Disinterest and the Morality of Belief

For a few years, I've been curiously fooling around with a particular problem in epistemology. Do normative constraints, rules about what ought and ought not to do, apply to our beliefs?

This came up when I started doing some work on anti-semitism and the role of conspiratorial beliefs in forming anti-semitic sentiment. It seems that there were two levels on which I could argue against any given belief that could be identified as anti-semitic. On the one hand, the beliefs were usually false, and could be shown as such. On the other hand, holding the belief usually generated morally objectionable consequences, or the belief itself was morally repugnant.

Can we be morally precluded from holding a particular belief? (What if the evidence suggests that this belief is true?)

Can we be morally obligated to hold a particular belief? (What if the evidence suggests that this belief is false?)

In considering this question, it occurs to me more and more that most of the ethicists I interact with are right: Hume was wrong that there is a clear distinction between normative and descriptive beliefs. The two interact in much more complicated ways, and the logical form of the beliefs is much more complicated than simply instantiation v. universal. (There is a good logical framework for intermediary statuses here; logic has come a long way since the '60s and '70s.)

I don't have a good answer to these questions, but I think they're worth probing at some greater length. As work on feminist philosophy, and other critical projects continues, we are liable to find ourselves bumping up against these questions quite often.

Philosophers of Science, a quick overview

I've had versions of this post in the pipeline for a little while, using some general discussion of the philosophy of science to prepare for some work on my thesis in the spring. This one is the first to pop up, partly because PZ Myers expressed a concern (that I share) that many folks only seem aware of Popper's view of falsification as the only word in philosophy of science, and that's very sad since Popper is just one of a dozen or more interesting theorists in his generation alone.

There is a lot of background literature in the philosophy of science, and very little of it is available in any sort of "broad strokes" accessible formulation for non-theorists; since the discipline first really exploded during the early 1920s, it has been a rather prolific region of philosophy.

What follows isn't an attempt to get into the technical literature, but just to preface some important ideas in the philosophy of science, and how they are interrelated. Unlike a lot of my stuff, I've taken a hard stab here at providing these ideas as accessibly as possible, so hopefully I succeeded in doing that.

W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000)

Perhaps the most influential philosopher of the 20th century (though the extent and nature of his influence is controversial) is Willard Van Orman Quine. Quine's work on logic and epistemology is important to a lot of contemporary work in philosophy; his contribution to philosophy of science, independently, is also significant.

The so-called Duhem-Quine thesis is a subject of serious debate. A version of it (there are several) states: "If all observable events can be accounted for in one comprehensive scientific theory... then we may expect that they can all be accounted for equally in another, conflicting system of the world." ("On Empirically Equivalent Systems of the World" 1975) To put it another way, if we have an explanation of the things that we have observe (like the patterns of motion we observe and talk about with classical mechanics) there might be an alternative theory which also explains all of those observations (like Noodly Appendage Manipulation).

Now, Quine doesn't hold (nor does anyone of importance in philosophy of science) that the theory of classical mechanics is equivalent to Noodly Appendage Manipulation. But rather that the evidence itself isn't enough to separate the two. We can come up with versions of NAM that explain all of the same evidence (and all of the same possible points of evidence) as classical mechanics.

The point, here, is that there are ways of differentiating between theories apart from the evidence, and those ways play a significant role in how we talk about scientific theory.

Karl Popper (1902-1994)

No doubt the most widely read piece of literature in the philosophy of science is a selection from Popper's Logik der Forschung (1934) that suggests that something only counts as a scientific theory if it is falsifiable. The idea is that there is some minimal constraint on what sort of thing is a scientific theory, as opposed to non-science. (This issue is referred to as demarcation.)

It is annoying to many (apparently PZ Myers, as well as myself) that this is the only selection of Popper's work that is ever read at the introductory level, since Popper himself took it to be only a very weak condition on what sorts of things are scientific.

After all, plenty of general statements are falsifiable if interpreted in a certain way. (e.g. "All crows are black." is falsifiable if we take it that having a certain species identity is what it means to be a crow.) But "All crows are black." is not a scientific theory.

Falsifiability is a necessary condition for something being a scientific theory, on Popper's view. But it is by no means sufficient. It is also not taken by Popper or his acolytes to be a particularly prominent feature.

As modern philosophy of science has changed, it is no longer so obvious that "falsifiability" in any simple sense is a good criterion. Probabilistic modes of analysis in science suggest that there might not be a single "falsifier" for a given theory. However, there might be a set of conditions which, acting together, make a theory unlikely to be true, or very likely to be false, and that is reason to reject it. "Falsification,"then, is not the right way of thinking about that process. (So, not only do we oversimplify Popper, but we don't even read the parts important to the received view in modern philosophy of science.)

Rudolph Carnap (1891-1970)

I have moved through the first three on this list in a somewhat counter-intuitive way. (Chronologically, backwards.) But the ordering of Popper and Carnap is important, because Carnap's view, despite coming first and being rejected for a while, is actually closer to the received view in modern philosophy of science.

Carnap argues that some elements of the discussion of scientific theories is inevitably conceptual, i.e. philosophical, logical, and mathematical, rather than empirical. There are some important claims in scientific theories that turn on how the concepts work, and not simply whether some events are observed in an experiment. This was particularly important during the start of the 20th century, when physics was shifting towards discussions of space-time that were (and still are) incredibly conceptually difficult.

Carnap maintained that some modes of theorizing were going to be deductive and some were going to be probabilistic, and that these two sorts of theorizing interact fairly actively. (He also gives ways of characterizing these interactions, many of which are now obsolete.)

He also maintained that there was a distinction between observational and theoretical terms, and that many of the theoretical terms are likely to be counter-intuitive, and function in conceptually (especially mathematically) difficult ways. Among the developments in his work are some early stabs at non-Euclidean geometry and non-Kantian understandings of space-time, reflecting the work in early quantum mechanics.

Imre Lakatos (1922-1974)

A part of the succeeding generation, Lakatos and Feyerabend were involved in a significant historical turn in the discussion of the philosophy of science, where the historical and sociological facts of the development of science started to play more of a role than the mathematics. (Popper was interested in this discussion, as were Quine and Carnap, but this is a matter of degrees.)

Lakatos proposes a slightly more aggressive account of demarcation than Popper: a scientific theory must make novel predictions about previously unknown phenomena. (The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, posthumously 1978) A theory cannot be merely curve-fitting, working from the known data and explaining extant data without stepping out on a limb to make new predictions. Further, it cannot make predictions that differ only slightly from what we already know; the predictions must be significantly novel, e.g. of new phenomena.

This criteria is strictly stronger than Popper's criteria of falsification. Not only must a theory be falsifiable, but it must be falsifiable with respect to data that it does not currently have at the time the theory is stated.

Lakatos suggests in his other work that we might historically evaluate scientific theories based on (among other things) this criteria to assess scientific progress; the discussion of scientific progress was heavily discussed during the '70s, when the idea started to get some push back. (There is still some discussion of whether there is scientific progress, but the mainstream view since the '70s seems to be that yes, there is progress, in a number of interesting and important senses.)

Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994)

Paul Feyerabend was the principle opponent (and close friend) during Lakatos' life. Feyerabend argued that the project of demarcation, and other approaches to impose strict systems of rules on scientific inquiry, were detrimental to science. Rather, scientific inquiry resisted such easy characterization and that, in order to be done well, had to have a certain degree of free reign. This position, methodological anarchism, is still fairly unpopular in the philosophy of science, but is a major philosophical player in anthropological and sociological discussions of science (whether or not they are aware of this particular root).

Among his positions on methodology and history of science, Feyerabend held that most scientific theories failed to meet the strict standard of falsification set by Popper and Lakatos; most theories turned out to be false with respect to some bit of data or other, and this was fine. There's some room to work with scientific theories that are not consistent with all of the relevant facts. This feature plays a major role in Feyerabend's Against Method (1975), where he advocates not just a sort of methodological pluralism, but also a theoretical pluralism.

Falsifiability is far less a criterion of interest in contemporary philosophy of science, but there has been a lot of recent technical literature on consistency; one of Feyerabend's major contributions to philosophy of science is the notion that theories need not be consistent to be useful, which has developed into the notion that good theories need not be wholly true.

A theory that gets some of the important ideas regarding a peculiar set of data right may turn out to be inconsistent with accepted interpretations of another data set, or even with other claims contained in the theory itself; the conflict that emerges out of these discussion doesn't show that a theory which we ultimately reject was wrong. A theory can be partially true, even if that partial truth renders the theory internally inconsistent; such partly true theories often turn out to be the most useful and interesting, even if (holistically) they wind up being false.

Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996)

I hesitate to put Kuhn in this discussion for a couple of reasons. The first is that he was not really a philosopher of science and his predominant work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), is really a work in the theory of history and sociology of science than it is of the philosophy of science. But he has been appropriated in a great deal of philosophical discussion because of the role that the history of science has taken up in the field.

The most famous, and confusing, concept introduced by Kuhn is that of the "paradigm." It is fairly clear that the term does not mean a single thing in particular in the course of Kuhn's work. (There is a great deal of criticism aimed at trying to parse apart how many different meanings the term might have.) In short, though, it means something like, "a set of background ideas and attitudes that inform the decisions of the community of scientists."

Kuhn maintains that some paradigms are in competition and that they can often be inconsistent or (even more strongly) incoherent, which leads to problems characterizing science historically. Some critics (particularly in sociology and anthropology) have suggested that the role of paradigms, and the occasional arational nature of paradigms undercuts the rationality of science.

Kuhn himself disagreed with these critics, maintaining that the ways scientists came to prefer theories was based on a set of values which have independent rational justification, but that these values often compete and make the evaluation process complicated than other analyses seem to indicate. These criteria are useful because, as proofs of the Duhem-Quine thesis serve to show, the data itself isn't sufficient; we need non-empirical values to help us make decisions. Among these values are five described by Kuhn (accuracy, consistency, broad scope, simplicity, fruitfulness); some others (most notably "beauty") have been developed later within the philosophy of science, along with more technical characterizations of the other values.

For those who are interested, my thesis is on this subject, focussing on the relationship between generality, simplicity, and ways of evaluating explanatory relevance.

Bastiaan van Fraassen (1941-   )

I've included van Fraassen as a sort of note saying "look, these discussions are still going on." The purpose is to note that simply referring to someone like Popper or Quine is shortsighted and boring, and to note (for those scientists out there in the world) that philosophers of science still have ideas that might be of use.

Perhaps the most important contemporary philosopher of science (though there are many vying for this title) is Bas van Fraassen. Continuing in a methodology much like Carnap, van Fraassen's work is about tying together the logic underlying physics (particularly quantum mechanics) and mathematics with philosophical concepts.

van Fraassen has argued that some theories are empirically adequate; a theory is empirically adequate if it explains all of the relevant observable phenomena, everything it is supposed to explain. Experimental data is presented, and a theory is empirically adequate if it explains all of that experimental data. As per the Duhem-Quine thesis, we might have a number of competing theories which are all empirically adequate, that all do the same explanatory work.

Among these empirically adequate theories, some might be better than others in different respects, and we should be open to using the different theories at different times. This is a sort of theoretical pluralism, a shoulder-shrug on the question of "Well, which theory is really best?"

Bas does not deny that some theory among the empirically adequate handful might turn out to be true, representing the world as it actually is, but rather that this is not really a question that admits of straightforward settling. Rather, what we can, and should, do is continue to improve and revise existing theories with regard to their ability to explain phenomena, to predict, and do the many, many other things that such theories help us do.

The Modern [Particularly] Notables

There are a number of other important modern philosophers, though it is hard to privilege any one over the others without being too obviously biased. (I debated including a section on explanatory relevance and the work done by Michael Strevens, which I think is excellent; but I have some impact bias there, as Strevens is also my thesis advisor, so I decided it would be best not to.) Instead, I've included a list of a few prominent contemporary theorists, and the concepts they're working on, along with a major work where they address it.

William Bechtel (complexity and mechanisms): Discovering Complexity (1993)
Daniel Dennett (teleology): Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995)
Massimo Pigliucci (demarcation): Philosophy of Pseudoscience (2013)
Eliot Sober (parsimony and inference in studying evolution): Reconstructing the Past (1996)
Michael Strevens (explanatory relevance): depth (2008)
Peter Vickers (inconsistent theories): Understanding Inconsistent Science (2013) 

This is a pretty strong introductory reading list for those who are taking a stab at philosophy of science; the variance in difficulty is pretty dramatic from Dennett and Pigliucci (very readable) to Strevens and Bechtel (very technical). Still, it's a dramatic improvement over a couple of chapters of Popper written nearly a century ago.

A Quick Note: A Change in Workload

As with many other people on the internets, you can expect a lot of content in the next month as the New Year gets underway. Mine has nothing to do with new resolutions and everything to do with the completion of an unexpectedly exhausting semester and the completion of Ph.D. applications. In order to take my mind off of the anxious waiting period of about 2.5-3 months, I'm going to pour some work in around here to generate some good content for the folks who have been waiting for a little while.

I'll also be working on my MA thesis, and so will do a little bit of writing about some of the ideas that are floating around in my head pertinent to that. (That'll start to follow soon; I have a few things that are already in process for the blogosphere re: my thesis work.)

Mostly, though, I'm looking forward to using this blog as an opportunity to talk about some things that I've had the opportunity to kick around (but not enough time to write about) over the last several months. Those thoughts range from my usual material on philosophy of religion and bioethics, to the political problems with academia, to new approaches to philosophical methodology, to some of my work in philosophy and the martial arts, and beyond. There's a lot to say, and this will be a nice venue for talking about it.

Also, a quick thank you to those who have been reading; for the most part there are very few comments, but I do know that there are a handful of ritualistic readers, and I appreciate that.

Review: New Proofs for the Existence of God (Robert Spitzer)

Goodreads is rife with a number of enthusiastic reviews of this book, and the general tone of those reviews is the same: this is a thoughtful and challenging book, dealing with the most substantial arguments available (within Catholic theology) for the existence of God. This is, basically, the sales pitch of the book, given by Spitzer in the introduction, and it is the way that the book was pitched to me, initially, by a friend and professor.

My review of the book will be harsh and thorough, responding both to inadequacies in content, in the styling of the philosophy, and the writing itself. Rarely do I take the time to respond to a single book so thoroughly unless it is directed at a very particular person or group. In this case, the response is merely a counterweight to the sycophantic reviews elsewhere. I did find the book very unpleasant, and so I am not simply being contrarian.

For those in the tl;dr approach to book reviews, a short summation: (1) The book is poorly written, jumping back and forth between dramatically oversimplified explanations of complex areas of physics and philosophy and incredibly technical neo-Thomist jargon. (2) The book misrepresents even claims that it quotes directly re: physics in order to increase the apparent philosophical consequence. (3) The book misunderstands many of the central notions that it invokes (e.g. probability, intelligibility, etc.) in the course of its arguments, and the accounts that it gives of these concepts are, at best, vacuous and, at worst, incoherent. (4) The book is seriously methodologically confused, bouncing back and forth between natural language and technical/quasi-formal analyses all while maintain that these analyses have an ontological (rather than merely conceptual) consequence.

I have debated working through the book claim by claim, but I have decided instead to offer straightforward arguments in support of each of these failures, for those who are interested and don't mind that I am directly quoting large portions of the book. (I don't really worry about spoilers in non-fiction.)

1. The book is poorly written, simultaneously over simplistic and dense with jargon

In the opening chapters of the book, Spitzer attempts to give a rough characterization of the concepts in physics that he is interested in. He gives a very simple folk-characterization of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, (pp. 24-25) using the classic examples of broken plates and billiard balls to illustrate the problem the way that an introductory physics teacher would for a class. This is absolutely fine, and a respectable way of offering an analysis, but only several pages later (pp. 30-32) he assumes a basic understanding of classical Big Bang cosmology, jumping immediately into Hawking and Penrose's work on the refutation of the classical model.

Neither of these things, in themselves, is a problem. It is fine both to assume no knowledge from an audience and to assume some knowledge from an audience; but generally we do not simultaneously assume a minimal knowledge of physics and a sophisticated knowledge of the details of classical Big Bang cosmology critiqued by Hawking and Penrose during the early 1980's. This is totally unreasonable, and explains the weird feeling among even the sycophantic reviewers that the book was "somewhat difficult to follow." It sells itself as accessible apologetics for non-physicists in the opening portion of the chapter, and then demands a substantive knowledge of physics and mathematics in the latter portion.

I suspect that there is actually something much more pernicious going on here, as I will address in sections (2) and (3). My suspicion is that the move into the excessively technical idiolect serves to mask incompetence in those areas, which can be illustrated by the fairly transparent errors that Spitzer makes in drafting the arguments and (more generally) in sketching the conceptual space. He disorients readers less familiar with stylized academic writing (and, generally, the target audience of apologetics texts are not familiar with academic writing) and so they focus on deciphering the structuring and miss things like overt misrepresentation of theorists or completely incoherent uses of terms.

Just so that you don't think that Spitzer's confusing writing is limited to the discussions of physics, where untrained readers might expect it to be hard to assume a wide knowledge base, he continues to do this throughout the book, in his discussion of philosophy.

In Chapter Four, Spitzer gives a very simple characterization of Lonergan's account of understanding (pp. 147-150) using examples like our first time perceiving an elephant and trying to make sense of, understand what that elephant is. He then immediately jumps into an incredibly jargon-heavy discussion of intelligibility in the simple states. (pp. 156-158) The jump is so sudden that basic questions, like "Isn't intelligibility a relation on the state and an entity with cognitive capacity?" are totally ignored, and we wind up with less curmudgeonly readers just being comfortable with bizarre statements like, "If any reality has restricted ineligibility, then it will leave coherent questions unanswered about itself," (pp. 156) the defense of which involves no account for the move from intelligibility as a joint relation on perceived states and mind-ed individuals (clear in his characteristic account) to a property of states.

Readers are asked to move quickly into the jargon where some term is being used in ways that would appear idiosyncratic on the general characterization, but because the jargon is there, we assume that this idiosyncratic usage has (elsewhere in the technical neo-Thomas corpus) been established as acceptable. That may well be, but Spitzer feels no reason to justify it, or give us a place to look for its justification, illustrating radical change in his expectations of the reader.

2. The book misrepresents claims it quotes directly

In the discussion of physics, where the authority of physicists and their agreement with or support of Spitzer's conclusions is established by block quotation, it occasionally becomes clear that Spitzer misrepresents them in his summary. For example, he quotes the eminent physicists Borde and Vilenkin's discussion of temporal singularities as follows:

"Our argument shows that null and time like geodesics are, in general, past-incomplete [requiring a boundary to past time] in inflationary models, whether or not energy conditions hold, provided only that the average expansion condition Hav > 0 hold along these past-directed geodesics. This is a stronger conclusion than the one arrived at in previous work in that we have shown under reasonable assumptions that almost all causal geodesics, when extended to the past of an arbitrary point, reach the boundary of that inflating region of space-time in a finite proper time." (quoted pp. 34-35)

And, shortly afterwards afterwards, quotes Vilenkin individually:

"… The only assumption that we made was that the expansion rate of the universe never gets blow some nonzero value, no matter how small. This assumption should certainly be satisfied in the inflating false vacuum. The conclusion is that past-eternal inflation without a beginning is impossible." (quoted pp. 35)

Now, the quotes are clearly meant to established that there is a boundary to past time established solely on the basis that the net Hubble-value is greater than zero; this is an interesting finding. But Spitzer rehashes the statement immediately afterwards:

"The implications of Vilenkin's statement should not be underestimated, for he is claiming that the proof is value practically independently of the physics of any universe, and he is further claim that such a universe without a beginning is impossible." (pp. 36, emphasis in original)

But this is obviously not what Vilenkin said. What Vilenkin said is that, given that the Hubble-value is greater than zero, then there must be a boundary on the past. It is not independent of the physics, not even "practically" (where that word is misunderstood to mean "almost") independent; rather, in virtue of a feature of the expansion of the universe alone, we can establish a boundary for time. A value in the physics of the universe establishes that there ought to be a boundary on time. In furthering his agenda, Spitzer misdescribes a finding as a matter of modality (possibility and impossibility) when it is explicitly conditioned by a contingent feature. The statement illustrates simultaneous incompetence in physics and philosophy.

3. The book misunderstands many of the central notions that it invokes

I am now switching modes, though it may not appear that way, as the level of antagonism will remain largely unchanged. I tend to divide all intellectual work along two axes: (a) is it correct and (b) is it good? Generally, work that is good tends to be right, and vice versa, but it is important to criticize each independently. There are enough instances of philosophical literature where these things occur separately that it is worthwhile to pull them apart. The above two sections have dealt with why I think Spitzer's book is not very good, and I will return again to this in (4); here, though, I deal principally with why I think that Spitzer is clearly mistaken and (further) never really had any chance of being right, given the concepts that he was employing.

I suspect that the problems with Spitzer's concepts are largely interrelated, as he seems to understand them principally in terms of each other, but I don't have the time to show that the entire conceptual space is mistaken (What would that look like? It sounds exhausting.) and so will only issue severe problems in a central concept in the discussion of physics (probability) and in the discussion of philosophy (intelligibility) that set him up for failure.

Throughout Spitzer's discussion of the probability of an anthropic universe, he invokes the notion that "pure chance" is unlikely to have instantiated values for universal constants which allow for life. (pp. 51) But it is completely unclear what "pure chance" is supposed to mean here. There are two ways of interpreting the concept consistent with its employment throughout the book, one of which is totally incoherent and the other is mind-bendingly weird.

The incoherent characterization is something like, "x occurs as pure chance if nothing conditions its occurrence." But there can be no value given for the probability of x independent of a set of conditions. In order to specify any value whatsoever for a probability of occurrence, we have to specify the set of conditions of occurrence. I will be charitable here, and presume that Spitzer doesn't have this in mind; if he does, then he has more serious issues than not understanding the role of probabilities in physics, because he doesn't even understand the most basic folk concept of probability.

The mind-bendingly weird interpretation is something like, "x occurs as pure chance if the only antecedent causes are logical and mathematical laws." This, I suggest, is a charitable way of interpreting Spitzer, but is still obviously a mistake. On the one hand, logical and mathematical laws seem to actually be conditions which could be given, and it seems consistent with a few of the odd theological positions he takes regarding abstract objects later. On the other hand, it seems obviously false to say logical and mathematical laws condition physical states, or could constitute a set of conditions for a physical state in the way that "pure chance" would entail on Spitzer's account. (Even among mathematical realists, it is uncommon to maintain that the sort of causal power exists among abstract objects.)

There is a problem with talking about probabilities in the way that Spitzer (or Swinburne, who is much less confused about what probabilities are, but still engages in a similar project) does. Probabilities require a set of conditions to be specified. "What is the probability of P given that x, y, and z obtain?" An antecedent state probabilistically determines (rather than wholly determines) a consequent state if its conditions do not entirely either allow or disallow the occurrence of the consequence state. There are interesting things to be said about models of antecedent states, and at times Spitzer actually touches on them, but at no point, then, are we dealing with "pure chance." We're dealing with chance in the mundane sense of underdetermination of consequent states… these sorts of mistakes are a part of the equivocation that emerges from speaking in both a colloquial and technical idiolect in one book.

The second is the account of intelligibility he presents as a part of the Lonergan tradition. It is, for all appearances, a basic prototype-theory of concepts with an empiricist account of concept acquisition. (pp. 146-153) It turns out that this account of concept acquisition is contingently false. When we introspect on our concepts, it can seem like we're comparing elephants to rhinos; that happens to not actually be what we're doing, as it is much more complicated, but if that were the only issue, then it'd be just an empirical point that Lonergan is wrong about concept acquisition.

The problem is actually that Spitzer is confused about the facts in virtue of which we are able to say that a certain state is intelligible. When Spitzer tells his superficial story, about the acquisition of a new concept of "elephant" and its comparison to our other concepts, he gets to say that the elephant is intelligible because we can perceive it and process it; that's the sort of state that it is. But the state is intelligible to us partly in virtue of its availing itself of our perceptual and cognitive architecture. He conveniently neglects this when he asserts the intelligibility of the simple states. (pp. 156-159) Intelligible to whom? (After all, "intelligible to God" begs the question.)

He carves up a conceptual space around "intelligibility" where we neglect the prepositional phrase that has to be present to give it any technical significance. "The state is intelligible [to me]." "The state is intelligible [to particle physicists]." and so on. We wind up, then, with the creation of a concept that needs a parameter, which we have not specified, and then we use the need to specify that parameter to justify the role for God in this discussion. "Well, if x is intelligible, then it must be intelligible to something…" This is an obvious mistake, and a striking one that develops over the course of the chapter, warping the argument until we wind up with some truly silly statements about the intelligibility of initial conditions.

In spite of Spitzer's extensive protestations otherwise, (pp. 219-225) similar demonstrations can be given for his interpretation of infinitude instrumental in chapter five and of causality utilized throughout the book. I have just taken the time to illustrate the two on which I am most authoritative. (My work on philosophy of mind and science puts a heavy stake in developing sophisticated characterizations of intelligibility and probability, though I have only scratched the surface here; I have very little stake in any sophisticated account of causality or infinity.)

4. The book is seriously methodologically confused

This is a serious accusation; I am not asserting here that Spitzer is inappropriately mixing analytic philosophy and Thomism (something eminently acceptable among Catholic philosophers) or a weird brand of philosophy of mathematics with a dangerously counter-intuitive brand of philosophy of science. I am not asserting that certain contingent philosophical claims (like the non-existence of infinite sets) are clearly incompatible with other parts of the view espoused in the book (like realism about real numbers). All of those things are true, and could be constitutive of a longer philosophical argument against the sensibility of Spitzer's book.

I am not going to dive into that here, because I think such a project is useless until we get into the major methodological confusion underlying Spitzer's approach to both philosophy and science.

Spitzer is clearly of the view that the concepts that he is talking about in his various arguments are "real." He states over and over again that there is something "ontologically" important about so many of the claims. The problem, though, is that the method of conceptual analysis that he uses, the way in which he characterizes and interprets these concepts, is not sufficiently rigorous to allow for this strong claim. Rather, it shows only that the concepts behave in a certain way in our common use.

For example, he gives us an account of intelligibility, and then of restricted intelligibility. (pp. 157-163) Some state is intelligible in a restricted way if it avails itself of questions. If we can sensibly ask (e.g.) "Why is it that…" then the following phrase must be an intelligible state. Underlying this claim is an assumption that when we believe something is intelligible, we identify the sensible questions as being associated.

There's a methodological assumption here, and one that is obviously false. The assumption is that our evaluation of a given state is not defeasible. That is, if we judge that there are certain sensible questions about a state, then that state is intelligible. But it turns out that our judgments about the sensibility of questions are all defeasible, because whether or not a question about a phenomena is sensible is partly based on the empirical character of that phenomena. e.g. A child asks "What color is the night?" That child might judge this to be a sensible question, but it turns out not to be sensible, because color is not the sort of property that night has. The point is simple, our judgments about these sorts of things are defeasible, and so the underlying methodological premise taken up in the section is false.

There are a number of analogous problems with the philosophical methodology surrounding the use of natural language to justify the use of technical concepts when it is clear from the careful application of natural language philosophy that this method is inappropriate for the case, and further doesn't establish the strong ontological conclusions that Spitzer wants to use.

A conclusion and some additional notes

One criticism that can be aimed at Spitzer is that, by and large, the book is actually not really new. None of the arguments that are advanced in the book are novel, but even further than that, it does not take as source material hardly any philosophy of science or even experimental or theoretical physics from later than the '90s. As a result, much of the technical material is seriously out of date, both in the physics and the philosophy. In fields of philosophy that have fallen somewhat out of vogue (like the philosophy of time) Spitzer still has much of the best material available, but that seems largely accidental.

More strong as a criticism of the anachronism is that Spitzer takes as central to his approach a view of logic that is no longer held by most philosophers, a strong Aristotelianism where the Law of Non-Contradiction and the Law of the Excluded Middle are absolutely methodologically central. (It is obvious that he takes this for granted from the way that he talks about conceptual dichotomies throughout the book, and the use of negation and disjunction in his presentation of concept pairs like infinite/finite and so on.) There is an enormous body of literature in contemporary philosophy, increasingly mainstream, that dissents seriously from Spitzer.

Being in the minority in a view of logic is not a major detriment to the book, and so I don't mention it on my major criticisms. (it turns out that there are so many marginal views about logic that most folks are in the minority in some way or other.) The problem, though, is that he takes this for granted without noting that it has serious consequences for his argument, and that many prominent logicians and metaphysicians think that this is deeply and seriously mistaken.

This sort of mistake is indicative of the lack of philosophical and general intellectual care taken in the preparation of this book. These issues are rich and complex, and require careful consideration; such consideration does not seem to have been given. Rather, what seems to have happened is that a Catholic read some basic material on protestant apologetics, (mostly William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne's works; Swinburne is Orthodox, but I'm lumping it in because of his invocation by many protestants) thought it had interesting interactions with the work of Catholic thinkers like Lonergan, and attempted to rehash that work in Thomist jargon suitable for a Catholic audience.

The result is slapdash from beginning to end; in the physics and in the philosophy, the results are exaggerated, poorly articulated, lazily argued, and ultimately uncompelling. I suppose there is a reason why the general view is that philosophy of religion is a dying field, and it is that books like this are considered (based completely on a lack of competition) the most substantial contributions to that literature in the year they're published.

Silverman v. Turek on Relativism

So, I realize I'm a bit late to the party on this particular debate but, in my defense, I don't watch debates as much as I used to because (a) I don't have time and (b) I generally find them more frustrating than entertaining. Still, a friend posted a clip from a debate between Frank Turek (who I saw speak as an undergraduate at Fresno State) and David Silverman.

The friend is a Christian and was asking for opinions on the subject matter from atheist friends. I was on a break from working on a million different things (term paper on conceptual analysis; Ph.D. applications; thesis proposal...) and so I started watching the video. Maybe it was out of masochism, but I actually found myself engaged and frustrated enough to offer an extended comment. (As though I can leave any other kind of comment.)

First is the video.

Now for my comment.

I was prepared on seeing this to say that I think Silverman was making some obvious philosophical mistake or other. But I'm actually surprised. He articulates moral relativism well, and gets the major claims in the view mostly right. It's Turek who makes a bunch of embarrassing philosophical errors in a row.

Bear in mind here, I think moral relativism is mistaken. It's not a view I adhere to.

Turek's mistakes (which Silverman is either too nice or not quick enough or not allowed by the format to beat him up over) in chronological order:

0:15 - Premises of the initial question. "x is immoral." and "There is no objective morality." are perfectly commensurable judgments. Relativism does not mean that there are no true moral claims; it means that a moral claim is evaluated as being true or false relative to some entity. (e.g. moral code, emotive response, etc.) Silverman points this out, though too nicely for my taste.

0:45 - "Are you condemning someone else for having a different moral standard than you?" No. He's not condemning anyone, at this point, for holding a belief. He's condemning (taken weakly to mean "expressing disapproval of") an action.

1:30 - "You saying that their [sic] is a standard, or that there is no standard, objective, outside humanity to which we should obey. This might be the most egregious embarrassment in the entire mess, partly because it requires not only not understanding relativism, but also not having listened to Silverman's particular account of relativism earlier. There is a standard and there is no objective standard. The standard is, according to Silverman's previous characterization, subjective.

1:40 - "[We are responsible] to ourselves and to our society." OK. I said Dave gets relativism mostly right. This is where he starts to get a bit confusing with regard to which version of relativism he's espousing. There's a version of moral relativism where the claims are evaluated relative to a moral code (i.e. a social fact) or a version where they've [sic] evaluated relative to personal preferences. (i.e. something subjective) He starts to bounce from the latter, which is his view at the beginning of the video, to the former, which is more palatable to realists. (Maybe he thinks it will be more accessible to Turek, in which case, he was being far too optimistic.)

2:30 - "But it's just a preference." This is where Turek seems to be missing the boat entirely, and where Silverman situates himself again in the subjective, rather than social, relativist position. It's a preference which acts as the basis for subjective moral judgments. The role that it plays in moral judgment is what's important on this account, and using "just" ignores that role. On the subjective account, our subjective moral judgments (formed by our preferences) undergird the truth value for moral claims. There's no "just" about it.

2:35 - "If it's just an opinion then I don't know why you condemn..." So long as "condemn" means "make a negative moral judgment about" then the answer to this question is obvious. Dave makes the moral judgment because of his preferences; further, he maintains that the moral judgment is true in virtue of those preferences.

It's hard to understand Turek's bafflement at 2:50, since it isn't as though Silverman is biting a new bullet here. He's been saying this the entire time. The schema is straight out of an introductory ethics textbook: I make a judgment about x. That judgment about x is either true or false. What facts make my judgment true or false? Find the facts and solve for the truth value.

Anyone who has a truth-functional view of ethics (and relativists pretty much have to because it's part of the definition of being a relativist) adheres to this schema. There are theories of ethics in which ethical judgments are neither true nor false, but none of those are on the table here.)

3:10 - "... we say we have no right, but that implies a moral standard too." No. No it doesn't. Rights are established as a matter of social fact; they are not subjectively constituted, even on the relativist view. Silverman actually hits this out of the park. ("Societal right" isn't a technical term, but who cares? It gets the point across.)

3:35 - "... then there is no real way to condemn the Nazi's for what they did." Silverman is actually really nice in his response here, and it's definitely for pragmatic reasons. He wants to get the point across that this is an important issue, and a difficult one for his position. In moral relativism, conflicting judgments are a serious problem, and that's an interesting and important philosophical question for the view.

On the other hand, the actual claim that Turek makes is based on an attempt to avoid equivocating by tossing the word "real" in as though it changes the tone of "condemnation" from the mode of making a moral judgment (based on preference, in Silverman's account) to the mode of absolute, objective and certain condemnation guaranteed (? - probably not, but Turek would like to believe this) by hard-line realists.

3:55 - Turek bait-and-switches. "See, your view has this serious philosophical difficult, [sic] and my view doesn't have that difficult, therefore my view is [probably] right." Seems like decent debating; unacceptable even at the undergraduate level in philosophy.

4:30 "The fact that people have abused morality [sic] shows that morality is relative." This is the first thing in the debate that Silverman says that is obviously false and embarrassing. (Those are no the same thing; this just happens to be both.) It obviously does not follow (and could not follow) from an analysis that systems are subject to abuse, even systematic abuse, that another (sometimes conjoined) system is not objectively grounded.

4:35 - "No, you're confusing sociology and morality." No, he's not. He's just saying that something about the way that an empirical fact informs our concepts that [sic] turns out to be false. There's no domain error going on. It's all ethics.

... [end of quote]

So, I took my friend's question to be a genuine request for thoughts, and I gave as many as I could come up with in a short stream of consciousness during a break from doing the philosophy I'm more actively engaged in. (i.e. not ethics)

But later I went back and looked at a few other comments, left by a mutual friend, and I noticed that my friend had posted the link from another page, that of Mr. Scott Klusendorf. I found the comments on that page... well... you'll find out in a minute.

To give a quick sampling:

[Redacted]: And Silverman just doesn't get it... dude needs to take a philosophy class... or maybe a class in logic.

Scott Klusendorf: Silverman would do better if he took the approach of Mackey, et al, and simply asserted that objective morals exist as brute facts of the universe. That wouldn't get him around the grounding problem (i.e. if morals exist as accidental features of the universe, why obey them?), but at least he could dodge the painful "gasp" moment.

Scott Klusendorf: Michael Shermer is much more clever than Silverman. The former tries to dodge the problem by confusing epistemology with ontology. He'll (rightly) claim that atheists are perfectly capable of recognizing moral obligations and fulfilling them. True, but that's not the issue. At issue is how we ground those moral obligations that theists and non-theists both recognize. No doubt Frank was ready for the trick had Silverman gone there.

[Redacted]: Arrogance and condescension seem to be common characteristics of many modern atheists. The recent Krauss vs. Craig debates in Australia are an excellent example. For me, it's a good reminder to remain gracious and respectful in the midst of deep disagreement or even outright personal attacks (such as the case of Lawrence Krauss attacking William Lane Craig). For us, we're not trying to 'defeat' our opponents, we're trying to save them.

I couldn't help myself... I just couldn't. There are a few triggers that got tripped here, all at once, and with some degree of force.

Also, the thread from which the video is taken (since it does link to Klusendorf's wall) is the reason I've taken pain to be so exhaustive here. It embodies both things that lead me to my deep disapproval (both as an academic and a human being) of "apologists."

1.) Individual commenters drip with condescension in their analysis of Silverman, suggesting that he lacks even a basic understanding of philosophy.

2.) Simultaneously, they illustrate a profound ignorance even of the people that they invoke. Klusendorf himself writes "Silverman would do better if he took the approach of Mackey [...] that objective morals exist as brute facts of the univrse." Has he ever read J.L. Mackey? Mackey's most famous contribution to philosophy is his extensive defense of moral anti-realism and moral skepticism. Mackey literally opens his magnum opus with: "There are no objective moral values." A famous claim I didn't even have to go to my bookshelf to double-check because it's on his wikipedia page. (I didn't even need to consult John, my personal Mackie scholar for exegesis.

With that in mind, the additional notes are important. First, because they illustrate the unfortunate fact that your approach is uncommon. Second, because they draw attention to what's become one of the resonant themes of our conversations over the last several months about my (admittedly very high) expectations for serious engagement in contrast to what I encounter in apologetics, whether they be pro-life or Christian.

I realize that, in these sorts of exchanges, I often come off as (at best) pedantic and (at worst) condescending and obnoxious. I realize this isn't an effective rhetorical strategy; I'm not in a debate. Rather, I'm giving my opinion, with inflections that illustrate my attitude. These sorts of exercises are absurd.

If you're going to criticize someone for being intellectually lazy, Scott, perhaps it is best not to assert that a relevant thinker made or supported a claim, when his legacy is attacking that claim. (Perhaps, more radically, it would be good to have read him? Maybe that is too much to ask.)

If you're going to debate aggressively against a point, Frank, perhaps it is sensible to listen to the position being presented, so as to not force the person you're talking to into painful redundancy. Even without a solid philosophical foundation, that goes a long way.

It is hard to feel something other than disappointment and frustration in these cases, and those emotions are more playfully manifested as condescension, preferable to classical rambling.

Personhood; a survey of some views

A friend recently asked me to work on some background on personhood arguments for the moral permissibility of abortion, as he is getting ready to present a talk on the subject and wants some help representing the substantive philosophical literature. I'm grateful that he considers me someone to look to on this subject, (I am, after all, emphatically not an ethicist) and thought I would make the notes available to other folks as well, partly because they seem to be lost in many discussions of the ethics of abortion.

The first point is that relevant philosophical literature on personhoodrejects imago dei, and other accounts where species identity is taken as either a necessary or sufficient condition for personhood. Why?

Well, it is fairly obviously chauvinistic to assert that it is a necessary condition for personhood. There are a number of thought experiments which illustrate this, most prominently what Fenton calls the "Vulcan case." Suppose we were to meet some extra-terrestrial species like the Vulcans from Star Trek. It seems obviously wrong to say that the Vulcans are not persons; whatever moral status (whether it is "rights bearing" or "norm inducing" or whatever) that emanates from "personhood" clearly extends to Vulcans. I think most pro-life folks get this, at least the ones that I've had some time to discuss it with.

Setting aside some potentially difference-making facts about the science fiction (like that Vulcans could interbreed with humans) and it still seems that Vulcans are persons, likely in virtue of the same facts that make the rest of us persons.

But couldn't having a particular species identity be a sufficient condition? This seems much more plausible; the argument against it is fairly straightforward.

All things being equal, we generally prefer a simpler explanation to a more complex one. The problem is that, insofar as the clear cases in our judgments need to be explained about what does and does not constitute a person, the accounts laid out by other philosophers which exclude species identity cover those judgments and are strictly simpler than counterparts which include personhood as a sufficient condition. Because this point seems confusing to a lot of folks, I'll unpack it a little bit.

We want a theory of personhood that, minimally, comes up correct on the non-controversial cases. The accounts of personhood designed by various philosophers (which I discuss below) do this without invoking species identity. Call a theory of personhood that satisfies this condition P. We might take P and add a condition that includes species identity as a sufficient condition, call this alternative P*. I don't dispute that, in the easy cases, (where I'm excluding euthanasia and abortion, so as not to beg the question against my position on those issues) P* will come up with the same judgments as P, but it is strictly more complex.

Now, it is plausible to say that there is an alternative account of personhood that comes up right on all of our judgments, that has species identity as a sufficient condition, and that isn't simply a strictly more complex theory than a personhood theory proposed by philosophers. Such a theory may well be out there, but I have yet to see it. All I've seen, up to this point, is the assertion from pro-life advocates that they have independent (usually theological) reasons for maintaining that species identity is a sufficient condition for personhood, reasons I (independently

Anyway, I'll move now into a survey of a few of the views on personhood that are in the philosophical literature, since that is what was requested, and add some commentary to those views.

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The True meaning of the No-True-Scotsman

This week's discussion at the NYU Mind and Language seminar was about Joshua Knobes' work on conceptual analysis. (I was not a huge fan of experimental philosophy before reading Knobe's paper, and while I'm still a bit skeptical about the strength of the conclusions we can draw, he definitely made an interesting case.)

One of the features that comes up is the use of the notion of a "true x" as an extension of certain concepts, what he calls "dual character concepts." The argument he makes in favor of these concepts is a bit complicated, and I won't get into his reading of it here. What I will say is that, in the elevator and early part of the discussion over drinks that followed the seminar, there was an interesting question raised.

Why is it that it seems reasonable to say that "So-and-so is a true friend." but not, as Antony Flew has compelling argued, that "So-and-so is not a true Christian." The fellow who made the point was not a philosophy student, and invoked the "no true Scotsman" fallacy talking about the use of "true" in Joshua's work. To my surprise, most of the philosophers there were not familiar with the Flew article. (It really isn't canon, even in philosophy of religion, where it is relevant; so I suppose it shouldn't be that surprising.) My job, as the person who attributed it to Flew and not wikipedia, was to try to give some context, and some argument. (As a side note, rarely is there anything I can say that can't be said better by someone else in the room at these events; so I'll take some pride in this one instance.)

Because a fair portion of my readership seems interested in what I have to say about philosophy of religion, I thought that was a worthwhile thing to share outside of the philosophers' discussion at the pub.
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The Argument from Convergent Viewpoints

Arguing in conversations is different than arguing in text; this is one of the most important things to understand about doing philosophy. When I am advancing an argument in text, I tend to lay things out in the form of an extensive syllogism, so that the premises of the argument are clear and are available for critique; but conversations don't allow for that kind of transparency in the structure of arguments because someone can't so easily look back and analyze the premises, partly because of time constraints, and partly because we interact and talk differently (and about different things) when we're dealing with an embodied person as opposed to a disembodied reader.

When I started having conversations with people about particular positions that I hold in philosophy, especially positions that I take to be pretty widespread positions (like atheism or the moral permissibility of abortion) within the community of philosophers, I started to realize that there were a lot of times when people would be dismissive of a position, make a particular dialogical move. They say something to the effect of, "Well, that's just your position; that isn't reflective of the community as a whole."

Sometimes that's true. I have a number of positions that are definitely minority opinions. (I hold an odd sort of eliminativism; I have weird views about how we prefer theories in philosophy of science; I have a strange position about how mental representation works; etc.) But I think that it's important to make clear when I'm expressing something as a minority in the community and when I'm not, and the vast majority of the time that I spend talking to folks outside of the philosophical community, I'm answering a question that would be answered more or less the same way (at least as far as content) by most professional philosophers.

I started, especially towards the end of my undergraduate career and into my first year of graduate school, to develop a style of response to that dialogical move; I thought of it as sort of a blunt instrument, and a very unpleasant one.

The approach was simply to walk through major philosophical viewpoints widely represented in the field and express why each viewpoint was generally accepted to entail the conclusion. Why are rule utilitarians generally bound to the permissibility of abortion? Why are deontologists? Why are care ethicists? etc.

I'm the first to admit that it was a style of argumentation developed not out of a desire to be generous and educate the person that I was interacting with, or even to convince them in a way that brought both of us to an agreement. It was about making a point; it was a hammer. And, very quickly, everything started to look like a nail. With that exposition, I want to walk through my struggle with the ethics of this approach to argument, as well as the issues with its efficacy and why I've started to put some heavy restraints on its use; and then I want to get into a little bit about how I've started becoming comfortable with using it again.

I've come to call this form of argument the argument from converging viewpoints, and as we get into the development of the form of the argument, hopefully you will see why I've given it this name.
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Moral Relativism, explored and defended

I have a lot of friends who like to talk about philosophy; this should come as no surprise to anyone. I like philosophy; I like talking; I like talking about philosophy. And so I tend to gravitate towards people who like discussing philosophy. Generally, these groups of friends come out of two parts of my life: My life before moving to graduate school (i.e. high school and undergraduate years) and my life after moving to graduate school. (i.e. folks at and around NYU) Among the former are a large group of Christian apologists who like talking about moral relativism, and relativism in general; among the latter are a large group of anthropologists who, by virtue of their discipline, take the position very seriously.

I wanted to write a post that gets into the primary discussion of the position as phrased by intellectually serious proponents, and the objections to relativism as phrased by intellectually serious opponents.
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Objectivism; an abridged criticism

I've written very little about the so called "objectivist" line in popular philosophy; my previous writing has been an initial review of Harriman's book on objectivist philosophy of science and an expanded criticism of that book. [1] [2] For those who have read those pieces of writing, or have talked to me about the subject matter, it is immediately clear that my opinion is... unfavorable. I do note, in some other places on the site, that I have some libertarian leanings (as some remnants of the libertarian ethical positions I adopted in high school and disposed of during my first few years of college) but that hasn't made me more sympathetic to objectivist positions as philosophy. Because I don't respond directly to Leonard Peikoff, who is supposed to be the major philosophical mind behind much contemporary objectivist thought, in the previous articles I thought I'd take an opportunity to respond to the more central claims as articulated by Peikoff, (and Rand) and show why I'm fairly confident those claims are false.

The point of this article is not to offer a heavy, in depth look at the problems in Rand; such a work would take an entire book, and that is a book I don't really have any interest in writing. (Though maybe if the market wills it...) Anyway, I call this "an abridged criticism" in the spirit of prefacing the truly massive quantity of criticisms pointed at Rand, some of which are available on the internet and which I will link to. (I don't agree with all of the criticisms that I link to, and I do provide some of my own, more-or-less novel, criticisms in brief.) I hope that those in the discussion, whether objectivist or not, find these criticisms useful.
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April 2014

Recent Posts

  1. Disinterest and the Morality of Belief
    Monday, February 10, 2014
  2. Philosophers of Science, a quick overview
    Wednesday, January 22, 2014
  3. A Quick Note: A Change in Workload
    Tuesday, December 31, 2013
  4. Review: New Proofs for the Existence of God (Robert Spitzer)
    Thursday, December 26, 2013
  5. Silverman v. Turek on Relativism
    Wednesday, December 04, 2013
  6. Personhood; a survey of some views
    Wednesday, November 06, 2013
  7. The True meaning of the No-True-Scotsman
    Monday, October 28, 2013
  8. The Argument from Convergent Viewpoints
    Wednesday, October 09, 2013
  9. Moral Relativism, explored and defended
    Saturday, September 21, 2013
  10. Objectivism; an abridged criticism
    Tuesday, August 27, 2013


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