29 May 2014

Why don't theists admit they're wrong? Perhaps it's a lack of empathy

Easily my favorite part of writing this blog is the fact that I'm fortunate to have a small but engaged and wonderfully insightful readership. And shortly after my previous post Why don't theists admit they're wrong? hit the front page, I had some great comments that spurred me to reflect a bit more on these perpetual impasses. I don't think I've found any precise methodology for shifting another's perspective from what I referred to as a 'defensive mind' to an 'inquisitive mind', but I think the key may lie in our ability to empathize with others.

Consider for example that one could argue til they're blue in the face with someone who is convinced that homosexuals are depraved human beings; but immerse them in a community in which they must cooperate with homosexuals, and it becomes much more likely that they'll be receptive to a shift in ideology. This is why religious conservatives are so terrified of secular colleges corrupting their children – cultural diversity bodes poorly for dogmatism. Cooperating with and befriending those with different sociocultural backgrounds makes it easier to empathize with them, which makes it easier for us to critically self-reflect on our own biases and assumptions.

Reader 'Fraternite' left an insightful comment on the matter that provoked my own reflection:
Maybe it's a capability to imagine a different world? If you don't have that ability to "get out of your own head", you probably won't undergo any sort of significant paradigm shift. In the sense that stories are powerful emotional tools, perhaps it's our empathetic faculties that most often allow us to make that jump, experience things from another's perspective, and catch a glimpse of a different reality than our own.[1]
This reminded me of my own deconversion process, which accelerated greatly when I read a secular book on comparative religion. I'd read books on comparative religion before, but they were all written from the perspective of Christian evangelism – they existed to explain why other religions were wrong, why Christianity was better, and how to 'witness' to people of other faiths. When I finally studied the world's major religions from a secular perspective, I was struck not only by how disingenuous and misleading the Christian authors' representation of those religions had been, but by how closely many of the world's religions aligned with my views. While conceptualizations of deities and the content of rituals vary wildly across cultures, I was humbled to learn that nearly all the world's religions are united by a common humanism.

The result is that when I returned to questions that had been vexing me, like Why are there so many religions?, I was able to address them with a greater measure of dispassionate detachment. I no longer felt bound to or confined by my religious world view; truth mattered more to me than the preservation of my faith.


In the previous post, I mentioned the high cost of deconversion – a cost that can be personal (an existential crisis or depression), social (marginalization from friends in one's religious community), familial (disapproval from parents or strain on marriages), or professional (a loss of one's career, as is sometimes the case with those involved in the Clergy Project). That alone can conceivably act as a significant barrier to empathizing with non-believers, but I think there are others. Reader 'Lunaticus' commented,
Part of the reason why I think it's hard for religious people in general to change their minds, apart from the confirmation bias and sunk cost issues that afflict us all, is that religions seem to go so far out of their way to put horns and a tail on the alternatives. I don't know how often I heard in sermons and read in Christian books how empty, bleak, bitter, and hopeless atheists and humanists were.[2]
Some time ago I criticized the theologian William Lane Craig after he chastised an inquisitive reader for reading atheistic writings before he (the reader) had read a seemingly arbitrary amount of Christian apologetics [3]. Craig's response exemplified the vilification that Christians feel the need to heap upon non-belief and non-believers:
I find myself utterly baffled by the cavalier way in which many ill-equipped Christians expose themselves to material which is potentially destructive to them. It’s like someone who doesn’t know how to swim deciding to take the plunge in the heavy surf. Wouldn’t it be the sensible thing to do to first prepare yourself before venturing into dangerous waters? 
I remember vividly that when I first became a Christian I was very careful about what I read because I knew that there was material out there which could be destructive to my newfound faith and that I had a lot, lot more to learn before I was ready to deal with it. Do we forget that there is an enemy of our souls who hates us intensely, is bent on our destruction, and will use anything he can to undermine our faith or render us ineffective in God’s hands?
The message is clear: belief is to be preserved above all else. The 'horns and tail' to which Lunaticus referred are the ideas that rejecting Christianity leads one to existential and moral emptiness, that the embodiment of pure evil (the devil) is conspiring to seduce us into atheism, and that non-belief will ultimately lead to eternal separation from God. I've always found it remarkably strange from a theological standpoint that the god of Christianity appears to value mere belief over a moral and inquisitive life – isn't it better to be reflective but wrong than it is to be obsequious but right? Looked through an anthropological or sociological lens, though, the reverence of subservient belief makes perfect sense in a memetic view of religion. Not only does it reinforce the preservation of belief through fear of punishment or reprisal for heresy, but it also makes it less likely that the faithful will be able to empathize with outsiders, whom they view not merely as individuals with a different ideology but as lost souls both marching toward their own doom and as capable of coercing God-fearing people into joining them in the abyss.


Years ago I read a fantastic book, which I recommend often, called Religion Explained. In it, author Pascal Boyer examines religion through the lenses of anthropology, cognitive psychology, and social science, the results of which are wonderfully illuminating. I distinctly remember him describing religious communities as in-groups (what apologist Randal Rauser would call a 'doxastic community'), and remarking that religion strengthens inter-group cohesion but does so at the expense of cohesion with out-groups. Anyone who's grown up in the 'us vs. them' subculture of many churches is already intimately familiar with this phenomenon. But far from being relegated to fundamentalists and strident evangelicals, it's embedded in the cultural perspective of the religious believer – as William Lane Craig's admonishment of his inquisitive reader so unambiguously reveals.

So an impasse in a spirited debate, though it may seem to stem from mere stubbornness and egotism, may actually be an indirect outcome of ideas deeply embedded in the religious mind:
  • There is a high cost to one's social and personal identity in deconversion, and in some cases a high professional or familial cost.
  • Religion attaches 'horns and a tail' to non-belief, such that believers are convinced that purposeful and moral living are grounded in their faith – meaning that in addition to real social and personal costs of deconversion, there is a false but perceived cost.
  • Belief for its own sake is valued more highly than critical inquiry and self-reflection; non-belief – more so even than immoral living – is the ultimate crime against God.
  • Non-believers, or anyone outside of one's religious in-group, are considered not just people with differing opinions but lost souls without purpose, morals, or hope.
All of these factors act as barriers that prevent a theist from being able to empathize with non-believers and even those of other faiths. And if indeed empathy is the catalyst for critical self-reflection – and I am increasingly convinced it is – then religion is equipped to perpetuate its own survival though an insidious network of coercive beliefs that prey on peoples' fear of outsiders and the unknown.

In our debates with theists, we tend to hammer on ideas – carefully articulating each and every point in a vigorous and often repetitive exchange, hoping that eventually something will 'click' and they'll concede their errors. Of course, nothing of the sort ever happens. Perhaps a different strategy is in order. While the dissemination of ideas is vital to public discourse, it may be that actively working against those empathy-stifling biases could lead to a more receptive and inquisitive mindset that ultimately facilitates the spread of reason and the subversion of dogmatism. How exactly we do that, I am not sure, but it just may be a start in the right direction.

27 May 2014

Why don't theists admit they're wrong?

I've been through at least two major shifts in my perspective – one, my deconversion from Christianity some 15 years ago; the other, my deconversion from a self-described 'theistic agnostic' to a full-blown atheist. Both were gradual processes, with the resulting outlook the culmination of many months, and in some cases years, of critical reflection.

My transition from agnostic theist to agnostic atheist was rather unremarkable. Nothing really changed in my daily life, though I did seem to get heckled a bit more by family. They've long since backed down though, and at the end of the day I'm not really convinced there's much if any functional difference between someone who holds to a vaguely defined theism and someone who identifies as an atheist. They may disagree on issues like fine-tuning, creation, and near-death experiences, but those are generally relegated to the margins – they're coffee-table discussions interesting only to other armchair philosophers. But neither category of believer holds to any religious dogma, creed, or doctrine; functionally, both live as though God is not watching, without fear of judgement and reprisal.

My transition from Christianity was quite a bit messier, though. My faith was the backbone of my social life and an integral part of my personal identity. Throughout high school I'd felt disconnected from peers at school, whom I viewed as lost souls, while I integrated myself more tightly with my fellow Christian youths at church. I'd grown up with the mindset that without belief in God, there couldn't be any meaning to my life. After all, what's the point if we just die, soon to be forgotten among the countless billions of humans dead? (Fun fact: approximately 2.5 million people died in 2010 in the U.S. Seems like a lot, no?) Jettisoning my faith required me to develop a new social network, it caused tension between me and my family, and it plunged me into a bit of an existential crisis. I got off easy. I've known several deconverts over the years whose departure from faith caused them to lose their marriages, strained their relationships with their children, and cost them their jobs – and that's to say nothing of some I know who, despite trying to keep their deconversions private, are continually harassed and belittled by family and church members.

I, and many others, have been able to admit we were wrong. But why is our message so frequently ineffectual? Why do debates between atheists and theists almost inevitably end in an impasse?


It's tempting to think, in all the internet debates I've had over the years, that the reason others won't admit they're wrong is because they're stubborn and they just don't want to admit I'm right. But of course, they could just as easily adopt the same perspective – and maybe I am the stubborn one; after all, being wrong and not knowing it feels pretty much exactly the same as being right. I'm reminded of Tim Minchin's quip that arguing with someone who is operating from a completely different set of assumptions is like trying to win a tennis match by scoring perfectly executed shots from opposite ends of separate tennis courts. 

I've often wondered if the high cost of deconversion is a reason for the inevitable impasses in my discussions with theists. But of course that would require some more self-reflection on my part as well – what would be the cost of me re-converting? The answer, I think, is not much. From my perspective, the claims of Christianity are so comically absurd, and the rational argumentation against the divine nature of Bible so overwhelmingly conclusive, that the odds of me re-converting are virtually non-existent. It's far more probable, though still unlikely, that I'd become some sort of deist or pantheist. But let's say, hypothetically, that I returned to the Christian faith. I'd have an easier time making friends, and could return to my family's church. It would ease a bit of tension that still exists between my family and me. It would cause some tension in my soon-to-be-marriage, and I know my fiance would be quite disappointed. But I'm also confident that as long as I didn't feel the need to shove it down her throat, we'd be fine. As it is, she doesn't share my hard-nosed atheism anyway. My blog would be discontinued or reformed, but I can't see that as a significant cost since few of my real-life peers even know that I have a blog at all.

That's just my personal situation though, and I'm sure that for other atheists the cost might be much higher. But generally speaking, I think it's safe to say that the broad in-groups that conglomerate around religious doctrines make the cost of deconversion significantly higher than the cost of conversion for most people. But is the cost of deconversion really a reason why the theists I've encountered are so difficult to persuade?

I'm not convinced that it is. I think a more plausible explanation is that the nature of the in-groups promotes reinforcement of the belief system – i.e., when one's family, peers, and academics like William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga and Ed Feser hold various doctrines of Christianity to be true (to say nothing of the 2 billion or so people the world over), it's counter-intuitive to entertain the thought that they could all be completely and totally wrong. When theological conundrums arise and bring with them some measure of cognitive dissonance, it can be eased somewhat merely by the assurance that many others, some of whom are likely much more educated on such matters, still hold fast to the beliefs.

More than that, I think the old sunk-cost fallacy plays a role, at least in online debates. It can be tempting for both sides to drag futile debates out indefinitely, repeating and reiterating the same arguments until we're all red in the face, with the thought that maybe this post will be the one that finally persuades our interlocutor to admit their folly, particularly when one has a strong social and personal investment in the beliefs they are defending. And admitting that one has spent considerable time and energy defending a fallacious argument might be seen as reflecting poorly on one's intellect and critical thinking skills – after all, no one wants to be viewed as someone who has passionately devoted themselves to a farce. I'd speculate that the longer such conversations go on, the less likely someone is to change their mind largely because the sunk-cost fallacy (in the form of "I would not devote so much time, passion and effort to defending a position that is false!") becomes amplified the longer the debate is drawn out.


So how do we change people's minds? Scientists aren't really sure. It's depressing to note that in the face of corrective facts that undermine a set of beliefs, people's beliefs tend to actually get stronger. The New Yorker recently detailed just how difficult it is to persuade someone in their article I Don't Want to be Right, which begins by describing a study which attempted to correct false beliefs about vaccines:
The result was dramatic: a whole lot of nothing. None of the interventions worked. The first leaflet—focussed on a lack of evidence connecting vaccines and autism—seemed to reduce misperceptions about the link, but it did nothing to affect intentions to vaccinate. It even decreased intent among parents who held the most negative attitudes toward vaccines, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. The other two interventions fared even worse: the images of sick children increased the belief that vaccines cause autism, while the dramatic narrative somehow managed to increase beliefs about the dangers of vaccines.
Well, shit. So let's say I'm right about, say, the inability of Christians to justify their belief in divine inspiriation/authorship/whatever of the Bible. To paraphrase Sam Harris, there is nothing that is written in the Bible that could not have been conjured up in the minds of the people who wrote it; that is, there is absolutely nothing whatsoever which compels a rational skeptic to accept the claim that some quality of the Bible (it's supposed cohesiveness, purported prophecies, etc.) was in any way influenced by or the product of any divine being. It's a hodgepodge of mythology, hagiography, and uncorroborated history, and the overwhelming evidence demonstrates there is no reason to take claims of divine inspiration of 'scripture' even remotely seriously.

I think that's a pretty damning problem for Christianity. This is supposedly the one book gifted to humanity by the all-powerful, all-knowing lord and creator of the universe, and that's what we got? That's to say nothing of the bizarre conundrums that are attached to claims of divinity, like why an all-loving God would go out of his way to have a 'chosen people', why he would choose people in the tribal Middle East (not exactly a beacon of enlightenment), why he'd tell them to just go around killing everyone else, and why all this stuff pretty much looks exactly as we'd expect it to if it were just a cultural fabrication and not actually a reliable account of history. Clearly, the Bible is much better explained as a product of mundane cultural affairs rather than a miraculous gift from an all-powerful deity.

I have often challenged Christians on this matter, and without exception the first tactical response has always been to shift the goalpost: I cannot disprove the claims of divinity associated with the Bible. Perhaps this or that scripture is meant to be understood in this or that context, etc. etc. And I sit there, flabbergasted. You're not even close to addressing the central issue, I think to myself.  I would think the distinction between providing incontrovertible evidence of divine inspiration and the weasel excuse that divine inspiration can't be disproved (which is true for literally anything, including this very blog post) is obvious. But the discussion quickly reaches an impasse as we are, to pull from Tim Michin again, operating on completely different assumptions.


The article in the New Yorker goes on to describe an experiment in which positive associations were effective in changing erroneous beliefs, but researchers haven't figured out how to translate their findings into practical advice for public discourse. I'm of the belief that broadly speaking, there are really two types of mindsets: inquisitive minds, and defensive minds. The latter work fiercely to preserve the structure and coherency of their belief system even in the face of strong evidence and arguments to the contrary. The word apologetics comes from a Greek word meaning "speaking in defense". This means that the core assumptions have already been formed, and the apologist simply works backward to fit the arguments and evidence to their conclusion. It can be coherently argued that, for example, structures in the universe that appear designed are consistent with the idea of a designer, but there's no evidence or argument that leads us from a blank slate, or the null hypothesis, to a divine designer – indeed the very argument known as the "Fine-tuning argument" assumes its conclusion right there in the name.

So I think that whether any progress is made in a discussion is ultimately the product of the mindset of the interlocutors. And when you're dealing with someone dedicated to the post hoc rationalization of unquestioned assumptions, an impasse is inevitable. I'm reminded of a great comment by reader 'AdamHazzard' on a post of mine about testimony as properly basic belief:
[One] irony here is that even if one supposes that testimony "can be" basic, the basicality evaporates as soon as the claim is contested. If I ask two people directions to the nearest Starbucks, and one says "two blocks east" and the other says "two blocks west," I can hardly accept either claim as (ahem) properly basic.
Which is why Randal [Rauser] so often uses the term "doxastic community" -- i.e., he would assert that one can accept as properly basic the claims of one's "doxastic community," because the definition of the "doxastic community" is one in which the core claims are not contested.
But as a freethinker my "doxastic community" is all human thought to which I have access, and in my "doxastic community" the existence of gods is very much a contested claim. Testimony can only provide us with a basic belief that "Jesus rose from the dead" if we're deaf to other voices
Examples like this are abundant in my own experience. I've heard several intelligent Christians lay out complex, nuanced arguments about how Aristotlean metaphysics can lead us to all kinds of inescapable logical conclusions about the nature of God and the universe. But press them on why we ought to view Aristotlean metaphysics as valid descriptions of reality in the first place, and you're unlikely to get a straight answer. Atheists are all too frequently told by Christians that without God there can be no objective morals, but when pressed on why we ought to think objective morals exist at all, again direct answers are not forthcoming. Authors at BioLogos have seen it fit to indulge in astonishingly elaborate rationalizations that attempt to harmonize the Biblical story of Adam and Eve with evolution instead of simply accepting the vastly more parsimonious mundane explanation that it's a cultural myth and nothing more.

Before they'll ever change their mind, a believer has to be willing to assume an outsider's perspective, and that requires a certain voluntary detachment from one's religious faith. For me, that shift in perspective came from a study of comparative religion. I questioned the fundamental tenets of Christianity as though I was someone who had no particular reason to favor them over the claims of any other religion. While I was certainly capable, as a sort of masturbatory intellectual exercise, of conjuring up elaborate rationalizations to make my beliefs fit the evidence, I couldn't help but be acutely aware of what I was doing and it didn't feel right. I was ultimately persuaded by another experiment of self-critical analysis: answering my questions in the simplest way possible. That meant tossing out the assumptions that upheld my faith and allowing myself to go where the evidence led. A few months into the process, I was no longer a Christian. When I applied the same critical process to theistic arguments that I'd used to justify my agnostic theism for nearly a decade following my original deconversion, I became the agnostic atheist I remain today.

The most important point to recognize is that beliefs in general, but religious beliefs especially, are not simply ideas that can be dispassionately tossed aside out like a tattered pair of jeans. They're deeply intertwined with social and personal identities, and discarding them carries a cost – whether real, as in the affect on one's reputation, marriage, or career; or perceived, as in the false notion that life will feel meaningless, amoral and empty with the comfort and guidance of religion. Before someone will change their mind, they need to be actively receptive to the possibility that life will go on without their current beliefs, and that may require an understanding that they are not defined by their beliefs, and that they owe their beliefs nothing. Beliefs are meant to be analyzed, challenged, and scrutinized from every conceivable vantage point. How exactly we persuade someone to adopt that mindset, I'm not sure. Scientists don't seem sure either, as the New Yorker article explained. But if there's any lesson to be learned, it's that persistence does not pay off and we're usually better off bowing out of debates once we've articulated our point, no matter how tempting it may be to respond to a stubborn critic. Perhaps changing minds is itself a futile goal; perhaps instead the goal should be to create inquisitive minds, and let them change themselves.

20 May 2014

I wrote a book! Well, part of a book....

Check out Beyond an Absence of Faith, a collection of essays on deconversion. I contributed an essay, as did my esteemed brothers-in-blog Bud Uzoras and Tristan Vick. The book spent a while in development hell, so to speak, and I honestly have no recollection of what I wrote or whether it's any good or not. But the collection of voices in this book is most certainly impressive, and it's a great read for anyone curious about what it's like to go through the process of deconversion and find a renewed sense of hope, morality, meaning, and self-worth.

19 May 2014

Metaphysics with Steven Jake, part 2

Steven offered a response to my previous post over at his blog, so I'd like to take the time to offer another response. This will be my last post on the topic, as at a certain point it just becomes an endless morass – though I'm looking forward to a final response from Steven, which I'll link to from this post should he pen one.

Anyway, into the rabbit hole. I'll be replying in a more conventional style, hitting what I feel are the more relevant points:
If one claims that metaphysics is simply vacuous speculation that can obtain no knowledge, and that it cannot answer any questions that science cannot, then this is itself a metaphysical assertion!
A key part of my argument is that I think the term 'metaphysics' is ambiguously defined, as is the notion of what constitutes a 'metaphysical question'. I think the historically shifting, broad, and often non-specific use of the terms makes my argument for me, and that's a case of what we're running into here. I don't see any reason to entertain the idea that such an opinion of metaphysics is itself metaphysical – it's just a statement about metaphysics. Of course, one can define metaphysics in a myriad of general and ambiguous ways, as well as find some philosopher or another who has employed a given definition. But there's a clear lack of consensus on what metaphysics is, how it's supposed to be applied, what types of problems it can help us solve, and how it helps us do it.

Next, Steven replies to my thoughts on Model-Dependent Realism, or MDR:
For a claim about one’s epistemological relationship to reality is still metaphysical. In fact, epistemology is widely seen to be subsumed under the umbrella of metaphysics. Why? Because a claim about our relationship to attaining knowledge about reality is still a claim about the nature of reality, since we are a part of reality.
Model-dependent realism does not make claims about what constitutes reality; the entire point is that it jettisons the question of what is 'real' entirely. Steven's position seems to be predicated on the idea that Absolute Truth is 'out there', and that we can somehow know this reality independently of models.

But under MDR, whether absolute truth is out there is not an issue. MDR simply favors reliable models over unreliable ones. And, as Hawking notes, each model can itself be seen as its own reality. Now, we have good reason to believe that there's an absolute reality beyond the scope of our models, but that is because a wide array of reliable models overlap and confirm the same phenomena. So the belief in an absolute external reality is an assumption based upon observation. Whether one considers this a 'metaphysical' position is, given the ambiguity of the term, not really relevant.

Steven then gets to the meat of our disagreement with the use of semantics:
I never said that we can know what exists beyond our experience. Rather, I said that we can know that certain metaphysical principles will apply beyond our experience—if there is such a thing. Therefore, I never claimed that we can have cognitive access to anything that is not observably accessable to us.
I'm confused here. If we can't know whether there actually is anything 'beyond our experience', then it's nonsensical to suggest that metaphysical principles would still apply to it, precisely because these metaphysical principles are abstracted from and given meaning by our experience.
I claimed that necessary concepts like identity, and essence and propositions like the laws of logic can, and must be, predicated of any existing thing—not words like beyond
The word 'beyond' is a spatiotemporal metaphor that Steven used to describe the ability of the laws of logic to describe supernatural/non-empirical/non-spatiotemoral phenomena; my point is that the very act of doing so, of cantilevering a semantic structure derived from empirical experience into realms purportedly beyond it, renders the semantic structure meaningless. 

This is illustrated by the fact that one cannot know if something exists at all unless it is part of our empirical experience. We can certainly conceptualize all kinds of things, but in doing so we conjure representative abstractions, not extant objects. Take for example the old ontological argument, which posits that God exists because he exists necessarily – that is, God is the 'greatest conceivable being', and a being that has the property of existence is conceivably greater than one that doesn't. But something must exist in order to have any properties at all; conceptual entities (like, say, unicorns) have conceptual abstractions of properties.

The problem in the ontological argument is semantic: the semantic framework derived from empirical experience is being used to make assumptions about things that are purportedly 'beyond' empirical experience. But a closer examination of the linguistics used reveals that the argument is chock full of question-begging and equivocation.

Steven then goes on to give a mathematical example, saying that it's both consistent with the laws of logic. He anticipates my objections, mostly correctly:
I know Mike will respond that the set (III) is not an actual existing “thing”, in that we cant go out and find the set (III) in the empirical world, and that it is only a representation of empirical things. There are two answers here: 1) even to claim such a thing defeats Mike’s overall position—the death of metaphysics—since such a claim is metaphysical, and 2) a representation or concept can and does still have properties.
Pointing out that a set is a cognitive abstraction is simply an observation, not a metaphysical claim – though again the ambiguity of metaphysics rears its head. And, as I pointed out above, a representation or concept does not have properties – it has conceptual abstractions of properties – i.e., 'if X existed, it would have Y properties'. And whether or not a conceptual abstraction actually corresponds with reality requires the construction of testable models of reality.

That is why, to paraphrase Sean Carroll, if you want to know what reality is, you can't just think about it – you have to go out and look at it. 

Update: Steven has replied here.

16 May 2014

More on metaphysics, with Steven Jake

Steven Jake of The Christian Agnostic and I have had some interesting discussions of metaphysics in the past, and he took the time to respond to my previous post, The Death of Metaphysics. You can read his original post in its entirety here, but I wanted to go ahead and repost my reply to him here for my own readers. Enjoy.



First, thanks for engaging this topic with me. There are plenty of people who visit my blog who agree with me, so it's healthy to be challenged on my views.

It's interesting you make the statement that we are all metaphysicians, as Lakoff makes the same statement in Philosophy of the Flesh. And it's true, in the sense that we ask ourselves questions like "What is the self", "what is causality", etc. etc., and these have been at least traditionally seen as metaphysical questions. But my point is, along the lines of Lakoff, that the use of the term is antiquated. My concern is whether metaphysical propositions are worth taking seriously, or if 'metaphysics' is a valid intellectual discipline unto itself – one that can answer questions science cannot. I do not think it is.

Let me start by addressing your concerns about model-dependent realism:

First, let it be made clear that model-dependent realism is itself a metaphysical position. That is, by claiming that we don’t have unfettered access to absolute truth Mike is claiming something about the nature of reality.

MDR is a statement about our epistemological relationship to reality, not a statement about what reality is. It does operate on certain assumptions, of course, namely:

• I exist

• My sensory experience is sometimes correct

And, that's about it. Those are basic beliefs (or as I like to call them, 'foundational assumptions') because it is irrational to doubt them. You cannot doubt your own existence, nor can you assume that your sensory experience is never correct. But once you've established these foundational assumptions, MDR becomes a necessary and logical epistemological framework for understanding reality. Creating models of reality is what the brain does; intersubjectively, it's what science does. MDR itself says nothing about the content of reality; indeed it does not concern itself at all with what is 'real'. Models that are more reliable and more parsimonious win out over less reliable, less parsimonious ones – that's it. MDR does not seek what is 'real', but what is reliable. This addresses your statement, "If we’re subject to invalid models of reality, then the only way we could know this is if we can tell valid models of reality from invalid ones." We make that distinction through predictive hypotheses that establish reliable models of reality and allow us to identify and discard unreliable models.
First, it is not nonsensical. In fact, physicists do this all the time. Physicists, in order to best make sense of certain states of the universe, invoke such spatiotemporal language even where such language is out of context. They constantly talk about what it would be like inside a black  hole, or what characterizes a singularity, or the weirdness of the quantum world, even though the language employed doesn’t exactly get it right. But, does anyone claim that what these physicists are saying is therefore nonsensical and meaningless?

I think this is a false analogy. The language of physics is mathematics. Sometimes, it can be a bit difficult to communicate mathematical abstractions into language (and while I'm on this Lakoff kick, his book Where Mathematics Comes From is outstanding) and physicists may try to communicate with analogies, but their fundamental language is always constrained by the framework in which they're working. For example, we can use the language of general relativity to describe what it might be like to fall into the event horizon of a black hole, but to describe the quantum behavior of black holes requires a totally different semantic framework. This is precisely why, in his debate with Bill Craig, Sean Carroll repeatedly emphasized that "causality" is not even a relevant component of cosmological models because (due to their use of QM) they must be described using an entirely different semantic framework than classical physics.

what’s important is not just that concepts like identity can be applied anywhere—whether to things in space-time or not—but that they must be applied everywhere on pain of contradiction. That is to say, if one were to attempt to deny (anywhere) a necessary existent like identity, they would defeat themselves logically. A perfect example of this is the first law of logic. Try to deny such a law and you’ll find yourself entangled in self-refutation. And this means that such a proposition cannot fail to be predicated anywhere--for the same thing would happen. Thus stated, we see that metaphysics can, and must, reach beyond the bounds of our experience.

I don't feel like you've addressed my argument at all here; I feel like you just re-stated the original position against which I was arguing in the first place.

Take the word "everywhere" in the statement "[the laws of logic] must be applied everywhere". "Everywhere" is a word that denotes spatiotemporality and derives its very meaning as an abstraction of spatiotemporality; using it devoid of that context renders it meaningless.

It's true that the laws of logic must 'always' (notice the temporal metaphor) apply in their relevant contexts, but that merely means that the laws of logic must be internally semantically coherent. That is, they must consistently describe the the ontologies we ascribe to them, otherwise they fail to be useful. This is precisely what Lakoff meant in the quote I pulled from him:

...philosophers engaged in making metaphysical claims are choosing from the cognitive unconscious a set of existing metaphors that have a consistent ontology. That is, using unconscious everyday metaphors, philosophers seek to make a noncontradictory choice of conceptual entities defined by those metaphors; they then take those entities to be real and systematically draw out the implications of that choice in an attempt to account for our experience using that metaphysics.

The very idea you're asserting, that the laws of logic must hold true "beyond the bounds of our experience" is itself nonsensical. The laws of logic are a semantic framework for developing a consistent ontology of observable phenomena. It is impossible to know, as human beings, what (if anything) exists "beyond our experience"  – and again, notice that you are employing a spatiotemporal metaphor! Our brains are not capable of abstracting anything "beyond our experience". Our cognitive and linguistic models are by definition formed, given meaning, and constrained by our experience. How can we possibly have cognitive access to anything "beyond our experience" – given that our ability to comprehend it would, in fact, make it part of our experience?

What you're doing here is making assumptions about the semantic framework from which you are operating. That is, you are making the assumption that words like "beyond" or "everywhere" can be (and are) meaningful without the empirical framework from which their meaning is abstracted. My objection here is that you've provided no reason whatsoever why that assumption is justified. As I said in the original post, the very idea that there is a "non-physical" or "supernatural" reality is itself an assumption that must be established and defended independently before you can claim that the semantic structure underlying the laws of logic can meaningfully describe such things. In other words, you can't just claim that that statements like "beyond our experience" or "beyond the universe", which are predicated on a spatiotemporal metaphor, actually describe a non-spatiotemporal 'supernatural reality' until you can first provide a coherent and semantically meaningful description of that reality.

This is where we get into the big conundrums of supernatural assumptions: what exactly is "supernatural", and why should it be seen as distinct from "natural"? How can change or causality exist independently of time, since both describe spatiotemporal relationships? How can a mind be disembodied, since our conceptual reasoning is derived from our embodiment (notice your consistent use of spatiotemporal metaphors)? The problem is not simply that these concepts are 'mysterious' or in some way ineffable; the problem is that they are semantically incoherent because they attempt to cantilever empirical metaphors into non-empirical contexts. The answer to questions like, "what was before time" or "what lies beyond our experience" is always, "that is an ill-formed question".

Addendum (5/17): I re-read this post tonight and another objection occurred to me. You make a statement like "what’s important is not just that concepts like identity can be applied anywhere—whether to things in space-time or not" (emphasis mine) without acknowledging that the very statement itself assumes the existence of things 'not in space-time' which, last I checked, is precisely what your argument is supposed to prove. This seems like assuming the consequent/begging the question.

15 May 2014

The death of metaphysics

I've had a difficult time understanding the point of metaphysics over the years, despite quite a few armchair philosophers (mostly theists) telling me metaphysics are really important. It doesn't help that the very term "metaphysics" is ambiguously defined, and its usage varies depending on which dead philosopher you read and which living philosopher (armchair or otherwise) you talk to. Reading through the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on metaphysics just adds to the confusion; the definition of metaphysics has changed over time (and in my experience, predictably, plenty of people still operate on the more archaic usages of the term), and the 'metaphysical problems' highlighted in the article struck me as either being scientific problems or semantic conceptual problems – I couldn't see any particular reason to think that the word 'metaphysics' is useful.

What is 'real', anyway?

I've mentioned recently that I'm re-reading Philosophy of the Flesh, a fantastic book by cognitive linguist George Lakoff in which he advocates a philosophy he calls "embodied realism". In the book, he describes metaphysics as follows:
Metaphysics, for example, is a fancy name for our concern with what is real. Traditional metaphysics asks questions that sound esoteric: What is essence? What is causation? What is time? What is the self?
I've mentioned many times before that I subscribe to what Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinov describe in The Grand Design as 'model-dependent realism'. This essentially says that we do not have unfettered access to 'absolute truth' or complete knowledge of what is literally real. All we can do, then, is construct models with varying degrees of predictive reliability. Fussing over what is 'real' is meaningless – all that's relevant to our epistemological horizon is how well our models comport with observation.

And that, essentially, is precisely what science is: the attempt to create reliable models of reality. We do this by constructing predictive hypotheses. For example, the recent discovery of gravitational waves in the Cosmic Microwave Background confirmed a long-standing prediction of Inflationary Cosmology, and the CMB itself – as well as certain asymmetries, called anisotropy – was a prediction of the Big Bang Theory. The phylogenetic tree in evolutionary biology allows us to predict precisely where we will find certain fossils, and how old we will find them to be. And in every case, the predictions could, in principle, be wrong. This is known as falsifiability. The gravitational waves might not have been there, or we could find fossils that do not conform to the predictions of the phylogenetic tree. When a prediction fails, we have two options: revise the model, or discard it completely.

Indeed, falsification is precisely how we are able to weed out unreliable models of reality. Prior to Einstein's formulation of Special Relativity, physicists had proposed the existence of an invisible substance permeating all of space through which light travel – they called this the 'luminiferous aether'. But predictions based on the theory did not hold up, and when predictions based on Special Relativity proved accurate, the luminferous aether (along with any conception of 'fixed' time) was relegated to the dustbin of failed sciences.

Science has proved itself a remarkable means by which to model reality. It has vastly increased our understanding of the universe in a remarkably short span of time. Just a few hundred years ago, this post would have been written on parchment with a quill and ink; now, it's written and read on devices that make use of quantum mechanics (not to be confused with quantum computing). If you're reading it on your phone, your GPS app is only made possible because of General Relativity. We've eradicated countless diseases and doubled our lifespans. That speaks volumes to the success of science.

What about the 'limits' of science?

Whenever I've brought these points up in discussions with (armchair) philosophers – not coincidentally, I think, almost always theists – the response is something like this:
Science is great, but it can only tell us about the natural world; metaphysics gets to the very core of what is real – the nature of change, causation, time, existence, consciousness, and much more.
However, this type of response immediately strikes me as a tautology. I'm not the first to point out that defining science as 'the study of the natural world' and then the natural world as 'that which can be studied by science' is circular. I think it's more accurate to point out that we have no reason to believe that this dichotomy between 'natural' and 'supernatural' exists in the first place – indeed the very presumption of a 'supernatural' reality distinct from 'natural' reality needs to be defended and established before we're obligated to take it seriously. If our concern is with what is 'real', then we ought to be able to construct some reliable model of supernatural things. Not surprisingly, in my experience the discussions inevitably return to the same tautology: constructing reliable models of things (indeed the very concept of reliability) is only relevant to science, which studies the natural world... which is that which can be studied by science.

I think there's a much simpler way of approaching these kinds of issues. I'm not convinced that the term 'metaphysics' is useful or even meaningful due to its ambiguity, and because the very meaning of the words used to construct metaphysical propositions are, in fact, derived from our empirical experience.

The semantic structure of metaphysics is derived from empirical models

It's been argued to me many times that empiricism (the idea that knowledge can only or primarily be derived from our sensory experience), with which science is undoubtedly deeply intertwined, is just one of many possible philosophical assumptions about what is 'real'. But again, according to model-dependent realism, asking what is 'real' is meaningless; our epistemological boundary is limited by models that comport, with varying degrees of reliability, to observation.

The reasoning behind the assumption of model-dependent realism should be easy to comprehend. Often, what we think is real turns out to be something else. Predictions often do not hold true; we're subject to false memories and cognitive biases; and our own cognitive models of reality often fail us. This demonstrates that we do not have access to Absolute Truth, or complete knowledge of what is literally real. It's inescapable that constructing models of reality with varying degrees of reliability is what we as humans do.

But those who advocate metaphysics seem convinced that there is another way to answer questions about what is real – not through modeling, prediction, and observation, but through our human capacity for reasoning. Through the principles of logic, we can construct semantic frameworks that lead us to inescapable conclusions about the fundamental nature of reality and being.

The problem with this type of thought is that the very semantic frameworks that are used to construct metaphysical propositions and derive their conclusions are fully dependent on both our physical embodiment and our empirical experience.

In discussing the metaphysics of logic, for example, I was presented with this argument:
There is no reason to think that the language promulgated in the laws of logic, or explanation for that matter, are incoherent beyond the bounds of this universe. The laws of logic really only rely on the concept of identity, and anything that exists has an identity--no matter whether it's physical, non-physical, located in or out of space-time etc. If it exists, it has an identity, and therefore the laws of logic are surely coherent no matter where they are applied.
This is a metaphysical proposition, and an important one for theists. If the laws of logic do not hold beyond the universe, then God, assuming one even exists, is incomprehensible – surely a damning proposition for theism.

But the very language here only has meaning because of its structure in our empirical, embodied experience. Take the term 'beyond the universe'. It might sound profound, but that is only so because its precise meaning is ambiguous. We tend to visualize the universe like a container, with stars and galaxies and everything else contained within it, and some mysterious realm existing 'outside' or 'beyond' it – possibly the realm of the supernatural.

This abstraction is intuitive because it comports with our cognitive models of reality; we see containers with things in them and space around them. There is a clearly delineated 'within' and 'beyond', or 'inside' and 'outside'. But these terms derive their meaning by their description of points in space-time, and space-time is a property of the universe. Asking what is 'beyond the universe' is meaningless, like asking what came 'before time' or what is 'South of the South Pole'. Notice that the proposition similarly uses the phrase 'in or out of space-time' – but it is meaningless to use words that describe spatiotemporal relationships without the context of spatiotemporality. The same can be shown to be true of words like 'change' and 'cause'.

This demonstrates that these sorts of metaphysical propositions are nonsensical. What metaphysicians attempt to do is construct a semantic framework and abstract conclusions from it; that is, if we assume a certain meaning to these words, the outcome that follows must be x. Or, as Lakoff explains,
... philosophers engaged in making metaphysical claims are choosing from the cognitive unconscious a set of existing metaphors that have a consistent ontology. That is, using unconscious everyday metaphors, philosophers seek to make a noncontradictory choice of conceptual entities defined by those metaphors; they then take those entities to be real and systematically draw out the implications of that choice in an attempt to account for our experience using that metaphysics.
Metaphysics in philosophy is, of course, supposed to characterize what is real – literally real. The irony is that such a conception of the real depends upon unconscious metaphors.
We can thus avoid the confusion of these metaphysical propositions simply by pointing out that there is no reason to think that the words used to construct such propositions are meaningful outside of the empirical context from which their meaning is abstracted in the first place.

Clarifying 'empiricism'

When I use the term 'empirical', I'm using it in an everyday context that describes our sensory experience and our ability to construct testable models of reality. Whether or not empiricism in the broad philosophical sense of 'only empirical statements can be true' is valid is not really a concern of mine. (It's often pointed out that such a statement can't be tested against itself.) I don't need to assume that only empirical statements can be true in order to reject metaphysical propositions or acknowledge the integral nature of our sensory, embodied experience not only in shaping models of reality but also in constructing the very metaphors we use to describe those models.

Years of discussions with others about metaphysics had only left me confused, and I've begun to understand why. While in discussions with theists I would be on the receiving end of comments suggesting that I simply did not understand these sophisticated arguments, a more critical investigation has led me to conclude that my difficulty deciphering the meaning and relevance of metaphysical propositions is not a failing of my own, but a problem deeply intertwined with metaphysics as an intellectual endeavor:
  • Metaphysicians attempt to describe reality not by constructing testable models, but by abstracting the outcomes of semantic frameworks.
  • Those frameworks are themselves composed of words and metaphors derived from our empirical experience, and there's no reason to think that they hold true when stripped of that context.
  • Because of this, there is no reason to think that a meaningful distinction exists between 'natural' and 'supernatural', nor that there are extant realities which transcend our ability to model reality with falsifiable predictions.
  • The precise meaning and usage of the term 'metaphysics', as well as what constitutes a 'metaphysical problem', is ambiguously defined. 
  • No metaphysician has ever been able to demonstrate that their semantic frameworks do, in fact, correspond with what is literally real – precisely because of the fact that the semantic structures of their metaphysical propositions are derived from our model-dependent, empirical experience.

These factors combine to show, in my view, that metaphysics is dead. It cannot meaningfully contribute to our understanding of... well, anything, and it exists only as an obsolete tool usurped by the immense success of modern science.

13 May 2014

Luthier bashes gays, metal community unites in denouncing him

Vik Kuletski is the owner/namesake of Vik Guitars. Just a couple of years ago, Vik's guitars were the talk of the metal community – rare, expensive, and highly sought after. Not to mention sexy:

He'd already been a bit on the skids after a combination of customer service issues (major backlogs for orders, orders continually being pushed back, etc.) and some dickish comments he made on Facebook about others stealing his designs. But today, he went a bit too far. The comment looks innocuous at first:

The comment is in reference to Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert of the metal band Cynic, who recently came out as gay; Paul is known for playing Strandberg guitars, which are headless. In case the connection wasn't totally clear, Per Nilsson, virtuoso guitarist for the metal band Scar Symmetry, replied thusly:

The shitstorm ensued from there, with Vik digging himself into a deeper and deeper hole with uglier comments, most of which he's since deleted. But, it was too late, and the reaction of the metal community was swift. Numerous artists who had affiliations with Vik Guitars immediately and publicly announced that they were cutting all ties to the company. Misha Mansoor of the band Periphery announced that he was cancelling a pending order and would no longer work with Vik. Adam "Nolly" Getgood, also from Periphery and who'd had a signature guitar from Vik, similarly voiced his condemnation of Vik's words and cut ties with the company.

Today, I'm proud to be a metalhead. The community took a clear stand against bigotry and fiercely condemned Vik's actions. Per Nilsson said it right:
It's mind-boggling to me how much effort people can spend on cultivating and expressing their bigotry, when love and compassion is a road much easier traveled!

More on the story from Metal Injection.

10 May 2014

Near-death experiences: hooey

In case you missed it, neuroscientist Steve Novella (who pens the fabulous blog Neurologica) and physicist Sean Carroll recently took on Evan Alexander, a neurosurgeon and author of the hugely popular book Heaven is Real, and Ray Moody, a psychologist and longtime advocate of near-death experiences, in a debate about whether there really is an afterlife or not. The full debate is a lengthy one, but I just wanted to offer a quick comment based on Novella's arguments around the 55 minute mark.

Novella is talking about attempts to introduce scientific controls into near-death experience (NDE) experiments, since the preponderance of evidence for NDEs is from uncontrolled, anecdotal reports. The example he uses is that of cards facing the ceiling, so you could only see them if you were floating above your body.

But the very idea of people "looking down on their bodies", which seems to be a common element of NDEs, is pretty hard evidence against NDEs because it betrays the logical incoherency of the hypothesis. As any theologian will tell you, Heaven is not, presumably, located spatiotemporally "above" the Earth. There's no reason why dead souls shouldn't be suspended in a wall, or the basement, or any other arbitrary space; there's no reason why they should "float" at all. But in our culture, we generally conceptualize people going "up" to Heaven and "down" to hell, and that cultural conditioning reveals itself in how people construct false memories of NDEs. Consider that the overwhelming majority of depictions of Heaven in Western Monotheism show white fluffy clouds, skies, and sunshine. A Google image search for the term "Heaven" reveals this (click to embiggenate):

Even in the resurrection myth, Jesus is portrayed as 'ascending' to Heaven by floating up into the clouds. Given that Heaven is not actually in the sky, this is either a) a reflection of the popular unscientific cosmology of the day (much like when Satan takes Jesus to an unnamed high mountain where he can see "all the kingdoms of the Earth"), or b) God pulling off a parlor trick to impress stupefied peasants.

This description, then, of people floating above their bodies or upward toward Heaven is precisely what we should expect if NDEs are not real, but false memories laden with culturally imprinted biases.

It gets worse for NDEs, though. As my good friend Johno Pearce observed, the idea that people retain visual perception during an NDE is problematic as well. Specifically, why should visual perception be retained, but other physical phenomena lost?

The problem is not merely that advocates of NDEs are asking us to entertain a hypothesis that is poorly understood; the problem is that the very idea of retaining vision after death requires us to abandon everything we know about how vision is produced by the embodied mind. I recently discussed, for example, how color is not a phenomenon of the universe but a concept which arises from the interaction of the universe with our brains [read more]. A disembodied spirit, presumably, retains no ocular organs or physical brain (that's kinda the point, no?); yet, with its invisible presence somehow lingering in the physical world, how can it perceive wavelengths along the electromagnetic spectrum – a physical phenomenon? I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, from her book Knocking on Heaven's Door:
A religious or spiritual belief that involves an invisible undetectable force that nonetheless influences human actions and behavior or that of the world itself produces a situation in which a believer has no choice but to have faith and abandon logic--or simply not care.
Sam Harris, in a debate with David Wolpe, Bradley Artson and the late Christopher Hitchens, nicely hit the nail on the head:
Science is not in principle committed to the idea that there’s no afterlife or that the mind is identical to the brain.
If it’s true that consciousness is being run like software on the brain and can – by virtue of ectoplasm or something else we don’t understand – be dissociated from the brain at death, that would be part of our growing scientific understanding of the world if we discover it.
But there are very good reasons to think it’s not true. We know this from 150 years of neurology where you damage areas of the brain, and faculties are lost… You can cease to recognize faces, you can cease to know the names of animals but you still know the names of tools...
What we’re being asked to consider is that you damage one part of the brain, and something about the mind and subjectivity is lost, you damage another and yet more is lost, [but] you damage the whole thing at death, we can rise off the brain with all our faculties intact, recognizing grandma and speaking English!

I must reiterate: the problem is not merely that the claim is mysterious. "There are lots of things we can't yet explain!", the NDE advocate will surely bark even while, as Evan Alexander does, rejecting the embodied mind because of phenomena that are yet unexplained. Rather, the problem is that entertaining the idea that a disembodied consciousness can perceive the physical world whilst floating about requires us to abandon scientific thinking entirely, setting aside all we know about visual cognition and physical law. That alone is sufficient reason to reject NDEs as pseudoscience mired in wishful thinking.

05 May 2014

SCOTUS: Prayers at town hall meetings are constitutional

From the New York Times:
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a town in upstate New York did not violate the Constitution by starting its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month” who was almost always Christian.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in a 5-to-4 decision that divided the court’s more conservative members from its liberal ones, said the prayers were merely ceremonial. They were neither unduly sectarian nor likely to make members of other faiths feel unwelcome.
“Ceremonial prayer,” he wrote, “is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond that authority of government to alter or define.”
In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the town’s practices could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share of her government.”

I think this is an interesting decision that may become more contentious down the road, not unlike the Supreme Court's decision (also, not surprisingly, a 5-4 split) that the display of the 10 Commandments on government property was constitutional. Now, with other religions – including, famously, the Church of Satan – vying to place monuments on government grounds in an effort to expose the religious elitism on display, there is a very real potential for this to reach the Supreme Court on grounds of religious discrimination.

Similarly, this type of 'victory' for conservative Christians could end up giving them more than they bargained for. I'm inclined to agree that this type of religious pomposity (the Pharisees would certainly be proud of modern religious conservatives) isn't necessarily unconstitutional, with the gargantuan caveat that if you let one religion in, you must let all of them in. But if a case can be established that people of other faiths are being excluded or marginalized, the floodgates will be opened for lawsuits that could ultimately undermine the court's decision today.

02 May 2014

I get mail

I couldn't make this up if I tried:

From: Michael Fedorski
You have no idea what you are talking about. Like most amateurs , you overstate the abilities of science and do not even realize its limits and boundaries and scope. Matters that it does not address and cannot address. Science, religion and/or Deism are NOT at war. They are entirely SEPARATE things. People such as Dawkins are ABUSING science. He is just as bad as the Evangelist.

There ARE limitations to the empirical method. Falsifiable science CAN lead to false results- about our universe sometimes. Science does not know 1/1000th of what there is to know about the universe. Some thing we will never know. Science is FALLIBLE HUMAN CREATION . This is all directly from Alex Filippenko.

In science, "laws" are NOT immutable. They CAN be wrong AND ARE OPEN to be modified or discarded. They are NOT above theories or better than. There is NO HIERARCHY WHATSOEVER between theories, laws and hypotheses. They differ in BREADTH, NOT level of support.

Science makes models are tests them. It does not proclaim truth. The only reason we do science is NOT to save the world as erroneously believed, but for FUN.

ALL scientists are biased , as Paul Davies points out. Science is NOT an objective endeavor asswipe. Professional scientists realize this.

You're an Internet weirdo crackpot who does not understand the first thing about science. Go f u c k yourself. Better yet, EDUCATE yourself.


But wait! He sent two!
YOU are VERY BIASED. You are as close minded as they come. You're laughable. You are NOT an intellectual.

The University of California at Berkeley SCIENCE EDUCATION page, as well as Alex Filippenko's video lecture, as well as IAN Hutchinson lectures- COMPLETELY DISCREDIT You.

You egotistical AMATEURS are NOT scientists yourselves. You ABUSE science. Dawkins turned into a SALESMEN, He should know better ! You Internet amateur Bloggers are losers with an inflated sense of knowledge.....


You are also clueless about obesity. It is hellishly complicated and your silly personal training is NOT a solution. Your body HAS A MIND OF ITS OWN REGARDING WEIGHT. GENUINE SCIENCE FROM DR. ROSENBAUM


I'm mainly just sad that he didn't sign the second one.

01 May 2014

How the existence of color undermines the correspondence theory of truth

For the second time in recent memory, an in-depth discussion of philosophy and metaphysics has me re-visiting a book that has been extremely influential to my point of view: George Lakoff's Philosophy in the Flesh. Lakoff's thesis is a bold one: that virtually the entirety of Anglo-American analytic and postmodern philosophy are completely wrong, and not in a trivial way but in one so fundamental that philosophers ought to be completely re-thinking their approach to the 'big questions'.

The central themes in the book are:
  • The mind is inherently embodied
  • Most reasoning is subconscious, and we do not have access to it
  • The concepts we form to abstract metaphysics and other such abstractions are derived from our embodiment and cannot have meaning without it

I started re-reading the book yesterday, and one of my favorite examples comes early on in which Lakoff argues that color does not exist, but is rather a construct of the human subconsciousness interpreting the physical world. In arguing this, he shows that the correspondence theory of truth is necessarily false. In case you're unfamiliar, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines the CToT as follows:
Narrowly speaking, the correspondence theory of truth is the view that truth is correspondence to a fact—a view that was advocated by Russell and Moore early in the 20th century. But the label is usually applied much more broadly to any view explicitly embracing the idea that truth consists in a relation to reality, i.e., that truth is a relational property involving a characteristic relation (to be specified) to some portion of reality (to be specified).
Lakoff begins as follows:
Our experience of color is created by a combination of four factors: wavelengths of reflected light, lighting conditions, and two aspects of our bodies: (1) the three kinds of color cones in our retinas, which absorb light of long, medium, and short wavelengths, and (2) the complex neural circuitry connected to those cones.
Visible light does not have color; we are simply able to see a limited spectrum of electromagnetic wavelengths. Those waves meet millions of receptors in our eyes, and the signal is processed by our brains.

It might be tempting to stop there, but there's more to the picture. Our brains are not strictly interpreting electromagnetic radiation, but rather creating representations that are limited by the types of cones we have in our eyes and our brain's ability to process that information. In the event we are seeing an object, most of us know that light is reflected off the object; but lighting conditions vary, and yet we're able to discern objects as looking basically the same color. So even though the wavelengths being reflected off an object may vary considerably, we'll still (usually) see it as the same color because our brains know to compensate for these variances in its conceptualization of color.

Further, neither reflectiveness of objects nor electromagnetic waves alone can sufficiently describe color. Lakoff contrasts two examples: the sky, and a painting of the sky. The sky is not an object that reflects electromagnetic waves; rather, we perceive the sky as blue because of certain wavelengths that are able to penetrate our atmosphere. A painting of the sky, however, reflects light which we interpret as blue. This means that "blue" is not one thing, but something that arises from the interactions of our bodies, brains, wavelengths, and reflective properties of objects.

Another factor is what is known as "focal hues". We have, for example, a focused or central concept of "red", which corresponds with crimson, Ferrari red, blood-red, purplish-red, and what have you.  The same is true for blue, green, yellow, etc. Here's the interesting part: those focal hues correspond to areas of the highest neural response in our brains; these focal categories are purely a product of our brains, not something that is a property of the electromagnetic spectrum or the reflective properties of objects.

Lakoff continues,
Color concepts are "interactional"; they arise from the interactions of our bodies, our brains, the reflective properties of objects, and electromagnetic radiation. Colors are not objective; there is in the grass or the sky no greenness or blueness independent of retinas, color cones, neural circuitry, and brains. Nor are colors purely subjective; they are neither a figment of our imaginations nor spontaneous creations of our brains.
The philosophical consequences are immediate. Since colors are not things or substances in the world, metaphysical realism fails. The meaning of the word red cannot be just the relation between the word and something in the world (say, a collection of wavelengths of light or a surface reflectance). An adequate theory of the conceptual structure of red, including an account of why it has the structure it has (with focal red, purplish red, orangish red, and so on) cannot be constructed solely from the spectral properties of surfaces. It must make reference to color cones and neural circuitry. Since the cones and neural circuitry are embodied, the internal conceptual properties of red are correspondingly embodied.

Big implications

Since there is no color in external reality, but instead only that generated by the interactions of our bodies and brains with waves and reflective surfaces, the correspondence theory of truth – which would view color as an internal representation of an external quality, such as surface reflectance – cannot be valid. Our brains do not perceive color, but rather create and categorize color. Color, for us humans, is not a fundamental component of reality but a useful approximation of varying wavelengths of light either directly interacting with the light cones in our eyes or being reflected off of objects.

Lakoff argues that color only makes sense in what he calls "embodied realism". Color is not merely subjective, because color isn't created by our culture, but by the interaction of light cones and brains with objects and electromagnetism – it's a component of our shared biology. And it's not merely objective, because the concepts of color cannot be constructed merely by examining the surfaces of objects or the lengths of electromagnetic waves – the circuitry of our eyes and the neural pathways connecting them to our brains must also be taken into account.

This example is one of many underscoring a provocative theme: that the concepts we use to describe the world cannot be disconnected from our biology – rather, they're given meaning by our biology interacting with the world around us. This should certainly be food for thought the next time any of us wades into a conversation about metaphysics. Because the very concepts of metaphysics derive their coherence from such embodied experience, we ought to be careful about the privilege we assign to our own perspective.

This raises an interesting question: is color 'real'? If 'real' is meant to mean a fundamental quality of external reality, then no, it is not. But as an emergent construct of our embodied minds, color is as real as anything else we experience.