Precisification: Calibrating our Concepts
14 August 2010
One of the points of contact between the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution was the development of precision instruments, which in turn made precision calibration possible, which in turn made precision engineering possible. None of the technological marvels we use in our daily lives today would be possible without precision engineering. There is evidence of limited precision engineering in the past (for example, the famous Antikythera mechanism), but before the industrial revolution the feedback loop between science, engineering, and technology had not developed into the industrial concern that it is today, and that limited its availability and its usefulness.
Today we are surrounded by precision; it is widely available and has proved its usefulness in countless ordinary activities. Despite the sophistication of our technology and the engineering the produces it, we tolerate a high degree of imprecision with the concepts that we use in our everyday life. As mentioned above in relation to ancient engineering, so too with ancient philosophy: there is evidence of the limited development of precision concepts (Aristotle’s logic, for example), but very little was made systematic. There are many within the analytical philosophy community today who share the common goal of bringing this kind of systematic precision to our philosophical thought. These efforts are not well known, in the same way the the efforts of precision engineers are not well known. Moreover, the work has not progressed to the level that would make it possible to produce articles for mass consumption. In fact, I can’t imagine an application of precision concepts that would ever produce articles for mass consumption.
But there could be. That is the tantalizing thought. There has been a partial precisification of economics as the dismal science has been mathematicized over the past century. Imagine politics, strategy, and diplomacy transformed through the use of precision concepts. Perhaps more to the point in the lives of most people, imagine the software and operating systems that you use every day on computers and cell phones transformed by the use of precision concepts. This is not happening. In fact, the opposite is happening. One of the few developments in contemporary logic possibly known to the general public is the recent work on fuzzy logic. There is a presumption that human beings think in such vague and imprecise terms that if we are going to produce usable machines then these machines will need to share in our vagaries. I do not dismiss this out of hand, but it is not the whole story.
A precisification of our ideas would enable the calibration of the concepts we employ, which would in turn enable more precise thinking. More precise thinking would clear up many muddles that make lives miserable, unpleasant, and uncomfortable. I am not suggesting that conceptual precision is a panacea, only that it offers certain benefits to the society that embraces them, and that we are not enjoying these benefits at present, or we are only doing so on a very limited basis.
In the spirit of precisification and the calibration of our concepts, here are some aphorisms that I posted to Twitter today:
1. A precise concept is a precisely delimited concept.
2. The precise delimitation of a concept prescribes tertium non datur for that concept, if for nothing else (e.g., the object for which the concept stands).
3. In so far as conceptual precision implies tertium non datur, precision is non-constructive (in the intuitionistic sense).
4. However precisely delimited a concept is in one respect, there will be other respects in which the same concept is not precisely delimited.
5. Even precision itself must admit of delimitation.
6. A perfectly simple concept might be made precise with no imprecise remainder, but perfectly simple concepts are few and far between.
7. Our concepts are as complex as the lives that generate them, and life is no simple matter.
8. Simple concepts capable of precision constitute a small subset of all concepts, and thereby again reveal the limitations of precision.
9. Either a concept reflects the complexity of life and cannot therefore be made perfectly precise, or a concept can be made perfectly precise but its application to the complexity of life is limited by this simplicity.
10. If you want to be precise, you must accept limitation.
11. If you will not accept limitation, you cannot be precise.
12. Imprecision as a consequence of defying limitation implies a commitment to the actual infinite, making imprecision as non-constructive as precision (cf. 3 above).
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