Monday, October 09, 2006

Get Back To Me When You Have Some Answers

Last night, I watched The God Who Wasn't There, and it had a greater effect on me than I anticipated.

I have long doubted that Jesus actually existed, so the claim that he didn't exist wasn't a big shock for me. News to me was the fact that Paul's letters, the only writings that bridge the 40-year gap between Jesus' supposed ascension and the appearance of the first Gospels, make no mention of any events of Jesus' life save for the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Ascension. This fact just makes the New Testament that much more implausible. However, the thing that really got to me was the patent absurdity of the theistic position. Why am I spending so much time "lobbying for reality," as Ellen Johnson would say?

As I've written before, philosophical debate is a matter of validating consistency and comparing foundational assumptions. It's important to explore both one's own assumptions and reasoning, and those of one's opponent. One may find that both philosophies are consistent, but each side disagrees about their respective axioms. The problem that I am finding is that theists refuse to honestly assess their own axioms. What assumptions does the theist truly make in order to reach his conclusion? They themselves do not appear to know.

Instead of facing their assumptions head-on, the theists accuse me of begging the question, that is, of lining up my definitions and starting points so that my conclusion is inevitable. In retrospect, this is really quite flattering. If my assumptions lead inevitably to my conclusion, then they are merely verifying my logic. If they disagree, it is their duty as philosophers to challenge the assumptions and provide alternatives. This, unfortunately, is where they fail.

Why is this important? Because rational debate requires intersubjective claims. If you want to claim that the Moon is made of cheese, you're free to do that, but don't pretend you have rational reasons why I should believe you. Dispense with reason if you must, but I shall enjoy tar and feathering you when you do.

In the following, I shall present several definitions and axioms that I have used in argumentation. Theists will find each of them, at face value, eminently reasonable. At least, that is, until they realize that it annihilates supernatural belief. Being wedded to such beliefs, the theist must declare the definition or assumption invalid. That's fine. But get back to me when you have an alternative definition that you can live with.

Objectivity and Moral Destinations
I've been debating Christians and theists solidly for the last two years, and I've learned a lot about my position and theirs.

Overall, theistic arguments appear driven by a need to reach a particular moral position. Specifically, theists demand that we have free will and can be held accountable against an objective morality reality. From my perspective, theistic positions are derived from deep fears about the consequences of moral relativism. Not that it's bad to fear consequences of ideology. After all, I feel the same way about their position. The difference between us is that I fear a particular moral epistemology, and they fear humanity. I'll try to explain.

I have yet to see any moral phenomenon that cannot be explained by a morally relativistic system. Under moral relativism, we expect to see the same police and legal institutions that we see today. This isn't obvious, and I think it is the fear that moral relativism will somehow discount law and order that prevents the theist from looking at the question dispassionately. Theists prefer that there be an absolute, black-and-white definition of good and evil. They are compelled to seek out objective moral systems because they don't trust humans to act benevolently without them.

Of course, if morality is objective, then there can be legitimate moral authorities in the same way that there can be legitimate scientific authorities. For example, when the scientific community demonstrates that power transmission lines are radiation-safe, I have good cause to believe them. At any time, I can investigate the scientific process that led to this conclusion, and verify its integrity. The science could be wrong, but I can exercise due diligence in certifying its conclusions as the best available answer.

Not so for morality. Religious morality is some combination of the moral feelings of authoritarian humans combined with the "revealed" moral feelings of a supernatural authoritarian figure. There's no transparency, and epistemic due-diligence is actively discouraged by religious moral authorities. Now, a religious system of morality might turn out to be liked by many people. It might even be humanistic from time to time. However, if it's right, then it's not right because the methodology was right. If the authoritarian methodology is right, then why fault Osama bin Laden et al for their murderous morality? They have as much claim to authoritarian moral truth as anybody else.

How are men persuaded to accept authoritarian moralities? (I mean in discourse, as opposed to at the point of a gun or by familial brainwashing.) "Vote for Jesus because then there won't be murders!" To call this circularity hare-brained would be an insult to leporids. If murder being subjectively bad is justification for a position, then one is acknowledging the value of subjective sentiment in setting policy. There's no need to import a lot of other childish and irrelevant baggage with common sentiment. Sexual freedom isn't intrinsically bad, women aren't intrinsically unclean or inferior, and undetectable beings don't exist.

Again, in argumentation, the only justification for moral positions come from subjective moral feelings. So how can theists assert that morality is objective? By rejecting the common definition of the word objective:
A proposition is objective when its truth is independent of what I, the observer, think it ought to be.
Question-begging? If you like, Mr. Theist, but what's your alternative definition of objective, and what follows from your alternative?

Meaning and Precision
The old canard about logical positivism is that its verifiability theory of meaning failed to meet its own criterion. I have dealt with this subject numerous times before, so I'll just write up a short outline.
The meaning of a proposition, p, are those experiences that are implied and those experiences that are denied by p's truth. Further, any proposition that fails to imply both compatibilities and incompatibilities has no truth value at all.
It's really quite simple. The meaning of "2 + 2 = 4" relates to the experiences we will have that are consistent or inconsistent with the claim. Specifically, if we add two and two and get five, that experience is inconsistent with the claim. If you assert that a jaguar is in my garage, I had better find a Jaguar brand vehicle, an Anglo-French ground attack fighter, or a big old panther (or perhaps a representation of one of these) sitting in my garage. If I fail to find one of these, I ought to regard your proposition as false.

However, if you provide me with a proposition for which no experience can alter my confidence in its truth, then you haven't given me a meaningful proposition at all. It's literally about nothing. It's nonsense. Even you don't really know what it means.

Well, this all sounds pretty straightforward, so what is the metaphysician's objection? His objection is that this claim about meaning is not itself verifiable. There is no experience that ought to convince us that this is the one, true definition of meaning. Well, duh! It's a definition, and there are no true definitions, only conventional ones. The issue is whether the definition is meaningful by its own standards, and it most certainly is. When I declare that some roses are red is a meaningful proposition, I know what experiences are compatible with the claim. To wit, that I will experience a partial enumeration of experiences that are compatible (and a partial enumeration of experiences incompatible) with the claim that some roses are red. Likewise, when I claim that God is good is meaningless, I mean that the speaker denies that there should be any experience that is ever inconsistent with the claim.

Once these ideas are presented to the theist, what response do I get? Usually my opponent is called away at this stage. Pressing affairs of state or somesuch. Sometimes, I might get a complaint that this definition begs the question against the metaphysical. Again, I'm honored that my arguments have been found to be logically sound. The ball is in the theist's court. Will I hear a refutation in the form of a meaningful proposition for which no consequence is implied? Nope. Do I hear an alternative definition of meaning that admits metaphysical claims? Nope. I think I hear crickets.

I Demand an Explanation!
Anyone who has visited my blog with any regularity (thanks to the both of you, BTW!) understands where I'm coming from.
An explanation is a set of facts and rules that preferentially predicts the observation that's being explained (the explicandum). That is, every explanation relies on some predictive law under which the prior conditions must (or preferentially) lead to what is actually observed.
Who named me the king of definitions, you might ask? Well, it's not just my definition, actually. Essentially, this is the definition of Hempel & Oppenheim.

"Begging the question!" shout the theists. "Of course God isn't explanatory by that definition of an explanation. No, there must be another definition that allows God to be explanatory!"

Yeah, well put up or end this pretense that theism is a rational enterprise. Under what definition of explanation is God explanatory? And, no, it cannot simply be an intuition. Intuition is not rational, not intersubjective and often wrong.

I'm not demanding that my opponents accept my definitions and my assumptions. Axioms cannot be proven. However, I like to think that my axioms do not extend beyond the bare minimum necessary for rational thought. These include logical consistency, that there exist discoverable laws, and that memory of experience is somewhat trustworthy.

[To clarify: I don't claim that every theory about our experiences should be trustworthy, only that we did actually have most of the experiences we think we did. A person's theory that Bigfoot trampled their peyote patch may not be true, but their vision of Bigfoot doing the mambo in their garden was actually experienced by them.]

What do I ask? I ask that my opponents make their definitions explicit. I ask that they honestly consider whether or not they can rationally live with their assumptions. If they accept such axioms, do they not open the door to beliefs that they find absurd or contradictory? If morality is objective, what isn't objective? If meaning has no fixed definition, is it impossible to mistake nonsense for meaningful content? How much pride should we feel in asserting an explanation that doesn't predict what's being explained? Inquiring minds want to know.


Ken Brown said...

You can claim my failing to respond to every one of your unending comments is proof that I have no answers, but the truth is, I’ve had so little time for online reading and writing that I have barely even posted to my own blog. I’ve only continued to comment here at all because I’ve enjoyed our conversations over the last few months and have generally found you to be quite reasonable. This post is a disappointment. I mean, really, you’re appealing to a propaganda film to justify your opinion of Christianity?

First, a word about morality: You insist that it is purely subjective, no different than taste in chocolate or music. If that is so, when will we start seeing your posts on the President’s poor taste in music or his despicable palate?

You say objectivity means independence from one’s feelings, and therefore declare morality subjective (since it has to do with our feelings). But you seem to be equivocating, for who’s feelings are we talking about? You deride the President’s views on torture not on the grounds that his future self will likely regret his current decisions (the criteria you claim is the only basis for our subjective morality) but rather on the grounds that torture is dehumanizing and ineffective. In other words, you judge the President’s subjective morality on ostensibly objective grounds – for if he can be wrong about the morality of torture (not just now, but forever) that means the morality of torture is independent of the President’s feelings. Sure sounds like objectivity to me.

But that’s only a sidelight to the central thrust of your post. You claim that a proposition is only meaningful if it preferentially predicts certain observations and prescribes certain others. You admit that even this definition is not verifiable, but scoff, as though definitions are immune from such complaints. You say: “The issue is whether the definition is meaningful by its own standards, and it most certainly is.” But it’s own standard of meaning is verifiability and falsifiability, so if the definition itself is not verifiable or falsifiable (as you admit) it clearly does not meet it’s own standard!

And this is hardly the only (apparently meaningful) statement you make that fails to meet this definition. How about: “philosophical debate is a matter of validating consistency and comparing foundational assumptions.” Or “Why is this important? Because rational debate requires intersubjective claims.” Or “there are no true definitions, only conventional ones.” Or “An explanation is a set of facts and rules that preferentially predicts the observation that's being explained (the explicandum).” What concrete observations do these propositions preferentially predict and prescribe?

For that matter, is meaning limited to propositions? How about words themselves? What concrete experiences does “the” predict, or how do you verify “and” or “hello”? Are words meaningless? How about fictional accounts, are they meaningful? A story can refer to beings that don’t exist in reality, does that make it meaningless? How about poetry? If it doesn't speak in verifiable propositions, is it meaningless? If we accept your definition, it seems a great deal of what we say is completely without meaning, no better than gibberish. Indeed, this very sentence is as meaningless as asdetrkahetaiwrhfjendckmsfaewijf, since it offers neither potential verification or falsification.

We can go beyond language too. What about painting, sculpture or music? Are these things meaningless unless we can reduce them to predictive propositions? And what about the real limitations on our ability to verify truth claims (such as the information barrier of the speed of light and the inner lives of other agents), which you have previously admitted show that verification and falsification need only be “potential”? Potential verification is very different than actual verification, but you seem to ignore this in your derision of theism.

In each of these areas, to say that meaning depends on verifiable prediction and potential falsification is to so thoroughly distort either the phenomena we are considering, or verification itself, that you destroy the very thing you’re trying to explain. Verification, falsification, the scientific method, even definitions – these are all immensely valuable tools for identifying meaning and evaluating truth, but they are only tools.

Verifiability and falsifiability do not determine truth; they only give us means to understand it. The above examples (and they could be multiplied) illustrate that truth – reality – and our access to it, are not limited to what is verifiable and definable, much less what is predictable. To claim that they are seems not only cramped and limiting, but hopelessly presumptuous.

Doctor Logic said...


This post is about experiences I have had on dozens of blogs. Please don't take it personally.

Your response is essentially another attack on my definitions, and precisely the kind of response I'm claiming to be inadequate.

Can we not define the objective, the meaningful and the explained? Do you argue that it is impossible for us to be mistaken when we think a proposition is meaningful, a theory explanatory or a claim objective? How would we ever know that we were confused if we cannot get reasonably precise definitions of these things?

You insist that it is purely subjective, no different than taste in chocolate or music. If that is so, when will we start seeing your posts on the President’s poor taste in music or his despicable palate?

If we were forced to listen to his music and eat his preferred foods, we would soon care. Does that make it any clearer?

In other words, you judge the President’s subjective morality on ostensibly objective grounds – for if he can be wrong about the morality of torture (not just now, but forever) that means the morality of torture is independent of the President’s feelings. Sure sounds like objectivity to me.

Just because it is my opinion that the President would always be wrong to impose toture at any time in history, doesn't mean that this opinion is independent of me! When I contemplate its morality, the timeframe in which the torture occurs (e.g., torture now or a billion years from now) is irrelevant. The fact is that the moral conclusion is mine, and I am considering the question now, at this very moment. I'm the one in the morality room.

I think that country music sucks now and a billion years from now, too. No matter who plays it. Even if I'm not there to hear it. The truth-test of my opinionated statement is precisely how I feel about it at this second. And yet, someone else might like country music and think that electronica sucks, even a billion years from now.

The difference between morality and musical taste is only the degree to which I will act to prevent others from engaging in a practice.

And the difference between morality and something truly objective like physics is that physics can be verified independently of how anyone feels about it. For example, we can establish tests that will verify that the universe was hot 13 billion years ago, independently of whether anybody thinks that the universe ought to have been hot.

Okay, so suppose that morality is subjective. Is there any point in talking to others about the material consequences of an action? Yes. If my discussion of the issue causes another man to realize that his action will result in something he himself finds morally objectionable, then he will change course, and my appeal will have worked.

In the case of torture, if I can convince others that the practice does more subjective moral harm than good, I can win. I assume that the reader wants peace, happiness, freedom and prosperity. Torture is counterproductive to meeting those goals, so the reader can be persuaded by my claims. If the reader does not already possess these sorts of subjective tastes, then my appeal won't work. (Alas, Osama bin Laden won't be convinced by my pleas.)

As for your discussion of meaning, I have to wonder whether you have ever read anything I ever wrote on the subject.

For that matter, is meaning limited to propositions?

Truth values are limited to propositions, and "the" and "hello" aren't propositions. "Hello" is neither true nor false. And neither is there a truth value for "Hooray for God!"

Then you ask about fiction. We can make perfectly meaningful propositions about fiction. Why? Because when I say that Harry Potter's birthday is just before the opening day of Hogwarts, there are experiences consistent and inconsistent with my claim. For starters, I can open the book by J.K. Rowling and see if my claim is consistent with the author's words. This also illustrates the difference between fiction and non-fiction. The truth of fiction relates to experiences of reading it (or seeing the movie). It does not lie in experiences of physical measurement (e.g., looking for an actual Hogwarts).

Read my definition of meaning once again. The meaning of a proposition relates to experiences, not physical sensations.

Very, very few propositions fail to be meaningful by this standard. In fact, you have to work pretty hard to come up with meaningless ones. You would have to devise a proposition such that no experience increases or decreases your confidence in its truth. Even then, most propositions have some meaning in a limited mathematical sense.

Claiming that "God is good" has mathematical meaning in that it denies "God is evil." However, this proposition is only about mathematics because, supposedly, no other experience changes one's confidence in its truth. It is not about the world because nothing we experience about the world is said to reduce our confidence in the goodness of God.

We can go beyond language too. What about painting, sculpture or music?

Is Michelangelo's David true or false?

Potential verification is very different than actual verification, but you seem to ignore this in your derision of theism.

How is God's total omniscience or eternal nature even potentially verifiable?

BTW, I have no problem with the meaningfulness of materialistic deities. Stories about gods should be treated like stories about Elvis sightings, Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, but they're not. They're regarded as special cases, and religion gets a free pass.

I'm sorry that you find precision "cramped and limiting." I find it liberating, especially when it demonstrates the ways that we can be deceived by our intuition.