Yes or No Philosophy

A main problem in the philosophy of knowledge is judging ideas. Which ideas are good or bad? Which are knowledge?

The standard view says ideas are supported by evidence and argument. The more support an idea has, the more it's preferred over competing ideas. An idea may also be criticized to reduce its support. An idea is rejected entirely if it contradicts accepted evidence.

Critical Rationalism says ideas are criticized using evidence and argument. The better an idea survives criticism, the more preferred it is over competing ideas. An idea is rejected entirely if it contradicts accepted evidence.

These views share a mistake. They both attempt to judge which non-refuted idea is better using an amount (support or criticism-survival). I'll call that amount epistemological goodness. The amount of goodness approach has no objective way to determine the sizes of the amounts, so it leads to subjective bias instead of objective knowledge, and it creates unresolvable disagreements between people.

Instead, ideas should be judged as non-refuted or refuted. There is no correct way to form a preference for one non-refuted idea over another. Goodness is a myth. Why? Because all critical arguments are decisive or incorrect. Either an idea solves a problem or it doesn’t. Either a criticism explains why a solution won’t work to solve that problem, or it doesn’t.

And all positive arguments can be rephrased to equivalent negative (critical) arguments, or they're incorrect. The rephrasing is simple: Positive arguments bring up some positive thing. To create a criticism, state why lacking the positive thing prevents the competing ideas from solving the problem in question.

Karl Popper spoke of, "weighty though inconclusive arguments" (Objective Knowledge ch. 2.5, p. 41). This is the standard view that a critical argument may weaken an idea without refuting it. Popper accepts the existence of medium strength arguments, which have an impact somewhere in between conclusive refutation and nothing. That was a mistake.

Ideas are solutions to problems; they have some sort of purpose. This uses Popper’s broad meaning of “problem” which refers to anything we might try to know or do. Learning, improving, pursuing preferences, or accomplishing a goal are all problem solving. (My argument could also be made using other terminology.)

A criticism is an explanation of why an idea doesn't solve a problem(s). Ideas can't be evaluated outside the context of a problem they're intended to solve – whether an idea (solution) works depends on what it's supposed to work for (the problem). An idea which fails to solve one problem may still solve a different problem.

All well-defined problems have success-or-failure criteria. A solution either meets the criteria and succeeds, or not. Any problem which appears to allow for partial success is vague and should be clarified. All solutions are equal because they all solve the problem. If you want something more, state a second problem with more demanding success-or-failure criteria.

So a solution either solves a problem or it doesn't. A criticism says why an idea doesn't work. You should either accept or reject this criticism (do you know a refutation of the criticism?). We must make (fallible and tentative) yes or no judgements about our solutions (by whether there are any non-refuted criticisms of them, or not).

Hopefully we can agree to reject refuted ideas. A harder part is: how do you decide between non-refuted ideas? You may keep trying to criticize them, and you have options like criticizing all remaining ideas for their failure to adequately help you figure out the answer. There's another key technique:

Two ideas both solve a problem. So which is better? For this problem, they can't be differentiated. They both solve it; they’re equal. To choose between the ideas, look for another (more demanding, more ambitious) problem which one of the ideas solves and one doesn't. Whatever criteria you may have for preferring one solution over another, specify it in a problem so that one idea is a solution to that problem and the other is refuted.

Forming multiple non-refuted or refuted judgements for ideas, regarding multiple clear problems, is a better approach than forming preferences between ideas by subjectively making up amounts of goodness. If one idea is genuinely better than another, it’s because it solves a problem you care about which the other idea doesn’t solve.

What about when you don’t have any solution? Don't say, "I know idea X is flawed, but I'll sorta kinda use X anyway." That's vague. Instead, formulate a new idea like, "Since I don't have a better plan and need to do something right now, I'll use the following parts of X, but not the other parts, because…” Then consider if you have a criticism of that, or not. This new idea may be a non-refuted solution to the problem of what to do right now in your situation.

Many important issues have a yes or no answer, for example: Should I accept this idea? Should I take this action? Should I use this solution in my life? Given the available evidence, ideas, arguments, etc, is it correct to believe this? Will this solve that problem? Should I try to solve that problem this week?

Whatever your philosophy views, you make yes or no judgements routinely. You take some actions and not others. You accept some ideas and not others. When you don’t accept or act on an idea because you think it has a lower amount of goodness, you’re saying no to it – without actually knowing a refutation of it. Directly consider the yes or no judgements you make and you’ll be a better judge of ideas.

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