Friday, April 7, 2017

Aesthetic reasoning about necessary truths

We prefer more elegant theories to uglier ones. Why should we think this preference leads to truth?

This is a classic question in the philosophy of science. But I want to raise the question in connection with philosophical theories about fundamental metaphysics, fundamental ethics, philosophy of mathematics and other areas where our interest is necessary rather than contingent truth. Why should we think that the realm of necessity has the kind of aesthetic properties that would make more beautiful theories more likely to be true?

Here are two stories. The first story is that we are so constructed that we tend to find beauty in those philosophical theories that are true. It is difficult to explain why there would be such a coincidence if we are the product of naturalistic evolution, since it is unlikely that such a connection played a role in the survival of our species tens of thousands of years ago. If God exists, we can give an explanation: God gave us aesthetic preferences that guide us to truth.

The second story is that fundamental necessary reality is itself innately beautiful, and beautiful theories exhibit the beauty of their subject matter. And we recognize this beauty. It is puzzling, though: Why should fundamental necessary reality be beautiful? The best explanation of that which I can think of is again theistic: God is beauty itself, and all necessary truths are grounded in God.

Of course, one might simply reject the claim that our aesthetic preferences between theories lead to truth. But I think that would be the end of much of philosophy.

I think that in the order of knowing, aesthetics and ethics come first or close to first.


Walter Van den Acker said...

I think there is a much simpler reasons why we are attracted to elegant theories. We have a natural tendency to explain complex things by means of simpler ones. And that natural tendency can play a role in the survival of our species.

And of course, ultimately, reality is simple, not complex. The reason for that is also simple: complexity is in need of an explanation.

You might object that I have just given an argument for divine simplicity, but the trouble with divine simplicity is that, even if it could be successfully argued that God as an entity is simple (and I don't think that makes any sense), God as an explanation is extremely complex, and in fact, very ugly.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Actually, God not only is simple as an entity, but the statement of the existence of God makes a very elegant fundamental explanation of the world. With second-order quantification:
∃x∀P(Perfection(P) → P(x))

Beogradski kulturni klub said...

I don't understand why we should think that reality is ultimately simple? It seem very complex indeed. And some explanation of contingent facts seem very complex, at least from mathematical point of view. Idea that our natural tendency to explain thinks with simpler theories don't give us any plausible reasons to believe that that tendency is truth conductive and not just survival conductive. And it is very hard to make some plausible connection between those two.

Also, it is hard to see why ''God as an explanation'' extremely complex? Maybe it is hard to grasp (many people don't think so) but it doesn't make some explanation extremely complex.

I think that first commentator should give as more elaboration of his cryptic remarks. I really would like to understand those ideas.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dear Beogradski kulturni klub

If reality isn't ultimately simple, then God is not simple, because God is ultimate reality.
God as an explanation is extremely complex because the concept God lumps all kinds of explanations together in one entity. Even if we accept that God's omnipotence is his omniscience and is his moral perfection etc. , those 'properties' are very complex themselves. Saying that "God knows x" and "God knows y etc" can be described as simply "God knows everything" does not make the explanation simple unless of course all proposition really come down to one simple one. Which means that the ultimate simplicity of reality logically preceeds God.

Likewise, Dr Pruss, ∃x∀P(Perfection(P) → P(x)) is only a very elegant explanation of the world because "perfection" is treated as a black box. "My spaceship is controlled by this little box" is a very elegant and simple explanation of how the spaceship is operated ... until we open the little box.

Alexander R Pruss said...

A concept is complex to the extent that it can be broken down into simpler concepts. A concept is simple iff it is not complex at all.

Half a century of work after the Gettier problem has failed to come up with an analysis of knowledge. A reasonable conclusion would be that there is none, and so knowledge cannot be broken down into simpler concepts, and thus that it is a simple concept. It's a black box that isn't made of moving parts--a simple black box.

The same could well be true of perfection.

To be honest, I find this more plausible for perfection than for knowledge.

Walter Van den Acker said...

An analysis of infinite knowledge can show one of the following two possibilities.

1 Some (or all) of the propositions in infinite knowledge are truly separate.
2 The propositions in infinite knowledge are not separate, which means infinite knowledge can, in principle be described in one simple proposition.

The first option means that infinte knowlegde is complex (even infinitely complex), which is a problem for your view.

The second option, if knowledge is indeed simple, then we are back to my original argument that reality is ultimately simple.
The main difference between my con cept and yours is that yours has a black box and a simple content of the black box (two simple concepts), while mine has only the simple content. Which means mine is simpler because it is not complex at all.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That the proposition describing reality is simple does not mean that the reality so described is simple. It may be that all propositions are simple entities. (Sentences, of course, are not.) What would the parts of a proposition be? How would they be glued together?

Walter Van den Acker said...

If the proposition describing God's knowledge is simple that either means that God's knowlegde is complex (my 1) or that it's simple (my 2). If it's simple, then reality is basically simple because God is basic reality. In that case, you still have a box plus its content, while I have only the content.

As to what the parts of a proposition would be, I don't know, but I am not talking about parts of a proposition but of separate propositions. Even if propositions are simple entities, a group of propositions consists of simpler concepts, and , as a result is complex.

And I doubt that truly separate parts of reality can be described using one single simple proposition.