8/14 Open Thread: Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

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Common raven

The above conundrum comes to us courtesy of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (January 1832 – 14 January 1898), He was a mathematician, logician, author, lecturer, inventor, photographer, and Anglican deacon. In spite of his prodigous chops as a logician and mathematician, he was better known as Lewis Carroll, a non de plume he used to write "children's" fiction, notably Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. HIs poems Jabberwocky and The Hunting of the Snark are acclaimed as part of the literary nonsense genre. That may not be strictly accurate. Dodgson was an astute student of all things epistemological without overtly categorizing them as such. Both of the Alice books, to some extent, but much more so Sylvie & Bruno take a lot of metaphorical pokes at established epistemological assumptions and paradigms. They are also subtly educational if read from the proper perspective and in the proper frame of mind. Beyond that, they are sneakily existential, even there was no such thing in his day. Way back some 55 yearss ago, I wrote a paper that made a strong cse that the Alice books to some extent, Sylvie and Bruno even more so, and The Hunting of the Snark vehemently and explicitly should be viewed at least in parts as allegorical expositions on the existential dilemma, existential fear and existentialism in general, but without specifically using those concepts or that framework, because it really didn't have a name or formalism yet. In fact, the Snark can even be viewed as a proto-absurdist work. Cast its characters with humans, throw them on stage and you have a serious foreshadowing of Ionesco et. al.

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First, let's put some context around that conundrum:

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The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?'
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“Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
“No, I give it up,” Alice replied: “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter”
`No, I give it up,' Alice replied: `what's the answer?'
`I haven't the slightest idea,' said the Hatter.
`Nor I,' said the March Hare.
Alice sighed wearily. `I think you might do something better with the time,' she said, `than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers.'

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(FWIW: the entire Mad Hatter's Tea Party is worthy of a slow, thoughtful, methodical, contemplative, and inquisitive read.)

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My emphasis above. There is no answer, that is the original, canonical answer, that none exists. Note that it isn't that we don't know the answer, but that none exists. Why indeed ask a question if you know that no answer exists. But can you know that no answer exists, especially in this instance?

Dodgson was far too proficient at logic to let that stand. The question presumes that a Raven is somehow like a writing desk, something seemingly not supported by the facts. Hence, this is a non-question unless it is known, (or at least strongly suspected) that there is at lest one respect in which they are indeed like each other and one of the characters should've known it and corrected Alice's assertion that there was no answer. Need I say that they both EXIST, that they are material, tangible, temporal? The key here is that the Hatter was asking a riddle and Alice knew it was a riddle. Riddlers have a storied "history" in western culture, they are archetypes who play a specific role, and riddles must have an answer and only one acceptable answer. This answer is known to the riddler who then will reward or punish those attempting to guess the riddle depending upon the correctness of their answer. So in that sense and context, the whole sociology of riddling, Alice was right, there is no answer and it is a waste of time to pose the riddle. That is because riddles do not follow the laws of logic or science or anything other than the laws of riddles. There could be 50 or 60 technically correct answers to a riddle, but only one of them will be the right answer. A gorilla which loses a hind limb in its old age would arguably be a correct answer for the Sphynx's question, but certainly not for her riddle, which could only be as it was given to her by Oedipus.

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So where am I going with this? Vienna! Huh? The conundrum above is widely egarded as Dodgson poking a stick at his contemporaties in the fields of logic, math, philosophy and the like, which did not contain any members of the Vienna Circle which he and his contemporaries predate. Nonetheless, it is oddly apropos of another famous Raven conundrum that the members of the Vienna Circle stumbled into. So, on to Vienna, home to said Vienna Circle. Here's a Wikipedia super-condensed summarization:

The Vienna Circle (German: Wiener Kreis) of Logical Empiricism was a group of philosophers and scientists drawn from the natural and social sciences, logic and mathematics who met regularly from 1924 to 1936 at the University of Vienna, chaired by Moritz Schlick.
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The members of this group and their eventual followers "invented", explicated and advocated "logical positivism" aka "logical empiricism". One key element of this philosophy was the verifiability criterion or verification principle. The quick and dirty of that is that something could only be meaningful if it could be verified, either by direct observation or by logical derivation from something that was observable. This wasn't about things that weren't observable because of the limitations of our senses and/or equipment, but about things that were intrinsically unobservable, like das ding an sich. Seems reasonable enough. There was also a renegade who instead opted for a falsifiability criterion (and whom I consider to be closer to the mark). That too seems reasonable enough. At any rate, they eventually ran into a Raven conundrum of their own, which will be the subject of an embedded you tube:

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There's a lot there, and I intend to address some of it, in time, but what about Alice. You remember Alice. (Heh) This isn't about a riddle, but all the same, should one ask questions when one knows that there is no answer? And doesn't that violate the verifiability principle? After all, it is pretty much an empirical aphorism that one cannot prove a universal affirmative that isn't tautological and hence uninformative. Even the narrator accepts that in stating that we can only establish ever greater and greater probabilities that all ravens are black. In this case, as in most cases, we can imagine circumstances whereby we could answer the question, because the universe of discourse, or experience, or reality, as the case may be, is finite. Ravens exist here on our world and with sufficient personnel and technology we could theoretically verify that as of a specific point in time all ravens were indeed black.

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Next up is the comingling of formal logic and probabilistic empiricism. That is dangerous territory, both fields can be tricky and logic is particularly prone to generating paradoxes. Here we deal with negation, which I addressed at some point in a column iirc. We move from ravens are black to not ravens are not black, or do we? First up, we cast out the identity operator, ravens aren't identical to black, that is merely one of their properties.We should preferentially say:

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All members of the set of things called ravens possess the property or characteristic of blackness or being black.We might then think that an appropriate equivalent statement cast in the negative might be: All things that aren't members of the set of objects called ravens lack the property of blackness or being black, but that is clearly false. I have here a black fountain pen, a black non raven, so we have to invert the subject and predicate while we negate to get: All things lacking the property of blackness are non-members of the set of ravens. Here, nonetheless, all hell breaks loose. We have wandered into the minefield of infinities and our probabilistic explorations go directly into the toilet. The paradox and narrator are equating the seeming logical equivalence of "all ravens are black" and "all non-black things are not-ravens" to imply the equivalence of "observations of ravens with property black support the hypothesis that all ravens are black" and "observations of non-black things that are not ravens support the hypothesis that all non-black things are not-ravens." This is simply not true, and comes from smashing the logical equivalence of two seemingly logically equivalent statements.into the empirical meat grinder of probability.

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Remember Alice? Remember why the whole question or proposition doesn't fail the verifiability criterion? Buried in the proposition observations of ravens with property black support the hypothesis that all ravens are black is the hidden, empirical assumption that the set of ravens is finite. We can be sure, since they only exist on earth, that they must be finite in number given their mass, volume, and various other factors. If you have a finite number of ravens, so long as you observe none with a contrary property, each observation of a black one does increase the probability that they are all black, specifically from (b/total_ravens) to ((b+1)/total_ravens) for some finite number of ravens. OTOH, the number of non-black things, like the number of non-ravens, is not finite, arguably, given your definition of "things", not even here on Earth. The probability of one non-black non-raven is 1/infinity, and the probability of 35 of them is 35/infinity which is, because of the freakishness of the mathematics of infinities, exactly the same damn number. No matter how many NBNRs you observe, it doesn't support the hypothesis that all NBs are NRs, except subjectively. This is why, IMHO, falsification is a preferable criterion to verification when dealing with empirical matters requiring inductive logic and, needless to say, be extremely meticulous and careful when mixing inductive and deductive logic..

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For the record: speaking of falsification, (heh) it is well established that it is not true that all ravens are black. You yourself can simply fire up your favorite search engine in your favorite browser and check the images for each of the following: "white necked raven", "Vancouver island white ravens", and "leucistic ravens" if you really wish to know. No need for white shoes, unless you are channeling Pat Boone.

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The takeaways: 1) Riddles are neither propositions nor questions and obey neither the rules of logic nor those of empiricism. 2) Mixing formal logic an probabilistic empiricism is fraught with pitfalls. 3) Not all ravens are black and, lastly, for me, the Real takeaway from Logical positivism and its philosophical descendents (barring Frege, Kuhn and Kaplan) lies in the verifiability and falsifiability criteria. There is a ton of merit to the assertion that propositions which are intrinsically non-verifiable have no cognitive content, and certainly no empirical meaning or application. There is arguably even more to the assertion that propositions which are intrinsically incapable of being falsified are meaningless. In empirical reality, we progress by falsifying things and gain increasing confidence in the truth or at least reliability of propositions and theories as more and more attempts at falsifying them fail to do so. With respect to complex systems, especially biological systems, that is arguably the only way in which we gain demonstrable confidence in things.

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Image is a common raven, Corvus corax

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Its an open thread so have at it. The floor is yours
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edited for typo, is to in and cannot

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I'll curtsy while thinking of what to say. (It saves time.) Hattip and apologies to Lewis Carrol

But, seriously, folks....

Candidly, I skimmed the OT. However, the thinking behind it and the writing both seemed brilliant and eminently worthy of devoting more time and brain cells than I can wrangle before coffee. Maybe ever.

In any event, I bookmarked for reading and in depth appreciation during those moments when my body is too tired to do anything, but my mind is still functioning.

Even on an interim skim, though, it's genius.

Respect.

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enhydra lutris's picture

@HenryAWallace
enjoy your morning coffee.
Have a wonderful day.

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magiamma's picture

@HenryAWallace
Heh

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lotlizard's picture

https://chinamatters.blogspot.com/2016/05/the-worlds-most-dangerous-lett...

I hope the PRC, India, and Pakistan can work out a modus vivendi without reaching into the separatist toolkit.
 

Activists, separatists, and insurgents are a dangerous form of strategic leverage. They don’t take direction, they tend toward extremism, and giving them support, money, havens, and in the worst case arms can lead to unexpected knock-on effects. The most famous example is Germany sending Lenin to Russia during World War I and inadvertently midwifing the birth of the Soviet Union.

But there are examples closer to home, like India’s disastrous support for Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka that led to a war of annihilation inside Sri Lanka and blowback in the form of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the Tamil Tigers after he tried to wind down support for the insurgency.

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enhydra lutris's picture

@lotlizard
respecting all that, but first, much to read. Not just yet for me.

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enhydra lutris's picture

@lotlizard

Activists, separatists, and insurgents are a dangerous form of strategic leverage. They don’t take direction, they tend toward extremism, and giving them support, money, havens, and in the worst case arms can lead to unexpected knock-on effects. The most famous example is Germany sending Lenin to Russia during World War I and inadvertently midwifing the birth of the Soviet Union.

It seems only fair to give honorable mention to the US machinations in Afghanistan and one Osama Bin Laden.

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detroitmechworks's picture

Ways for human beings to deal with things they don't really understand in a form they do.

IMHO, a Riddle is a kind of cultural lock. When you come up with the "Right" answer, what you have done is replicate the thought process of the person who made the riddle. As a result, asking and answering riddles is in its most basic form a form of empathy training. Learning how another person thinks.

Much like Puns, the people who enjoy them love them immensely and those who do not HATE them with a passion. Both forms have multiple possible meanings for what normally would have a single answer. They expose the vulnerabilities in language and thought.

Phew, Ok, that's just my random thoughts on the subject. When I wrote my Logos series, I actually thought quite a bit on this topic, especially the idea of the "Test" riddle, or the riddle that is answered incorrectly and causes doom. Of course, most people who fail tests blame the test-giver at that point...

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I do not pretend I know what I do not know.

enhydra lutris's picture

@detroitmechworks
provoking exposition on riddles, riddling and the culture thereof. Acculturation and empathy traiing indeed, as with puns. I like it.

Thanks also for Oedipus Rex, a masterpiece.

Have a great one.

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hecate's picture

A raven is like a writing desk because both of them are here, on this property, and even though there was a fire, and the town burned down.

We know that ravens are not all and really black, because if they were The Klansman would deport them to the shithole countries, where all blackness belongs, and, at least so far, he is not doing that.

Vienna, she's pretty cool, too.

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enhydra lutris's picture

@hecate
riddle, and and thanks for reading.
Thanks also for Ms. Vienna, who is indeed very cool.
Have a good one.

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Azazello's picture

I'm sure I took an exam on this stuff at one time, essay question no doubt.
As I recall learning it, the Verification Theory of Meaning states that: the meaning of any proposition is the method required to verify it.
Or some such.
Have a nice day.

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enhydra lutris's picture

@Azazello
excellent formulation:

Verification Theory of Meaning states that: the meaning of any proposition is the method required to verify it.

The column ran a bit long as it was, so I failed to bring up a wee follow-up question. We are constrained by circumstances to discover our world and its reality through an admixture of empiricism and logic, much as was proposed by the Vienna circle, though not strictly so. Given the specifics of my attack on the Raven paradox, mustn't we ask if it is really legitimate to to say that statements of the form "all members of the set of x have property y" and "all things lacking the property y are not members of the set of x" are logically equivalent. While I'm certain that a traditional "truth table" approach says they are, one with a finite set in the subject leads us to integer math in the direct formulation and the mathematics of infinities in the negated formulation. To wit, should the operational definitions and considerations trump? Your formulation presented above seems to imply that it should? What say you? (essay due in 2 weeks Wink Heh)

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Azazello's picture

@enhydra lutris
My TV's on the blink.
Made Galileo look like a Boy Scout.
It's too much, man.
Let it all hang out.

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magiamma's picture

Et al

I’m going for Bayes Theorem. Except that if you repeat things enough people will think it is true.

j goebbels

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

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enhydra lutris's picture

@magiamma
I for sure decided at the outset not to go anywhere near it today. I do have a life, ya know.
Have a great one.

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magiamma's picture

@enhydra lutris @enhydra lutris
good choice, but Bayes is so great. heh.

edit to add; This ->

There is no answer, that is the original, canonical answer, that none exists.

Right? How much space between electrons? Sound of one hand clapping? Lol

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@magiamma
When I roughed this out, I thought that I blew up the Raven Paradox, an open problem in logic, only for instances of a=b where a was some finite set, and b was a property, sort of like tearing one leg off of a chair. (I know you can relate to that). I now think I blew it up completely. If the subject is infinite, it becomes a non question, because right out the door we cannot assess the probability of the statement by inspecting instances of a. The only remaining option is a==b, and that's tautologous and devoid of empirical content. Heh. (smirk)
Now, how much space between which electrons?

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magiamma's picture

@enhydra lutris
Everything in the universe is simple a particle with a probability function -- so maybe no space a t'all. heh

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@magiamma
about that, and that fine man from Cal Tech too, iirc, and it appears that you integrate all possibilities over all space-time and then cancel out everything but the right answer. I'm not at all sure of the details, though, as a carpenter, I am somewhat familiar with plank lengths.

What I do recall, is that you don't get position so much as some micromaniacal dust bunny showing in 3 or preferably 4 dimensions, a ton of loci where it might be associated with, for each, a hellaciously precise approximation of the odds that it might be at that locus. You won't, however, get anything like 572 out of 107 ravens, or 9 out of 10 doctors. It is, all the same, a different sort of tweak, 'cause what we get is stuff like "18.645% of the muons measured by device x have energy y, so, assuming some homogeneity among the totally unknown number of muons, we can assume that between 15 and 25% of them have that energy which means that the probability that the next one hitting device x will have that energy is in that range."

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lotlizard's picture

@enhydra lutris  
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schr%C3%B6dinger_equation

HΨ = EΨ ?

Perhaps it all used to make sense 50 years ago when I was in college, and maybe still did twenty years later, fascinated as I was by the ability to typeset even the fanciest equations using the TeX software program created by The Other Donald.

Nowadays, not so much.

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@magiamma

Mein Kampf.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_lie

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magiamma's picture

@HenryAWallace
I pulled that from the Wiki... Smile

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hecate's picture

Rakim Mayers is a filth merchant who poisons the planet with Thanatos odes to guns, killing, rape, unconsciousness, conspicuous pathetic consumption of "champagne flutes and tailored suits,” while ceaselessly denigrating "fags," "dykes," "bitches," "hoes," "bitch-shit niggers." Mayers has been convicted in Sweden of beating and stomping a man as he lay on the ground. Naturally The Klansman methed to the twitlers to foam on Mayers' behalf. For while The Klansman hates and loathes melanin to the very core of his being, he has always made an exception for wealthy violent black men who beat, rape, kill, plunder. There is Don King, the convicted serial killer, who once stomped a man to death over a $600 debt; mobbed-up, a congenital, voracious, shameless thief, and, in both of these, in the very league, of The Klansman himself. There is Ray Lewis, who because he was rich and fondled a football, was allowed to plead down in a case where he and two companions stabbed two men to death. There is Mike Tyson, paid to beat men about the body and head; freelance, he rapes women. There is Jim Brown, serial abuser of women, specializing in assaulting their cars with a snow shovel. There is Uncle Ben Carson, who stabbed someone in the stomach, wheeled people into the operating room to leave sponges in their brains, and went after his mother with a hammer. These, truly, are the people of The Klansman, the out and proud violent serial sexual predator, who publicly commands the mob of his cultists to beat and stomp those who will not worship his bigly, who beat and raped a wife in fury that she had referred him to a scalp-sawbones who had failed to cease the wholesale shedding of his hairs. He violently yanked great tufts of hair from her head, as he raped her, chortling "does it hurt? does it hurt?"

The administration of The Klansman is a vast sea of whiteness, no blackness anywhere in view, except in the person of the step-and-fetchiting hammer-wielding stomach-stabbing brain-sponging Uncle Ben. Now that Mayers is again free to wheel his filth wagon among the Americans, perhaps The Klansman can find a place for him in the White Power House. It is said The Klansman will soon sack Wilbur Ross as Secretary of Commerce; Ross to be scapegoated for the bungled Klansman plan to utilize the census to deprive millions of people of melanin of congressional representation and federal funds. Maybe Mayers can replace Ross. Mayers, after all, is an avatar of the commerce of expending oodles of dollars on perfectly useless, preferably ghastly ugly gaudy, complete and utter shit. Right up The Klansman's street.

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enhydra lutris's picture

@hecate
that I cannot challenge, disprove or even find fault with. Thanks.

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smiley7's picture

Wonderful, thank you.

“Nothing is mightier than our why, nothing stands above it, because in the end there is a why to which no answer is possible. In fact, from why to why, from one step to the next, you get to the end of things. And it is only by travelling from one why to the next, as far as the why that is unanswerable, that man attains the level of the creative principle, facing the infinite, equal to the infinite maybe. So long as he can answer the why he gets lost, he loses his way among things. 'Why this?' I answer, 'because that," and from one explanation to the next I reach the point where no explanation is satisfying, from one explanation to the next I reach zero, the absolute, where truth and falsehood are equivalent, become equal to one another, are identified with one another, cancel each other out in face of the absolute nothing. And so we can understand how all action, all choice, all history is justified, at the end of time, by a final cancelling-out. The why goes beyond everything. Nothing goes beyond the why, not even the nothing, because the nothing is not the explanation; when silence confronts us, the question to which there is no answer rings out in the silence. That ultimate why, that great why is like a light that blots out everything, but a blinding light; nothing more can be made out, there is nothing more to make out.”
~ Eugène Ionesco

And another quote for fun: “Why do people always expect authors to answer questions? I am an author because I want to ask questions. If I had answers, I'd be a politician.”

Cheers for brightening our day in hopes you've a good one.

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enhydra lutris's picture

@smiley7
wonderful quotes. Sometimes I wonder if it was healthy for me to read so much theater of the absurd (all I could find) and zen related material in high school, especially given that I was reading Russell too.

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Shahryar's picture

but did Lewis Carroll have that in mind? We'll never know. (but I suspect it was a nonsense riddle)

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enhydra lutris's picture

@Shahryar
planned to let it lie there. Years later, in the preface to some new edition, ho wrote that he had received such a multitude of importunities as to the answer that he would provide one in said preface and did so. It was pretty mediocre, not nearly so good as yours or many of the others that have been proposed, which is partly why I didn't include it.

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Shahryar's picture

@enhydra lutris

“No, I give it up,” Alice replied: “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter”

as if "I haven't the slightest idea" actually is the answer. I can't see any way to bend it to fit.

But anyway, not only do I agree with you that it's nonsense, I heartily endorse that it's nonsense!

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Anja Geitz's picture

The only "C" I got in college was in my logical argument class. While it all made sense when I was listening to the explanation, trying to graph it left me pitifully dumbfounded.

That said, I think I learned something from your essay Smile

Thanks for challenging my brain, EL.

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enhydra lutris's picture

@Anja Geitz
can weask is it true that all ravens are black (R=B, for short). Yes, we can imagine circumstances allowing us to inspect them all because they are finite in number.. Nonetheless, we currently cannot, the best we can do is assure ourselves of the likelihood that the statement is true by examining all the ravens we can find. Each black one without any non-black ones increases our confidence that they are all black, and could be viewed as a probability of at least some x/y where x is the number we inspected and y is the upper limit of the total number that could exist. (the volume of a raven/the volume of the lower 2 or 3 miles of atmosphere).

It can be shown with truth tables that if R=B is true, then "not B = not R" is an equivalent statement (I'll use ~B=~R). But, that is formal logic, which is binary, things are true or false, they are not maybe. (Can we even ask if ~B=~R? Not really, because there is no circumstance in which we can inspect all ~B objects.) It is asserted that we can obtain confidence that R=B by obtaining confidence that ~B=~R, but I say that we cannot, because no amount of inspection of ~B items can lead to any confidence that ~B=~R because B is not finite in number.

Let's say we knew that there were 30,000,000 Ravens. Inspecting 27,000,000 would give us great confidence (if they were, indeed, all black) Inspecting all 30,000,000 would give us absolute certainty. How about not black objects? How many need we inspect to get even 50% assurance, 100 billion, 50 trillion, a google? No number will suffice to give us any measurable confidence whatsoever. R+B and ~B=~R may be logically equivalent for the purposes of truth tables, but they are not empirically or computationally equivalent because one has a finite and theoretically enumerable subject and the other has an infinite and non-enumerable subject. In fact, the question "is it true that ~B=~R?" shouldn't even be asked by any logical positivist because it is intrinsically impossible to verify. (I allow it because it could be falsified, and I accept that as a preferred test, but it it cannot help support the assertion that R=B.)

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Anja Geitz's picture

@enhydra lutris

Such smart people here. Smile

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lotlizard's picture

An astronomer, a physicist, and a mathematician are on a train heading north and have just crossed the border into Scotland.

The astronomer looks out of the window, sees a black sheep standing in a field, and remarks, “How odd. Scottish sheep are black!”

“No, no, no!” says the physicist. “Only some Scottish sheep are black.”

The mathematician rolls her eyes, looks irritated, and sighs. “In Scotland, there is at least one field, containing at least one sheep, of which at least one side appears black.”

Old joke.

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