Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Epistemic Circles

June 15, 2010

The dedicated Mormon missionaries knock on Mac’s door.  “Hello, we’re Mormon missionaries and we’d like for you to become a Mormon, too!”

“Why should I become a Mormon?”

“Well, it says in the Book of Mormon…”

“Hold it right there!  I don’t want to hear a reason from the Book of Mormon, I want to hear one from the Bible!”

A circular argument is an argument in which you have to assume the premise in order to reach the conclusion, e.g.:

How do you know I’m trustworthy?  Well, it so happens I AM trustworthy, so when I tell you I’m trustworthy, you know you can believe it!

T v ~T/T?                         Trustworthy or NotTrustworthy, therefore Trustworthy?

(1)     T v ~T                                                                      Trustworthy or NotTrustworthy

(2)     ~T -> ~T                   (1) implication                     NotTrustworthy implies NotTrustworthy

(3)     T -> T                       (2) transposition                  Trustworthy implies Trustworthy

(4)     T                              assertion                                               Trustworthy

Therefore, T                  3 & 4 modus ponens               (I am) Trustworthy.

The fallacy, of course, is in line 4: there is no logical reason to assert I am trustworthy, T.  I could just as easily be untrustworthy, ~T.  Just because I claim trustworthiness does not make me trustworthy (in real life, experience demonstrates that usually people insisting on their trustworthiness are more likely to be untrustworthy).  So from the tautology T v ~T, all I can validly prove is T v ~T (or some other tautology) again.

In the absence of external proof, I cannot prove

  • I am trustworthy;
  • Mormonism is superior to Methodism; or even
  • Faith is superior to no faith

For in each case, I am caught in a circular argument in what I can demonstrate or know.  We generally consider circular arguments to be fallacies, that is, they sound persuasive at first, but on closer examination turn out to be false.

Epistemic circles are not limited to character or religion.  Consider inductive reasoning versus deductive reasoning.  Inductive reasoning is what we use to describe, explain, and predict the real world.  How do I know if it’s raining?  I look out the window or put my hand out the door or feel the ground to see if it is wet.  When we depend on the senses, though, we introduce a measure of unreliability—our senses can be fooled (or perhaps we are trapped in The Matrix, being fed false data).  For absolute certainty, we must turn to deductive reasoning, where the form of the argument guarantees the result.  For instance:

(1)     R -> W                     If it is raining, the ground will be wet.

(2)     R                              It is raining.

Therefore W, the ground will be wet. 

This is a form of argument so common and so important that it has its own name, modus ponens.  It works no matter the contents of R and W; so long as 1 and 2 (the premises) are true, W (the conclusion) inexorably follows.  This seems pretty nifty, right?  The problem is, though, that it doesn’t tell us whether or not it is raining here now.  Deductive logic is like a chess board or a computer program, suspended in time with no connection to the real world.  We can call it a well-ordered system, internally coherent and the like, but like its cousin arithmetic, it does not exist in what we call the real world.  When done right, you can make some very sophisticated, even beautiful and elegant, arguments within either inductive and deductive logic, but you’re still operating within an epistemic circle.

Beyond character, religion, and logic, though, I would argue the entire rational enterprise is also trapped within an epistemic circle.  Why be rational?  I can offer a lot of rational reasons to promote rationality, but that is the type of reasoning we claim to want to avoid.  R v ~R?  Without a reason to prefer R over ~R, the two must be equally weighted.  Only a rational person would always choose rationality…right?  To do otherwise would be…irrational….  So to break the epistemic circle, I must find an irrational reason to favor rationality over irrationality.  The best I’ve been able to come up with thus far is an aesthetic argument:  I find it more beautiful to be rational than irrational.  This seems a feeble defense of some 50,000+ years of civilization and the conquest of irrationality by the forces of rationality.  Just because I have a subjective preference for rationality doesn’t mean that all people will find it equally attractive.  Indeed, some rational people make the argument that civilization has been a failure, thus humans should return to the wilds from which we came, ~R.  So, using rational arguments, we seem to’ve only demonstrated that rationality is not as foundational as we’ve always thought.  We are caught on a precarious perch.

Perhaps the best approach, then, is not to try to break out of the epistemic circle, but to make the circle bigger.  Let’s imagine a literal, mathematical circle, say  x2 + y2 = c2.  When c2=1, we have a circle with a radius of 1, centered at the coordinate (0,0).  When c=2, we have a circle with a radius of 2, centered at (0,0), and so on.  If a horizontal line (a line with a slope of 0) represents perfect rationality, all of these circles will only be perfectly rational at the two points where x=0, namely (0,c) and (0,-c).  The farther away from the x-axis we get, the less rational they are.  But as c increases without bound, the more closely the neighborhoods of (0,c) and (0,-c) will resemble pure rationality.  So trivial circular reasoning like “I am trustworthy” is easily recognized and dismissed as faulty, while more advanced circularities require more thought—and more humility as to the limits of human rationality.

The Problem of Evil

October 6, 2009

As classically understood,
(1) God is omnipotent [capable of doing anything];
(2) God is good [and it is assumed that good eradicates evil whenever possible]; and
(3) Evil exists.
As philosophers have pointed out for a very long time, however, you can’t hold all three of these beliefs at the same time without generating a contradiction:
If you hold (1) and (2) at the same time, then there can be no evil, for God wants to destroy evil and is completely capable of doing so. At most, evil is an illusion; God is enthroned in Heaven and all is right on Earth. Imagine a small child is about to pick up a rattlesnake—the parent does nothing, for there isn’t REALLY a rattlesnake there (and if you and I had enough faith, we would recognize the glorious truth).
If you hold (1) and (3) at the same time, God is not completely good, for God could eradicate evil but chooses not to do so. Human good is really too trivial a matter for Almighty God. Imagine a small child is about to pick up a rattlesnake—the child’s parent could stop it, but instead says, “My child needs to learn not to pick up snakes.”
If you hold (2) and (3) together, then God loves us and wants to protect us, but isn’t capable of doing so. God has limits just like everything else. Imagine a small child is about to pick up a rattlesnake—the parent watches in horror as the snake bites the child before the parent can get there.
Of course, one could just hold to any one of these positions and reject the other two or reject all three at the same time.
So which is it? Holding all three positions at the same time means rejecting rationality, but rejecting some or all of the propositions means abandoning classical religious positions. Claiming that the answer is a mystery is not far removed from the Fideist position.
Assuming that there is a God, my best answer is a variation of rejecting (1). If God made the universe, God mapped it out as a painfully rational place. Particularly at the macro level, physical laws are fairly evident and mostly understood. Things happen for a reason. Within our universe, then, it doesn’t make sense for God to violate the laws of nature or defy rationality. As long as God works within our universe, God has to abide by physical rules. Imagine you were playing a classic game of Monopoly with God. God rolls doubles once…twice…a third time in a row. Doesn’t God have to go to jail? Is there any way God can avoid going to jail? If God says, “the Almighty does NOT go to jail!” we have an old-fashioned name for that: cheating. I’m assuming God is above cheating at Monopoly and I will posit that God is not going to cheat in our physical universe, either. God can do those things that are physically and rationally possible, but no, God can’t and won’t generate a paradox by creating a rock so heavy God can’t lift it. Perhaps that protects us, as the physical laws of the universe might unwind under the tear of a contradiction.
So as for those evil things that happen every day, God weeps for the innocent, but God cannot be everywhere at once and do everything at once, for that is not rationally possible.

Political Philosophy

December 20, 2008

I stand for equality and liberty.  As a citizen of the USA, I believe that all citizens should have the exact same rights as every other citizen and that those rights should be as expansive as possible, so long as not denied by the Constitution or clearly deniable by the State as being contrary to the Consitution or the public good.  Some people talk about “priviledges” extended by the State, but IMHO, there are few or no priviledges, as such is contrary to the egalitarian nature of the ideal polis.

As such, I overlap with, but am not identical to, libertarians, anarchists, communists, and especially utilitarians.  I appreciate the libertarians’ and anarchists’ zeal from freedom, but believe there is a legitimate function for a robust state–including to protect the rights of minorities.  I appreciate the egalitarian sentiments of communist theory, but especially in practice I have found it to be too heavy-handed and not respectful of individual rights.  I especially resonate with Mills’ Harm Principle (competent adults have the right to do as they please so long as they do not harm others), but am also turned off by his distrust of the common voter and his willingness to cede more power to the intellectual elite (e.g., the Electoral College as envisioned rather than directly electing a president by popular vote).

My stance, then, on some of today’s hot button topics:

Gay marriage: the marriage of GLBTQ people in no way harms the marriages or other rights enjoyed by the majority and this right should be fully recognized by the State.  What we have now is a Tyranny of the Majority denying rights to an unpopular minority.

Polygamy/polyandry/group marriages: the rights of consenting adults to live the lifestyle of their choice so long as it does not harm any children resulting from such unions also seems a no-brainer to me.  I’m the first to admit there are despicable things that have been associated with polygamy in the past, including the enslavement of women, but it seems to me these are a result of polygamy’s being forced underground.  If rigorously scientific tests showed that children of group (or gay) marriages were impaired, then the State would have a compelling interest in prohibiting their reproduction, if not their pairing–but as far as I am aware, no such study exists for either group.

Gun rights: it seems to me a tortured reading of the Second Amendment that allows unrestricted individual gun rights.  Hand guns in urban areas, in particular, are a public health menace and should be heavily regulated.  Guns that do not threaten the public well-being (in private homes for person defense, for hunting, in collections) should be reasonably regulated to prohibit their use for criminal purposes and to prevent their accidental discharge or use by minors.

God: American public places ideally should be free of religious monuments, symbols, artistic references, etc.  When they are permitted in tributes to historic origins of the law, etc., they must be open to all religious groups.  The free exercise of all groups’ religions must not be regulated so long as that practice does not harm the public good.

Drugs: competent adults should have unimpaired control over their own bodies, including the informed use of substances that are harmful to them, so long as they do not injure others in their intoxicated states–driving while intoxicated would be one example, as would neglect of a minor be another.  The State might reasonably restrict the use of intoxicating drugs, alcohol, etc., to private homes and sanctioned “shooting galleries.”

Abortion: a potential life is not equal to an existing life; as such viability is a reasonable (although admittedly imperfect) compromise between the rights of the unborn and the rights of parents–until viability, a woman should have unrestricted right to an abortion, while afterwards protecting the life of the mother should be the only permissible reason for an abortion.  Obviously this issue will need a major revisiting once science has developed an artificial womb such that all conceptions are theoretically viable when transplanted.

Thinking philososophically

December 12, 2008

What’s so hard about thinking philosophically?  Philosophy is fundamentally thinking about thinking.  So you analyze thoughts and quickly come to realize there are justified thoughts and unjustified thoughts.  We call justified thoughts rational.  So thoughts like 1+1=2 in base-10 mathematics or “I know from science that the Earth is probably in excess of 4 billion years old” are rational.  There are solid reasons to believe they are true and no rational reason to suspect that they are not.

Unjustified thinking is more complex and I will divide it into two categories, the irrational and antirational.  Irrational beliefs are those for which I have have neither a rational reason to believe or disbelieve.  “I think there is one, omnipotent, omniscent, loving God,” as proposed by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is a popular one.  The problem is, despite thousands of years of struggle by most of the best minds in humanity, there is no conclusive reason to believe or disbelieve this statement–it could well be true, but it might also not be true, too.  There’s no way to know.  Supposed proofs fall far short of establishing God,  and supposed disproofs, like the Problem of Evil, also fall short other than to suggest our understanding of God might be incomplete.

Antirational beliefs are, theoretically, the easiest to deal with.  You have a rational reason to believe that something is the case, but instead you believe the opposite.  “McDonalds uses earthworms from Argentina in its hamburgers” might be one such.  Touring McDonalds’ facilities you see no evidence of earthworms.  McDonalds hamburgers don’t taste anything like (I imagine) earthworms would taste.  There are no shipping records that McDonalds has imported earthworms from Argentina.  In fact, it would be stupid for several reasons for McDonalds to use earthworms, including that it would garner the franchise negative publicity and it would increase production costs to use them.  So there is no rational reason to suppose that McDonalds uses earthworms from Argentina in its hamburgers and many rational reasons to suppose that it does not.  Yet some people, for whatever reason, will persist in believing that McDonalds uses earthworms imported from Argentina to make its hamburgers.