Agrippa’s trilemma: Beliefs aren’t facts and some things simply aren’t provable


I don't know. Something about philosophy gets me thinking about pondering chimps.

I forget where I heard about Agrippa's trilemma. Looking back through my podcast feed, it was probably Naval Ravikant on Joe Rogan's podcast, since that looks like the smartest one I've heard lately.

I'm probably wrong.

Anyway, I had to figure out what this was; it seemed like a Pascal's triangle sort of thing.

For some reason, Agrippa's trilemma is more frequently known as the Münchhausen trilemma, even though Agrippa lived about 1,700 years before Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Anyway, I'll call it Agrippa's trilemma, because that's how I first heard it, it's easier to spell, and I'm a stubborn little shit.

The trilemma presents three arguments against the provability of any philosophical truth (specifically, the trilemma is the decision which one to use).

In science, we use the principle of falsifiability in our search to prove (or, more accurately, support) hypotheses using the scientific method.

Basically, in science, if there's no statement that would negate a hypothesis, it's not a valid hypothesis. Wikipedia offers an example:

The claim "all swans are white and have always been white" is falsifiable since it is contradicted by this basic statement: "In 1697, during the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh expedition, there were black swans on the shore of the Swan River in Australia", which in this case is a true observation.

Now, a statement doesn't have to be proven false to be falsifiable, you just have to be able to test it. "All fish live primarily in water" is falsifiable, but isn't false. There are a couple of fish that can move on dry land between bodies of water (snakeheads, for instance), but they still live primarily in water.

"All birds fly" is both falsifiable (we can test it) and false (ostriches and emus, for example, don't fly).

"There will never be a purple cloud" is not falsifiable. We can't test the future.

"All mammals have hair" is also not falsifiable, since that, by definition, is true (a mammal is an animal with hair or fur; that's not an argument or hypothesis).


Moving out of the realm of science, we head to philosophy to examine Agrippa's trilemma.

The assertion is that there are three types of arguments to prove some piece of knowledge, and the trilemma is picking which one, even knowing all three are inadequate as proof.

The three types of "proof" are: circular arguments, regressive arguments and axiomatic arguments. Formally, these are called, respectively, coherentism, infinitism and foundationalism.

A circular argument is something like, "A is true because of B. B is true because of A." There's no external facts outside of those presented to prove your assertion. For example:

Wellington is in New Zealand.
Therefore, Wellington is in New Zealand.

Another example (paraphrased):

(1) The Bible affirms everything in it is true.
(2) Everything in the Bible is true.
(3) Therefore, everything in the Bible is true.

You're using the belief that the Bible is true to claim that the Bible is true, without presenting any facts.

Believe what you like, and without judgment; belief is different from provable science.

If you know any three-year-olds, you're probably familiar with the regressive argument. There's a reason this is called infinitism: it just goes on and on.

It goes something like this: You make an argument. You have to prove that's true with another argument. And then you have to prove that argument is true with another argument.

To our hypothetical three-year-old:

"Don't touch the stove."
"Why?"
"The stove is hot."
"Why?"
"Because electricity heated the coils."
"Why?"
"Because I turned the stove on."
"Why?"
"So that I could cook dinner."
"Why?"
"So that we don't get trichinosis."
"Why?"
"Because we don't want to be sick."
"Why?"
"I'm going to throw you out the damn window if you ask why one more time."
"Why?"
*Defenestrates child from first-floor window, voluntarily commits to psych ward to get a good night's rest.*

Infinite regression arguments often end with "because I said so" or "fuck you."

The axiomatic argument is a little more difficult. Scientifically, we'd accept it, but philosophically, it's not that easy. The argument goes something like this:

"Such-and-such is true."
"Why?"
"Because it is, just look at it."

An example might be the commutative property in arithmetic. Remember that one? Of course you don't. You probably learned it in fifth grade then filled your head with a bunch of garbage. It reads:

a+b = b+a.

This doesn't hold true for subtraction unless a=b.

Substitute 5 for a and 3 for b, we get:

5+3 = 3+5

Meanwhile,

5-3 ≠ 3-5.

So the argument structure looks like this:

"Addition is commutative."
"Why?"
"Here are 400 million cases where it works."
"That's not an answer."


Responses to Agrippa’s Trilemma »


From the standpoint of Better Humanhood, there are some things to point out here.

One is, if your belief — be it political or religious — is not falsifiable, understand that it's just that: a belief. We can argue our different positions all day long, even tossing in stats and facts, but we still have no scientific basis for our beliefs.

Another is, facts are facts, other things are not. You can't claim a moral truth, because morals aren't backed by anything other than belief (see the previous paragraph).

Finally, tell the truth where you can. Where you can't, back up your beliefs on as solid a foundation as you can.

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