It is quite unreasonable to suppose that the appeal to sweet reason is the best way forward in all of life's situations. The reasonable appreciate that the hard fist of unreason applied to the visage of evil intransigence is sometimes the most cogent of 'arguments.'
It is unreasonable to be reasonable in all things.
Firearms instructors sometimes say that every gun is loaded. That is plainly false as it stands, but a wise saying nonetheless if interpreted to mean: every gun is to be presumed loaded until proven unloaded. Presumptions are procedural rules. To presume every gun to be loaded is to adopt a procedural rule to treat every gun as if it is loaded regardless of how antecedently likely it is that it is loaded. Suppose the likelihood is near zero: I examined the gun carefully an hour ago and I found it to be unloaded. Nevertheless, the presumption that it is loaded remains in force. I continue to behave as if it is loaded. For example, I don't point the gun at anything unless I want to destroy it.
I conclude that to presume that p is not to assert that p is true, nor to assert that p is probably true, nor to assume that p is true, but to decide to act as if p is true. A presumption, then, is not a proposition, although it embeds one. A presumption is something like a decision. More precisely, a presumption is the accusative of an act of presuming, an accusative that is not itself a proposition, but embeds one.
A presumption is not like a belief in the following important respect. To presume that a gun is loaded or that a man is innocent is not to believe that it is or that he is. To believe that p is to believe that p is true. But to presume that p is not to presume that p is true; it is to act as if p is true without either accepting or rejecting p. To presume that Jones is innocent until proven guilty is not to believe that he is innocent until proven guilty; it is to suspend judgment as to guilt or innocence until sufficient evidence is presented by the prosecution to warrant a verdict one way or the other. When I presume that p, I take no stand as to the truth-value of p -- I neither accept nor reject p -- what I do is decide to act as if p is true.
Presumptions must be defeasible. (I suspect that an indefeasible presumption is no presumption at all.) The presumption of being loaded is defeated in a particular case by carefully examining the gun and showing that it is unloaded. So while a presumption is not a proposition, it embeds a proposition that can be shown to be false. Defeasible presumption and burden-of-proof are correlative notions. (They are like rights and duties in this respect but also in that both are normative notions.) In a court of law, for example, if the accused enjoys a presumption of innocence, as he does in the Anglosphere, then the accuser bears a burden of proof, a burden which, if properly discharged, defeats the presumption.
Appeal to Ignorance?
So if person A claims to person B that a certain gun is unloaded, the burden of proof is on A to show that it is unloaded; person B does not bear the burden of proving that it is loaded. It is not just that he bears a lesser burden'; he bears no burden. Indeed it seems that B would be within his epistemic rights were he to claim that his ignorance of whether or not the gun is loaded is good evidence of its being loaded. But this is an appeal to ignorance. It has not been shown that the gun is unloaded; ergo, the gun is loaded.
It has not been shown that ~p; therefore p gives us the form of the ad ignorantiam 'fallacy.' Construed as a deductive argument, it is clearly invalid. Construed as an inductive argument, it will be in many cases weak. For example, suppose the gun is straight from the manufacturer and right out of the box. Then the probability of its being loaded is very low, and the argument: This gun out of the box has not been shown to be unloaded; ergo, this gun is loaded is very weak.
Nevertheless, safety considerations dictate a defeasible presumption in favor of every gun's being loaded, whether out of the box or not, a presumption that places the onus probandi on the one who maintains the opposite. So one might conclude that the appeal to ignorance in this case is reasonable even though the argument is deductively invalid and inductively weak.
The situation is similar to that in a court of law. The defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty, so the burden of proof rests on either the state in a criminal proceeding, or on the plaintiff in a civil trial. In a criminal case the probative bar is set very high: the accused has to be shown guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Here too there seems to be a legitimate appeal to ignorance: if it has not been shown that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the conclusion to be drawn is that he is not guilty.
We will have to examine this more carefully in a separate post.
There are 'safety' considerations in both the gun example and the law example. It is because we want to be on the safe side -- and not get shot -- that we presume every gun to be loaded. "Better that a hundred guns be unnecessarily examined than that one sentient being be accidentally shot."
And it is because we want to be on the safe side -- and not sentence an innocent person -- that we presume the accused to be innocent until proven guilty. "Better that a hundred guilty people go free than that one innocent person be wrongly convicted."
But now what about God? Don't safety considerations apply here as well? If God exists, then our ultimate happiness depends on getting into right relation with him. So why can't one make a legitimate appeal to ignorance here? Now of course from the fact that no one has proven that God does not exist, it does not follow that God exists. That is an invalid deductive argument. That would be a truly fallacious instance of ad ignorantiam. But it is also invalid to infer than a gun is loaded because it hasn't been proven to be unloaded, or that a man is innocent because he hasn't been proven to be guilty. It just doesn't follow in any of these cases. And yet we reasonably consider the gun loaded and we reasonably find the accused to be innocent. And so why can't we reasonably presume God to exist on the basis of the fact that he hasn't been shown not to exist? If the burden of proof rests on the one who claims that gun is unloaded, why doesn't the burden of proof rest on the one who claims that God is nonexistent? We don't want to get shot, but we also don't want to lose our ultimate beatitude -- if ultimate beatitude there be.
You can't say that that the burden of proof rests on the theist because he is making a positive claim; for there are positive claims that need no proof. And you can't say that the burden of proof rests on the theist because he is making an existential claim; for there are existential claims that need no proof. If you claim that extraterrestrial intelligent beings exist, then the burden is on you. But if you claim that there are Saguaro cacti in Arizona, then the burden of proof is not on you but on the one who denies it. Nor can you say that the burden rests on the theist because he is controverting the widely-accepted; the consensus gentium is that God exists.
Earlier I argued that we shouldn't bring BOP considerations into the God discussion at all. But if we do, why doesn't the BOP rest on the atheist?
Massimo Pigliucci thinks that if one understands who bears the burden of proof in a trial, then one ought to see right away that the burden of proof rests on the theist. For, "the burden of proof is always on the party making a positive claim, not on the one making a negative one." This strikes me as confused. It is true that the party making a complaint or bringing a charge is making a positive claim, but this is not the reason why the BOP rests on the accuser. It rests on the accuser because of the presumption of innocence that the accused enjoys. The BOP rests on the accuser not because his claim is positive but because of the procedural rule enshrined in our system of law according to which one is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
It is not true that the BOP is always on the one who makes a positive claim. 'That hillside is studded with Saguaro cacti' said to my hiking companion needs no proof. I shoulder no probative burden when I make a commonplace observation such as that. Therefore, the following is an unsound argument:
Everyone who make a positive claim bears a BOP. The theist makes a positive claim. ergo The theist bears the BOP in his debate with the atheist.
I argued above that if BOP considerations are relevant to the God debate, then the BOP is on the atheist. To appreciate the argument I gave, you have to realize that the God question is not merely theoretical. It is a practical question. In that respect it is like the gun safety and court room cases. My interest in whether or not a particular firearm is loaded or unloaded is not merely theoretical, or I should say, not at all theoretical. It is a practical interest in maintaining the health and physical integrity of myself and the people around me. Similarly with the law. If you are accused of homicide you are in deep trouble and face the loss of your liberty or your life. Arguably, the God question is in the same boat.
So I invite you to accept one or the other of the following conclusions. The BOP is borne by the atheist. BOP considerations should be kept out of the theist-atheist debate altogether.
A: The law of noncontradiction (LNC) is a law of thought merely.
B: I dispute your claim. LNC is not a law of thought merely; it is also a law of extramental reality.
In this example, B disputes what A says by making a counter-claim, a counter-assertion. Both are asserting. It strikes me as foolish to ask who has the burden of proof (BOP). How decide such a question? I assume that in a dialectical situation like the above, if BOP considerations are relevant at all, then the BOP is on one side or the other, but not on both, and not on neither. But there is no non-arbitrary way to place the onus probandi on one side or the other. Therefore, BOP considerations are a useless detour. Why not go straight to the question and evaluate the arguments pro et contra?
Suppose you say that the BOP rests on the one who opposes the received or traditional view. Then the BOP would be on A. But if you say that the BOP rests on the one who makes the stronger claim, the more committal claim, then the BOP would be on B. I don't see how there could be a non-arbitrary assignment of BOP in a dialectical situation like this. Correlatively, I don't see how it could be non-arbitrarily claimed that there is a defeasible presumption (DP) in favor of A's assertion or of B's. So I suggest we drop the BOP talk!
Concerning your dialogue: In my opinion, both A and B bear a burden of proof here. For that reason, it is an unlucky start of a dispute - because it is in fact the start of two disputes at once, and a dialectical confusion is likely to arise. In order that the dialogue be fruitful, B should not have put forward a negation of A's claim as his own claim, but simply refuse to accept A's claim until proved (this is the meaning of the rule Necessitas probandi incumbit ei qui dicit non ei qui negat - "negare" here has the technical meaning of "to refuse to concede until proved", according to the rules of disputation). If A failed to produce a proof, his case would fail. If he produced one, his case would succeed unless and until B attacked that proof, thus prompting another argument to "restore" the former one. And so on, until one of the parties failed to do their duty. Only if A was the one who so failed, would it be in place for B to state his opposite meaning as a claim, if he wishes, with the burden of proof incumbent on him
There are three, not two possible dialectical states of a proposition: (i) proved (ii) disproved (iii) neither. The "burden of proof" just means that the default state is (iii).
Perhaps our difference boils down to this: you think that a dispute is about truth or falsity of a proposition, whereas I think that it is about validity or invalidity of rational support of a proposition. Whereas from the former point of view the dialectical situation comes out as symmetric, in the latter view it is inherently asymmetric.
Reply to Novak
Part of our difference here may be due to a different understanding of 'dispute.' I think Lukas may be using it is a technical way similarly as he uses negare in a technical way. And perhaps these technical meanings are the same. When I used 'dispute' in the little dialog above I was using it to mean 'disagree with.' Lukas seems to be using it to mean 'refuse to concede until argument is provided.'
Lukas seems just to be assuming that the BOP rests on A who must "produce a proof" otherwise his "case would fail." I take that to mean that A is obliged to give an argument for the claim he has made. (In my book, an argument is not the same as a proof, although every proof is an argument.) But, by my lights, if so, then the same goes for B: he too must give an argument for his counterclaim. B cannot just cross his arms across his chest and say, "I don't have to give an argument for my assertion; it suffices for me to poke holes in your argument. The BOP is on you, not on me." This is precisely what I reject. Otherwise, there would be a presumption in favor of B's claim. But there isn't. And to insist that there is, is to beg a philosophical question.
I think Lukas is right when he says that, for me, the dialectical situation is symmetric, at least in the example given above, while for him it is asymmetric.
Lukas is also right when he says that, for me, the dispute (disagreement) is about the truth-value of a proposition: Is it true or is it false that LNC is a law of thought merely? He says that, for him, the disagreement is "about validity or invalidity of rational support of a proposition."
But this needs explaining. Validity and invalidity are technical concepts from formal logic. Our present topic, however, is not formal logic, but dialectics. Lukas seems to think that there are certain procedural rules that govern the conduct of a discussion, and that these rules induce certain rights and duties in the interlocutors. Thus, he who makes an assertion puts himself under a dialectical obligation to support his assertion with one or more arguments, while the one to whom the assertion is made is under no obligation to support the negation of the asserted proposition: he has the right to do no more than find fault with the arguments for the asserted proposition.
I am skeptical of this entire adversarial model which has its provenience in the court-room situation and makes perfect sense there, but seems to me not appropriate in philosophy which, by my lights, is not a matter of debate or disputation but one of dialogue in which the interlocutors are not out to prove propositions they antecedently accept and do not question, but who aim at arriving at the truth together, a truth that they do not claim to possess, but are seeking.
. . . by my lights, parsimony might be a consideration that puts the burden of proof on the theist. Theories that multiply entities unnecessarily are less likely to be true and the theist's theory postulates an entity. Now, it may be that the theist will say that we need God as a first cause or something like that-- that could be enough to absolve him of the burden. But in the absence of other reasons for believing in God (known to the interlocutors), the burden of proof would be on the theist.
Let's think about this. I doubt the usefulness in philosophy of burden-of-proof considerations, at least when we are discussing such big questions as God, freedom, and immortality. I also doubt the usefulness in philosophy of considerations of parsimony. What is parsimony anyway?
Parsimony or Occam's Razor is a principle of theoretical economy that states or rather enjoins:
OR. Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.
It is sometimes formulated in Latin: Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. The principle or rather injunction is presumably to be interpreted qualitatively rather than quantitatively, thus:
OR*. Do not multiply TYPES or CATEGORIES of entity beyond necessity.
Thus it is not individual entities that are not to be multiplied, but types or kinds or categories of entity. To illustrate. Some criticized David Lewis' extreme modal realism on the ground that it proliferates concreta: there are not only all the actual concreta , there are all those merely possible ones as well. He responded quite plausibly to the proliferation charge by pointing out that the Razor applies to categories of entity, not individual entities, and that category-wise his ontology is sparse indeed.
'Multiply' is a picturesque way of saying posit. (Obviously, there are as many categories of entity as there are, and one cannot cause them to 'multiply.') And let's not forget the crucial qualification: beyond necessity. That means: beyond what is needed for purposes of adequate explanation of the data that are to be explained. Hence:
OR** Do not posit types of entity in excess of what is needed for purposes of explanation.
So the principle enjoins us to refrain from positing more types of entity than we need to explain the phenomena that need to be explained. It is obvious that (OR**) does not tell us to prefer theory T1 over theory T2 if T1 posits fewer types of entity than T2. What it tells us is to prefer T1 over T2 if T1 posits fewer types of entity AND accounts adequately for all the data. So there is a trade-off between positing and accounting.
Spencer tells us that "Theories that multiply entities unnecessarily are less likely to be true . . . ." I don't think this is right. Theories that posit entities or types of entity beyond the needs of explanation are uneconomical and to be rejected for this reason. We prefer simpler theories to save cognitive labor, not because simplicity is the mark of truth (simplex sigillum veri) or even because simpler theories are more likely to be true. Now it may be that simpler theories are more likely to be true -- how would one show this? -- but this is no part of the principle of parsimony as I understand it. It is a principle of Denkoekonomie.
The defeasible presumption in favor of parsimonious explanations is very much like the defeasible presumption of innocence (POI) in the law. The accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty even if the probability of his being innocent is low or even near or at zero. The presumption of innocence does not vary with the probability of innocence, and is in fact logically consistent wth guilt. And of course the presumption of innocence does not entail innocence.
POI is a procedural rule: we proceed in the law as if the accused is innocent even if it is evident that he isn't. (Suppose 100 reputable winesses observe a man in a non-self-defense situation bludgeoning a woman to death. There still has to be a trial, the accused will enjoy the POI, and the prosecutors will bear the burden of proof. It's just that this trial will be very short.) Similarly, the principle of parsimony is a principle of procedural presumption. (See N. Rescher, Presumption and the Practices of Tentative Cognition, Cambridge UP, 2006. p. 124 ff.)
Suppose everything could be explained just as well without God as with God. Then we would have no reason to posit God as playing an explanatory role. But it wouldn't follow that God doesn't exist, or even that it is unlikely that God exists. All that would follow is that we would have no reason to posit God as an explanation of the existence, order, intelligibility of the universe: The 'God hypothesis' would not be rationally motivated.
Now one point I want to make is that Parsimony is a fairly useless and trivial injunction. After all, who wants to posit types of entity in excess of what is needed for purposes of explanation? The real question is what is needed for explanation. Parsimony gives us no help with this question. I would argue that God is needed to explain the existence and the intelligibility of the universe. Now that is a meaty set of issues that cannot be resolved by brandishing the Razor. We all agree about the Razor. What we don't agree about is what is necessary for an adequate explanation of what needs explaining.
And so it would be a cheap shot for an atheist to claim that theists violate Parsimony by positing God. Spencer of course understands this. For again, the issue is whether the posit is necessary for explanation.
Burden of Proof
Who bears the burden? Theist or atheist? The question is senseless or else has a trivial answer: both bear it. For it is not evident that God exists, nor it is evident that God does not exist. Neither side can invoke a defeasible presumption.
But there is a defeasible presumption in favor of the reliability of memory as a source of knowledge; so it does make sense to place the burden of proof on one who denies it.
Finally, does parsimony put the burden of proof on the theist as Spencer claims? No and for two reasons. First, Parsimony is a trivial injunction that, by itself, cannot decide between theism and atheism. Second, it is either senseless or trivial to ask where the BOP lies in the atheism-theism dispute.
UPDATE (10/28): Spencer Case e-mails: "I think you should make clear to your readers that your post attributes views to me that I do not hold. The part you quote from me is given in a context that is meant to show how my view of burden of proof would apply to a particular dialectical situation where an atheist thought parsimony mattered for the reason I stated. I wasn't actually subscribing to that view of parsimony. My account of what philosophical burden of proof amounts to was the main point of my comments.
Andrew Bailey sends the following quotations for our delectation:
"(When a philosopher says, "The burden of the proof lies on you", he means, "You must deduce your conclusion from the truths of immediate sensory experience by means of an argument that is formally valid according to the rules of elementary logic; I on the other hand may employ any dialectical tactic I find expedient".)"
-PvI, An Essay on Free Will, p.18
"Where does the burden of proof lie in a philosophical debate? In a debate of the type we are imagining, the answer is clear--in fact, trivial. The burden of proof lies on the person who's trying to prove something to someone."
-PvI, The Problem of Evil, p.46
Notice that the thesis encoded in the second is a little different (and much more plausible) than "he who asserts must prove".
I'd have to examine the context, but the second quotation seems to support what I was saying yesterday, namely, that burden-of-proof considerations have no non-trivial role to play in philosophical discussions.
It is quite otherwise in the law, which is where we get the notion of burden of proof (BOP) and the correlative notion of defeasible presumption (DP). As N. Rescher remarks (Presumption and the Practices of Tentative Cognition, p. 13), both are at root legal conceptions dating back to Roman law. Now court-room proceedings are essentially both practical and adversarial: what is in dispute is not a matter of theory, but a matter bearing upon such things as a person's wealth and liberty. Thus it makes perfect sense that the BOP should be placed on the plaintiff in a civil case and the state in a criminal case, which is equivalent to granting to the accused a defeasible presumption of innocence. The onus probandi rests on those who make allegations. Thus it makes sense within the law to maintain that
Necessitas probandi incumbit ei qui dicit non ei qui negat.
The need for proof lies with him who affirms, not him who denies.
Now to my way of thinking, philosophy-as-inquiry is never adversarial, and is primarily theoretical. This is part of my reason for thinking that the fundamentally legal notions of BOP and DP ought not be imported into philosophy-as-inquiry. It strikes me as very clear that one who makes an accusation bears the burden of proof. But it is not so clear that one who makes an assertion bears a burden of proof.
Indeed, it is either false or meaningless. For if van Inwagen asserts that there are no modes of being, and I assert that there are, then we both make assertions. So if he who asserts bears a burden of proof, then we both bear the burden of proof -- which trivializes the very notion of BOP.
So I am skeptical about the importation of the fundamentally legal concept of BOP from that essentially adversarial and practical dialectical context into philosophy-as-inquiry. But this is a complicated topic. I'll say some more tomorrow.
1. The question this post raises is whether it is at all useful to speak of burden of proof (BOP) in dialectical situations in which there are no agreed-upon rules of procedure that are constitutive of the 'game' played within the dialectical situation. By a dialectical situation I mean a context in which orderly discussion occurs among two or more competent and sincere interlocutors who share the goal of arriving as best they can at the truth about some matter, or the goal of resolving some question in dispute. My main concern is with dialectical situations that are broadly philosophical. I suspect that in philosophical debates the notion of burden of proof is out of place and not usefully deployed. That is what I will now try to argue.
2. I will begin with the observation that the presumption of innocence (POI) in an Anglo-American court of law is never up for grabs in that arena. Thus the POI is not itself presumptively maintained and subject to defeat. If Jones is accused of a crime, the presumption of his innocence can of course be defeated, but that the accused must be presumed innocent until proven guilty is itself never questioned and of course never defeated. The POI is not itself a defeasible presumption. And if Rescher is right that there are no indefeasible presumptions, then the POI is not even a presumption. The POI is a rule of the 'game,' and constitutive of the 'game.' The POI in a court room situation is like a law of chess. The laws of chess, as constitutive of chess, cannot themselves be contested within a game of chess. In a particular game a dispute may arise as to whether or not a three-fold repetition of position has occurred. But that a three-fold repetition of position results in a draw is not subject to dispute. The reason there is always a definite outcome in chess (win, lose, or draw) is precisely because of the non-negotiable chess-constitutive laws. These laws, of course, are not inscribed in the nature of things, but are conventional in nature.
As I pointed out earlier, defeasible presumption (DP) and burden of proof are correlative notions. The defeasible presumption that the accused is innocent until proven guilty places the onus probandi on the prosecution. Therefore, from the fact that the POI is not itself defeasible in a court of law, it follows that neither is the BOP. Where the initating BOP lies -- the BOP that remains in force and never shifts during the proceedings -- is never subject to debate. It lies on the state in a criminal case and on the plaintiff in a civil case. If you agree to play the game, then you agree to its constitutive rules. Since these rules are constitutive of the game, they cannot be rejected on pain of ceasing to play the particular game in question.
3. But in philosophy matters are otherwise. For in philosophy everything is up for grabs, including the nature of philosophical inquiry and the rules of procedure. (This is why metaphilosophy is not 'outside of' philosophy but a branch of same.) And so where the BOP lies in a debate between, say, atheists and theists is itself a matter of debate and bitter contention. Each party seeks to put the BOP on the other, to 'bop' him if you will. The theist is inclined to say that there is a defeasible presumption in favor of the truth of theism; but of course few atheists will meekly submit to that pronunciamento. If the theist is right in his presumption, then he doesn't have to do anything except turn aside the atheist's objections: he is under no obligation to argue positively for theism any more than the accused is under an obligation to prove his innocence.
Accused to accuser: "I don't have to prove my innocence; you have to prove my guilt. I enjoy the presumption of innocence; you bear the burden of proof."
Theist to atheist: "I don't have to prove that God exists; you have to prove that God does not exist. Theism enjoys the presumption of being true; atheism bears the burden of proving that theism is not true." (This assumes that BOP and DP are legitimately deployed within broadly philosophical precincts -- which I am denying.)
Note that if the theist invokes the above presumption he needn't be committing the ad ignorantiam fallacy. He needn't be saying that theism is true because it hasn't been proved to be false. Surely the following deductive argument is invalid:
No one has ever proved that God does not exist ergo God does exist.
Just as the presumption of innocence does not entail that the accused is innocent, the presumption of truth does not entail that the proposition presumed true is true. So the mere fact that I have the presumption on my side does not amount to an argument that what I am presuming is true. If I have the presumption on my side, then my dialectical opponent bears the BOP. That's all.
4. Now we come to my tentative suggestion. There is no fact of the matter as to where the BOP lies in any dialectical context, legal, philosophical or any other: it is a matter of decision and agreement upon what has been conventionally decided. In chess, for example, the rules had to be decided and the players have to agree to accept them. No one thinks that these rules are inscribed in rerum natura. The same goes for BOP and DP. It had to be decided that in court room discourse and dialectic the accused enjoys the DP and the accuser(s) the BOP.
In philosophical discourse, however, there are no procedural rules regarding DP and BOP that we will all agree on.
For example, according to Douglas N. Walton, ". . . the basic rule of burden of proof in reasonable dialogue is: He who asserts must prove." (Informal Logic, p. 59) That is clearly false. If I assert that that you left the door open, there is no need for me to prove my assertion. A proof is an argument having premises and conclusion. Surely there is no need to argue for matters evident to sense perception. In fact, it would be unreasonable to do so. Or suppose I assert the Law of Noncontradiction. There is no way I can (non-circularly) prove it. So I cannot be under any epistemic obligation to prove it. 'Ought' implies 'can.'
And how would this work in a dispute between theist and atheist? I assert that God exists and you assert that God does not exist. We both assert. So we both bear the BOP, and we both enjoy DP? But then BOP and DP have no application in this area.
I have heard it said that the BOP lies on the one who makes a positive (affirmative) assertion. But surely both theist and atheist make positive assertions about reality. 'Reality is such that God exists.' 'Reality is such that God does not exist.' Both propositions are logically affirmative.
Suppose our atheist denies God by saying 'God is an unconscious anthropomorphic projection.' Logically, that is an affirmative proposition. Will you conclude that the BOP is on the atheist?
Some say that presumptions are essentially conservative: there is a presumption in favor of the existing and the established and against the novel, the far-out, and what runs contrary to prevailing opinion. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Suppose I give the following speech:
There is a presumption in favor of every existing institution, long-standing way of doing things, and well-entrenched and widespread way of belief. Now the consensus gentium is that God exists. And so I lay it down that there is a defeasible presumption in favor of theism and that the burden of proof lies squarely on the shoulders of the atheist. Theism is doxastically innocent until proven guilty. The theist need only rebut the atheist's objections; he needn't make a positive case for his side.
Not only would the atheist not accept this declaration, he would be justified in not accepting it, for reasons that are perhaps obvious. For my declaration is as much up for grabs as anything else in philosophy. And of course if I make an ad baculum move then I remove myself from philosophy's precincts altogether. In philosophy the appeal is to reason, never to the stick.
The situation in philosophy could be likened to the situation in a court of law in which the contending parties are the ones who decide on the rules of procedure, including BOP and DP rules. Such a trial could not be brought to a conclusion. That's the way it is in philosophy. Every procedural rule and methodological maxim is further fodder for philosophical Forschung. (Sorry, couldn't resist the alliteration.)
My tentative conclusion is as follows. In philosophy no good purpose is served by claims that the BOP lies on one side or the other of a dispute, or that there is a DP in favor of this thesis but not in favor of that one. For there is no fact of the matter as to where the BOP lies. BOP considerations are usefully deployed only in dialectical situations in which there is an antecedent conventional agreement on the rules of procedure, rules that constitute the dialectical 'game' in question, and that are agreed upon by the players of the game and never contested by them while playing it.
1. Philosophical inquiry pursued in order to support (defend and rationally justify) an antecedently held thesis or worldview whose source is extraphilosophical
2. Philosophical inquiry pursued in order to support (by generating) a thesis or worldview that is not antecedently held but arrived at by philosophical inquiry.
But we need to nuance this a bit inasmuch as (1) conflates the distinction between
1a. Philosophical inquiry pursued in order to support (defend and rationally justify) an antecedently held thesis or worldview whose source is extraphilosophical, a thesis or worldview that will continue to be maintained whether or not the defensive and justificatory operations are successful
1b. Philosophical inquiry pursued in order to support (defend and rationally justify) an antecedently held thesis or worldview whose source is extraphilosophical, a thesis or worldview that will continue to be maintained only if the defensive and justificatory operations are successful.
Alvin Plantinga may serve as an example of (1a). I think it is fair to say that his commitment to his Dutch Reformed Christian worldview is such that he would continue to adhere to it whether or not his technical philosophical work is judged successful in defending and rationally justifying it. For a classical example of (1a), we may turn to Thomas Aquinas. His commitment to the doctrine of the Incarnation does not depend on the success of his attempt at showing the doctrine to be rationally acceptable. (Don't confuse rational acceptability with rational provability. The Incarnation cannot of course be rationally demonstrated.) Had his amanuensis Reginald convinced him that his defensive strategy in terms of reduplicatives was a non-starter, Thomas would not have suspended his acceptance of the doctrine in question; he would have looked for a defense immune to objections.
There are of course atheists and materialists who also exemplify (1a). Suppose a typical materialist about the mind proffers a theory that attempts to account for qualia and intentionality in purely naturalistic terms, and I succeed in showing him that his theory is untenable. Will he then reject his materialism about the mind or suspend judgment with respect to it? Of course not. He will 'go back to the drawing board' and try to develop a naturalistic theory immune to my objections.
The same thing goes on in the sciences. There are climate scientists who are committed to the thesis that anthropogenic global warming is taking place. They then look for evidence to buttress this conviction.
According to Susan Haack, following C. S. Peirce, the four examples above (which are mine, not hers) are examples of pseudo-inquiry:
The distinguishing feature of genuine inquiry is that what the inquirer wants is to find the truth of some question. [. . .] The distinguishing feature of pseudo-inquiry is that what the 'inquirer' wants is not to discover the truth of some question but to make a case for some proposition determined in advance. (Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate, University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 8)
Haack, again following Peirce, distinguishes within pseudo-inquiry sham inquiry and sham reasoning from fake inquiry and fake reasoning. You engage in sham reasoning when you make "a case for the truth of some proposition your commitment to which is already evidence- and argument-proof." (8) Characteristic of the sham 'inquirer' is a "prior and unbudgeable commitment to the proposition for which he tries to make a case." (9)
There are also those who are indifferent to the truth-value of the thesis they urge, but argue for it anyway to make a name for themselves and advance their careers. Their reasoning is not sham but fake. The sham reasoner is committed to the truth of the thesis he urges; the fake reasoner isn't: he is a bullshitter in Harry Frankfurt's sense. I will not be concerned with fake inquiry in this post.
The question I need to decide is, first of all, whether every case of (1a) is sham inquiry. And the answer to that is No. That consciousness exists, for example, is something I know to be true, and indeed from an extraphilosophical source, namely, introspection or inner sense. Those who claim that consciousness is an illusion are frightfully mistaken. I would be within my epistemic rights in simply dismissing their absurd claim as a bit of sophistry. But suppose I give an argument why consciousness cannot be an illusion. Such an argument would not count as sham reasoning despite my mind's being made up before I start my arguing, despite my "prior and unbudgeable commitment to the proposition" for which I argue.
Nothing is more evident that that consciousness, in my own case at least, exists. Consider a somewhat different case, that of other minds, other consciousnesses. Other minds are not given in the way my own mind is given (to me). Yet when I converse with a fellow human being, and succeed in communicating with him more or less satisfactorily, I am unshakably convinced that I am in the presence of an other mind: I KNOW that my interlocutor is an other mind. And in the case of my cats, despite the fact that our communication does not rise to a very high level, I am unbudgingly convinced that they too are subjects of consciousness, other minds. As a philosopher I want to know how it is that I have knowledge of other minds; I seek a justification of my belief in them. Whether I come up with a decent justification or not, I hold fast to my belief. I want to know how knowledge of other minds is possible, but I would never take my inability to demonstrate possibility as entailing that the knowledge in question is not actual. The reasoning I engage in is genuine, not sham, despite the fact that there is no way I am going to abandon my conviction.
Suppose an eliminative materialist claims that there are no beliefs or desires. I might simply dismiss his foolish assertion or I might argue against it. If I do the latter, my reasoning is surely not sham despite my prior and unbudgeable commitment to my thesis.
Suppose David Lewis comes along and asserts that unrealized possibilities are physical objects. I know that that is false. Suppose a student doesn't see right off the bat that the claim is false and demands an argument. I supply one. Is my reasoning sham because there is no chance that I will change my view? I don't think so.
Suppose someone denies the law of noncontradiction . . . .
There is no need to multiply examples: not every case of (1a) is sham inquiry. Those who claim that consciousness is an illusion or that there are no beliefs and desires can, and perhaps ought to be, simply dismissed as sophists or bullshitters. "Never argue with a sophist!" is a good maxim. But deniers of God, the soul, the divinity of Christ, and the like cannot be simply dismissed as sophists or bullshitters.
So now we come to the hard cases, the interesting cases.
Consider the unshakable belief held by some that there is what William James calls an "unseen order." (Varieties of Religious Exerience, p. 53) Some of those who have this belief claim to have glimpsed the unseen order via mystical experience. They claim that it lies beyond the senses, outer and inner, and that is also lies beyond what discursive reason can grasp. And yet they reason about it, not to prove its existence, but to show how it, though suprarational, is yet rationally acceptable. Is their reasoning sham because they will hold to their conviction whether or not they succeed in showing that the conviction is rationally acceptable?
I don't think so. Seeing is believing, and mystical experience is a kind of seeing. Why trust abstract reasoning over direct experience? If you found a way out of Plato's Cave, then you know there is a way out, and all the abstract reasoning of all the benighted troglodytes counts for nothing at all in the teeth of that experience of liberation. But rather than pursue a discussion of mystical experience, let's think about (propositional) revelation.
Consider Aquinas again. There are things he thinks he can rationally demonstrate such as the existence of God. And there are things such as the Incarnation he thinks cannot be rationally demonstrated, but can be known to be true on the basis of revelation as mediated by the church's teaching authority. But while not provable (rationally demonstrable), the Incarnation is rationally acceptable. Or so Thomas argues. Is either sort of reasoning sham given that Aquinas would not abandon belief in God or in the Incarnation even if his reasoning in either case was shown to be faulty? Russell would say yes:
There is little of the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas. He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading. (Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy, Simon and Schuster, p. 463)
It is easy to see that Haack is a sort of philosophical granddaughter of Russell at least on this point.
In correspondence Dennis Monokroussos points out that "Anthony Kenny had a nice quip in reply to the Russell quotation. On page 2 of his edited work, Aquinas: A Collection of Critical Essays (London, 1969) (cited in Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Clarendon Press, 1992), p. 19), he says that the remark “comes oddly from a philosopher who took three hundred and sixty dense pages to offer a proof that 1 + 1 = 2.”
Exactly right. This is yet another proof that not every instance of (1a) above is an instance of sham reasoning or sham inquiry.
It is certainly false to say that, in general, it is unphilosophical or special pleading or an abuse of reason to seek arguments for a proposition antecedently accepted, a proposition the continuing acceptance of which does not depend on whether or not good arguments for it can be produced. But if we are to be charitable to Lord Russell we should read his assertion as restricted to propositions, theological and otherwise, that are manifestly controversial. So restricted, Russell's asseveration cannot be easily counterexampled, which is not to say that it is obviously true.
Thus I cannot simply cite the Incarnation doctrine and announce that we know this from revelation and are justified in accepting it whether or not we are able to show that it is rationally acceptable. For if it really is logically impossible then it cannot be true. If you say that it is actually true, hence possibly true whether or not we can explain how it is possible for it to be true, then you beg the question by assuming that it is actually true despite the opponent's arguments that it is logically contradictory.
It looks to be a stand-off.
One can imagine a Thomist giving the following speech.
My reasoning in defense of the Incarnation and other such doctrines as the Trinity is not sham despite the fact that I am irrevocably committed to these doctrines. It is a question of faith seeking understanding. I am trying to understand what I accept as true, analogously as Russell tried to understand in terms of logic and set theory what he accepted as true in mathematics. I am not trying to decide whether what I accept is true since I know it it to be true via an extraphilosophical source of knowledge. I am trying to understand how it could be true. I am trying to integrate faith with reason in a manner analogous to the way Russell sought to integrate arithmetic and logic. One can reason to find out new truths, but one can also reason, and reason legitimately, to penetrate intellectually truths one already possesses, truths the ongoing acceptance of which does not depend on one's penetrating them intellectually.
What then does the Russell-Haack objection amount to? It appears to amount to a rejection of certain extraphilosophical sources of knowledge/truth such as mystical experience, authority, and revelation. I have shown that Russell and his epigones cannot reject every extraphilosophical source of knowledge, else they would have to reject inner and outer sense. Can they prove that there cannot be any such thing as divine revelation? And if they cannot prove that, then their rejection of the possibility is arbitrary. If they say that any putative divine revelation has to validate itself by our lights, in our terms, to our logic, then that is just to reject divine revelation.
It looks to be a stand-off, then. Russell and his epigones are within their rights to remain within the sphere of immanence and not admit as true or real anything that cannot be certified or validated within that sphere by the satisfaction of the criteria human reason imposes. And their opponents are free to make the opposite decision: to open themselves to a source of insight ab extra.
It occurred to me this morning that there is a connection between the two.
Suppose a person asserts that abortion is morally wrong. Insofar forth, a bare assertion which is likely to elicit the bare counter-assertion, 'Abortion is not morally wrong.' What can be gratuitously asserted may be gratuitously denied without breach of logical propriety, a maxim long enshrined in the Latin tag Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur. So one reasonably demands arguments from those who make assertions. Arguments are supposed to move us beyond mere assertions and counter-assertions. Here is one:
Infanticide is morally wrong There is no morally relevant difference between abortion and infanticide Ergo Abortion is morally wrong.
Someone who forwards this argument in a concrete dialectical situation in which he is attempting to persuade himself or another asserts the premises and in so doing provides reasons for accepting the conclusion. This goes some distance toward removing the gratuitousness of the conclusion. THe conclusion is supported by reasons that are independent of the conclusion. But suppose he gave this argument:
Abortion is the deliberate and immoral termination of an innocent pre-natal human life Ergo Abortion is morally wrong.
The second argument is a clear example of petitio principii, begging the question. While the premise entails the conclusion, it does not support it with a reason independent of the conclusion. The argument 'moves in a circle' presupposing the very thing it needs to prove.
So the second 'argument' merely appears to be an argument: it us really just an assertion in the guise of an argument, and a gratuitous assertion at that. But what is gratuitously asserted can be gratuitously denied.
So there we have the connection between Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur and Petitio principii.
Alex L. writes, "I was interested in the post where you mentioned voting rationality. I've heard this argument as well -- that the chance your vote will influence elections is minuscule, so it's not rational to vote."
But that is not the argument. The argument is not to the conclusion that it is not rational to vote, but that it is rational for many people to remain ignorant of past and present political events and other relevant facts and principles that they would have to be well-apprised of if they were to vote in a thoughtful and responsible manner.
What is at issue is not the rationality of voting but the rationality of political ignorance.
The reason it is rational for many people to remain politically ignorant is that one's vote will have little or no effect on the outcome. To become and remain politically knowledgeable as one must be if one is to make wise decisions in the voting booth takes a considerable amount of initial and ongoing work. I think Ilya Somin has it right:
. . . political ignorance is actually rational for most of the public, including most smart people. If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not be much of a reason at all. That is because there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election (about 1 in 60 million in a presidential race, for example). For most of us, it is rational to devote very little time to learning about politics, and instead focus on other activities that are more interesting or more likely to be useful.
And please note that if it is rational for many to remain politically ignorant, that is consistent with the rationality of others to become and remain politically knowledgeable. I gave three reasons for someone like me to be politically savvy.
First. My goal is to understand the world as best I can. The world contains political actors, political institutions, and the like. Therefore, in pursuit of my goal it is rational to study politics.
Second. Politics is interesting the way spectator sports are. Now I don't give a flying enchilada about the latter. Politics are my sports. In brief, staying apprised of political crapola is amusing and diverting and also has the salutary effect of reminding me that man is a fallen being incapable of dragging his sorry ass out of the dreck by his own power, or, in Kantian terms, that he is a piece of crooked timber out of which no straight thing ever has been or ever will be made.
Third. Knowledge of current events in the political sphere can prove useful when it comes to protecting oneself and one's family. Knowledge of the Obaminations of the current administration, for example, allows one to to plan and prepare.
It is also worth pointing out that while political ignorance is for many if not most citizens rational, that it not to say that it is good.
Note finally that if it is not rational for most of us to acquire and maintain the political knowledge necessary to vote wisely, election after election, that is not to say that it is not rational for most of us to vote. For one can vote the way most people do, foolishly. Consider those voters who vote a straight Democrat ticket, election after election. That takes little time and no thought and may well be more rational than not voting at all. Let's say you are a welfare recipient or a member of a teacher's union or an ambulance chaser. And let's assume you are voting in a local election. Then it might be in your interest, though it would not be for the common good, to vote a straight Dem ticket. It might well be rational given that no effort is involved.
There are those who love to expose and mock the astonishing political ignorance of Americans. According to a 2006 survey, only 42% of Americans could name the three branches of government. But here is an interesting question worth exploring:
Is it not entirely rational to ignore events over which one has no control and withdraw into one's private life where one does exercise control and can do some good?
I can vote, but my thoughtful vote counts for next-to-nothing in most elections, especially when it is cancelled out by the vote of some thoughtless and uninformed idiot. I can blog, but on a good day I will reach only a couple thousand readers worldwide and none of them are policy makers. (I did have some influence once on a Delta airline pilot who made a run for a seat in the House of Representatives.) I can attend meetings, make monetary contributions, write letters to senators and representatives, but is this a good use of precious time and resources? I think Ilya Somin has it right:
. . . political ignorance is actually rational for most of the public, including most smart people. If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not be much of a reason at all. That is because there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election (about 1 in 60 million in a presidential race, for example). For most of us, it is rational to devote very little time to learning about politics, and instead focus on other activities that are more interesting or more likely to be useful.
Is it rational for me to stay informed? Yes, because of my intellectual eros, my strong desire to understand the world and what goes on in it. The philosopher is out to understand the world; if he is smart he will have no illusions about changing it, pace Marx's 11th Thesis on Feuerbach.
Another reason for people like me to stay informed is to be able to anticipate what is coming down the pike and prepare so as to protect myself and my stoa, my citadel, and the tools of my trade. For example, my awareness of Obama's fiscal irresponsibility is necessary if I am to make wise decisions as to how much of my money I should invest in precious metals and other hard assets. Being able to anticipate Obaminations re: 'gun control' will allow me to buy what I need while it is still to be had. 'Lead' can prove to be useful for the protection of gold. And so on.
In brief, a reason to stay apprised of current events is not so that I can influence or change them, but to be in a position so that they don't influence of change me.
A third reason to keep an eye on the passing scene, and one mentioned by Somin, is that one might follow politics the way some follow sports. Getting hot and bothered over the minutiae of baseball and the performance of your favorite team won't affect the outcome of any games, but it is a source of great pleasure to the sports enthusiast. I myself don't give a damn about spectator sports. Politics are my sports. So that is a third reason for me to stay on top of what's happening.
All this having been said and properly appreciated, one must nevertheless keep things in perspective by bearing in mind Henry David Thoreau's beautiful admonition:
Read not The Times; read the eternities!
For this world is a vanishing quantity whose pomps, inanities, Obaminations and what-not will soon pass into the bosom of nonbeing. And you with it.
"Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!" (Bertrand Russell)
It may well be that our predicament is such as to disallow conclusive or even sufficient evidence of the truth about it. If Plato's Cave Allegory is apt, if it lays bare the truth of the human predicament, then it must be that the evidence that the cave is a cave and that there is an outer world, whether it be the evidence of someone's testimony or the evidence of one's own rare and fleeting experiences, is scant and flimsy and easily doubted and denied. What I merely glimpse on rare occasions I can easily doubt. One can also doubt what any church teaches for the simple reason that there are many churches and they contradict each other on many points of doctrine and practice. And the same goes for what I believe on the testimony of others.
We don't know that the human condition is a cave-like predicament along Platonic lines, but if it is then we have an explanation of the paucity of sufficient evidence of its being what it is. (By sufficient evidence for a proposition p I mean evidence that renders p more likely than its negation.)
It is vitally important to us whether God or some form of Transcendence exists, and whether a higher life is possible for us beyond the miserably short and indigent predicament in which we presently find ourselves. But it may be that the truth in this matter cannot be known here below, but only believed on evidence that does not make it more likely than not. It may be that our predicament is such as to make impossible sufficient evidence of the truth about it.
Do I violate an ethics of belief if I believe on insufficient evidence? But don't I also have a duty to myself to pursue what is best for myself? And seek my ultimate happiness? Why should the legitimate concern to not be wrong trump the concern to find what is salvifically right? Is it not foolish to allow fear of error to block my path to needed truth?
Lately I've heard bandied about the idea that to have faith is to pretend to know what one does not know. Now that takes the cake for dumbassery. One can of course pretend to know things one does not know, and pretend to know more about a subject than one does know. The pretence might be part of a strategy of deception in the case of a swindler or it might be a kind of acting as in the case of an actor playing a mathematician.
But in faith one does not pretend to know; one honestly faces the fact that one does not know and ventures beyond what one knows so as to gain access to a needed truth that by its very nature cannot satisfy the strictures that we moderns and post-moderns tend to build into 'know.'
Recognizing your praise for Critical Rationalism and Morris Raphael Cohen, I believe his page (and also the Karl Popper page) in my PDF Logic Gallery will interest you.
Of course, I hope the book's entire theme/content will also interest you.
Your comments will surely interest ME.
In these dark days of the Age of Feeling, when thinking appears obsolete and civilization is under massive threat from Islamism and its 'liberal' and leftist enablers, it seems fitting that I should repost with additions my old tribute to Morris Raphael Cohen. So here it is:
Tribute to Morris R. Cohen: Rational Thought as the Great Liberator
Morris Raphael Cohen (1880-1947) was an American philosopher of naturalist bent who taught at the City College of New York from 1912 to 1938. He was reputed to have been an outstanding teacher. I admire him more for his rationalism than for his naturalism. In the early 1990s, I met an ancient lady at a party who had been a student of Cohen's at CCNY in the 1930s. She enthusiastically related how Cohen had converted her to logical positivism, and how she had announced to her mother, "I am a logical positivist!" much to her mother's incomprehension.
We best honor a thinker by critically re-enacting his thoughts. Herewith, a passage from Cohen's A Preface to Logic, Dover, 1944, pp. 186-187:
...the exercise of thought along logical lines is the great liberation, or, at any rate, the basis of all civilization. We are all creatures of circumstance; we are all born in certain social groups and we acquire the beliefs as well as the customs of that group. Those ideas to which we are accustomed seem to us self-evident when [while?] our first reaction against those who do not share our beliefs is to regard them as inferiors or perverts. The only way to overcome this initial dogmatism which is the basis of all fanaticism is by formulating our position in logical form so that we can see that we have taken certain things for granted, and that someone may from a purely logical point of view start with the denial of what we have asserted. Of course, this does not apply to the principles of logic themselves, but it does apply to all material propositions. Every material proposition has an intelligible alternative if our proposition can be accurately expressed.
These are timely words. Dogmatism is the basis of all fanaticism. Dogmatism can be combatted by the setting forth of one's beliefs as conclusions of (valid) arguments so that the premises needed to support the beliefs become evident. By this method one comes to see what one is assuming. One can also show by this method that arguments 'run forward' can just as logically be 'run in reverse,' or, as we say in the trade, 'One man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens.' These logical exercises are not merely academic. They bear practical fruit when they chasten the dogmatism to which humans are naturally prone.
In Cohen's day, the threats to civilization were Fascism, National Socialism, and Communism. Today the main threat is Islamo-totalitarianism, with a secondary threat emanating from the totalitarian Left. Then as now, logic has a small but important role to play in the defeat of these threats. The fanaticism of the Islamic world is due in no small measure to the paucity there of rational heads like Cohen.
But I do have one quibble with Cohen. He tells us that "Every material proposition has an intelligible alternative..." (Ibid.) This is not quite right. A material proposition is one that is non-logical, i.e., one that is not logically true if true. But surely there are material propositions that have no intelligible alternative. No color is a sound is not a logical truth since its truth is not grounded in its logical form. No F is a G has both true and false substitution-instances. No color is a sound is therefore a material truth. But its negation Some color is a sound is not intelligible if 'intelligible' means possibly true. If, on the other hand, 'intelligible' characterizes any form of words that is understandable, i.e., is not gibberish, then logical truths such as Every cat is a cat have intelligible alternatives: Some cat is not a cat, though self-contradictory, is understandable. If it were not, it could not be understood to be self-contradictory. By contrast, Atla kozomil eshduk is not understandable at all, and so cannot be classified as true, false, logically true, etc.
So if 'intelligible' means (broadly logically or metaphysically) possibly true, then it is false that "Every material proposition has an intelligible alternative . . . ."
Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being, tr. Reinhardt, ICS Publications, 2002, p. 22:
Reason would turn into unreason if it would stubbornly content itself with what it is able to discover with its own light, barring out everything which is made visible to it by a brighter and more sublime light.
Is it unreasonable to rely on reason alone, or is this exactly what reason demands? If the latter, how could reason validate its demand? Reason cannot validate itself by appeal to itself: A circular validation is no validation at all. So it is by a sort of transrational faith that reason relies on itself and accepts only what it can validate by its own lights. But if reason allows transrational faith in justification of itself, then it ought to be open to other transrational or suprarational sources of insight.
There is much depth in your short post on religion and reason from 6 May. Here are two points I often ponder about this topic:
First, I appreciate the difficulty of solving philosophical problems, but I wonder about the claim that they are insoluble (I suppose “insoluble” means “insoluble by humans alone”). If the problems are beyond mere human knowledge, how could we know this? One may inductively suspect insolubility by reflecting upon his experience of practicing philosophy, but how could he know the unknowable? If we can’t solve philosophical problems by philosophizing, then it seems we can’t conclude insolubility by philosophizing because this very conclusion would be a philosophical conclusion.
BV: I hold that the central problems of philosophy are most of them genuine, some of them humanly important, but all of them insoluble. And you are right, by 'insoluble' I mean insoluble by us or by beings of a similar cognitive architecture, ectypal intellects in Kant's jargon. Furthermore, pace Nicholas Rescher, I don't count a 'solution' that is relative to some set of background assumptions and cognitive values as a solution. Of course there are solutions in this sense. Nominalists solve the problem of univerals in one way, realists in another, conceptualists in a third, etc. But those are merely intramural solutions. What is wanted are solutions acceptable to all, solutions that hold ouside the walls of self-reinforcing enclaves of the like-minded.
You ask a very important question: How could one know that the central philosophical problems are insoluble? You yourself supplied the clue: by induction from philosophical experience. The best and the brightest have been at this game for thousands of years but not one single problem has been solved during this period, solved to the satisfaction of all competent practitioners. Everything is up for grabs, even the most elementary and picayune topics. Take a look at what is going one as we speak in the thread on logical form. Philosophers can't even agree on the most basic concepts of deductive logic. There is controversy everywhere. This is a plain fact.
The strife of systems and the ubiquity and longevity of controversy need explaining and I offer the insolubility thesis as the best explanation. Why haven't the problems been solved? Because they are insoluble. I agree with Benson Mates on this point. Of course, the following is an invalid argument form: Such-and-such has hitherto not been accomplished; ergo, such-and-such will never be accomplished. But then every inductive argument is invalid. Some inductive arguments, however, do quite reasonably support their conclusions.
But you can and should press your objection. If I maintain that the problems of philosophy are insoluble, then, given that the metaphilosophical problem of whether or not philosophical problems are soluble is a philosophical problem, it follows that the metaphilosophical problem is insoluble. Is this a difficult for my position? Not obviously. I simply 'bite the bullet' as they say. I accept that the meta problem is also insoluble.
In fact, the insolubility of the meta problem is further evidence of my thesis.
In other words, I am not dogmatizing. I am not claiming to know with certainty that the problems of philosophy are insoluble. I am not claiming to have solved the meta problem. I am merely claiming that the insolubility thesis is very reasonably maintained. Not every truth is such that we can know it to be true. With some truths the most we can expect here below is reasonable belief.
Compare God and the soul. I do not claim to know with certainty whether either exists. I claim merely that it it is reasonable to affirm both.
Second, I agree that it’s wise to intelligently practice religion and mysticism -- which, by the way, rules out superstition and group-think! Take religion: religious practice does not exclude reason, as Mates’ quote implies. It is a false dilemma to say “One can seek truth either by reason or religion, but not both.” Why not both? If I try to lift a stone and realize I can’t manage alone, this would not entail that I can or should stop lifting. If a stronger person assists me, and I trust his assistance, I can still lift. He may request my help. He may even require that I give it my all, and I may grow from the effort. Likewise, intelligent religion requires reason.
Consider Christianity: The biblical conception of faith is “trust based on good reasons”. This point is clear in passages such as Hebrews 11:1 and 1 Peter 3:15. In the Gospels, Jesus himself reasons and encourages others to do the same. Christian faith calls for the whole self: heart, mind, soul, and strength.
I’d be interested in your thoughts on reason and intelligent religion.
BV: I basically agree with you. Reason in the end must confess its own infirmity. It cannot deliver on its promises. The truth-seeker must explore other avenues. Religion is one, mysticism is another.
According to Benson Mates (1919-2009), all the major problems of philosophy are "insoluble though intelligible." (Skeptical Essays, U. of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 13) If true, this would explain why the problems of philosophy have not been solved. But "the rational minds among us are not inclined to give up the struggle, while the rest become religious mystics or philosophical obscurantists . . . ." (p. x)
But why continue to struggle with the problems of philosophy? To better appreciate the insolubility thesis? Apparently, Mates thinks that while the problems can't be solved or dissolved, one ought to keep trying to solve them anyway. But how rational is this? I should think that a "rational mind" should not attempt to do what he has already convinced himself cannot be done. Is it not more rational to seek a path to truth beyond philosophy?
How rational is it to place one's sole faith in reason when one has, by one's own lights, seen the infirmity of reason?
If a certain weight needs lifting, a weight beyond my ability to lift, and known to be such, does it make sense to struggle with it? Or is it more rational to seek assistance? By rejecting out of hand the assistance of religion and mysticism -- which he foolishly conflates -- Mates shows that his commitment to reason is irrational, as irrational as my pride-driven conceit that I am master of any difficulty that I should encounter.
London Karl brings to my attention an article by Sam Harris touching upon themes dear to my heart. Harris is an impressive fellow, an excellent public speaker, a crusader of sorts who has some important and true things to say, but who is sometimes out beyond his depth, like many public intellectuals who make bold to speak about philosophical topics. (But Harris is surely right clearly and courageously to point out that, among the ideologies extant at the present time, radical Islam is the most dangerous.)
In Rational Mysticism, Harris responds to critic Tom Flynn and in doing so offers characterizations of secularism, religion, and rational mysticism:
I used the words spirituality and mysticism affirmatively, in an attempt to put the range of human experience signified by these terms on a rational footing. It seems to me that the difficulty Flynn had with this enterprise is not a problem with my book, or merely with Flynn, but a larger problem with secularism itself.
As a worldview, secularism has defined itself in opposition to the whirling absurdity of religion. Like atheism (with which it is more or less interchangeable), secularism is a negative dispensation. Being secular is not a positive virtue like being reasonable, wise, or loving. To be secular, one need do nothing more than live in perpetual opposition to the unsubstantiated claims of religious dogmatists. Consequently, secularism has negligible appeal to the culture at large (a practical concern) and negligible content (an intellectual concern). There is, in fact, not much to secularism that should be of interest to anyone, apart from the fact that it is all that stands between sensible people like ourselves and the mad hordes of religious imbeciles who have balkanized our world, impeded the progress of science, and now place civilization itself in jeopardy. Criticizing religious irrationality is absolutely essential. But secularism, being nothing more than the totality of such criticism, can lead its practitioners to reject important features of human experience simply because they have been traditionally associated with religious practice.
The above can be distilled into three propositions:
1. Secularism is wholly defined by what it opposes, religion.
2. Religion is irrational, anti-science, and anti-civilization.
3. It would be a mistake to dismiss mysticism because of its traditional association with religious practice.
The final chapter of my book, which gave Flynn the most trouble, is devoted to the subject of meditation. Meditation, in the sense that I use the term, is nothing more than a method of paying extraordinarily close attention to one’s moment-to-moment experience of the world. There is nothing irrational about doing this (and Flynn admits as much). In fact, such a practice constitutes the only rational basis for making detailed (first-person) claims about the nature of human subjectivity. Difficulties arise for secularists like Flynn, however, once we begin speaking about the kinds of experiences that diligent practitioners of meditation are apt to have. It is an empirical fact that sustained meditation can result in a variety of insights that intelligent people regularly find intellectually credible and personally transformative. The problem, however, is that these insights are almost always sought and expressed in a religious context. One such insight is that the feeling we call “I”—the sense that there is a thinker giving rise to our thoughts, an experiencer distinct from the mere flow of experience—can disappear when looked for in a rigorous way. Our conventional sense of “self” is, in fact, nothing more than a cognitive illusion, and dispelling this illusion opens the mind to extraordinary experiences of happiness. This is not a proposition to be accepted on faith; it is an empirical observation, analogous to the discovery of one’s optic blind spots.
To continue with the distillation:
4. Meditation, defined as careful attention to conscious experience, is the only basis for sustainable claims about subjectivity. There is nothing irrational about it.
5. Deep meditation gives rise to unusual, and sometimes personally transformative, experiences or "insights."
6. One such "insight" is that the "sense of self" or the "feeling called 'I'" can disappear when carefully searched for.
7. The sense of "self" is a cognitive illusion, and can be seen to be such by empirical observation: it is not a proposition to be accepted on faith.
There is much to agree with here. Indeed, I wholeheartedly accept propositions (1), (3), (4), and (5). Of course, I don't accept (2), but that is not what I want to discuss. My present concerns are (6) and (7).
Let me say first that, for me, 'insight' is a noun of success, and in this regard it is like 'knowledge.' There cannot be false knowledge; there cannot be false insights. Now does deep meditation disclose that there is, in truth, no self, no ego, no I, no subject of experience? Harris does not say flat-out that the self is an illusion; he says that the "sense of self" is an illusion. But I don't think he means that there is a self but that there is no sense of it in deep meditation. I take him to be saying something quite familiar from (the religion?) Pali Buddhism, namely, that there is no self, period. Anatta, you will recall, is one of the pillars of Pali and later Buddhism, along with anicca and dukkha.
So I will assume that Harris means to deny the the existence of the self as the subject of experience and to deny it on empirical grounds: there is no self because no self is encountered when we carefully examine, in deep meditation, our conscious experience.
It seems to me, however, that the nonexistence of what I fail to find does not logically follow from my failing to find it.
It may be that the self is the sort of thing that cannot turn up as an object of experience precisely because it is the subject of experience.
Here is an analogy. An absent-minded old man went in search of his eyeglasses. He searched high and low, from morning til night. Failing to find them after such a protracted effort, he concluded that he never had any in the first place. His search, however, was made possible by the glasses sitting upon his nose!
The analogy works with the eyes as well. From the fact that my eyes do not appear in my visual field (apart from mirrors), it does not follow that I have no eyes. My eyes are a necessary condition of my having a visual field in the first place. Their nonappearance in said field is no argument against them.
It could be something like that (though not exactly like that) with the self. It could be that the self cannot, by its very nature, turn up as an object of experience, for the simple reason that it is the subject of experience, that which is experiencing.
It is simply false to say what Harris says in (7), namely that one empirically observes that there is no self. That is not an observation but an inference from the failure to encounter the self as an object of experience. It is an inference that is valid only in the presence of an auxiliary premise:
Only that which can be experienced as an object exists. The self cannot be experienced as an object. Therefore The self does not exist.
This argument is valid, but is it sound? The second premise is empirical: nothing we encounter in experience (inner or outer) counts as the subject of experience. True for the standard Humean and Buddhist reasons. But we cannot validly move from the second premise to the conclusion. We need the help of the auxiliary premise, which is not empirical. How then do we know that it is true? Must we take it on faith? Whose faith? Harris's?
My point, then, is that (7) is false and that Harris is operating with a dogmatic, non-empirical assumption, the just-mentioned auxiliary premise.
Harris needs to be careful that in his war against "absurd religious certainties" he does not rely on absurd dogmatic certainties of his own.
There are two paths toward reducing deficits and debts of the magnitude we face: raising taxes or cutting spending. A balanced compromise would involve some amount of both, but the two political parties face strong electoral incentives to do neither. If Republicans push for reduced spending, they are criticized for taking away the benefits people rely on. If Democrats push for raising taxes, they are decried for swiping workers' hard-earned dollars. Both solutions are seen as taking money away from voters, and are thus fraught with political peril.
Consider the matrix above, in which both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have two policy choices. Republicans always promise lower taxes, so their choice is whether to cut or maintain spending levels. Democrats, in contrast, want to keep spending high, so their choice is whether to raise taxes or keep them low.
A close look at the matrix shows that it is politically rational for the Republicans to maintain today's unsustainable levels of spending when faced with either behavior from Democrats. And, campaign rhetoric aside, that is what they tend to do. Republicans have learned that whenever they actually legislate spending cuts, they are attacked by their opponents and tend to lose elections. They are not keen to do the fiscally responsible thing when the price is giving up power.
Likewise, whether Republicans cut or maintain spending, Democrats are politically better off if they allow taxes to stay low. This explains why, despite President Obama's rhetoric about raising taxes, he and other Democrats have generally refrained from actually doing so, especially at the levels needed to pay for their spending. That the expiration of the Bush tax cuts was postponed until after the 2012 election was not a coincidence.
To be sure, politicians in both parties make noises about good economic choices (from their perspectives) that balance the budget, but their actual behavior is what matters. President George W. Bush oversaw the expansion of spending on entitlements, as well as on defense, education, and other discretionary programs. President Obama serially preserved Bush's tax cuts. Politicians know what is best for the country in the long term, but they have no easy way to change their behavior now during a period of polarization in which the institutions and incentives are set up for imbalance.
This amounts to an institutional failure. For most of the nation's history, the rules of the budget game worked. Today, however, they no longer function. Politically rational behavior is now fiscally perverse. Addressing this institutional failure thus requires changing the rules of game. The only remedy to our political prisoners' dilemma, therefore, is to change those rules so that they in fact rule out structural fiscal imbalance — by imposing painful penalties on lawmakers for failing to budget responsibly.
This is the sixth in a series of posts, collected here, on Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos (Oxford 2012). In my last post I suggested that Nagel needs a principle of plenitude in order to explain the actual existence, as opposed to the mere possibility, of rational organisms. But maybe not, maybe teleology will turn the trick for him. So we need to see what he says about teleology.
Nagel distinguishes "constitutive" from "historical" questions. What is reason? is an example of the former; How did reason arise? of the latter. Now one might wonder whether reason is the sort of thing that could arise. I am tempted to say that reason could no more arise than truth could arise, but then I'm a theist. Nagel, however, must hold that reason arises given his monism. As a monist, he maintains that there is exactly one world, this natural world.
Off the top of my head, I suggest we have at least six options concerning the nature and origin of reason.
A. Interventionist Theism. Reason didn't arise, but always existed. God is its prime instance and source. Reason in us did not arise or emerge from irrational or pre-rational elements but was implanted by God in us. It is part of what makes us of higher origin, an image and likeness of God.
B. Noninterventionist Deism. Reason didn't arise, but always existed. God is its prime instance and source. But God did not infuse or implant reason in certain animals at any point in the evolutionary process; what he did is rig up the world in such a way that rational animals would eventually emerge. Nagel mentions something like this possibility on p. 95.
C. Transcendental Subjectivism. Reason didn't arise, but neither is God its prime instance and source. Reaon is an a priori structure of our subjectivity, a transcendental presupposition without which we cannot carry out our cognitive operations. A view like this could be read out of Kant. A transcendental idealism as opposed to the Hegelian objective idealism that Nagel supports. (17)
D. Reason is a fluke. Reason arose, but it was a cosmic accident. That there are rational beings is simply a brute fact. Nagel rightly rejects this view.
E. Materialist evolutionary naturalism operating by "directionless physical law." (p. 91)
F. Nature-immanent non-intentional teleology.
Nagel rejects all of these options except the last. Unfortunately, Nagel's proposal is so sketchy it is hard to evaluate. To get a handle on it we need to study Nagel's final chapter on value in a separate post. According to natural teleology, the world has an in-built propensity to give rise to beings for whom there is a difference between what is good for them and what is bad for them. There is no agent who intends that such beings should arise; there is just this tendency toward them in nature below the level of mind. And so the explanation of the existence of such beings is not merely causal but teleological: there is is a sort of axiological requiredness in rerum natura that pulls as it were from the future these beings into existence. (See p. 121) This is my way of putting it.
This is the fifth in a series of posts, collected here, on Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos. The question that concerns me in this entry is whether we can forge a link between the intelligibility of nature and the existence of rational beings.
For Nagel, the existence of rational animals is not a brute fact or fluke or cosmic accident. Nagel's somewhat sketchy argument (see p. 86) is along these lines:
1. There are organisms capable of reason. 2. The possibility of such beings must have been there from the beginning. 3. This possibility, however, must be grounded in and explained by the nature of the cosmos. 4. What's more, the nature of the cosmos must explain not only the possibiity but also the actuality of rational animals: their occurrence cannot be a brute fact or cosmic accident.
I take Nagel to be maintaining that the eventual existence of some rational beings or other is no accident but is included in the nature of things from the beginning -- which is consistent with maintaining that there is an element of chance involved in the appearance of any particular instance of reason such as Beethoven. So eventually nature must produce beings capable of understanding it. We are such beings. "Each of our lives is part of the lengthy process of the universe waking up and becoming aware of itself." (85)
Nagel's thesis is not obvious. Why can't reason be a fluke? Even if we grant Nagel that the intelligibility of nature could not have been a fluke or brute fact, how does it follow that the actual existence of some rational beings or other, beings capable of 'glomming onto' the world's intelligible structure, is not a fluke? Nagel's argument needs some 'beefing up' so that it can meet this demand.
1. Let's start with the idea that nature is intelligible. Why? That the world is intelligible is a presupposition of all inquiry. The quest for understanding rests on the assumption that the world is understandable, and indeed by us. The most successful form of this quest is natural science. The success of the scientific quest is evidence that the presupposition holds and is not merely a presupposition we make. The scientific enterprise reveals to us an underlying intelligible order of things not open to perception alone, although of course the confirmation of scientific theories requires perception and the various instruments that extend it.
2. Now what explains this underlying rational order? Two possibilities. One is that nothing does: it's a brute fact. It just happens to be the case that the world is understandable by us, but it might not have been. The rational order of things underpins every explanation but itself has no explanation. The other possibility is that the rational order has an explanation, in which case it has an explanation by something distinct from it, or else is self-explanatory. On theism, the world's rational order is grounded in the divine intellect and is therefore explained by God. On what I take to be Nagel's view, the rational order is self-explanatory, a necessary feature of anything that could count as a cosmos.
Nagel views the intelligibility of the world as "itself part of the deepest explanation why things are as they are." (17). Now part of the way things are is that they are understandable by us. Given that the way things are is intelligible, it follows that the intelligibility of the world is self-explanatory or self-grounding.
Our second premise, then, is that the intelligibilty of the world is self-explanatory, hence a necessary feature of anything that could count as a cosmos.
3. Our third premise is that intelligibility is an an inherently mind-involving notion. Necessarily, if x is intelligible, then x is intelligible to some actual or possible mind. Nothing is understandable unless it is at least possible that there exist some being with the power of understanding.
The conjunction of these three premises entails the possibility of rational beings, but not the actuality of them. There would seem to be a gap in Nagel's reasoning. The world is intelligible, and its intelligibility is a necessary feature of it. From this we can infer that, necessarily, if the cosmos exists, then it is possible that there be rational beings. But that is as far as we can get with these three premises.
4. What Nagel seems to need is a principle of plenitude that allows us to pass from the possibility of rational beings to their actual existence. J. Hintikka has ascribed to Aristotle a form of the principle according to which every genuine possibility must at some time become actual. This would do the trick, but to my knowledge Nagel make no mention of any such principle.
5. I suggest that theism is in a better position when it comes to explaining how both intelligibility and mind are non-accidental. Intelligibility is grounded in the divine intellect which necessarily exists. So there must be at least one rational being. We exist contingently, but the reason in us derives from a noncontingent source.
This is the third in a series of posts on Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos (Oxford 2012). The first is an overview, and the second addresses Nagel's reason for rejecting theism. This post will comment on some of the content in Chapter 4, "Cognition."
In Chapter 4, Nagel tackles the topic of reason, both theoretical and practical. The emphasis is on theoretical reason, with practical reason receiving a closer treatment in the following chapter entitled "Value."
We have already seen that consciousness presents a problem for evolutionary reductionism due to its irreducibly subjective character. (For some explanation of this irreducibly subjective character, see my Like, What Does It Mean?)
'Consciousness' taken narrowly refers to phenomenal consciousness, pleasures, pains, emotions, and the like, but taken widely it embraces also thought, reasoning and evaluation. Sensory qualia are present in nonhuman animals, but only we think, reason, and evaluate. We evaluate our thoughts as either true or false, our reasonings as either valid or invalid, and our actions as either right or wrong, good or bad. These higher-level capacities can be possessed only by beings that are also conscious in the narrow sense. Thus no computer literally thinks or reasons or evaluates the quality of its reasoning imposing norms on itself as to how it ought to reason if it is to arrive at truth; at best computers simulate these activities. Talk of computers thinking is metaphorical. This is a contested point, of course. But if mind is a biological phenomenon as Nagel maintains, then this is not particularly surprising.
What makes consciousness fascinating is that while it is irreducibly subjective, it is also, in its higher manifestations, transcensive of subjectivity. (This is my formulation, not Nagel's.) Mind is not trapped within its interiority but transcends it toward impersonal objectivity, the "view from nowhere." Consciousness develops into "an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value." (85) Both sides of mind, the subjective and the objective, pose a problem for reductive naturalism. "It is not merely the subjectivity of thought but its capacity to transcend subjectivity and to dsiscover what is objectively the case that presents a problem." (72)
Exactly right! One cannot prise apart the two sides of mind, segregating the qualia problem from the intentionality problem, calling the former 'hard' and imagining the latter to be solved by some functionalist analysis. It just won't work. The so-called Hard Problem is actually insoluble on reductive naturalism, and so is the intentionality problem. (Some who appreciate this go eliminativist -- which is a bit like getting rid of a headache by blowing one's brains out.)
The main problem Nagel deals with in this chapter concerns the reliability of reason. Now it is a given that reason is reliable, though not infallible, and that it is a source of objective knowledge. The problem is not whether reason is reliable as a source of knowledge, but how it it is possible for reason to be reliable if evolutionary naturalism is true. I think it is helpful to divide this question into two:
Q1. How can reason be reliable if materialist evolutionary naturalism is true?
Q2. How can reason be reliable if evolutionary naturalism is true?
Let us not forget that Nagel himself is an evolutionary naturalist. He is clearly a naturalist as I explained in my first post, and he does not deny the central tenets of the theory of evolution. His objections are to reductive materialism (psychophysical reductionism) and not to either naturalism or evolution. Now Nagel is quite convinced, and I am too, that the answer to (Q1) is that it is not possible for reason to be relied upon in the manner in which we do in fact rely upon it, if materialism is true. The open question for Nagel is (Q2). Reason is reliable, and some version of evolutionary naturalism is also true. The problem is to understand how it is possible for both of them to be true.
Now in this post I am not concerned with Nagel's tentative and admttedly speculative answer to (Q2). I hope to take that up in a subsequent post. My task at present is to understand why Nagel thinks that it is not possible for reason to be reliable if materialism is true.
Suppose we contrast seeing a tree with grasping a truth by reason.
Vision is for the most part reliable: I am, for the most part, justified in believing the evidence of my senses. And this despite the fact that from time to time I fall victim to perceptual illusions. My justification is in no way undermined if I think of myself and my visual system as a product of Darwinian natural selection. "I am nevertheless justified in believing the evidence of my senses for the most part, because this is consistent with the hypothesis that an accurate representation of the world around me results from senses shaped by evolution to serve that function." (80)
Now suppose I grasp a truth by reason. (E.g., that I must be driving North because the rising sun is on my right.) Can the correctness of this logical inference be confirmed by the reflection that the reliability of logical thinking is consistent with the hypothesis that evolution has selected instances of such thinking for accuracy?
No, says Nagel and for a very powerful reason. When I reason I engage in such operations as the following: I make judgments about consistency and inconsistency; draw conclusions from premises; subsume particulars under universals, etc. So if I judge that the reliability of reason is consistent with an evolutionary explanation of its origin, I presuppose the reliability of reason in making this very judgement. Nagel writes:
It is not possible to think, "reliance on my reason, including my reliance on this very judgment, is reasonable because it is consistent with its having an evolutionary explanation." Therefore any evolutionary account of the place of reason presupposes reason's validity and cannot confirm it without circularity. (80-81)
Nagel's point is that the validity of reason can neither be confirmed nor undermined by any evolutionary account of its origins. Moreover, if reason has a merely materialist origin it would not be reliable, for then its appearance would be a fluke or accident. And yet reason is tied to organisms just as consciousness is. Nagel faces the problem of explaining how reason can be what it is, an "instrument of transcendence" (85) and a "final court of appeal" (83), while also being wholly natural and a product of evolution. I'll address this topic in a later post.
Why can't reason be a cosmic accident, a fluke? This is discussed in my second post linked to above, though I suspect I will be coming back to it.
Is it ever rational to believe something for which one has insufficient evidence? If it is never rational to believe something for which one has insufficient evidence, then presumably it is also never rational to act upon such a belief. For example, if it irrational to believe in God and post-mortem survival, then presumably it is also irrational to act upon those beliefs, by entering a monastery, say. Or is it?
W. K. Clifford is famous for his evidentialist thesis that "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence." On this way of thinking, someone who fails to apportion belief to evidence violates the ethics of belief, and thereby does something morally wrong. This has been called ethical evidentialism since that claim is that it is morally impermissible to believe on insufficient evidence. Sufficient evidence is where there is preponderance of evidence. On ethical evidentialism, then, it is morally permissible for a person to believe that p if and only p is more likely than not on the evidence the person has.
A cognitive evidentialist, by contrast, maintains that one is merely unreasonable to believe beyond a preponderance of evidence. One then flouts a norm of rationality rather than a norm of morality.
Jeffrey Jordan, who has done good work on this topic, makes a further distinction between absolute and defeasible evidentialism. The absolute evidentialist holds that the evidentialist imperative applies to every proposition, while the defeasible evidentialist allows exceptions. Although Clifford had religious beliefs in his sights, his thesis, by its very wording, applies to every sort of belief, including political beliefs and the belief expressed in the Clifford sentence quoted above! I take this as a refutation of Clifford's evidentialist stringency. For if one makes no exceptions concerning the application of the evidentialist imperative, then it applies also to "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence." And then the embarrassing question arises as to what evidence once could have for the draconian Cliffordian stricture which is not only a morally normative claim but is also crammed with universal quantifiers.
If I took Clifford seriously I would have to give up most of my beliefs about politics, health, nutrition, economics, history and plenty of other things. For example, I believe it is a wise course to restrict my eating of eggs to three per week due to their high cholesterol content. And that's what I do. Do I have sufficent evidence for this belief? Not at all. I certainly don't have evidence that entails the belief in question. What evidence I have makes it somewhat probable. But more probable than not? Not clear! But to be on the safe side I restrict my intake of high-cholesterol foods. What I give up, namely, the pleasures of bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning, etc. is paltry in comparison to the possible pay-off, namely living and blogging to a ripe old age. Surely there is nothing immoral or irrational in my behavior even though I am flouting Clifford's rule. And similarly in hundreds of cases.
The Desert Rat
Consider now the case of a man dying of thirst in a desert. He comes upon two water sources. He knows (never mind how) that one is potable while the other is poisonous. But he does not know which is which, and he has no way of finding out. Should the man suspend belief, even unto death, since he has insufficient evidence for deciding between the two water sources? Let us suppose that our man is a philosopher and thus committed to a life of the highest rationality.
Absolute evidentialism implies that the desert wanderer should suspend judgment and withhold assent: he may neither believe nor disbelieve of either source that it is potable or poisonous on pain of either irrationality or an offence against the ethics of belief.
On one way of looking at the matter, suspension of belief -- and doing nothing in consequence -- would clearly be the height of irrationality in a case like this. The desert wanderer must simply drink from one of the sources and hope for the best. Clearly, by drinking from one (but not both) of the sources, his chances of survival are one half, while his chances of survival from drinking from neither are precisely zero. By simply opting for one, he maximizes his chances of reality-contact, and thereby his chances of survival. Surely a man who wants to live is irrational if he fails to perform a simple action that will give him a 50-50 chance of living when the alternative is certain death.
He may be epistemically irrational, but he is prudentially rational. And in a case like this prudential rationality trumps the other kind.
Cases like this are clear counterexamples to evidentialist theories of rationality according to which rationality requires always apportioning belief to evidence and never believing on insufficient evidence. In the above case the evidence is the same for either belief and yet it would be irrational to suspend belief. Therefore, rationality for an embodied human agent (as opposed to rationality for a disembodied transcendental spectator) cannot require the apportioning of belief to evidence in all cases, as Clifford demands. There are situations in which one must decide what to believe on grounds other than the evidential. Will I believe that source A is potable? Or will I believe that source B is potable? In Jamesian terms the option is live, forced, and momentous. (It is not like the question whether the number of ultimate particles in the universe is odd or even, which is neither live, forced, nor momentous.) An adequate theory of rationality, it would seem, must allow for believing beyond the evidence. It must return the verdict that in some cases, to refuse to believe beyond the evidence is positively irrational.
But then absolute evidentialism is untenable and we must retreat to defeasible evidentialism.
The New Neighbors
Let us consider another such case. What evidence do I have that my new neighbors are decent people? Since they have just moved in, my evidence base is exiguous indeed and far from sufficient to establish that they are decent people. (Assume that some precisifying definition of 'decent' is on the table.) Should I suspend judgment and behave in a cold, skeptical, stand-offish way toward them? ("Prove that you are not a scumbag, and then I'll talk to you.") Should I demand of them 'credentials' and letters of recommendation before having anything to do with them? Either of these approaches would be irrational. A rational being wants good relations with those with whom he must live in close proximity. Wanting good relations, he must choose means that are conducive to that end. Knowing something about human nature, he knows that 'giving the benefit of the doubt' is the wise course when it comes to establishing relations with other people. If you begin by impugning the integrity of the other guy, he won't like you. One must assume the best about others at the outset and adjust downwards only later and on the basis of evidence to the contrary. But note that my initial belief that my neighbors are decent people -- a belief that I must have if I am to act neighborly toward them -- is not warranted by anything that could be called sufficient evidence. Holding that belief, I believe way beyond the evidence. And yet that is the rational course.
So again we see that in some cases, to refuse to believe beyond the evidence is positively irrational. A theory of rationality adequate for the kind of beings we are cannot require that belief be always and everywhere apportioned to evidence.
In the cases just mentioned, one is waranted in believing beyond the evidence, but there are also cases in which one is warranted in believing against the evidence. In most cases, if the available evidence supports that p, then one ought to believe that p. But consider Jeff Jordan's case of
The Alpine Hiker
An avalanche has him stranded on a mountainside facing a chasm. He cannot return the way he came, but if he stays where he is he dies of exposure. His only hope is to jump the chasm. The preponderance of evidence is that this is impossible: he has no epistemic reason to think that he can make the jump. But our hiker knows that what one can do is in part determined by what one believes one can do, that "exertion generally follows belief," as Jordan puts it. If the hiker can bring himself to believe that he can make the jump, then he increases his chances of making it. "The point of the Alpine hiker case is that pragmatic belief-formation is sometimes both morally and intellectually permissible."
We should therefore reject absolute evidentialism, both ethical and cognitive. We should admit that there are cases in which epistemic considerations are reasonably defeated by prudential considerations.
And now we come to the Big Questions. Should I believe that I am libertarianly free? That it matters how I live? That something is at stake in life? That I will in some way or other be held accountable after death for what I do and leave undone here below? That God exists? That I am more than a transient bag of chemical reactions? That a Higher Life is possible?
Not only do I not have evidence that entails answers to any of these questions, I probably do not have evidence that makes a given answer more probable than not. Let us assume that it is not more probable than not that God exists and that I (in consequence) have a higher destiny in communion with God.
But here's the thing. I have to believe that I have a higher destiny if I am to act so as to attain it. It is like the situation with the new neighbors. I have to believe that they are decent people if I am to act in such a way as to establish good relations with them. Believing the best of them, even on little or no evidence, is pragmatically useful and prudentially rational. I have to believe beyond the evidence. Similarly in the Alpine Hiker case. He has to believe that he can make the jump if he is to have any chance of making it. So even though it is epistemically irrational for him to believe he can make it on the basis of the available evidence, it is prudentially rational for him to bring himself to believe. You could say that the leap of faith raises the probability of the leap of chasm.
And what if he is wrong? Then he dies. But if he sits down in the snow in despair he also dies, and more slowly. By believing beyond the evidence he lives better his last moments than he would have by giving up.
Here we have a pragmatic argument that is not truth-sensitive: it doesn't matter whether he will fail or succeed in the jump. Either way, he lives better here and now if he believes he can cross the chasm to safety. And this, even though the belief is not supported by the evidence.
It is the same with God and the soul. The pragmatic argument in favor of them is truth-insensitive: whether or not it is a good argument is independent of whether or not God and the soul are real. For suppose I'm wrong. I live my life under the aegis of God, freedom, and immortality, but then one day I die and become nothing. I was just a bag of chemicals after all. It was all just a big joke. Electrochemistry played me for a fool. So what? What did I lose by being a believer? Nothing of any value. Indeed, I have gained value since studies show that believers tend to be happier people. But if I am right, then I have done what is necessary to enter into my higher destiny. Either way I am better off than without the belief in God and the soul. If I am not better off in this life and the next, then I am better off in this life alone.
I am either right or wrong about God and the soul. If I am right, and I live my beliefs, then then I have lived in a way that not only makes me happier here and now, but also fits me for my higher destiny. If I am wrong, then I am simply happier here and now.
So how can I lose? Even if they are illusions, believing in God and the soul incurs no costs and disbelieving brings no benefits.
(1) An assertion is a mere assertion unless argued. (2) Mere assertions are gratuitous. (3) The premises of arguments are assertions. (4) One cannot argue for every premise of every argument.
This is an accurate summary except for (3). I did not say that the premises of arguments are assertions since I allow that the premises of an argument may be unasserted propositions. The constituent propositions of arguments considered in abstracto, as they are considered in formal logic, as opposed to arguments used in concrete dialectical situations to convince oneself or someone else of something, are typically unasserted.
Since the conclusion of an argument cannot be any stronger (or less gratuitous) than its premises, doesn't it follow from these claims that the conclusion of every argument is gratuitous?
Well, if the conclusion follows from the premises, then it has the support of those premises, and is insofar forth less gratuitous than they are. Your point is better put by saying that, if the premises are gratuitious, then the conclusion canot be ultimately non-gratuitous, but only proximately non-gratuitous.
You distinguish between 'making' arguments and 'entertaining' arguments, but that doesn't offer a way out here because the kind of argument required in (1) and (3) is a 'made' argument rather than an 'entertained' argument.
Isn't the answer here to reject (1) and to grant that some assertions (e.g., the assertion that your cats are on the desk) can be neither mere assertions nor argued assertions? We need a category like 'justified' assertions: no justified assertion is a mere assertion and not every justified assertion is an argued assertion.
Professor Anderson has put his finger on a real problem with the post, and I accept his criticism. I began the post with the sentence, "Mere assertions remain gratuitous until supported by arguments." But that is not quite right. I should have written: "Mere assertions remain gratuitous until supported, either by argument, or in some other way." Thus my assertion that two black cats are lounging on my writing table is not a mere assertion although it is and must be unargued; it is an assertion justified by sense perception.
Expressed more clearly, the main point of the post was that ultimate justification via argument alone cannot be had. Sooner or late one must have recourse to propositions unsupportable by argument. Argument does not free us of the need to make assertions. (I am assuming that there is no such thing as infinitely regressive support or circular support. Not perfectly obvious, I grant: but very plausible.)
That a principle can be taken to an extreme is no argument against the principle so taken. It is rather an argument against extremism. The principle that one has the right to keep and bear arms, for example, is not refuted by the fact that some will take it to mean that one has the right to keep and 'bear' tactical nukes. Similarly in other cases.
Suppose an author exercises due diligence in the researching and writing of a nonfiction book. He has good reason to believe that all of the statements he makes in the book are true. But he is also well aware of human fallibility and that he is no exception to the rule. And so, aware of his fallibility, he has good reason to believe that it is not the case that all of the statements he makes in the book are true. He makes mention of this in the book's preface. Hence 'paradox of the preface.' Thus:
1. It is rational for the author to believe that each statement in his book is true. (Because he has exercised due diligence.) 2. It is rational for the author to believe that some statement in his book is not true. (Because to err is human.) Therefore 3. It is rational for the author to believe that (each statement in his book is true & some statement in his book is not true.) Therefore 4. There are cases in which it is rational for a person to believe statements of the form (p & ~p).
"What the paradox shows is that we need to give up the claim that it is always irrational to believe statements that are mutually inconsistent." (Michael Clark, Paradoxes From A to Z, Routledge 2002, p. 144) Is that what the paradox shows? I doubt it. The paradox cannot arise unless the following schema is valid:
a. It is rational for S to believe that p. b. It is rational for S to believe that ~p. Ergo c. It is rational for S to believe that (p & ~p).
It is not clear that the schema is valid. Rational believability, unlike truth, is a relative property. What it is rational to believe is relative to background knowledge among other things. Relative to the author's knowledge that he exercised due diligence in the researching and writing of his book, it is rational for him to believe that every statement in the book is true. But relative to considerations of human fallibility, it is rational for him to believe that it is not the case that every statement in his book is true. So what (a) and (b) above really amount to is the following where 'BK' abbreviates 'background knowledge':
a*. It is rational for S to believe relative to BK1 that p. b*. It is rational for S to believe relative to BK2 that ~p.
From these two premises one cannot arrive at the desired conclusion. So my solution to the paradox is to reject the inference from (1) and (2) to (3).
"But doesn't the author's background knowledge (BK) include both the truth that he exercised due diligence and the truth that human beings are fallible?" Well suppose it does. Then how could it be rational for him to believe that every statement in the book is true? It is rational for him to believe that every statement is true only if he leaves out of consideration that people are fallible. Relative to his total background knowledge, it is not rational for him to believe that every statement in his book is true.
In this way I avoid Clark's draconian conclusion that it is sometimes rational to believe statements that are mutually inconsistent.
Let's talk about cigarettes. Suppose you smoke one pack per day. Is that irrational? I hope all will agree that no one who is concerned to be optimally healthy as long as possible should smoke 20 cigarettes a day, let alone 80 like Rod Serling who died at age 50 on the operating table. But long-term health is only one value among many. Would Serling have been as productive without the weed? Maybe not.
Suppose one genuinely enjoys smoking and is willing to run the risk of disease and perhaps shorten one's life by say five or ten years in order to secure certain benefits in the present. There is nothing irrational about such a course of action. One acts rationally -- in one sense of 'rational' -- if one chooses means conducive to the ends one has in view. If your end in view is to live as long as possible, then don't smoke. If that is not your end, if you are willing to trade some highly uncertain future years of life for some certain pleasures here and now, and if you enjoy smoking, then smoke.
The epithet 'irrational' is attached with more justice to the fascists of the Left, the loon-brained tobacco wackos, who, in the grip of their misplaced moral enthusiasm, demonize the acolytes of the noble weed. The church of liberalism must have its demon, and his name is tobacco. I should also point out that smoking, like keeping and bearing arms, is a liberty issue. Is liberty a value? I'd say it is. Yet another reason to oppose the liberty-bashing loons of the Left and the abomination of Obamacare with its individual mandate.
Smoking and drinking can bring you to death's door betimes. Ask Humphrey Bogart who died at 56 of the synergistic effects of weed and hooch. Life's a gamble. A crap shoot no matter how you slice it. Hear the Hitch:
Writing is what's important to me, and anything that helps me do that -- or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation -- is worth it to me. So I was knowingly taking a risk. I wouldn't recommend it to others.
And like Bogie before him, Hitch paid the price for his boozing and smoking in the coin of an early death at 62. Had he taken care of himself he might have kept up his high-toned ranting and raving for another ten years at least.
So why don't I smoke and drink? The main reason is that smoking and drinking are inconsistent with the sorts of activities that provide satisfactions of a much higher grade than smoking and drinking. I mean: running, hiking, backpacking and the like. When you wake up with a hangover, are you proud of the way you spent the night before? Are you a better man in any sense? Do you really feel better after a night of physical and spiritual dissipation? Would you feel a higher degree of satisfaction if the day before you had completed a 26.2 mile foot race?
Health and fitness in the moment is a short-term reason. A long-term reason is that I want to live as long as possible so as to finish the projects I have in mind. It is hard to write philosophy when you are sick or dead. And here below is where the philosophy has to be written. Where I hope to go there will be no need for philosophy.
The problem is not that we conceptualize things, but that we conceptualize them wrongly, hastily, superficially. The problem is not that we draw distinctions, but that we draw too few distinctions or improper distinctions. Perhaps in the end one must learn to trace all distinctions back to the ONE whence they spring; but that is in the end. In the beginning people must be taught to conceptualize, discriminate, and distinguish.
A superficial Zen training that attacks the discursive intellect in those who have never properly developed it does a great disservice.
1. All genuine problems are soluble. 2. No problem of philosophy is soluble. 3. Some problems of philosophy are genuine.
I claimed that "(2) is a good induction based on two and one half millenia of philosophical experience." The inductive inference, which I am claiming is good, is not merely from 'No problem has been solved' to 'No problem will be solved'; but from the former to the modal 'No problem can be solved.' From a deductive point of view, this is of course doubly invalid. I use 'valid' and 'invalid' only in connection with deductive arguments. No inductive argument is valid. No news there.
Peter Lupu's objection, which he elaborated as best he could after I stuffed him with L-tryptophan-rich turkey and fixin's, was along the following lines. If the problems of philosophy are insoluble, then so is the problem of induction. This is the problem of justifying induction, of showing it to be rational. So if all the problems are insoluble, then we cannot ever know that inductive inference is rational. But if we cannot ever know this, then we cannot ever know that the inductive inference to (2) is rational. Peter concludes that this is fatal to my metaphilosophical argument which proceeds from (2) and (3) to the negation of (1). What he is maintaining, I believe, is that my argument is not rationally acceptable, contrary to what I stated, because (2) is not rationally acceptable.
Perhaps Peter's objection can be given the following sharper formulation.
(2) is either true or false. If (2) is true, then (2) is not rationally justifiable, hence not rationally acceptable, in which case the argument one of whose premises it is is not rationally acceptable. If, on the other hand, (2) is false, then the argument is unsound. So my metaphilosophical argument is either rationally unacceptable or unsound. Ouch!
I concede that my position implies that we cannot know that the inductive inference to (2) is rationally justified. But it might be rationally justified nonetheless. Induction can be a rational procedure even if we cannot know that it is or prove that it is. Induction is not the same as the problem of induction. If I am right, the latter is insoluble. But surely failure to solve the problem of induction does not show that induction is not rationally justified. Peter seems to be assuming the following principle:
If S comes to believe that p on the basis of some cognitive procedure CP, then S is rationally justified in believing that p on the basis of CP only if S has solved all the philosophical problems pertaining to CP.
I don't see why one must accept the italicized principle. It seems to me that I am rationally justified in believing that Peter is an Other Mind on the basis of my social interaction with him despite my not having solved the problem of Other Minds. It seems to me that I am rationally justified, on the basis of memory, that he ate at my table on Thursday night despite my not having solved all the problems thrown up by memory. And so on.
One person fears loss of contact with reality and is willing to take doxastic risks and believe beyond what he can claim strictly to know. The other, standing firm on the autonomy of human reason, refuses to accept anything that cannot be justified from within his own subjectivity. He fears error, and finds the first person uncritical, gullible, credulous, tender-minded in James' sense. The first is cautious lest he miss out on the real. The second is cautious lest he make a mistake.
The second, brandishing W. K. Clifford, criticizes the first for believing on insufficient evidence, for self-indulgently believing what he wants to believe, for believing what he has no right to believe. The second wants reality-contact only on his own terms: only if he can assure himself of it, perhaps by ‘constituting’ the object via ‘apodictic’ processes within his own consciousness. (Husserl) The first person, however, is willing to accept uncertainty for the sake of a reality-contact otherwise inaccessible.
What should we fear more, loss of contact with objective reality, or being wrong?
Analogy. Some are gastronomically timorous: they refuse to eat in restaurants for fear of food poisoning. Their critical abstention does indeed achieve its prophylactic end -- but only at the expense of the foregoing of a world of prandial delights.
Now suppose a man believes in God and afterlife but is mistaken. He lives his life in the grip of what are in reality, but unbeknownst to him, life-enhancing illusions. And of course, since he is ex hypothesi wrong, death cannot set him straight: he is after dying nothing and so cannot learn that he lived his life in illusion. But then why is his being wrong such a big deal? Wouldn't it be a much bigger deal if his fear of being wrong prevented his participation in an unsurpassably great good?
"But he lived his life in the grip of illusions!"
To this I would respond, first: how do you know that he lived his life in untruth? You are always demanding evidence, so what is your evidence for this? Second, in a godless universe could there even be truth? (No truth without mind; no objective truth without objective mind.) Third, even if there is truth in a godless universe, why would it be a value? Why care about truth if it has no bearing on human flourishing? Doesn't your concern for evidence only make sense in the context of a quest for truth?
I need to get clearer about the rationality of beliefs versus the rationality of actions. One question is whether it is ever rational to believe something for which one has insufficient evidence. And if it is never rational to believe something for which one has insufficient evidence, then presumably it is also never rational to act upon such a belief. For example, if it irrational to believe in God and post-mortem survival, then presumably it is also irrational to act upon those beliefs, by entering a monastery, say. Or is it?
W. K. Clifford is famous for his evidentialist thesis that "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence." On this way of thinking, someone who fails to apportion belief to evidence violates the ethics of belief, and thereby does something morally wrong. Although Clifford had religious beliefs in his sights, his thesis, by its very wording, applies to every sort of belief, including political beliefs and the belief expressed in the Clifford sentence lately quoted! I take this as a refutation of Clifford's evidentialist stringency.
If I took Clifford seriously I would have to give up most of my beliefs about politics, health, nutrition, economics, history and a crapload of other things. For example, I believe it is a wise course to restrict my eating of eggs to three per week due to their high cholesterol content. And that's what I do. Do I have sufficent evidence for this belief? Not at all. I certainly don't have evidence that entails the belief in question. What evidence I have makes it somewhat probable. But more probable than not? Not clear! But to be on the safe side I restrict my intake of high-cholesterol foods. It's a bit like Pascal's Wager. What I give up, namely, the pleasures of bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning, etc. is paltry in comparison to the possible pay-off, namely living and blogging to a ripe old age.
And then there is a problem whether Clifford has sufficient evidence for his evidentialist thesis. It is obvious to me that he doesn't but I'll leave that for the reader to work out.
Consider now the case of a man dying of thirst in a desert. He comes upon two water sources. He knows (never mind how) that one is potable while the other is poisonous. But he does not know which is which, and he has no way of finding out. Should the man suspend belief, even unto death, since he has insufficient evidence for deciding between the two water sources?
On one way of looking at the matter, suspension of belief would clearly be the height of irrationality. The desert wanderer must simply drink from one of the sources and hope for the best. Clearly, by drinking from one (but not both) of the sources, his chances of survival are one half, while his chances of survival from drinking from neither are precisely zero. By simply opting for one, he maximizes his chances of reality-contact, and thereby his chances of survival. Surely a man who wants to live is irrational if he fails to perform a simple action that will give him a 50-50 chance of living when the alternative is certain death.
Cases like this are clear counterexamples to theories of rationality according to which rationality requires always apportioning belief to evidence. In the above case the evidence is the same for either belief and yet it would be irrational to suspend belief. Therefore, rationality for a human agent (as opposed to rationality for a disembodied transcendental spectator) cannot require the apportioning of belief to evidence in all cases, as Clifford demands. There are situations in which one must decide what to believe. Will I believe that source A is potable? Or will I believe that source B is potable? In Jamesian terms, the option is live, forced, and momentous. (It is not like the question whether the number of ultimate particles in the universe is odd or even.) An adequate theory of rationality, it would seem, must allow for believing beyond the evidence. It must return the verdict that in some cases, to refuse to believe beyond the evidence is positively irrational.
Let us consider another such case. What evidence do I have that my new neighbors are decent people? Since they have just moved in, my evidence base is exiguousindeed and far from sufficient to establish that they are decent people. (Assume that some precisifying definition of 'decent' is on the table.) Should I suspend judgment and behave in a cold, skeptical, stand-offish way toward them? ("Prove that you are not a scumbag, and then I'll talk to you.") Should I demand of them 'credentials' and letters of recommendation before having anything to do with them? Either of these approaches would be irrational. A rational being wants good relations with those with whom he must live in close proximity. Wanting good relations, he must choose means that are conducive to that end. Knowing something about human nature, he knows that 'giving the benefit of the doubt' is the wise course when it comes to establishing relations with other people. If you begin by impugning the integrity of the other guy, he won't like you. One must assume the best about others at the outset and adjust downwards only later and on the basis of evidence to the contrary. But note that my initial belief that my neighbors are decent people -- a belief that I must have if I am to act neighborly toward them -- is not warranted by anything that could be called sufficient evidence. Holding that belief, I believe way beyond the evidence. And yet that is the rational course.
So again we see that in some cases, to refuse to believe beyond the evidence is positively irrational. A theory of rationality adequate for the kind of beings we are cannot require that belief be always and everywhere apportioned to evidence.
And now we come to the Big Questions. Should I believe that I am libertarianly free? That it matters how I live? That something is at stake in life? That I will in some way or other be held accountable for what I do and leave undone? That God exists? That I am more than a transient bag of chemical reactions? That a Higher Life is possible?
Not only do I not have evidence that entails answers to any of these questions, I probably do not have evidence that makes a given answer more probable than not.
But here's the thing. I have to believe that I have a higher destiny if I am to act so as to attain it. It is like the situation with the new neighbors. I have to believe that they are decent people if I am to act in such a way as to establish good relations with them. I have to believe beyond the evidence.
Suppose I'm wrong. I live my life under the aegis of God, freedom, and immortality, but then one day I die and become nothing. I was just a bag of chemicals after all. It was all just a big joke. Electrochemistry played me for a fool. So what? What did I lose by being a believer? Nothing of any value. But if I am right, then I have done what is necessary to enter into my higher destiny.
Philosophy is unserious to the onesidedly worldly and 'practical' because it bakes no bread. To which the best response is: "Man does not live by bread alone."
To the onesidedly religious, philosophy is unserious because it begets pride and does not lead unto salvation. "Not worth an hour's trouble," said Pascal with Descartes in his sights. Both types, the worldly and the religious, dismiss philosophy as 'mere theory' and 'empty speculation' but for opposite reasons.
Strangely enough, both types make use of it when it suits their purposes. Each justifies his own position philosophically. How else could he justify it? Assertions and arguments about philosophy are philosophical assertions and arguments -- and it cannot be otherwise. Such assertions and arguments cannot come from below philosophy, nor can they come from above it: metaphilosophy is a branch of philosophy.
Blaise Pascal wrote a big fat book of Pensées -- and a magnificent book it was. But why did he bother if philosophy is not worth an hour's trouble? Because he made an exception in his own case: his philosophy, he felt, was different! Well, all philosophers feel that way. All feel themselves to be questing for the truth as for something precious, even when they, like Nietzsche, say things that imply that there is no truth. None feel themselves to be engaged in 'empty speculation' or 'mental masturbation' or 'meaningless abstraction.'
One of the curious things about fair Philosophia is that you cannot outflank her, and you cannot shake her off. She outflanks all would-be outflankers. Ultimate dominatrix that she is, she always ends up on top. So you'd better learn to live with her and her acolytes.
Albert Camus is a frustrated rationalist. He values reason and wants the world to be rationally penetrable, but he finds that it is not. What he calls the Absurd consists in the disproportion between the human need for understanding and the world's unintelligibility, "the unreasonable silence of the world." (Myth of Sisyphus, Vintage 1955, p. 21, tr. Justin O'Brien)
Lev Shestov, on the other hand, is an irrationalist. He delights in what he takes to be reason's impotence.
Such wild diversity in the life of the mind and spirit does not delight me, but it does fascinate me and serve as a goad to struggle on, day by day, for as much light as can be attained in these inasuspicious circumstances until the curtain falls -- or lifts.
Reason, though weak, is a god-like power in us, and at the same time a power that makes us normatively human -- which is why calls for the crucifixion of the intellect should give pause if not cause a shudder of disgust.
1. The cogency of an argument is neither augmented nor diminished by the passion of the arguer. Cogency and passion are logically independent. The same goes for the truth or falsity of an assertion. The raising of the voice cannot transform a false claim into a true one, nor make a true one truer.
2. What's more, any display of a passion such as anger is likely to be taken by the interlocutor as a sign that one's argument is nothing but an expression of passion and thus as no argument at all. He will think your aim is to impose your will on him rather than appeal to his intellect. The interlocutor will be wrong to dismiss your argument on this ground, but you have yourself to blame for losing your cool and failing to understand human nature. If your aim is to convince someone of something, then you must attend not only to your thesis and its rational support, but also to the limitations of human nature in general and the particular limitations of those you are addressing. 'Tailor your discourse to your audience' is a good maxim.
3. While bearing in mind points 1 and 2, you must also realize that a failure to show enthusiasm and commitment may also work against your project of convincing the other.
4. 'Rhetoric' is too often employed pejoratively. That is unfortunate. The art of persuasion is important but difficult to master. It is not enough to know whereof you speak; you must understand human nature if you will impart your truths to an audience.
Steven Nemes informs me that Keith Parsons is giving up teaching and writing in the philosophy of religion. His reasons are stated in his post Goodbye to All That. The following appears to be his chief reason:
I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds . . . . I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it.
Keith [Parsons] and I have emailed about getting out of the philosophy of religion. I've made the same decision. I'm through wasting my time trying to convince people who don't want to be convinced of the irrationality of their beliefs. And I have had more than enough verbal abuse from the Richard Purtills, the Peter Kreefts, and the Thomas Talbotts. We are all getting older and I, for my part, would much rather read books I want to read (or reread) and listen to great music that I either don't know or want to know better. Not to mention, spending more time with my wife instead of constantly yielding to the lure of the computer to work on yet another project that will convince few, antagonize some, and be ignored by most. Interestingly, Keith and I came to this conclusion more or less simultaneously but independently.
Steven Nemes comments in his e-mail to me:
I don't imagine you think the case for theism is so bad . . . . Any arguments in particular you think are promising? Any anti-theistic arguments you think are particularly good, too? (It was Parsons who said that the case for atheism/naturalism has been presented about as well as it ever can be by philosophers like Michael Martin, Schellenberg, Oppy, Gale, et al.)
Or perhaps you don't think the issues are so clear and obvious one way or the other in the philosophy of religion? In fact, is such dismissive hand-waving like Parsons' and Beversluis' ever acceptable in philosophy? Are there any issues that are settled?
Steven has once again peppered me with some pertinent and challenging questions. Here is a quick response.
Of course, I don't consider the case for theism to be a "fraud," to use Parson's word. I also don't understand how the case could be called a fraud if the people who make it are not frauds. But let's not enter into an analysis of the concept fraud. We may charitably chalk up Parsons' use of 'fraud' to rhetorical overkill, which is certainly not a censurable offense in the blogosphere. And when Parsons tells us that he cannot take the theistic arguments seriously any more, he is presumably not making a merely autobiographical remark. He is not merely informing us about his present disgusted state of mind, although he is doing that. He is asserting that the case for theism is not intellectually respectable, while the case for atheism and naturalism (which Parsons in his post brackets together) are intellectually respectable. (It is worth noting that while nauralism entails atheism, atheism does not entail naturalism: McTaggart was an atheist but not a naturalist. But this nuance needn't concern us at present.)
Parsons' metaphilosophical assertion does not impress me. I make a different assertion: There are intellectually respectable cases to be made both for theism/anti-naturalism and for atheism/naturalism. I don't think there are any 'knock-down' arguments on either side. There are arguments for the existence of God, but no proofs of the existence of God. And there are arguments for the nonexistence of God, but no proofs of the nonexistence of God. But of course it depends on what is meant by 'proof.'
I suggest that a proof is a deductive argument, free of informal fallacy, valid in point of logical form, all of the premises of which are objectively self-evident. I will illustrate what I mean by 'objectively self-evident' with an anecdote. In a discussion with a Thomist a while back I mentioned that the first premise of his reconstruction of Aquinas' argument from motion (the First of the Five Ways) was not (objectively) self-evident, and that therefore the First Way did not amount to a proof. The premise in the reconstruction was to the effect that it is evident to the senses that the reduction of potency to act is a real feature of the world.
I granted to my interlocutor that what Thomas calls motion, i.e., change, is evident to the senses as a real feature of the world. But I pointed out that it is not evident to the senses that the actualization of potency is a real feature of the world. That change is the reduction of potency to act is a theoretical claim that goes beyond what is given to sense perception. For this reason, the first premise of the reconstruction of the First Way, though plausible and indeed reasonable, is not objectively self-evident. One can of course give many logically correct arguments for the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, but we can ask with respect to the premises of these arguments whether they are objectively self-evident. If they are not, then they do not amount to proofs given my stringent definition of 'proof.'
It is equally true, however, that one cannot prove the nonexistence of God, from evil say.
But it is no different outside the philosophy of religion. God and the soul are meta-physical in the sense of supersensible. But there is nothing supersensible about the bust of Beethoven sitting atop my CD player. It is a material object, a middle-sized artifact, open to unaided perception. But such a humble object inspires interminable and seemingly intractable debate among the most brilliant philosophers. I am currently exploring some of these issues in other threads, and so I won't go into details here. But consider Peter van Inwagen's denial of the existence of artifacts (which is part of a broader denial of the existence of all nonliving composite objects). You could say, very loosely, that van Inwagen is an 'atheist' about artifacts. Other philosophers, equally brilliant and well-informed, deny his denial.
Now it would take an excess of chutzpah to label van Inwagen's carefully argued denial of artifacts as intellectually unrespectable. I suggest that it takes an equal excess of chutzpah to label the case for theism intellectually unrespectable.
Steven asked me whether the dismissive attitude of Parsons and Beversluis is acceptable. I would say no. It is no more acceptable in the philosophy of religion than it is in other branches of philosophy where there are equally genuine but equally difficult and interminably discussable problems.
Let me end with this question: If one's reason for abandoning the philosophy of religion is that one cannot convince those on the other side -- "I'm through wasting my time trying to convince people who don't want to be convinced of the irrationality of their beliefs." (Beversluis) -- then is this not also a reason for abandoning philosophy tout court? After all, the brilliant van Inwagen did not convince the brilliant David Lewis that the latter was wrong about Composition as Identity -- and this is a very well-defined and mundane and ideology-free question.
"God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob -- not of the philosophers and scholars." Thus exclaimed Blaise Pascal in the famous memorial in which he recorded the overwhelming religious/mystical experience of the night of 23 November 1654. Martin Buber comments (Eclipse of God, Humanity Books, 1952, p. 49):
These words represent Pascal's change of heart. He turned, not from a state of being where there is no God to one where there is a God, but from the God of the philosophers to the God of Abraham. Overwhelmed by faith, he no longer knew what to do with the God of the philosophers; that is, with the God who occupies a definite position in a definite system of thought. The God of Abraham . . . is not suspectible of introduction into a system of thought precisely because He is God. He is beyond each and every one of those systems, absolutely and by virtue of his nature. What the philosophers describe by the name of God cannot be more than an idea. (emphasis added)
Buber here expresses a sentiment often heard. We encountered it yesterday when we found Timothy Ware accusing late Scholastic theology of turning God into an abstract idea. But the sentiment is no less wrongheaded for being widespread. As I see it, it simply makes no sense to oppose the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob -- the God of religion -- to the God of philosophy. In fact, I am always astonished when otherwise distinguished thinkers retail this bogus distinction. Let's try to sort this out.
It is first of all obvious that God, if he exists, transcends every system of human thought, and cannot be reduced to any element internal to such a system whether it be a concept, a proposition, an argument, a set of arguments, etc. But by the same token, the chair I am sitting on cannot be reduced to my concept of it or the judgments I make about it. It too is transcendent of my conceptualizations and judgments. The transcendence of God, however, is a more radical form of transcendence, that of a person as opposed to that of a material object. And among persons, God is at the outer limit of transcendence.
Now if Buber were merely saying something along these lines then I would have no quarrel with him. But he is saying something more, namely, that when a philosopher in his capacity as philosopher conceptualizes God, he reduces him to a concept or idea, to something abstract, to something merely immanent to his thought, and therefore to something that is not God. In saying this, Buber commits a grotesque non sequitur. He moves from the unproblematically true
1. God by his very nature is transcendent of every system of thought or scheme of representation
to the breathtakingly false
2. Any thought about God or representation of God (such as we find, say in Aquinas's Summa Theologica) is not a thought or representation of God, but of a thought or representation, which, of course, by its very nature is not God.
As I said, I am astonished that anyone could fall into this error. When I think about something I don't in thinking about it turn it into a mere thought. When I think about my wife's body, for example, I don't turn it into a mere thought: it remains transcendent of my thought as a material thing. A fortiori, I am unable by thinking about my wife as a person, an other mind, to transmogrify her personhood into a mere concept in my mind. She remains in her interiority delightfully transcendent.
It is therefore bogus to oppose the God of the philosophers to the God of Abraham, et al. There is and can be only one God. But there are different approaches to this one God. By my count, there are four ways of approaching God: by reason, by faith, by mystical experience, and by our moral sense. To employ a hackneyed metaphor, if there are four routes to the summit of a mountain, it does not follow that there are four summits, with only one of them being genuine, the others being merely immanent to their respective routes.
I should think that direct acquaintance with God via mystical/religious experience is superior to contact via faith or reason or morality. It is better to taste food than to read about it on a menu. But that's not to say that the menu is about itself: it is about the very same stuff that one encounters by eating. The fact that it is better to eat food than read about it does not imply that when one is reading one is not reading about it.
Imagine how silly it would be be for me to exclaim, while seated before a delicacy: "Food of Wolfgang Puck, Food of Julia Childs, Food of Emeril Lagasse, not of the nutritionists and menu-writers!"
I was interested to see your recent correspondence and post on the radical vs the conservative. I couldn't help but notice that there is a potential parallel between this and a common interest of yours [ours?], the productive tension between Aristotle and Plato. A radical may be liable to point out that it because Plato is prepared to build a state upon rational rather than traditional grounds that he is prepared to consider women as equally well qualified to rule the state on meritocratic grounds (a la Mill), a thesis which is well supported in the contemporary world though unthinkable in ancient Greece. They may also contrast this against Aristotle’s impression of women which appears indefensible in the modern era but natural in his own time, and they may also draw attention to Aristotle’s defense of slavery. The conservative Aristotle on these points alone appears monstrous to a modern audience against the radical Plato. In accord with the recent post, we might very well conclude that the conservative is a reality-based thinker (within his own environment), whilst the radical is a utopian (prepared to look beyond his environment). The conservative in reply would of course draw attention to the realistic and practical view of Aristotle on running a state and compare this to the proto-communist authoritarian and elitist Plato who would construct a state, mentally at least, that would appear equally monstrous to a modern audience.
This is very perceptive. Since I am first and foremost an aporetician keen to isolate and sharpen problems under suspension of the natural tendency to glom onto quick solutions, it interests me and indeed worries me that there may be a tension between my tendency to give the palm to Plato over Aristotle and my conservative tendency. As I said recently:
One cannot be a philosopher unless one believes that at least some important truths are attainable or at least approachable by dialectical and argumentative means. Thus there is no place in philosophy for the misologist, the hater of reason, and his close relative the fideist. Reasoning and argument loom large in philosophy . . . .
But now I must add that to the extent that I favor reason over experience and tradition, the universal over the particular, the global over the local, the impersonal over the personal, to that extent I am in some conflict with my conservative tendency. One of the differences between conservatives and their liberal/left/radical brethren is that they are skeptical aqbout the value of reason in the ordering of political affairs.
No thank you. A God that would demand the sacrifice of the intellect or even the crucifixion of the intellect is not a God worthy of worship. Imagine moving at death from the shadow lands of this life into the divine presence only to find that God is nothing but irrational power personified, the apotheosis of arbitrarity. What could be more horrible? Far, far better would be to be annihlated at death.
Reason is infirm in that it cannot establish anything definitively. It cannot even prove that doubting is the way to truth, "that it is certain that we ought to be in doubt." (Pyrrho entry, Bayle's Dictionary, tr. Popkin, p. 205) But, pace Pierre Bayle, the merely subjective certitude of faith is no solution either! Recoiling from the labyrinth into which unaided human reason loses itself, Bayle writes:
It seems therefore that this unfortunate state [the one brought about by the infirmity of reason] is the most proper one of all for convincing us that our reason is a path that leads us astray since, when it displays itself with the greatest subtlety, it plunges us into such an abyss. The natural conclusion of this ought to be to renounce this guide and to implore the cause of all things to give us a better one. This is a great step toward the Christian religion; for it requires that we look to God for knowledge of what we ought to believe and what we ought to do, and that we enslave our understanding to the obeisance of faith. If a man is convinced that nothing good is to be expected from his philosophical inquiries, he will be more disposed to pray to God to persuade him of the truths that ought to be believed than if he flatters himself that he might succeed by reasoning and disputing. A man is therefore happily disposed toward faith when he knows how defective reason is. (206, emphasis added)
Now how is this a solution to the alleged infirmity of reason? A Christian fideist, acquiescing in pure blind (purblind?) faith, accepts the Trinity while a Muslim fideist, equally subjectively certain of his faith, rejects the Trinity while intoning that God is one. Blind conviction butts up against blind conviction of the opposite kind and all too often strife and bloodshed is the upshot.
Is William G. Lycan rational? I would say so. And yet, by his own admission, he does not apportion his (materialist) belief to the evidence. This is an interesting illustration of what I have suggested (with no particular originality) on various occasions, namely, that it is rational in some cases for agents like us to believe beyond the evidence. (Note the two qualifications: 'in some cases' and 'for agents like us.' If and only if we were disembodied theoretical spectators whose sole concern was to 'get things right,' then an ethics of belief premised upon austere Cliffordian evidentialism might well be mandatory. But we aren't and it isn't.)
Being a philosopher, of course I would like to think that my [materialist]stance is rational, held not just instinctively and scientistically and in the mainstream but because the arguments do indeed favor materialism over dualism. But I do not think that, though I used to. My position may be rational, broadly speaking, but not because the arguments favor it: Though the arguments for dualism do (indeed) fail, so do the arguments for materialism. And the standard objections to dualism are not very convincing; if one really manages to be a dualist in the first place, one should not be much impressed by them. My purpose in this paper is to hold my own feet to the fire and admit that I do not proportion my belief to the evidence.
1. The arguments for dualism and the arguments for materialism both fail. 2. The standard objections to dualism are not very convincing. 3. It is rational to be a materialist.
In my opinion (1)-(3) is a consistent triad. If so, what does 'rational' mean? It cannot have the Cliffordian meaning according to which one apportions one's belief to the evidence. For that would require suspension of belief on the issues that divide dualists and materialists given the truth of (1) and (2). But Lycan does not suspend belief; he remains a committed materialist. He believes beyond the evidence in that he believes on insufficient evidence. The evidence is insufficient because it is counterbalanced by the evidence for the position he disbelieves. However we define 'insufficient evidence,' it seems clear that if the evidence for p and the evidence for ~p are equal, then the evidence for either is insufficient.
Lycan's is an interesting case because it doesn't display all of the Jamesian marks. The issue is live for Lycan and for the people here present, but is it forced and momentous? An issue is forced in the sense of William James if it is such that one's remaining theoretically agnostic about it is tantamount to deciding it in a particular way. James gives the example of a man who hesitates to get married. "It is as if a man should hesitate indefinitely to ask a certain woman to marry him because he was not perfectly sure that she would prove an angel after he brought her home. Would he not cut himself off from that particular angel-possibility as decisively as if he went and married someone else?" (Will to Believe, p. 26) The man who refuses to commit himself to marriage commits himself to bachelorhood nolens volens.
But surely dualism versus materialism is not a forced option in the Jamesian sense. For one thing, one might reject both in the manner of the idealist. The positions are not logical contradictories of each other but logical contraries: they can't both be true, but they can both be false. Second, it is not the case that a suspension of judgment is tantamount to an opting for one side. If you take no position on dualism versus materialism, how does that commit you to one side or the other? On the God question, if one takes no position on whether or not God exists, then it it strongly arguable that one is a practical atheist: the agnostic lives as if God does not exist. And similarly for the immortality of the soul: to take no position is to live as if the soul is mortal. Or at least this is plausibly arguable. But the dualist need not be a substance dualist, and if he is not a substance dualist, then it is very difficult to see how the dualism versus materialism option is forced. And even if the dualist is a substance dualist, one might be a substance dualist without being committed to the immortality of the soul or mind.
A momentous option is one in which "We are supposed to gain, even now, by our belief, and lose by our nonbelief a certain vital good." (WB, 26) But I think it would be a stretch to think that the rather technical and abstruse issues that divide materialists and dualists are momentous in James' sense.
All this notwithstanding, the Lycan quotation above illustrates how rationality needn't require apportioning one's belief to the evidence. Or will you argue that Lycan is irrational in remaining a materialist despite his newfound insight that the arguments for it are not compelling?