowledge can be better is that it is correct in more contexts and successfully addresses more problems and questions.)

The Mistake

Peikoff says that certainty (meaning conclusive knowledge) is when you get to the point that nothing else is possible. He means that, in the current context, there are no other options. There's just one option, and we should accept it. All the other ideas have something wrong with them, they can't be accepted. This is fine.

Peikoff also says that before you have certainty you have a different situation where there are multiple competing ideas. Fine. And that's not certainty, that's not conclusive knowledge, it's a precursor stage where you're considering the ideas. Fine.

But then Peikoff makes what I think is an important mistake. He says that if you don't have knowledge or certainty, you can still judge by the weight of the evidence. This is a standard view held by many non-Objectivists too. I think this is too compromising. I think the choices are knowledge or irrationality. We need knowledge; nothing less will suffice.

The weight of the evidence is no good. Either you have knowledge or you don't. If it's not knowledge, it's not worth anything. You need to come up with a good idea – no compromises, no contradictions, no known problems – and use that. If you can't or won't do that, all you have left is the irrationality of acting on and believing arbitrary non-knowledge.

I think we can always act on knowledge without contradictions. Knowledge is always possible to man. Not all knowledge instantly, but enough knowledge to act, in time to act. We may not know everything – but we don't need to. We can always know enough to continue life rationally. Living and acting by reason and knowledge is always possible.

(How can we always do this? That will be the subject of another essay. I'm not including any summary or hints because I think it's too confusing and misleading without a full explanation.)

Knowledge doesn't allow contradictions. Suppose you're considering two ideas that contradict each other. And you don't have a conclusive answer, you don't have knowledge of which is right. Then using or believing either one is irrational. No "weight of the evidence" or anything else can change this.

Don't pick a side when you know there is a contradiction but have not rationally resolved it. Resolve it; create knowledge; learn; think; figure it out. Neither idea being considered is good enough to address the contradiction or refute the other idea – so you know they are both flawed. Don't hope or pray that acting on a known-to-be-flawed idea will work out anyway. Irrationality doesn't work.

That's not good enough. If you discover a contradiction, you should resolve it rationally. If you fail at that – fail at the use of reason – then that's bad, that's a disaster, that's not OK.

Karl Popper made the same mistake in a different form. He said that we critically analyze competing ideas and the one that best survives criticism should be acted on. Again this is too compromising. Either exactly one idea survives criticism, or else there is still a contradiction. "Best survives criticism", and "weight of the evidence", are irrational ways of arbitrarily elevating one flawed idea over another, instead of using reason to come up with a correct idea.

( categories: )


i.am.dan.edge's picture

This is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks, I will review.

--Dan Edge

Dan Edge, This should

curi's picture

Dan Edge,

This should help:



tvr's picture

Shall I take your silence on my last post as your agreement, or some strange form of Popperian argument in itself?


My writing is not organized

curi's picture

My writing is not organized into highlights by topic. But check out:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/... (active discussion group + archives. also FYI there are other Popperians here besides me who can answer questions)
https://groups.google.com/forum/?hl=en_US#!forum/beginning-of-infinity (inactive but lots of relevant posts archived)


i.am.dan.edge's picture

I am sincerely interested in your studies. Could you provide links to your highlight articles on the subject?


--Dan Edge

If i called it

curi's picture

If i called it "Epistemology-2" instead of "Popperian epistemology", what would you care? It's the content of the ideas, not the name for them, which you should discuss.

It sounds like you just want more information. If your advice is really "write more" then i would recommend either reading some of the thousands of public pieces I have written (if you can't find anything I will give you some links), or waiting, or reading Popper, or asking a specific question.

Objectivists Accuse Popperians of Being Skeptics

i.am.dan.edge's picture


This is the first sentence of your article. With it, you are setting up an article outlining the differences between Objectivist and Popperian epistemology. The rest of the article flows in the same vein. What is your argument about, if not supporting Popper over Rand in epistemology? Do a reverse outline of your article and reestablish the theme. Provide documentation for Popper's and Rand's arguments which prove the theme.

It's late, please forgive my short-ness.

--Dan Edge

What difference does it make

curi's picture

What difference does it make to you what Popper wrote? What if he never wrote a single book? How would that affect my points?

What if I never mentioned Popper? What difference would it make? The reason I mention him is because it's useful to people who already know about him. And because some people might now wish to read his books.

The reason I didn't include more documentation of Objectivism is because I expected familiarity. If there is a specific point of contention, you can ask.


i.am.dan.edge's picture

Your recent articles on Popper are interesting but lack good documentation. Consider your audience here. Most are very familiar with Oist epistemology but unfamiliar with Popper. You do a great job creating interest in Popper, but a poor job demonstrating his dominance over Rand. Terry's Straw Man accusations are justified so far.

--Dan Edge

Still straw...

tvr's picture


First, let me correct something I wrote. "Many actions are necessarily based on inconclusive knowledge and where it would be irrational to expect conclusive knowledge before acting" I should have said "Many actions are necessarily based on (conclusive) knowledge of uncertainty and where it would be irrational to expect (conclusive) knowledge of certainty before acting. All valid knowledge is conclusive knowledge". And earlier, where I wrote "Inconclusive knowledge is still knowledge", I should have written "knowledge of inconclusiveness is still knowledge".

On the subject of investment, Warren Buffett said: "I put a heavy weight on certainty. If you do that, the whole idea of a risk factor doesn't make any sense to me. Risk comes from not knowing what you're doing." [Hagstrom pp.94-5]

The world's greatest investor agrees with Dr. Peikoff's claim regarding the rationality of "weight of the evidence" decisions, whereby Buffett places a "heavy weight" on certainty, thus basing his actions on (conclusive) knowledge that is not necessarily knowledge of certainty, but rather, is knowledge based on weight of evidence (including knowledge of certainty, which says he favors).

"Conclusive knowledge" simply means decisive knowledge, that is, knowledge one knows is based on fact, which is the only type of valid knowledge there is. Knowledge of a conclusion on the other hand is (conclusive) knowledge of a certainty, which is something quite different.

To "conclusively know" what you are doing and have "knowledge of certainty/a conclusion" are two different standards for action. To always require the former is rational, while to always require the latter is not.

You wrote that "[Dr Peikoff] says that if you don't have knowledge or certainty, you can still judge by the weight of the evidence". You have since corrected yourself, instructing to substitute "certain, conclusive knowledge" for "knowledge or certainty", which would mean that your claim is now ""[Peikoff] says that if you don't have [certain, conclusive knowledge], you can still judge by the weight of the evidence", and that you "think this is too compromising … the choices are [certain, conclusive knowledge] or irrationality". (your substitution in brackets).

You are still positing and fighting a straw man, because "certain, conclusive knowledge" is not "knowledge of certainty", and Dr. Peikoff is referring to the latter when it comes to the concept of "certainty". What you need to do is to stop conflating (as I did) "certain" and "conclusive" by dropping the "certain" prior to "knowledge". No knowledge is valid knowledge without it being conclusive, but not all knowledge requires a conclusion, i.e. certainty, to be valid or for one to act upon it.


Before buying a particular

curi's picture

Before buying a particular index fund or other investment, you should have conclusive knowledge about whether it's the correct action for you to make that purchase, or not.

You don't need conclusive knowledge about everything. It'd be nice to know if the price be higher in 5 years, but you don't need to know that to buy. What you need is conclusive knowledge about whether to purchase or not. It's your actions and choices in particular where you need conclusive knowledge.

Sorry, still straw...

tvr's picture

"No. "The conclusion ceases to be a hypothesis and becomes knowledge. Such a conclusion is certain.""


Yes. The CONCLUSION ... becomes knowledge. What was known inconclusively was still knowledge prior to the conclusion becoming knowledge.

"Further, it doesn't matter. You can just modify my essay to say acting on inconclusive, uncertain knowledge is irrational, we need and can achieve, certain, conclusive knowledge in all cases. It'd be the same point."


No it wouldn't. To have no knowledge about something is not the same as having inconclusive knowledge about something. Many actions are necessarily based on inconclusive knowledge and where it would be irrational to expect conclusive knowledge before acting. Take investment for example, which is intrinsically inconclusive or uncertain. Or entering into a relationship with a person. Whenever other people's free will is involved, attaining certainty would be an irrational standard for action.


No. "The conclusion ceases to

curi's picture

No. "The conclusion ceases to be a hypothesis and becomes knowledge. Such a conclusion is certain." He also says it more clearly in http://www.peikoff.com/courses...

Further, it doesn't matter. You can just modify my essay to say acting on inconclusive, uncertain knowledge is irrational, we need and can achieve, certain, conclusive knowledge in all cases. It'd be the same point.

I still see straw...

tvr's picture


Inconclusive knowledge is still knowledge.


Here are three OPAR

curi's picture

Here are three OPAR quotes:

Like possibilities, probabilities are asserted within a context and may be weakened or strengthened as it changes. If favorable evidence continues to be discovered, at some point the cognitive climax will be reached. The conclusion ceases to be a hypothesis and becomes knowledge. Such a conclusion is certain. The concept of “certainty” designates knowledge from a particular perspective: it designates some complex items of knowledge considered in contrast to the transitional evidential states that precede them. (By extension, the term may be applied to all knowledge, perceptual and conceptual, to indicate that it is free of doubt.) A conclusion is “certain” when the evidence in its favor is conclusive; i.e., when it has been logically validated. At this stage, one has gone beyond “substantial” evidence. Rather, the total of the available evidence points in a single direction, and this evidence fulfills the standard of proof. In such a context, there is nothing to suggest even the possibility of another interpretation. There are, therefore, no longer any grounds for doubt.


Certainty is a contextual assessment, and in countless situations the context permits no other. Despite the claims of skeptics, doubt is not the human fate, with cognition being an unattainable ideal. Doubt, rationally exercised, is a temporary, transitional state, which is applicable only to (some) higher-level questions—and which itself expresses a cognitive judgment: that the evidence one has is still inconclusive. As such, doubt is made possible only by a vast context of knowledge in the doubter’s mind. The doubter must know both facts and logic; he must know the facts known so far—and also the means by which in principle his doubt is eventually to be removed, i.e., what else is required to reach full proof.


In considering any issue, never permit yourself one minute in the quicksands of a baseless “I don’t know.” Instead, establish first that the issue is related to the realm of evidence and thus deserves consideration. Then study the evidence, weighing the possibilities in accordance with the principles of logic. Then make up your mind and take a stand.



tvr's picture

The first half of your article was well written, up until you started to detail Dr. Peikoff's "mistake".

You wrote:

"But then Peikoff makes what I think is an important mistake. He says that if you don't have knowledge or certainty, you can still judge by the weight of the evidence. This is a standard view held by many non-Objectivists too. I think this is too compromising. I think the choices are knowledge or irrationality. We need knowledge; nothing less will suffice."

Please post his actual quote and the source. I want to know the context of what you say he wrote and the actual wording. I suspect you made a mistake and should have written "He says that if you don't have knowledge of certainty..." and not "or certainty". If I am correct, then knowledge of probability or possibility (or impossibility) is knowledge, making your argument a straw man.


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