Steve Patterson: Certainty and Logic | Who Shaves the Barber? #26

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Steve Patterson

Steve Patterson’s book Square One: The Foundations of Knowledge begins with the bold claim: “Truth is discoverable. I’m certain of it.” The rest of the book is an attempt to prove that there are certain truths for which there is not a sliver of doubt.

I am, to say the least, unconvinced. Universal fallibilism – the claim that all knowledge leaves room for doubt – is, ironically enough, a view I’m particularly confident of (though, obviously, not certain of). Indeed, I did a two-part podcast on this topic (Against Certainty: Knowledge and Experience and Against Certainty: Logic). In this interview, I challenge Steve’s claims to certainty with my skeptical doubts. The conversation takes us through the Münhhausen Trilemma, the nature of justification, subjective experience, and, of course, the ever-popular liar paradox.



Next week: Catarina Dutilh Novaes: Logic as Social Practice

Special thanks to Jackie Blum for the podcast art, and The Tin Box for the theme music.
Click here for the full list of episodes!

Topics discussed

0:41 – The goal of certainty
2:59 – Agrippan trilemma
6:37 – Certainty v. necessity (epistemology v. metaphysics)
19:08 – Justification (grounds for belief)
25:42 – Certainty about experience v. certainty about logical truths
29:03 – Meditating on experience
31:40 – Presuppositions of skepticism?
41:50 – Negation
43:32 – “Logic and existence are inseparable”
47:28 – Philosophy of language
49:50 – Liar paradox, negation, and the possibility of contradiction


Square One: The Foundations of Knowledge by Steve Patterson
How to Resolve the Liar’s Paradox” by Steve Patterson (video)…

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A Problem about Belief

An experience (I hope) everyone has had: you have a strong opinion about a subject. Then you learn more about the subject and realize your initial opinion was hilariously immature. It was the opinion someone who was uninformed. The new knowledge you’ve acquired gives you hints as to how you might have to revise the original opinion. But, more importantly, it has humbled you. You now realize you’re unqualified in this area. Whatever new information you now have, you’ve been given something that supersedes it: the fact of your own limitations. You can take your new knowledge and form a new opinion, sure. But you can also project based on past experience. What would happen if you learned even more about the subject? Isn’t it likely that you’d realize that your new, revised opinion was also silly? It was, after all, still the opinion of someone who was relatively uninformed, even if less uninformed than before.

This has happened to me with philosophy. I used to have fairly strong philosophical convictions. The more philosophy I learn, the weaker those convictions become. Not because I’ve necessarily found convincing counterarguments. More so because, the more I learn, the more obvious it is to me how little I actually know. And I don’t even mean knowledge of facts or of particular arguments. It’s broader than that. The more I learn, the more I realize there are entire ways of analyzing issues that I don’t have access to because I haven’t learned enough.

One takeaway from this is: unless you’re a top expert in a field, you should assume that your opinions are wrong (or, if correct, for the most part accidentally so).…

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Normativity of Logic and the Preface Paradox

normativity logic

I recently came across a surprising claim: that logic is normative. That is, it is in some sense wrong to deny logic. The claim isn’t surprising because it’s controversial; instead, it’s so obvious that it’s initially jarring to see it spelled out explicitly. What is controversial is the claim that followed: that logic’s normativity isn’t universal. In other words, that it is sometimes rational to accept a deductive argument as valid, accept all its premises as true, and yet still deny its conclusion. Let’s see why this might be and whether it holds up.

The Preface

A well-known paradox, the Preface, goes as follows: I assert each thing I state in this post. After all, if there were something here I did not wish to assert, I would not state it. However, I also assert that I’m wrong about at least one thing I say here. Write anything long enough, and chances are, no matter how thoroughly you check yourself, you’ll get at least one thing wrong. (This post isn’t very long, but as an amateur writing on a complex topic, the post needn’t be very long for me to feel confident that there’s at least one mistake in it.)

So far so good. Here’s the trouble. Let’s label my assertions in this post p0, p1, p2, … pn. I’m apparently asserting that each of those is true, but also denying that their conjunction – (p0 & p1 & p2 & … & pn) – is true.…

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