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May 01, 2008



Support for this view can be found in the recent performances (one can only call them that) at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. It was remarkable that both parties were in favour of goodness, truth, American values, and positive change. Both parties also agreed in framing their opponents as stupid at best and willfully malicious at worst. The attribution of personal motives to opponents has undermined any hope of meaningful debate and transformed the contest into cheap grandstanding.

Burk Braun

Hi, Tomkow-

Thanks for a very interesting post. Your portrayal of underdetermined systems is very persuasive, with normal politics as a typical example. But there can be chaff thrown into the wind of debate by corrupting parties (interest groups with more money than morals). This happened in the tobacco issue as it is now in the global warming issue. Thus underdetermination can be a conscious strategy and tool. But eventually, many issues do get ironed out- communism dies, and the rest of the world trends towards mixed socialism+capitalism.

Primary among the issues to be sorted out is AGW, which is surely going to be decided within a hundred years and probably very much less. This is quite a bit less than when "hell freezes over". Indeed, it seems unlikely that hell will ever freeze over, at the rate things are going.

And all this hardly advances the postmodern agenda either. The fact that science and public policy experience underdetermined frontiers is not a novel or earthshaking idea. To me it seems that postmodernism has tried to unsettle not just the frontiers of knowledge, but all knowledge, putting us in the funk you talk about. And that, as your cites of Fodor and Blackburn indicate, would be urging us to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Ed Brenegar

I found you through 3Quarks. Congratulations on your recognition.

I agree that underdetermination is the stuff of everyday life. None of us lives by absolute empirical certitude. Rather, we live more by our wits, adapting to the multitude of changes that impact us every moment of every day. We don't recognize all this adaptation going on, because we do it naturally. This adaptation is a living expression of Aristotle's mean. We are constantly being pressed for commitments and decisions, not in some binary way, pro or con, but in a more personal way, from many different people and influence sources. We constantly try to find where we fit in the mix of all these opinions and the data and theories that drive them. Ultimately, our decisions are less logical than they are social or political, again in Aristotle's sense.

I find the problem to be that we don't recognize life to be this way. That, instead, we carry through this obligation to be perfect, complete and that all problems have an absolute resolution. I'm not a relativist. I do think that some solutions are better than others, but no solution is ever complete and no issue ever settled. This is what makes human life interesting and fulfilling.

Thank you for your reasoned perspective.


As a pragmatist, my take on this issue is to offer some solutions, not just wax, err, philosophical. To begin with, we need to expose all the baggage which Quine correctly identified everyone brings to the table. Revealing everyone's priors is a necessary prerequisite if rational argumentation is to be had ('s_agreement_theorem ). This is probably a recursive process, with priors having priors and so on. The more divergent people's world-views and correspondingly the less priors commonly shared, the deeper the recursion needs to traverse. Once all that is out in the open, the next step is to try, as much as possible, to shift the theory under deliberation from strongly underdetermined to merely weakly underdetermined. This would require continually adding more varied types of empirical evidence as necessary.

If all goes well, in the end you should have everyone in agreement with a certain probability of each theory being 'correct'. Then people can get on with the tasks of rationally theorizing and experimenting to ratchet up that probability.


I came here via 3QD.

"Our collective tragedy is that empirical methods can, in principle, only take us so far. After that, it's all Rush Limbaugh and questions in Parliament."


But, what about people who understand politico-scientific debates in this way? As you point out- "But that would leave us with no motive to participate in the debate. What would be the point of arguing?" Does the motive for participation arise from some sort of belief in 'truth'? I think so.

However, I do think that life would be better if people fully understood the limits of 'empirical verification'. In this context, Feyerabend seems to stand out as an interesting philosopher.

Whatever one might say, the problem/characteristic that you point out is real and must be grappled with.

I think that I would look at Scott Plous's piece on the Cold War as being a perceptual dilemma as good example of the time of indeterminacy you are looking for - I don't find the Quine claim very compelling.

Plous showed that with actual data from the US/USSR decision makers that each systematically framed the problem, or guessed about the other side's preference rankings, in different ways that allowed them to evaluate the evidence of each their and the other's propensity for a first strike in entirely different ways. Very interesting stuff.

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