26 May 2013

Randal replies, and so do I – it's gettin' REAL

Randal opted to offer a reply to my reply in its own blog post, which is a pretty good idea since Disqus annoyingly lacks a "compose" feature and lengthy comments often get buried beneath the mire.

By now, it's been quite some time since there's been any discussion or progress on the moral law, to my frustration since that's precisely the topic on which I originally challenged Randal. It seems like a lot of this is stemming from my dismissive comments toward the ontological argument, and dammit, I'm starting to think I might have to post something (again) explaining why I think the ontological argument is so incredibly stupid, with Plantinga's version taking the cake as the most semantically confused garbage of them all – a version Randal refers to as "a brilliant piece of metaphysics". Well, to borrow a page from professional philosophers, I suppose that depends on how you define "brilliant". For now, though, we'll just have to agree to disagree to avoid yet another massive tangent.

Randal's central concern though, reflected by his high opinion of Plantinga's ontological argument, is that either I'm being dismissive of things that I do not understand or I'm not being charitable enough regarding the circumstantial conditions affecting what it is ir/rational to believe. He explains:
I worry about the lack of epistemic nuance in Mike’s statement here. Sure, people sometimes endorse “stupid arguments and absurd beliefs”. However, there is also a real danger that we end up reasoning like this:
     (1) It would be stupid or absurd for me to believe p.
     (2) Therefore, it was (or is) stupid or absurd for x to believe p.
Needless to say, (2) does not follow from (1). And yet I hear quite often from gnu atheists, skeptics and others a distressingly dismissive view of the doxastic attitudes of others based, it seems to me, on something like this inference. One often sees this in the so-called “chronological snobbery” where folks who lived before us are written off as dupes and morons. The fact is, however, that shifting times or doxastic communities (or other contextual cues) inevitably shifts the boundaries of what it is rational and irrational to believe.
I understand where Randal is coming from, but I think his concern is a bit misguided. In my previous reply, I used the example of Isaac Newton, widely considered to be one of the most brilliant human beings who ever lived, spending the majority of his life as an alchemist. I'm sure Newton had his rationalizations, but that doesn't change the fact that alchemy – like phrenology, astrology, homeopathy and any number of other pseudosciences – was utterly and profoundly wrong.

It's also important to understand that I did not say something like, "believing in the ontological argument shows that you are stupid". I think it's a stupid argument, but the point of my Newton example is to show that very smart people can believe some really stupid stuff. The people who are young-earth creationists or homeopathic advocates are not cretins; their arguments are complex and will often confound and confuse people without the relevant academic training. But the sophisticated veneer of those beliefs and the general intellect of their subscribers does not change the fact that young-earth creationism and homeopathy are really, really, really stupid. Michael Shermer touched on this issue in his terrific book The Believing Brain. Smart people aren't necessarily less likely to believe stupid things; what often ends up happening is that they are really good at conjuring up complex rationalization for those stupid things.You can be very smart and still be ignorant, deluded, or just plain wrong.

Randal's glad to see I understand the value of philosophy, but still has some reservations about my dismissive 'tude:
I would like Mike to provide some examples of philosophers engaging in “almost purposefully esoteric obfuscation”. (And I’d like him to explain what almost purposeful means.)
Plantinga's take on the ontological argument is a great example, actually. William Lane Craig helpfully summarizes Plantinga's argument as follows, from the book Reasonable Faith:
1) It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
2) If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
3) If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
4) If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
5) If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
6) Therefore, a maximally great being exists.
Premise 1 is mostly uncontroversial, if only problematic in terms of quantifying the term "maximally great" (since "great" is qualitative). But the real headaches begin with the term "possible world". To echo Craig's own explanation, saying something "exists in a possible world" simply means that it's possible that it exists; it's little more than a semantic device. The result is that premises 1 and 2, for example, are redundant – as are premises 4 and 5. The entire argument could simply be restated around the third premise, liberated from such semantic obscurity, by saying: "It is possible that God exists; ergo, God exists". If you think that sounds like some serious question-begging, you'd be right! As stated, this argument is a complete non sequitur. The argument needs to be reformulated to state the real premise of the ontological argument, which is that existence itself is a property – so it is greater for some conceivable being to possess the property of existence than non-existence. I think that's incredibly dumb, but I'll have to save that for another post.

As to what I mean by "almost purposefully", I mean that Plantinga (and Randal, for that matter) is smart enough to know better. When the best a philosopher can offer in an argument is to confound and confuse with esoteric semantic devices, we laypersons need not be impressed. If you can't state your case concisely, without drowning in semantic obscurity, I don't think I'm obligated to pay much heed to your arguments. It's especially frustrating when that semantic obscurity becomes a wall erected to dismiss those who refuse to indulge it. That's why I find it frustrating when a discussion about the existence of objective moral values gets drowned in digressions about what mathematical objects are or philosophies of the mind. Certain facts are uncontroversial: the subjective nature of our intuitions, the poor reliability of claims of special revelation, etc. We don't need to dive head-first into epistemological foundations just to broach the subject of whether something supposedly integral to the human experience actually exists. 

Lastly, Randal objects to my point that philosophy is impotent without science:
Here’s the problem, briefly. Jones says “science is defined as p.” P is a philosophical assertion about the nature of science.  If Mike is correct then the truth of p will be determined at least in part by the deliverances of science. But this is viciously circular since “the deliverances of science” is already determined by whether or not one accepts p and thus the truth of p cannot be decided by the deliverances of science.
This kind of argument could essentially be used to dismiss all of science and, not coincidentally, is exactly what Intelligent Design advocates use to support their creationism. Provided you reject a proposal about the nature of science (like the ID advocates' insistence that science ought to include supernatural explanations for observed phenomena), you can reject the conclusions of science as well. This strikes me as absurd, primarily because it would allow anyone to insist that their own subjective paradigm of reality is the correct one. Stephen Hawking is frequently paraphrased: science wins because it works. It provides us with reliable descriptions of reality which maintain their reliability independently of any individual's subjective experience.

I've mentioned often that I'm a big fan of Hawking's model-dependent realism. This simply says that we don't have direct, objective access to Absolute Reality*. We merely have models that can describe reality with varying degrees of reliability. Among the least reliable of those models are those constructed by our brains in subjective experience. While we can garner a great deal of practical information, we can't learn anything beyond our very limited frame of reference. Worse, we're prone to a litany of biases and errors that cloud our cognitive models with erroneous data.

Science gives us a way out. It gives us a means to construct models whose reliability can be established independently of subjective experience. That's a big deal and it has tremendous implications for philosophy. Hawking takes it up a notch: he says that it's meaningless to talk about what is "real", only which models are more useful. I think he's right. The word "real" is one that's been drowning in philosophical semantics for centuries and will probably never emerge with any new-found clarity. So sure, you can reject a certain premise of what science is or what it does, and subsequently reject any conclusions that science draws. But you'll just be drowning in your own irrelevance with a primitive and often unreliable model of reality.

And, this was a much longer post than I'd intended and I totally forgot to remind you to make a sandwich. Since you read all that (I mean you did, right? You'd never just skim, would you? What is this, the internet?), go ahead and have a cookie. I hope you now realize why this title was also an amazingly brilliant pun. Also, I haven't proofread this yet, so if there are any glaring typos... well, just a wait a little bit.

*Hawking's proposal that we don't have access to an absolute objective reality isn't just a bald assertion; it's an evidence based argument. That's because we each observe other rational agents who often give us different accounts of reality. We  give conflicting accounts of the same circumstances, and independent evidence (videos, pictures, audio recordings, DNA evidence in crimes, etc.) may demonstrate that we don't remember past events correctly. If we all had access to Absolute Objective Reality, we would all give the same accounts of all circumstances and remember details precisely. These inaccuracies show that our brains aren't showing us reality as it objectively is, but constructing a model based on sensory data that allows us to function in our human frame of reference.

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