Was I philosophically checkmated? Don’t think so


I mentioned earlier that I’d been on this “Philosophical Checkmate” discord server. It was an odd experience — a few trolls, a rather eclectic assortment of outre positions, a large group of people who politely lined up to ask questions. I went ahead and uploaded my copy of the conversation so, if you’re rather hardcore, you can listen to an hour and a half of random Q&A.


(It’s just audio. I put a painting by my nephew, Michael Myers, on it so you’d have something to look at while tearing your hair out.)

I wanted to single out one point, though. Early on, and scattered throughout, there appeared a type, a kind of person I’m going to call, for the sake of putting a handle on them, Logicians. I can’t stand them. They appear among creationists and atheists, theists and skeptics, about equally often. You know them. They’re typically the “Debate me, bros” who have some gimmick that they can’t wait to try out on you.

Ray Comfort is one, for instance (so you know you don’t have to actually be logical to play the game). His gimmick is his gotcha question: “Have you ever told a lie? Then you’re a sinner and need Jesus.” Lots of atheists play it, too — street epistemologists are the worst. They have a set patter that’s supposed to lead you into a logical contradiction between what you claim are your values, and what your values actually are, to get you to admit that you were wrong-wrong-wrongety-wrong, and that you therefore have to turn your views inside out and reconsider everything and become an evangelical Xian, if it’s Comfort, or an evangelical atheist, if it’s a street epistemologist. It’s perpetrated by people who may have seen one too many old Star Trek episodes in which the artificially intelligent computer explodes when Captain Kirk exposes a logical contradiction in its programming.

Guess what? Computers don’t usually do that. They just keep compounding the errors repeatedly.

Also, people don’t do that.

We are already bundles of contradictions and incoherent views, every one of us. We have developed cognitive mechanisms for coping — witness all the End Times fanatics who see the prophesied date of the apocalypse pass without the big kaboom, and then struggle briefly to rationalize it before reaffirming their beliefs with minor revisions. We are not creatures ruled by rigid logic who can be knocked off our rails by a stranger showing us where we forgot to include a semicolon in our code.

I’ve learned to recognize the Logician. They come up to you with a smug tone in their voice, prepared with a clever syllogism that they’re sure will totally stump me; typically they’ll start by announcing something obvious that they know about me, like, “You believe it’s not necessary to reference god as the precondition of facts” (as at the 15:30 mark in the video), and I know instantly that they’re about to unroll a canned script on me. When I say “yes,” as they know I will, they’ll then try to launch into Act II of their script with a statement like “that logically entails”, which it usually doesn’t. In the video, he is obviously trying to trap me, claiming that because I acknowledge that I don’t know everything and and ackownledge that maybe there is some cosmic force out there that I don’t know about, that that is a logical inconsistency with my rejection of his peculiar definition of god. I have no truck with that BS. I just sent him away.

But, you know, even if what he said wasn’t irrational, I wouldn’t have been concerned. Go ahead, catch me in a logical contradiction, and smoke won’t come out of my ears and I won’t stagger off to melt down in failure. My philosophy is that we are human beings, and humans are not intrinsically logical. We fail all the time, myself included. I am unbothered. Bring up a good contradiction in my views, and I’ll think about it, because that’s all you can ask of rational, flawed people.

My perspective is that I, personally, am a bundle of disparate parts — I have biases, I have bits that I have assembled into a mostly functioning, shambling mess that I’m constantly patching and nudging and revising, and that’s OK. My name is Legion, and I contain multitudes. I was born as the product of 4 billion years of evolutionary forces that pushed my ancestors hither and yon, I was raised in an environment that shaped the many aspects of my mind in ways that may have been correct and may have been wrong, and then I spent my adult life struggling to test and evaluate and fix my thinking. You want to tell me that one module of my personality conflicts with another? I will agree. It’s probably true. Happens all the time.

I think of my life as a rather battered old jalopy, traveling from where I started to some destination unknown, a destination often redirected by circumstances or by growing enlightenment. I occasionally break down and need to stop for a while to make repairs. In my travels, I sometimes find some new part that I find enlightening, and I bolt that on and try it for a while. There are multiple mes that take the driver’s seat; sometimes I’m gunning it down the road, other times I’m idling and looking around wondering what to do next. It’s the human condition, rattled by chaos and trying our best, using the tools we’re born with and gradually acquire, to make sense of it all.

What I can’t abide, though, is these damnable Logicians. They’re the ones who bunker down in a set of premises they find comfortable and that they claim are absolutes, and then spend their life building rational defenses so that they never have to change, never have to face intellectual challenges, never experience the thrill of hammering a new idea into the rat’s nest of circuitry we call a brain. Instead, they prefer to pretend that their ideas are all shiny and chrome, wired perfectly on day one, often with the guidance of an imaginary deity.


One other thing, outside the bounds of the video. About a half hour before we wrapped it all up, my granddaughter called. I had to refuse to pick up so I could finish, but then a little later she called up at the very end of the session and we did get to talk for a while in a video hangout.

What impressed me is that when I finally answered, she immediately summarized in her adorable little girl voice: “We called you but you didn’t answer. But we called again and you did answer!”

Her language is getting better fast. What I most noticed, though, was that she encapsulated this trivial event with a narrative, a story with a conflict and a resolution. How human of her!

Where this anecdote fits is that I think that’s what we all do all the time — we take chance and chaos and random events and tie them up in a sweet simple story, and already she’s a master. We just have to be wary of thinking the story is the whole of the truth.

Comments

  1. Tethys says

    Humans are certainly a bundle of contradictions and incoherent views. I first came across that idea in a children’s story, and it has held up quite well as a general rule of thumb to make sense of human behavior.

    “Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
    “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
    Alice in Wonderland.

    It’s infuriating, but it’s also part of our charm. We not only imagine impossible things, we also imagine ways to make them possible.

  2. ANB says

    Sweet. I so appreciate your views (mostly, of course, because they comport with mine). But truly (for those who oppose these views) NOT because they comport with mine, but because they are humble and truthful (and, incidentally, actually logical).

    I’ve learned long ago that those whose arguments are based solely on “logic” aren’t concerned with truth. One can have a helluva “logical” argument based on falsehoods. (Start with a false premise and it’s easy to arrive at a “logical” premise based on that original falsehood).

    So, humility and truthfulness are the best way to start. And finish.

  3. PaulBC says

    Checkmate? I’m still trying to remember how the philosophical horsies move.

    I completely agree that human thought is fuzzy and agglomerative rather than logically consistent. You can embed logic within it, and sometimes that’s useful, but it’s not the mode at which our brain operates most naturally. Even published mathematical proofs contain errors, and mathematicians often distinguish between fatal and fixable errors, though I don’t think anyone considers this worth formalizing.

    Over time, at least I like to think, most gotcha people grow out of it as they have to face up to an obviously complex and uncertain existence. Maybe I’m too optimistic in thinking so.

  4. PaulBC says

    Does anyone else out there like Lakatos’ Proofs and Refutations? It’s “a series of Socratic dialogues involving a group of students who debate the proof of the Euler characteristic defined for the polyhedron.” If I remember right, it recapitulates actual flawed proofs of Euler’s polyhedral formula by pointing out hidden and incorrect assumptions.

    But here’s the thing. The formula and the overall argument is basically right from the beginning, or would be under some reasonable assumptions. So you can take away on the one hand, how hard it is to nail down a mathematical proof with any rigor, but you might also consider on the other hand that often most of the proof is in a simple, initial idea. You need to fix it, but you don’t throw it away just because of an edge case.

    That’s how real human thought works, and it includes not merely soft, emotional thought or empirical observations, but even how mathematicians grapple with the most precisely stated claims. Few people get things right the first time, and actual learning consists of continual adjustment to new cases, not “Gotcha! Everything you thought is completely wrong!”

  5. hemidactylus says

    “… street epistemologists are the worst”???

    Hmmm…I don’t particularly care for the originating source himself and have a few other issues with Street Epistemology but I think it is supposed to be the remedy for if not antithesis to the debate-me logicbros. It’s rapport and then questions about confidence in a claim then the method used to arrive at it. Maybe get the person to work themselves into an aporia and leave it at that. I think Magnabosco calls it marinating in the pause as someone has a SPIDER on the ceiling moment. Yes a spider! Allegedly the actual effect may set in long after the conversation ends, not with a Ben Shapiro type concession of being DESTROYED. Very nonconfrontational.

    In a general sense SE has promise BUT it starts off with an implicit presumption of atheism built in. What other motivation is there to do it? What was the title of Boghossian’s book? It’s right there. And Loftus’s Outsider Test for Faith is very adjacent. Still no harm no foul if better than debates descending into shout fests. The Let’s Chat guy (Tyrone Wells) had a good video montage on how that nonproductive trainwreck looks and pitches SE as alternative. See around 13:15 in:

    https://youtu.be/5gB-jIFefN4

    My issues are first with the person on the street approach. If not up front that you are coming from an atheist POV that is a problem of sincerity (a component of the Habermas triad).

    And given the source I fear that Boghossian (and Lindsay) may inspire weaponization of this method against their woke bugbears. Wokeness is now a religion (sarcasm).

    https://youtu.be/MjVmm1IAii0

  6. hemidactylus says

    Again I’m not sold on SE and have some reservations, but one thing it’s not is confrontational. It isn’t about vanquishing your enemies and tasting their tears.

    Here’s a cool intro video:

    https://youtu.be/wc89rO3pZPU

    Could have done without referencing Patrick Bateman though.

  7. John Morales says

    I’m currently enjoying it, PZ. So far, it seems that you are, too.

    I now get the ref in the OP: @15:40.

    (Listening @x1.25, it’s perfectly fine, saves time)

  8. billyum says

    Bertrand Russell was a card carrying logician, and did OK for himself. :)

    He was once challenged about the claim that you can prove anything from a falsehood, to start with the falsehood that 1 = 2 and prove that he was the pope. Russell replied, “The pope and I and two, the pope and I are one, I am the pope.” Lol.

  9. wzrd1 says

    I’ve learned to use allegories and popular expressions to confound “truthers” of any ilk.
    Wife appears, asks id, wile wearing a white, skin conforming outfit after a harsh winter and asks…
    “Honey, do I look fat in this”?
    Even George Patton knew the proper answer to that.
    So, what is a checkmate in reality?
    My wife telling me I’m the same as when we were married 29 years ago? Ignoring that my former 28 inch waist bounces around 40 – 42?
    Or, reality, which, alas, is an utter stranger to many?

  10. arno says

    As an actual Logician (ie a researcher in the field “logic”), I have to protest the attempted word-coining here.

  11. Owlmirror says

    You can’t be checkmated if you flip the freakin’ board over!

    Lots of atheists play it, too — street epistemologists are the worst. They have a set patter that’s supposed to lead you into a logical contradiction between what you claim are your values, and what your values actually are, to get you to admit that you were wrong-wrong-wrongety-wrong, and that you therefore have to turn your views inside out and reconsider everything and become an evangelical Xian, if it’s Comfort, or an evangelical atheist, if it’s a street epistemologist.

    Gosh, PZ, it almost looks like you’re arguing that some sort if in-between stance is the correct one, like wishy-washy agnosticism!

    Look, I can only see three (groups of) fundamental alternatives:

    1) The values, logic, and epistemology that lead to some sort of theism are better than those that lead to atheism (and then you have to pick which one out of all of the many many many that there are. Maybe toss a twenty-sided die? Several times?)
    2) The values, logic, and epistemology that lead to some sort of theism are just as good as the values, logic, and epistemology that lead to atheism, and hey, just flip a coin! (and then toss a twenty-sided die)
    3) The values, logic, and epistemology that lead to atheism are actually better than those that lead to some sort of theism.

    Actually, I guess there’s a fourth possibility:
    4) You choose atheism completely arbitrarily and perversely, even though those values, logic, and epistemology are neither better than nor just as good as those that lead to theism.

    But, you know, even if what he said wasn’t irrational, I wouldn’t have been concerned. Go ahead, catch me in a logical contradiction, and smoke won’t come out of my ears and I won’t stagger off to melt down in failure.

    I don’t expect you to melt down, but I do think that you can at least try to figure out where you’re going wrong, or where your opponent is going wrong. or why the matter is undecidable (and sure, some things probably are undecidable). And if you reject “win, lose, or draw”, the only other option is to flip over the board — but at least notice, even if you don’t acknowledge, that you’re flipping over the board.

  12. hiddenheart says

    One thing about apparent contradictions between things that seem to me to be true is that it’s not like I claim the body of human knowledge is complete. “There seems to be a contradiction here and I don’t yet see how to resolve it” isn’t the ruination of my belief systems because human knowledge is a work in progress, and I knew that going in. (Also, of course, there are things other people know that I don’t yet.) I already knew that I have more learning to do. So I’m pretty comfortable with “not yet” kinds of responses, as long as I actually working on them.

  13. nomdeplume says

    “My name is Legion, and I contain multitudes” = “Do I contradict myself? Well then I contradict myself”.

  14. billyum says

    “Wife appears, asks id, wile wearing a white, skin conforming outfit after a harsh winter and asks…
    “Honey, do I look fat in this”?
    Even George Patton knew the proper answer to that.”

    My wife loved my reply: “I can see how you might say that.” ;)

    I am not going to suffer through the audio, and I am not sure what the guy means by “necessary to reference god as the precondition of facts”, but my guess is that it boils down to something like this: “Facts are true only if god exists.” Facts are by definition true, so that boils down to “God exists.” Aquinas would have made mincemeat of these guys.

  15. says

    #13: You said it: some approaches are better than others. I agree with that. The problems arise when someone claims to have an ABSOLUTE LOGICAL PROOF that they are entirely correct and that their position is unassailable.

    I’m more of a fluid consilience of the evidence kind of guy.

  16. kathleenzielinski says

    I think it’s important to distinguish what is true in the abstract, versus what our frail human minds are capable of grasping, and also the fact that given human nature, none of us practices what we preach 100% of the time. Absolute truth does exist, and can probably be proven, but that doesn’t mean that we deeply flawed humans have the tools or the intellectual honesty to actually do it.

    Which is why I’m inclined to believe that everything is up for grabs. I believe in evolution, but I can’t rule out the possibility that there may be some bit of evidence out there, not yet discovered, that will show that it’s wrong. (If so, that would not prove creationism, of course.) With political dogma, it’s even more important to be open to re-evaluating. Confirmation bias does exist, and neither the right nor the left has cornered the market on it.

  17. hemidactylus says

    @18 PZ

    How then is street epistemology the worst? I’ve pointed to issues I have with it above (Boghossian being a sore thumb), but it seems on the face very preferable to the absolute logical proof approach you dislike. Allegedly street epistemologists hold their own beliefs revisable, which sounds great on paper.

    I’m not liking the optic of Cordial Curiosity chumming with Lindsay. I think the How to Have Impossible Conversations book is now a bible for the SE crowd. Despite the authorship it might have some decent content. I reserve judgment and have too much otter stuff to prioritize before deep diving into that, knowing full well the culture war landmines the authors represent.

  18. snarkrates says

    Of course, if you have a logic true-believer, all you have to do is introduce them to Gödel’s Incompleteness theorems and watch their brains melt. And if it turns out they love the Incompleteness Theorems, you can point out that Gödel starved to death when his wife stayed in the hospital longer than anticipated and could not taste his food before he ate it to make sure it wasn’t poisoned.

  19. Owlmirror says

    I am not going to suffer through the audio, and I am not sure what the guy means by “necessary to reference god as the precondition of facts”, but my guess is that it boils down to something like this: “Facts are true only if god exists.”

    Yeah, that’s presuppositional apologetics (aka, the transcendental argument for God). That’s the Christian fundamentalist way of flipping over the board — and everyone, religious or not, should be aware that that’s what it is. “I don’t have to play by the rules because the rules include the statement that I’ve already won.”

    Aquinas would have made mincemeat of these guys.

    Meh, Aquinas has his own problems. The Five Ways are very close to being presuppositional themselves. But Aquinas was at least talking about statements about the universe, rather than about the very existence of truth and logic.

  20. says

    Yeah, the guy who asked that stupid question is known as Darth Dawkins AKA Darwins Deity. He’s a presuppositional twit.

    For Hemidactylus’ sake, I’ll revise my comment. Street epistemology isn’t the worst. Presuppositionalism is.

  21. says

    I mentioned it earlier on the Political Madness thread, but I’ve now listened to most of the episodes and I’m enjoying the Decoding the Gurus podcast. The episodes about the pathologically narcissistic brothers, about whom I previously knew nothing, are something else.

  22. kathleenzielinski says

    PZ, I don’t see how someone gets through life without having at least some presuppositions. Call them something else if you like, but the very fact that we’re having this conversation presupposes logical, rational argument. So I think the real problem is with specific nonsensical presuppositions certain people make, rather than with the notion of presuppositionalism itself.

  23. stroppy says

    Hmm, logic abuse in word and deed. We’re talking debate tactics, from people who think science is some sort of high school debate and that they’re taking it to your turf. “Take that Mr. Scienceman!” It’s worth pointing out that pretty much all of the evangelicals that I’ve encountered think that logic is a tool of the devil; they’re just trying to rub your face in it. As for the atheists who do it, scratch the surface and there’s yet another a smart-alecky, winger troll for you.

    Hat tip to arno @ 12

  24. stroppy says

    I meant to add, don’t let these idiots corner you into redefining terms to serve their purposes.

  25. raven says

    xian Fake logician:

    You believe it’s not necessary to reference god as the precondition of facts

    What does this even mean?
    As far as I can tell it is a meaningless statement.
    If it means that facts can’t exist without god, then what you have is an assertion without proof or data and may be dismissed without proof or data.
    It’s simply…a statement of belief every bit as convincing as referencing The Invisible Pink Unicorn as a precondition of facts.

  26. raven says

    Alvin Plantinga – Wikipediaen.wikipedia.org › wiki › Alvin_Plantinga

    Alvin Carl Plantinga (born 1932) is an American analytic philosopher who works primarily in the fields of philosophy of religion, epistemology (particularly on issues involving epistemic justification), and logic.

    The current US champion of logical fallacies is Alvin Plantinga.

    He is famous and a now retired Notre Dame professor who isn’t Catholic but xian Reformed.
    His entire body of work is just piles of logical fallacies, made up by an intelligent motivated reasoner.

    The xians call it philosophy but it is really just standard xian apologetics, Ray Comfort dressed up.
    Two others would be WL Craig and CS Lewis.

  27. raven says

    Aquinas would have made mincemeat of these guys.

    Meh, Aquinas has his own problems.

    Naw.
    Aquinas would have burnt them at the stake or tortured them to death.
    Aquinas advocated killing heretics.
    The RCC has since killed many millions of them in Inquisitions, witch hunts, genocides, and wars.

    Wikipedia

    Aquinas advocated the death penalty for obstinate heretics, writing
    With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death.

  28. PaulBC says

    Refusing to play a game is not the same as flipping over the board. I can easily be checkmated at chess. I bet nearly anyone posting here could beat me. I’m not sure why that is, lack of attention span, or just that I never practiced the right way, but beyond knowing the rules, it is a not a game I grasp in any depth. If I’m lucky, I can see what I can capture or what can capture me in the next move. i don’t see ahead, let alone ever have a strategy in mind. It’s no fun for me, and I don’t play. (Not since my son was seven or so and would ask.) It is also not something that really matters in other parts of my life. (I’m better at tackling solitary problems where I get to repeat sequences trial-and-error till I get it right.)

    Obviously, flipping a chess board and claiming you won, your opponent cheats, or that you don’t care, or that you’re just very angry is a sign of immaturity and poor self-control. It still doesn’t mean that the game counted for anything other than chess. Some people like it. Some people are good at it. That’s great for them, and if I had the time, maybe I’d try to get it too, but it is a game.

    I strongly doubt there is a pressing need for any epistemological basis for belief. Reality is ultimately the most effective arbiter when it comes to weeding out the wrong ones. As the old saw goes, a difference of opinion is what makes horse races, and I do see most of my beliefs as wagers rather than truths. I am comfortable calling myself an agnostic, but I’m not convinced my views are distinct from those who prefer to call themselves atheists. We should both be open to new evidence.

    Clearly, some people care more about epistemology than I do. I’m happy there are people like that. There are people who care a lot more about chess too, and that’s good too. Garry Kasparov’s existence is not a threat to me just because I suck at chess. Bertrand Russell’s work was no threat either.

    And honestly, there are billions of people in the world who are worse at having a “logical basis” to their beliefs than I am. I respect them as well and appreciate that we are all part of the same human family. Simple decency matters a lot more than logic. It was never about “winning” in the first place.

  29. PaulBC says

    Street Epistemology? I think I’d prefer a street taco. If the taco guy wanted to help me “reflect on the quality of [my] reasons and the reliability of [my] methods used to derive [my] confidence level in [my] deeply-held beliefs” I guess that would be OK. It might even be fun. I think he should save it for a slow day when there aren’t any other customers waiting, but who am I to tell him how to run his stand?

    If random people are accosting me and challenging the basis of my belief all the time, like when I’m walking to my car, I would probably use the same tactics I built up for city living some years back. Avoid eye contact. Neutral expression. Keep walking.

  30. Owlmirror says

    I don’t see how someone gets through life without having at least some presuppositions. Call them something else if you like, but the very fact that we’re having this conversation presupposes logical, rational argument. So I think the real problem is with specific nonsensical presuppositions certain people make, rather than with the notion of presuppositionalism itself.

    The problem is not that people don’t have presuppostions. I think we could articulate a reasonable set of propositions or axioms that we are using, some of which are truly fundamental (“some things are true and some are false”; “we can reason from some combination of true things and false things to other truths”; (logic works) “quantities exist as concepts and can be manipulated in regular ways” (math works); “the observable universe exists and is consistent enough for us to figure out things about it” (science works)).

    What presuppositional apologetics does is take a proposition that actually could be false (“there exists a personal God with all of these various attributes, as described in the Nicene Creed and the bible”), and insist that not only can it not be false, it is as fundamental an axiomatic truth as the existence of truth itself; it has to be true for anything to be true. It’s a blatant argumentational cheat.

  31. stroppy says

    Speaking of Bertrand Russell, if you’re into graphic novels, you might enjoy Logicomix, a story of his life and times.

  32. PaulBC says

    Owlmirror@33

    What presuppositional apologetics does is take a proposition that actually could be false (“there exists a personal God with all of these various attributes, as described in the Nicene Creed and the bible”), and insist that not only can it not be false, it is as fundamental an axiomatic truth as the existence of truth itself; it has to be true for anything to be true. It’s a blatant argumentational cheat.

    I would think that even for someone focused on pure logic and not empiricism, the existence of non-Euclidean geometries would be a blow to this outlook. While I know I’m stretching an analogy here, the existence of an unsupported axiom is often an indication that you can remove it or invert it and get another consistent system, just not the one you thought you had. I do not trust any line of reasoning that tries to create something from nothing, and classic “proofs of God” fall into that category in any case I can think of.

  33. raven says

    If I’m following this discussion, what are being called “Presuppositionalisms” are more often called axioms.

    Axiom
    An axiom, postulate or assumption is a statement that is taken to be true, to serve as a premise or starting point for further reasoning and arguments. The word comes from the Greek axíōma ‘that which is thought worthy or fit’ or ‘that which commends itself as evident.’ Wikipedia

    Not all presuppositions are created equal.
    Some are demonstrably false, some are of unknown but low probability.

    That objective reality exists is an axiom.

  34. kathleenzielinski says

    Owlmirror, No. 33, I think we’re basically on the same page. And I think the answer to the person who claims God as an axiomatic truth is this: In order for something to be axiomatic, the universe can’t survive without it. Can the universe survive without logic and reason? No. Spend a few minutes actually thinking through what a non-rational, non-logical universe would look like, and you soon conclude that such a thing is not possible.

    On the other hand, can the universe exist without God? Of course. In fact, one of the arguments against the existence of God is that there is no known phenomenon that relies on God for its existence. Everything can be explained through natural processes. So, not axiomatic, and before I commit to the existence of your imaginary friend, I would therefore like to see some evidence.

    By the way, my favorite joke has someone dying and going to hell, encountering God, and saying he’s always been curious about what hell is like, so could he have just a quick peek at it. God says sure, take that elevator over there to the bottom floor, and you can stick your head out and catch a glimpse of hell. Later, he meets up with God again, who asks him what did he think of hell.

    The guy says, “Well, it wasn’t what I expected at all. The elevator door opened and there was this blast of cold, arctic air; I thought I was going to freeze to death. I looked outside and it was all snow and ice.” God said, “That can’t be right; let me take a look.” So God goes on his laptop and says, “Hey, what do you know; someone finally came up with a coherent argument for my existence.”

  35. PaulBC says

    I like to think (though I’m surely oversimplifying) that I manage my own beliefs as a potentially infinite ranking of sometimes contradictory claims rather than an exclusionary set. The ones at the head of this ranking are the assumptions I use for actual decision-making, but if they’re refuted definitively, I may need to reorder them. What I find odd are those people who are just sure I need to purge the “wrong beliefs” from my ranking. There’s plenty of room for them just like a big enough closet has room for a polyester suit that could come in handy if disco comes back. Since my ranking is “lazy loaded” or built on demand, it has just as much space as I have the time to process it.

    E.g. for all I know, Ben Carson is right, and Joseph really did build the pyramids as grain silos. I mean, since pretty much every bit of evidence points to them being tombs, including having bodies interred, and they are massive structures, requiring great labor to build and unsuitable for storing grain, this seems very unlikely to me. But suppose the next link I see is a New Scientist article claiming to provide evidence that the pyramids are grain silos. I still might have a lot of other hypotheses to test (including my own mental breakdown) before conceding Carson’s point, but it does not fundamentally alter my approach of ranking rather than banishing absurd-seeming propositions.

  36. consciousness razor says

    Owlmirror, #33:

    “the observable universe exists and is consistent enough for us to figure out things about it” (science works)

    It must be consistent (because logic works, as you said, and this is part of what we mean by that). An existing world must be a possible one. But of course we do need the stronger premise that this world exists, not merely that it’s possible.

    There is a different question about whether or not “we” can figure out things about it. (By that I mean that some person can figure out some things, at least in principle, if not you or me specifically). If we had been the sort of beings which were incapable of those sorts of thought processes, or if we didn’t have some senses which allow for empirical access to the facts of the world, then we couldn’t do that. While it isn’t possible for human beings to actually be rocks (for example, or some other that we’re not, which can’t do science and similar intellectual activities), it could have been the case that there aren’t any human beings (and only non-human things like rocks, e.g.). But for better or worse, we do exist and can figure out some stuff.

  37. mnb0 says

    “Have you ever told a lie? Then you’re a sinner and need Jesus.”
    The second part shows why Ray the Bananaman thinks he needs Jesus. The word “then” is a lie.

  38. mnb0 says

    @18 PZ: “The problems arise when someone claims to have an ABSOLUTE LOGICAL PROOF”
    The only thing that that someone proves is that he/she doesn’t understand how logic works. It’s as easy to prove Pythagoras’ Theorem as to disprove it.

  39. Pierce R. Butler says

    kathleenzielinski @ # 25: … the very fact that we’re having this conversation presupposes logical, rational argument.

    Yes, but… we may presuppose it, but (unless totally new to blog-comment discussion) we presuppose tentatively.

    So, I must disagree with our esteemed host @ # 23: Absolutism is.

  40. DanDare says

    Imagine two computer bits. Each can be true or false, on or off. There are four states. This is the world of PZ’s Logicians.
    Instead consider two parking spaces. An empty space is off. A space with a car in it is on. Just like the binary right?
    What is it if a car is in one space but angled so its front right wheel is over in the next space?
    This is the real world. The place of indeterminate sets and fuzzy logic. Logicians in PZ’s sense require binary, concrete bounds on everything. That is the big presupposition that rules them, and in the darkness binds them.

  41. klatu says

    Yes, people are incoherent and messy. I have no problem with that. We are all fallible, sloppy thinkers most of the time. But it’s also important to recognize that there are tools readily available that can improve the quality of our thinking.

    I really think every student should be forced to read some Karl Popper (not that one!) during their middle or high school years. It certainly has shaped my outlook quite a bit. The basic notion that any scientific claim has to be falsifiable in order to be valuable kind of rests at the heart of the scientific method.

    @PaulBC #35

    I do not trust any line of reasoning that tries to create something from nothing, and classic “proofs of God” fall into that category in any case I can think of.

    Exactly. Also: Which god(s)? Why would these proofs imply the Christian god’s existence in particular? Why not Vishnu’s? Or Shangdi’s? How do vague implications from “fine tuning” or claims of “perfection implies existence” relate to snakes and apples?

  42. klatu says

    @John Morales
    Fair. I’m not gonna lie and claim to be especially well-read on the topic.
    I never took Popper’s words as gospel nor did I ever consider his critique as complete. I don’t claim to be an expert on the philosophy of science, either.

    But the basic idea was still interesting and new to me when I was younger and I simply wish more people would at least be confronted with such discussions in school. Especially in the US, where science education appears to be mostly learning “facts” and figures, and little methodology and philosophy.

  43. publicola says

    I’m siting here in the back of the class with the dumb kids so I’m not even going to try to engage in this discussion. However, I have to agree with Joe F. @1. PZ, your comments in this post, (as well as your first post today), seemed to channel Hunter S. Thompson: poetry right from the gut. I haven’t read anything that stirring in a long time. Well done!

  44. hemidactylus says

    @47- John
    Fair point. Falsification ignores the many elements that go into a test against reality, so one may not know if they are getting at the element of interest, something subsidiary, or the background. Duhem–Quine rears its ugly head.

    But I think the slam on Popper is more political than epistemic. He was buds with libertarians, critiqued Marxism in Open Society, and had a cage match with the Frankfurt School over the misnamed positivism dispute. Arguably Habermas’s intellectual trajectory away from 1st generation Critical Theory was in small part reaction to Popper (they are both three worlders) alongside the student uprisings of the late sixties that would impact Debord and Baudrillard too, though in a different country and manner.

    Popper’s connection to Hayek et al ( eg- Chicago School) and critique of Marx/Hegel are unforgivable as is his milquetoast meritocratic meliorism. He deflates the revolutionary bubble. Therefore we hate ‘em. Grrr! Must destroy.

    Speaking of bubbles, the article mentions Soros yet ignores the radical departure he represents within Popper’s ideological framework. He uses reflexivity to demolish libertarian market ideology. His wealth gains are ill gotten sure, but his economic apostasy and political activism put a polemic target on his back from the Right, hence the Tea Party (not your source’s cited article) must malign him as an evil daemon controlling the world from a bunker.

Leave a Reply