Personal Moral Relativism Collapses into Emotivism, via David S. Oderberg

I recently made a post to Twitter to explain why the simplest kind of moral subjectivism necessarily collapses into emotivism or moral non-cognitivism.  The basic argument is that one cannot coherent reduce “P is wrong” to a mere opinion or belief that “P is wrong” because, opinions and beliefs are propositional attitudes towards a proposition, in this case, the proposition “P is wrong,” which, if it is proposition, must necessarily have a truth-value. If it does not have a truth value, it is senseless to claim that the analysis of such judgements is to say that someone has a view about what its truth value is.

This point is made very cogently by philosopher David S. Oderberg in his magisterial Moral Theory: A Nonconsequentialist Approach, which I highly recommend to all my readers, as well as its companion volume Applied Ethics: A Nonconsequentialist Approach.

I here reproduce Oderberg’s analysis from Chapter 1 of his book, specially about the semantic objection to moral relativism—a case originally made by philosopher Peter Geach, whose work I also highly recommend to anyone interested:

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Perhaps the most widespread form of relativism, again deriving from the philosophy of David Hume, is what I shall call personal relativism, more usually called subjectivism. The central claim of personal relativism is that the truth or falsity (truth value) of moral statements varies from person to person, since morality is merely a matter of opinion. Now there are various ways in which subjectivists have elaborated this basic thought, developing more or less sophisticated semantic theories linking moral judgements with statements of opinion. It is impossible to look at them all, but since the sorts of objection I will raise can be applied in modified form to different versions, let us take just one kind of subjectivist theory. It is one of the more simple varieties, and while many philosophers would say it was too simple, it also happens to be the sort of subjectivism that the vast majority of students of moral philosophy believe; and it is an approach that many will continue to believe even after they have finished studying philosophy!

According to this version of subjectivism, there is no objective truth to the statement, for instance, ‘Child abuse is wrong’: all that a person is entitled to claim is something equivalent to ‘I disapprove of child abuse.’ Instead of saying ‘I disapprove of child abuse’, Alan may say ‘Child abuse is wrong for me’, or ‘Child abuse is wrong from my subjective viewpoint’, but he is not then allowed to say ‘Child abuse is wrong, pure and simple’, since it might be right from Brian’s subjective viewpoint—he will say ‘Child abuse is right for me, though it is wrong for Alan, who personally disapproves of it.’ Generally speaking, moral judgements can never be considered apart from the question of who makes them. A moral judgement, ‘X is wrong’, made by a person P, can only be assessed for truth or falsity by relativizing it to P: the subjectivist says that ‘X is wrong’, uttered by P, is equivalent in meaning to ‘I disapprove of X’ uttered by P. If an observer were to report on P’s opinion, he would say, ‘X is wrong for P, or as far as P in concerned; in other words, P disapproves of it.’ But the observer can still say, ‘However, I personally approve of it, so “X is wrong” is not true for me.’

For the subjectivist, to claim that there is a fact about the morality of child abuse, which transcends mere personal opinion, is a philosophical mistake. Certainly, there are facts about what is wrong for Alan, right for Brian, and so on. These facts are genuine—they are reports of the opinions (or ‘sentiments’ to use Hume’s term) of individual moral judges—but since each judge makes law only for himself, he cannot impose his view of things on others. For the subjectivist, once the facts are in concerning the moral opinions of those engaged in a disagreement, there is no room for further argument. More accurately, there might be room for argument over other facts: Alan might claim ‘I approve of child abuse’ because he does not know the psychological damage it does to children. Had he known, he would have claimed ‘I disapprove of child abuse.’; and another person might change Alan’s mind by pointing out the relevant facts. But what the personal relativist holds is that as long as there is no dispute over the facts, two people can make opposing claims about the morality of a certain action or type of behavior with no room left for rational dispute. That have, as it were, reached bedrock.

As was said, the version of subjectivism just outlined is a simple one and all sorts of refinements can be added. Still, it is the view held by very many philosophy students, not to say quite a few philosophers (and certainly vast numbers of the general population), and should be assessed in that light. Further, as was also noted, the general kinds of observations that can be raised against it apply to the more sophisticated versions. We can only consider a few devastating objections here, but it should be noted that the validity of any one on its own is enough to refute subjectivism, whatever the strength of the others. Given the weight of all the objections, however, it is surprising that personal relativism is no widely held.

First there is the semantic problem: A proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ uttered by P (for some action or type of behavior X and some person P) is, according to the personal relativist, supposed to mean no more nor less than ‘P disapproves of doing X’: the latter statement is claimed to give the meaning or analysis of the former. But ‘P disapproves of doing X’ cannot, on this analysis, be equivalent to ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, since ‘Doing X is wrong’ is precisely what the relativist seeks to give the meaning of; in which case the analysis would be circular. On the other hand, the relativist might again analyze the embedded sentence ‘Doing X is wrong’ in ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’ as ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, and so on, for every embedded occurrence of ‘Doing X is wrong’, thus ending up with an infinite regress: ‘P believes that P believes that P believes . . . that doing X is wrong.’ This, of course, would he no analysis at all, being both infinite and leaving a proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ unanalyzed at every stage.

Such an obvious difficulty might make one wonder that any relativist should support such a way of trying to analyze ‘Doing X is wrong’; but if he is committed to the idea that morality is a matter of opinion or personal belief, it seems that he tacitly invokes just such a pseudo-analysis. The only other route the relativist can take is to assert that ‘P disapproves of doing X’ needs no further gloss: it is a brute statement of disapproval that does not itself invoke the concept of wrongness (or rightness, goodness and the like). But then personal relativism collapses into emotivism, the theory that moral statements are just expressions of feeling or emotion and only appear to have the form of judgements that can he true or false. Emotivism is a different theory from relativism, however, and more will he said about it in the next section. Unless the personal relativist can give an analysis of disapproval that is neither circular, nor infinitely regressive, nor collapses his theory into emotivism, he is in severe difficulty; and it is hard to see just what such an analysis would look like.

David S. Oderberg, Moral Theory: A Nonconsequentialist Approach; Blackwell: Oxford, 2000; pp. 16-18.

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In case it adds something, I will also append the write-up I made for Twitter:

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Atheistic Arguments

Something that doesn’t get a lot of attention today are actual atheistic arguments, arguments for the position “God does not exist.” This is the result of an odd situation that occurred in the mid-20th century in which atheists essentially did two things:
(1) they admitted their position could not be defended and gave up trying to do so, and
(2) they still did not abandon their indefensible position, but instead shifted their position to a much more defensible one, agnosticism—except they did not do this honestly and openly, but redefined ‘agnosticism’ and ‘atheism’ so that they two words are now supposed to mean essentially the same thing (despite the fact that ‘agnosticism’ had been coined in explicit contradistinction to atheism, and also despite the fact that the loud atheist minority did not bother to ask permission of the agnostics before forcibly co-opting their identity).

What are the arguments that God does not exist? How strong are they? There are only four, to my knowledge, and if you suspect they are not very strong, given that atheists themselves recognized their complete failure, you would be correct.

1. The Argument from Evil. The argument from evil makes the case that the amount of evil in the world is sufficient to be incompatible with an all-good, omniscient, omnipotent God. It essentially says that such a God would not permit evil, and would have the means to do away with evil, but since there is evil, no such God exists. The argument from evil is the most powerful of the atheistic arguments because it makes a very powerful emotional appeal. In grief, suffering, and loss, human beings are apt to demand of God “Why?”—and taking the pain and incomprehension a step further, one can go on to conclude that a good God would never allow such a painful or horrible thing as X (whatever X is) to happen.

Logically the argument does not have much force. First, it is important to note that human reckoning of evil and horror tends to drop off very sharply with time. No one gets worked up about the Magyar invasions of Europe in the 9th century, and screams “Why???” at God. The problem with emotional reasoning is that it over-prioritizes things that matter to you, personally. The reason that the argument from evil logically breaks down is that the premise “An all-good God would not permit evil” can be defeated simply by denying it in favor of the the premise “An all-good God would not permit evil without sufficient justification.” Then the argument from evil turns on whether or not God has sufficient justification for permitting the evil that He does permit. So the argument from evil requires that the following premise be established: “An all-good, omniscient, omnipotent God would not permit the amount of evil that actually does exist in the world.”

It should be obvious with a moment’s reflection that, in order to establish this needed premise to be true, one would have to be in a position to evaluate the actions of an all-good, omniscient, omnipotent God.  One would, that is, have to be oneself both all-good and omniscient.  And any argument that stands on a premise that requires omniscience and omnibenevolence to support it is going to fail.  All the argument from evil can do is attempt to elicit an emotional agreement to this premise, that it can no way establish to be true except on the basis of “feeling” it to be so.

But of course many Christians and other theists “feel” that God exists, so the atheist cannot allow premises to be established on the basis of feelings.

2. The Argument to Parsimony, or the Appeal to Ockham’s Razor.  This argument holds that God is explanatorily unnecessary in the order of nature, and therefore does not exist. It is typified by the response of Laplace to Napoleon, when asked by him as to the place of God in his system of Newtonian physics: “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

A child should be able to see that this argument, logically speaking, is a non sequitur. From the fact that God is not required as an explanatory principle, it simply does not follow that God does not exist. The argument is simply invalid.

It should also be said, however, that the premise that God is explanatorily unnecessary is dubious—it is perhaps true that God is explanatorily unnecessary within physics, but it very possibly and even likely is the case that God is explanatorily necessary to explain nature and the possibility of physics—that is, to address what is sometimes called the question of being: Why does anything at all exist, and not rather nothing?

3. The Argument from Self-Contradiction.  Some atheists have argued that the concept of God is self-contradictory, and since nothing self-contradictory can be, God cannot exist. The problem with this argument is that it at most succeeds in showing that “God” cannot exist when “God” is defined in a self-contradictory manner. But no one has ever succeeded in showing that classical philosophical definitions or understandings of God are contradictory.

4. The Argument to an Alternate Explanation of the Concept of God.  This argument takes the form of

  1. X is a possible alternate explanation of why people might believe in God other than God existing.
  2. Therefore, God does not exist.

As with the Argument to Parsimony, this is an obvious non sequitur. It was popular in the 19th and early 20th century, being deployed by the likes of e.g. Marx and Freud.  Freud, for example, argued that belief in God arises in human beings as a kind of wish-fulfillment.

Without getting into the details of Freud’s speculations—which are questionable at best—one can merely reply with “So what?”  The human belief (at one time) that it would be possible to construct devices to allow human beings to fly was certainly partly grounded in a wish to fly.  That fact has absolutely no bearing on the fact that it is possible, according to the laws of physics, to build airplanes.  Today many people have a wish for spaceships that can travel interstellar distances in short times. Our science fiction writers dream about “warp drive” or “hyperspace” travel. Does our wish to explore the universe have any bearing on whether or not this is possible, according to the laws of physics? Not that I can tell. Why would it? Many of us wish for peace on earth, or for the number of murders and rapes in the world to be zero. Do our wishes for these things entail that they cannot be? Everyone who plays the lottery (I assume) wishes to win. Does the fact that every player wishes to win demonstrate that it is impossible for anyone to win the lottery? Or in team sports, fans wish for the team they support to win. Does that wish demonstrate no team will or can possibly win? How would it?

The point, of course, is that at the end of the day, the fact that something has its origins at least partially in desire or wish has no logical bearing on the truth of the matter.  One can make a rather powerful argument on Freudian grounds that atheism arises as a kind of human wish fulfillment: the human wish to be autonomous and free of any binding normative obligations and especially the wish to be free of judgment and punishment for wrongdoing.  It is rather difficult to see how wish fulfillment can account for the traditional, orthodox Christian belief in Hell, but it is extremely easy to see how atheistic disbelief in Hell could arise from wish fulfillment:

feseratheismhell

There are the only four arguments for atheism that I’m aware of. And they are all logically unsound.

I do not count the Evidentialist Argument here, because it is not, properly speaking, an atheistic argument, but an agnostic one.  Framed as an atheistic argument, it would run

  1. If there is insufficient evidence to establish that X exists, X does not exist.
  2. There is insufficient evidence to establish that God exists.
  3. ∴ God does not exist.

So framed, it is valid, but Premise 2 is highly contestable to the point of being almost certainly false, and even if it were not, even if it were true, Premise 1 is obviously false. This can be seen invoking such things as intelligent alien life in other galaxies.  We certainly do not have sufficient evidence to establish that such a thing exists.  But how would that be evidence that intelligent alien life does not exist, much less prove that it does not? We have insufficient evidence that faster than light travel technology can exist; is that evidence that, necessarily, it cannot exist? We had insufficient evidence that coelacanths did not go extinct 65 million years ago—until some fishermen caught one.

The problem here is that both “the evidence we have” and “what counts as evidence” are not static.

The Evidentialist Argument is somewhat stronger when used to argue that we do not have sufficient evidence to warrant or justify a belief in the existence of God—while openly acknowledging that this situation, even if it is the case, in no way demonstrates the nonexistence of God.

Even here, though, the Evidentialist Argument always seems to involve a kind of question-begging circularity.  It begins by postulating certain criteria as evidentially sufficient, and then goes on to show how God does not meet the postulated criteria.  The argument proceeds in way almost logically identical to the Argument from Self-Contradiction, except in this case, instead of offering a definition of God which is self-contradictory, and proceeding from there to show that the offered self-contradictory definition is, unsurprisingly, self-contradictory, the evidentialist strategy is to specify evidentiary criteria upon which God will be found to be insufficiently evidenced, and then to go on to show that, on such criteria, God is, unsurprisingly, insufficiently evidenced.  The problem here is that this seems very much like a trick—and it is a trick that anyone can play.  It is trivially easy for a clever person to, for example, show that science is insufficiently evidenced—one would only need to “pull a Hume” and attack the various unjustified assumptions that all science makes, e.g. in the reality of cause and effect, in the uniformity of nature, in the intelligibility of nature, in the reliability of reason, etc.

This is the kind of argument I refer to as a Vorpal Sword Argument: it will indeed succeed in disproving what you are trying to disprove, in a sense, but this is because it can succeed in disproving anything whatever. A vorpal sword can kill anything—and it does not care who wields it against what.  Atheists, and anyone else for that matter, should think twice before legitimizing arguments that can be turned on any and all positions alike, including theirs.

Okay, so much for the arguments for atheism roundup.  See you next time.

The Burden of Proof Fallacy

The concept of “the burden of proof” is a matter of interpersonal protocol in debate or discussion. In formal contexts, such as courts of law, one side—in criminal cases in the United States, the prosecution—may hold the burden of proof.  Some formal debates also make use of a burden of proof as part of the rules.

A burden of proof fallacy occurs when someone attempts to invoke or assign a burden of proof outside of any agreement or interpersonal protocol.

In such cases, the concept of “the burden of proof” becomes a rhetorical trope that conceals two informal logical fallacies: special pleading and an argument to ignorance. A fallacy of special pleading occurs when one asks or demands (“pleads”) to be exempted from a rule or criterion to which everyone else is held for no relevant reason (or no reason at all).  An argument to ignorance fallacy has the form “my assertion is true until proven false.”

The burden of proof fallacy takes the form of “My position is the default position. My opponent has the burden of proof!” But in asserting that one’s position is “the default position”, one is making an argument to ignorance: this just is equivalent to saying “My position is true until it is proven false.” And the justification for this argument to ignorance is simply special pleading that one be allowed to use an argument to ignorance as if it were valid.

Both combined have the form “My argument is true until proven false, and although this is an argument to ignorance, I am specially pleading that I be allowed to use it, despite its invalidity.”  This sounds more legitimate when it is phrased as “My position is the default position, and my opponent has the burden of proof,” but the meaning is the same.

To attempt to lay the burden of proof solely on one’s opponent, as if one had some sort of metaphysical, moral, or logical right to do so is logically fallacious, intellectually dishonest, and unethical.  Since the burden of proof exists solely as a matter of interpersonal protocol, it cannot be placed upon someone without their consent.

As my readers know, I do not appreciate attempts to obligate me without my consent.  As my readers also know, I block this move by demanding that anyone who asserts that I have “the burden of proof” PROVE IT.  And he will never be able to do so, since the burden of proof is a matter of interpersonal protocol, and not any sort of metaphysical, logical, or ethical principle.  It is exactly the same as someone unilaterally attempting to say that I am bound by a contract I never agreed to or signed, just because he says I am a party to the contract.  He cannot “prove” I signed a contract I never signed.

Or to make an even more obvious analogy, it is like someone claiming that of two parties, one of them can consent for the other person, whether or not he or she agrees to this. This dynamic has the same structure as an accused rapist arguing to be acquitted of rape charges on the grounds that he consented for his victim and therefore there was consent.

No one in their right mind would accept this kind of argument. Consent precisely does not occur when only one of the two parties involve does the “consenting” for both. And it is not any more sound when it involves nonconsensual attempts to morally obligate someone with specious “burdens.”

Escaping Plato’s Cave

As you know, the Image of the Cave, which is the centerpiece of Plato’s Politeia (or Republic) is an image of human nature in chains and the story of an escape—a healing, Socrates says—from our default condition, which is one of bondage and ignorance.

There are people, though, who think that healing is what we need to be healed from, and anywhere outside the prison is what needs to be escaped.  In a quite literally Orwellian “freedom is slavery” argument, I have been told that only they are truly free who are slaves, and that free men and women are enslaved—by their freedom.

This is one of those times that I will choose Socrates’ simplemindedness over the sophisticated sophistry of the sophists—I’ll go with the freedom of the mind that’s just freedom, not the sophistical freedom that is the “true freedom” of mental slavery.

But let’s take a look at this idiocy, shall we? It’s meant to “cure” me of Platonism, and since Platonism is, at bottom, the belief that reality exists and can be known, it is meant to cure me of these beliefs too.  Let’s see if it succeeds, shall we?

stupidplatostuff

Nine whole points.  Let’s take them one at a time, shall we?

1. Plato’s essentialist, historicist and degenerative Theory of Forms or Ideas is a bad idea.

1. This is nothing more than name-calling. And it isn’t even accurate name-calling.  Platonism is as anti-historicist as one can get, since to be a Platonist is to hold that there are entities and intelligible structures in reality that do not vary over time—things like mathematics or the laws of nature.  It is the Caveman (as I shall call him) who is the historicist, as we will see, and who holds that human thought is incapable of rising above its historical situatedness.   As for “degenerative,” the word holds no meaning here.  Again, Platonism holds that there are entities and structures within reality that do not change, and being changeless, cannot degenerate.  If the Cavemen is asserting there is something “degenerate” about Platonism itself, he hasn’t said what it is or even might be, so that claim can be ignored.

2. Nothing — mind, matter, self, or world — has an intrinsic or real nature.

2. Pure self-contradiction.  Supposing it were true, it would be the nature of all these things not to have a nature. To be able to assert this, one would have to know that being or reality is this way—but what is being denied even as it is being asserted is that there is a way reality is.  And “there is no way reality is” is just as self-contradictory an assertion as the assertion “there is no truth” (a proposition the Caveman also accepts, as we will see).

3. That does not mean that the world does not exist. The world is independent of our mental states.

3. Flat contradiction of 2.  Caveman now states, in opposition to his self-contradictory principle 2, that the world does indeed have a nature, and that that nature is “to exist independently of our mental states.”  Remember he said this, because his right to say this is going to be an issue.

4. It means that truth, knowledge and facts cannot exist independently of the human mind. Truth, knowledge and facts are properties of sentences, which make up larger theories and descriptions.

4. Idiotic on several levels.  I am certainly willing to concede that knowledge cannot exist apart from some mind (it doesn’t have to be a human mind)—since knowledge JUST IS the apprehension of some true proposition by some mind.  Notice however that Caveman in the next sentence will ridiculously ascribe knowledge not to minds, but to sentences.  No, Caveman, sentences do not KNOW THINGS.

[Philosophy 101 lesson: Following the principle of charity, I’m going to take Caveman’s “sentences” to mean “propositions,” although strictly speaking he is confused.  Propositions are the primary truth-bearing logical entities, and they relate to sentences in that they are expressed by sentences.  Using the standard philosophical example, consider two sentences: “Snow is white” and “Schnee ist weiss”.  The sentences are different.  One is an English sentence and one a German sentence. The can be found in different locations on your computer screen. If they were spoken, they would be spoken at some time, in some place, by some speaker, etc.  However, they both express the same proposition, which is the logical expression of the relation between a real entity, snow, and a real property of that entity, being white. That snow is white is a state of affairs in the world or a fact.  The relation of snow to whiteness is an intelligible proposition which is true (the fact that snow is white makes the proposition ‘snow is white’ true). Propositions are universal. Sentences are particular.  When you are I or anyone comes to know ‘snow is white’, we have the same propositional attitude towards the very same proposition, viz. that snow is white.  If this were not so, we would not all know the same fact or truth about snow, but we would each ‘know’ an individual fact or truth relative to us—but the nature of knowledge is such that it is common to all.  And once we have propositional knowledge we can express these propositions that we know in the linguistic entities called sentences.  And it is  irrelevant whether we do this by means of English, or German, or Chinese.]

As I’ve just mentioned, facts are best construed as the truth-makers of true propositions.  This is because facts, as states of affairs, exist independently of their being known, that is, independently of human minds—contrary to Caveman’s assertions. It should be a fairly trivial point to note that IF Caveman is correct, we human beings produce not only the entities that may or may not be true, affirmative sentences or negations, BUT ALSO produce the truth-makers of these things, this makes FACTS and TRUTH things that are produced by human beings.  We would, in this case, not only be the ones who produce claims about reality, but we would produce/create/manufacture the truth-makers that make our claims true.  And this means that we human beings have the power to make any claim about anything true or false by our creative wills.  Hello Nietzsche, my old friend. It’s good to meet with you again.

Finally, Caveman’s claim that truth is a property of sentences, which I will charitably take to mean “truth is a property of propositions”, is a half-truth.  There is a very important way in which propositions are the most common locus of truth—for us, since we are essentially discursive creatures or creatures of λόγος.  But this is not the most primordial sense of truth—discursive truth is itself always grounded in a deeper openness of reality to comprehension that makes discursive truth possible.  To put it very simply: we could not grasp or express discursive, propositional truths of the form “S is P” if S and P and their relation where not already given to us in such a way that we could grasp them in their belonging-together and thus come to know them precisely in this belonging together.

So even where Caveman gets close to saying something true, that “truth is a property of propositions,” he’s right only with a series of necessary qualifications.

5. The world can cause us to hold certain beliefs. However, neither the world nor some notion of unchanging Forms decides which description of the world is true. The world does not speak or provide descriptions. Human beings do.

5. Okay, I have decided that this is not a true description of reality.

See the problem?

The problem is an equivocation on the verb “decide.” In one sense, as creatures capable of knowing or believing, it is up to human beings to ‘decide’ what to believe. On the other hand, the way that reality is is not a matter up to human ‘decision.’  Reality is the way it is, regardless of whether human beings ‘decide’ otherwise.  If Caveman seriously disagrees with this, I have a simple challenge for him: I challenge him to ingest a large quantity of cyanide and ‘decide’ that cyanide is non-toxic to human beings.  If reality is controlled by human decision, he should not have a problem doing this and not dying. I maintain “Cyanide is a lethal poison to human beings” is a true description of the world. I further maintain than no amount of human “description” can change this fact.

We can do another thought experiment to bring this home: suppose that the earth became unstable for some reason and was soon to explode, much like Superman’s home planet Krypton.  Suppose also that (for some odd reason) Caveman was the one who was tasked to find a solution to the imminent explosion of the earth.  His solution is “Because the world does not decide what is or is not true, it is not true that ‘the earth is going to explode’. Nor can anything in the world ‘decide’ whether the earth does explode. These things—’facts’ or ‘truths’ or ‘knowledge’—are all contingent on human description. So all we need to do, as human beings, is to describe the earth as ‘not going to explode’ and it will become true that the earth is not going to explode.” Do you think that would work? I think *KABOOM*.

If human ‘decision’ could alter reality by means of ‘description,’ why would we not redescribed reality into some kind of ideal state for human beings? Why do we not live in a perfect world, if it is entirely within our power to create reality as we see fit by description?

Oh, wait, I think I know! It’s because this is bullshit, and we can’t actually change reality by redescrbiing it, isn’t it? Damn. I knew this was too easy.

6. That does not mean that truth, facts and knowledge are subjective. It means that they are a product of shared vocabularies, language games, social practices, in short, forms of life which are again contingent upon and conditioned by historical, social, environmental, and cultural factors and, in the final instance, human evolutionary biology.

6. Time to cut the bullshit. This means that we cannot have knowledge of reality. THAT is what the denial of Platonism MEANS, as I’ve said. “Contingent, historical, circumstantial truth which is produced by a variety of social factors” IS NOT TRUTH.

Caveman is putting forward a theory of reality that serves as a DEFEATER for all theories of reality INCLUDING HIS OWN.  If this account is TRUE, then it itself is merely a product of some historically contingent form of life, etc., etc., and “in the final instance” of human evolutionary biology.  In other words, he is FIRST a SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST about reality, but SECOND (inconsistently) a BIOLOGICAL REDUCTIONIST.

Neither of these things is coherent, either with the other, or with itself.

Social constructionism fails because it is self-defeating; if true, it is an unwarranted theory, because as a theory (like every theory) it is a mere social construction or convention.

Biological reductionism fails because it is self-defeating; if true, it is an unwarranted theory, because as a theory (like every theory) it is merely the outcome of mindless biological forces.

Each theory provides its own defeater, because it provides a defeater for all theories.

Any theory that provides a defeater for all theories, including itself, can be immediately rejected as unwarranted and wholly irrational.

So, that’s what I’ll do.

In this case, each theory also instantiates a performative contradiction insofar as the one who puts forward the theory intends that it be taken to be a true theory about nature of reality—which means that the proponent of the theory, despite his wishes, is committing himself by the very fact of offering a theory of reality, to the view that REALITY CAN BE KNOWN, or in a word, to PLATONISM.

Nietzsche understood this: TRUTH stands or falls with PLATONISM.  That is why he said things like this

nietzschefacts

And this

nietzschetrutherror

And this

nietzschewhatistruth

What we can see from this is that Caveman is one of those sad specimens of the 20th and 21st centuries, a feeble Nietzschean.  He thinks he is a late-Wittgensteinian, but of course he isn’t consistent in any way, nor is there anything Wittgenstein discovered that Nietzsche was not aware of.

Caveman’s problem is not (yet) the wild incoherence of Nietzsche or the late Wittgenstein. Caveman’s problem is that he sees, dimly, that his shallow Nietzscheanism cum Wittgensteinianism requires him to reject Platonism—but his isn’t actually prepared to DO THAT, since that entails giving up the idea of TRUTH once and for all.

This is sane, to an extent, insofar as the rejection of TRUTH and REALITY is tantamount to embracing the irrational void of pure nihilism—but the inconsistent attempt to embrace the nihilistic void is, if anything, worse. It merely makes one a failure on all sides, a half-and-half, a lukewarm neither-this-nor-that, a rebel when convenient, but utterly conventional when that is convenient. “Hypocrite” would be another word.

But here’s the deal Caveman: YOU DON’T GET TO RENOUNCE PLATONISM AND KEEP IT TOO.

It’s one or the other: BEING or NOTHINGNESS;  PLATONISM or NIHILISM.

And lest I be accused of putting to much weight on Nietzsche’s assessment of meaning of Plato (although Nietzsche, as his arch-enemy, understood Plato better than almost any other thinker), let us add some additional testimony:

whiteheadplato

emersonplato

7. We communicate successfully every day, and we use knowledge successfully every day, because we share imagined (and conditioned) realities and social practices on many levels.

7. What’s amusing is that Caveman thinks our success in knowing and communicating shows that we can “do without” Platonism.

Actually, what it shows is that Platonism is true; that is, we can know things and communicate them.

At bottom, Platonism is the theory of theories, the theory we can know things.  No anti-Platonism can be coherent, since it has to assert we cannot know anything to be true, and so, by its own (anti-) theory, it cannot know what it asserts as true to be true. Caveman is merely another in a long line of people trying to escape truth by asserting the “truth” that “there is no truth” or to escape knowledge by claiming to know that “nothing can be known.” Caveman fails, and all such attempts will always fail, forever and necessarily.

 8. Truth, knowledge and facts can always be redescribed by changing the language game, by changing the habits of speaking, by scientific research coming up with better theories, better descriptions that pragmatically explain better, work better according to what we want to achieve.

8. This is simply the thesis of the sophists, that because we speak about reality, we can change reality by changing the way we speak.  See above for why that doesn’t work.

Caveman thinks he is being bold and new. But there is nothing new here. It is the same old sophistry that philosophy, in the person of Socrates, rose up to destroy.

protagorasmanisthemeasure

Platonism is the view that, not man, but reality and truth are the measure of all things. The fact than it is man who does the measuring does not change the fact that what man measures is not man’s creation, nor is it under man’s arbitrary control.

This is of course how SCIENCE operates.  Human beings gain what technological power and mastery over nature they have, only insofar as they submit to the objectivity of reality. Here is Bacon, one of the founders of empirical scientific method making this point:

baconsubmissionnature

The postmodern rebellion against reality is, to paraphrase Sartre, a useless passion.

9. Plato’s hypothesis of truth, knowledge and facts as unchanging essences (or “The thing in itself”, in Kant’s description) — only every seen as poorly reflected images on a cave wall — is entirely optional.

9. Platonism is “optional” only so long as you are willing to regard reality, truth, and knowledge as “optional.”  And it is far from clear that that is even a coherent thing to do.

Caveman keeps making assertions which have the appearance of being meant as possibly true assertions—but since he assures us repeatedly that “truth” is a kind of social fiction (or perhaps biological fiction; see Nietzsche’s remark above)—this is in vain, a useless passion.

It is not clear that it is in any way meaningful to say that everything is a fiction, an illusion, a falsehood, etc., since these very concepts of “fiction,” “illusion,” “falsehood” seem to by parasitic on the idea of truth.

And the idea of truth is ultimately the same as the truth of ideas, that is, of an intelligible reality which shows itself to the human mind in such a way that it can be known.

Caveman has failed in his attempt to persuade me to reject truth in favor of fiction, to reject philosophy in favor of sophistry.

I remain, as always, a friend of truth, a seeker of truth and a friend of wisdom.

Which is to say, a philosopher.

Which is to say, a Platonist.

Belief is Evidence? Amazingly, the Amazing Atheist Seems to Think So.

So I watched a YouTube video by T. J. Kirk aka The Amazing Atheist, called “Escaping Atheism 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold” (there seems not to be an “Escaping Atheism 1”, at least as far as I can tell. Is the 2 supposed to be a joke? If so, I would have gone with “Escaping Atheism 2: Electric Boogaloo”, but what do I know?)  Anyway, the video is about the Escaping Atheism Project, coordinated by Max Kolbe, in which I’m involved in a volunteer capacity.  The Escaping Atheism Project is essentially a loose association of likeminded volunteers, who each do things independently, coordinated by Max, to whom we have given the honorary title “Patriarch” (anyone familiar with Max’s history should understand why that’s funny).

Now, T.J. does discuss one of my posts, “Plato’s Cave Image / God and the Atheist“, but he doesn’t really say anything substantial—he calls me pretentious, a pseudo-intellectual, mocks me for using Greek words when discussing Plato, things like that.  I left a long comment on the YouTube video itself, and I don’t really have anything to add to it.  It boils down to “T.J. engages in a lot of mockery and tone policing, but he doesn’t actually claim, much less attempt to show, that I am wrong about anything.”

What I actually want to talk about is T. J.’s amazing criticism of a point made by Andrew Stratelotes in a totally different essay.  You’ll understand my amazement in a moment.

Stratelotes’ point is this: “The mere fact of a psychological property, such as a belief or a lack of belief, has no bearing on whether said belief is true or justified or whether said lack of belief is justified.”

This point seems so trivial as to hardly be worth arguing.  If someone were to ask me to demonstrate the existence of God, and I replied “I believe it,” this would not normally, and should not be, regarded as a strong argument for the existence of God.  Similarly, the mere fact that someone does not believe in God is neither evidence that God does not exist, nor that such a lack of belief is justified.

Belief, lack of belief, and disbelief are propositional attitudes human beings hold towards propositions.  They have no bearing on the truth value of the propositions in question, at least in all cases touching on first order beliefs about objective reality.

[Technical paragraph on self-referential epistemology; skip if you want: My first-order belief that “I believe that P” probably is sufficient to establish my second-order belief “I believe that I believe that P.” In cases where the proposition itself is about whether or not one believes a proposition, then and only then would one’s believing a proposition function as the truth-maker for a proposition. Still, even in these cases, it isn’t my second-order belief that “I believe that I believe that P” that makes “I believe that P” true, but the existence of the first order belief “I believe that P” itself. So even in this case, it is the FACT of the first belief that makes ANOTHER belief, the second belief that you believe the first belief, true—and not the second belief, that makes the first one true, by the very act of believing it.]

Excluding the interesting-but-probably-not-important self-referential cases of my beliefs about my beliefs, the propositional attitudes of belief, suspension of judgment, lack of belief, and disbelief have no bearing on the truth value of the propositions towards which they are attitudes—and this because, taken in themselves, they are merely factual psychological properties of the person who holds the propositional attitude in question. My being related to a proposition in the way of assuming a propositional attitude toward it does not, in any way, affect the truth value of the proposition, nor the epistemic likelihood of the proposition’s truth value being one way or the other, nor the correctness of my belief.  It would be very strange indeed if my beliefs were either made correct or made more likely to be correct just on the basis of my act of believing.

I would have thought than any atheist, especially an Amazing one, would not want to hold that the mere fact of my belief in the truth of Christianity is evidence that Christianity is true.

Hence my amazement.  At 16:36 into T. J.’s video we find him yelling “Moron! Moron! Moron! Moron!” at Andrew Stratelotes exactly for holding this view.

So we seem to get the following argument:

  1. Anyone who holds that “believing that P is not evidence that P” is a Moron⁴.
  2. Either T.J. holds this, or T.J. does not.
  3. If T.J. does hold this, then T.J. is a Moron! Moron! Moron! Moron!
  4. If T.J. does not hold this, then T.J. either holds that “believing that P is evidence that P” or  T.J. suspends judgment whether “believing that P is evidence that P.”
  5. If  T.J suspends judgment whether “believing that P is evidence that P,” then he is being highly intellectually dishonest in espousing atheism, because he has not investigated whether a highly relevant thing does or does not constitute evidence for the existence of God.
  6. If T.J. does hold that “believing that P is evidence that P”, then he is being highly intellectual dishonest in espousing atheism, since the existence of ~2.5 billion persons who believe that Christianity is true surely constitutes a lot of evidence that Christianity is true.

In other words, T.J. seems to be acting in a highly irrational way if he discounts the beliefs of billions of Christians as evidence of the truth of Christianity, if he either believes that belief is evidence of truth, or he isn’t sure it isn’t. My suspicion is that T.J. holds neither “believing that P is evidence that P” nor does he suspend judgment on the matter.

I suspect that T.J. holds that “believing that P is not evidence that P,” and the belief of billions of Christians that Christianity is true is not evidence that Christianity is true.

But if so, that would seem to make him, in his own words and for his own reasons, a “Moron! Moron! Moron! Moron!”

The only other options I can think of are that T.J. has catastrophically misunderstood Stratelotes’ point—or else he has deliberately misrepresented it.

What do you think?

The Burden of Proof Fairy

Atheists frequently claim they do not believe in God due to a lack of evidence.  They will tell you such things as God is “a hypothesis,” “unfalsifiable,” “not empirical,” and so forth.

And yet, almost all of these same people believe in fairies. Or at least one fairy: The Burden of Proof Fairy.  They keep telling me that this fairy is sitting on my shoulder.  And that the fact that she is morally obligates me to do things they desire me to do, which I never agreed to.

Now, when someone tells you that you have to obey them because there’s an invisible fairy sitting on your shoulder, which somehow magically places you under a moral obligation, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask them for evidence of this. And so I do.

I get the strangest answers from atheists about why the Burden of Proof Fairy exists.  At least, I find them strange, because I know they wouldn’t accept any one of these as evidence of the existence of God:

“It’s obvious that the Burden of Proof Fairy exists.”

“You are stupid if you don’t believe in the Burden of Proof Fairy.”

“The Burden of Proof Fairy exists by definition.”

“Lots of authorities say that there is a Burden of Proof Fairy.”

[Addendum: a new proof of the Burden of Proof Fairy, courtesy of Josh Randolph:

“She’s just there.”]

And my favorite,

“You have to believe in the Burden of Proof Fairy—or else the You-Have-To-Believe-Everything Monster will come and get you!”

(The You-Have-To-Believe-Everything Monster is some kind of mythical monster that has the power to morally obligate you to believe everything anyone asserts without evidence—the only thing that can cancel this moral obligation is to believe in the saving power of the Burden of Proof Fairy, confess she is real and sitting on your shoulder, and accept her moral commandments.  To me, this sounds like trying to sell me a made-up cure for a made-up disease, but many of them do seem to sincerely believe in both the monster and the fairy)

What’s amazing is the sheer blind faith atheists have in the Burden of Proof Fairy. It frequently gets in the way of discussions about God.  Many atheists simply won’t have a discussion about God unless I will first agree to accept their faith belief in the Burden of Proof Fairy. They just cannot accept that I won’t, and they’d rather end a conversation than proceed without my credal confession that the Burden of Proof Fairy exists.  I am unaware whether there are different denominations among atheists depending on variant dogmas concerning the Burden of Proof Fairy.  I assume that there are, but it seems to be nearly universal atheist orthopraxis to invoke the Burden of Proof Fairy against theists.

Amazing again is the sheer indignation with which I’m met when I ask for evidence of the existence of the Burden of Proof Fairy. I swear I think most atheists would prosecute me under some kind of blasphemy law if they could for daring to question the existence of the Burden of Proof Fairy.  And yet, these are the very same people who endlessly demand and command you to produce evidence that God exists.

Why are they not aware that God exists? They usually claim that there is “no evidence”—which is nonsense of course, given the couple dozen cogent metaphysical demonstrations, the experiences and testimony of literally billions of human beings, and of course the general consensus of the human race, being at least minimally aware of the divine reality as most of us are.  What they really mean is “there isn’t evidence which subjectively convinces me“—which I tend to view more as problem with the me than the evidence.

Back to the Burden of Proof Fairy. She’s invisible, undetectable by any empirical or scientific means, immaterial, and alleged to have a moral power to obligate persons to obey her. And atheists absolutely, fanatically, believe in her. Or should I write Her?

If you don’t believe me, try asking an atheist for evidence that the Burden of Proof Fairy exists. You’ll be amazed at the reactions you get.

I made a guide to understanding the Burden of Proof Fairy for you all. With cartoons! Enjoy.

burdenofprooffairymonster

Professor James Cargile on the Burden of Proof

I’m a professional philosopher and I have never really run across the work of Professor James Cargile. That’s not unexpected, since there are literally thousands of professional philosophers in the United States alone.  He is, apparently, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virgina, and has taught philosophy for upwards of 40 years.

He also has the distinction—if it is a distinction—of being the main reference used to bolster a particular talking point, commonly used by atheists, concerning the “burden of proof”—that is to say, he is the source which Wikipedia references as authoritative on the issue, thus:

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As my readers know, I have issues with the notion that “the one who makes the claim has the burden of proof” etc., etc.  Many times I have said, well, if this is Professor Cargile’s position, well and good, but what is his argument?

I do not accept citations of Wikipedia as authoritative.

And of course, my readers will also note immediately that, if Professor Cargile does indeed make the claim that the burden of proof lies on the one of who makes a claim, then, by the principle of retortion, he—as the one who claims this—has the burden of proof to prove it, by his own principle.

Despite the fact that I must have challenged people who cite Wikipedia as their authority on the burden of proof to produce Professor Cargile’s argument at least 2 dozen times, no one ever has.

I got tired of waiting.  So I went and read Professor Cargile’s paper for myself.

I invite you to do so also. It can be found here: Cargile, James. “On the Burden of Proof.” Philosophy, vol. 72, no. 279, 1997, pp. 59–83.

I found it to be thoughtful and nuanced, the kind of work one would expect from a serious professional philosopher.  That is to say, citing Professor Cargile’s paper in support of the above simple-minded and dogmatic principle is erroneous, and a disservice to a thoughtful paper.

He does indeed explore “one common principle for assigning the burden of proof” as “being on the one who affirms,” and holds it to be not entirely unreasonable as a rough heuristic principle for guiding serious conversation—he more or less agrees with my friend Christopher Lansdown, who holds “the burden of proof lies on whoever wants to be in the conversation most”—but Professor Cargile also quite sensibly notes that “the common principle is not true without qualification,” and he elaborates as follows

But sometimes a claim arises after there has been some discussion and there is some general interest in keeping it going.

For example, suppose that the topic is street gangs, one side suggesting they are not all bad, the other side skeptical. Jones is arguing that gangs bring young men together and teach them to cooperate with others, etc. Smith argues that they do too much damage. The conversation is somewhat difficult, but Smith hopes to win support for stronger police action against gangs. He discovers that a new fad is catching on among the gangs—dousing derelicts with gasoline and burning them to death. He brings this fact into the discussion as proof that the gangs are intolerable. He is stunned to hear Jones reply that “torching ‘bos” is an innocent activity that benefits the community while entertaining gang members. Jones ‘replies like a reasonable person’ arguing his case gently, with lots of examples, waiting patiently for Smith to reply. He is disappointed and somewhat offended when he finds Smith to be speechless.

Smith is dizzy with shock. He manages to observe that the lads are guilty of torturing helpless people to death and that this is evil. But when politely challenged with the consideration that the derelicts are merely a drain on the resources of the community, he cannot think of any reply but to sputter about the sanctity of life. Jones points out that such derelicts might have been used in ancient Rome to entertain the public and that that was the good old days. Why can’t we shed our absurd inhibitions and recapture that spirit? Smith replies that torturing people to death for recreational purposes is evil and that one who is unable to see this is morally blind. Jones replies at length about the importance of considering the happiness of the whole community, etc. Smith says that he has had more than enough and leaves. Jones complains that Smith made a controversial claim and then refused to shoulder the burden of proof. It may well be that a study of voice inflection and conversational manner would show that Jones was engaged and responsive in the discussion while Smith was uncooperative and finally unwilling to argue his position further. Smith has clearly affirmed a position. Does he have the burden of proof?

Here is a basis for answering no: ‘If in some situation there is a proper presumption that something is true, anyone seeking to prove its opposite is said to bear the burden of proof.’ Jones then, is the one who bears an unanswerable burden of proof, since there is a proper presumption of the opposite of his position. There is a proper presumption that recreational torture is evil, no matter how widespread its denial may be. Smith does not have an obligation to produce arguments in support of his claim. It is reasonable to assume it true without argument.

This is in some respects a very satisfactory ruling. It seems right about Smith. But it is not so clear about Jones. Jones is trying to prove the opposite of something which is properly presumed to be true, so by the foregoing criterion, he has the burden of proving his position. But this does not tell us what that means. He certainly does not have an obligation to prove or support his evil claim. In fact, the truth is that Jones has an obligation to cease making that claim and go round humbly testifying to its wickedness by way of atoning for his error. How could it be someone’s duty to defend a wicked falsehood?

Nonetheless, we have a notion of obligations to a discussion that do not clearly follow this line about the decency of the claims at issue. It is possible to have the situation such that it is bad of Smith to drop out and not argue further. There might be some chance of breaking through and bringing enlightenment to Jones (in some version of the case). Furthermore, there is some sense in holding that Jones may come under some requirement to defend his claim. It can be said that, though he is evil for believing the claim, he is acting rightly in doing his best to produce what he honestly considers good reasons for it and waiting in good faith to hear what can be said against it. It is possible for a situation to arise in which it is good to continue to enquire about a matter on which the answer should be obvious to everyone. When, unfortunately, some parties are in a wicked state on the question, then it may be good to pursue the question according to the standards of good debate. This is not at all to endorse the view that this is always good. To refuse to pursue a discussion with a moral monster may be absolutely right, but not universally. It depends on the standards appropriate to the context. But what standards are appropriate is not determined by the opinions of the people in the context.

I would say that the foregoing analysis of Professor Cargile applies very precisely to argument with atheists:

  1. There is a proper presumption that God exists, no matter how widespread its denial may be.
  2. Atheists cannot in a strict sense have an obligation to argue for atheism. Strictly, the obligation would be to renounce the evil doctrine and testify to its falsehood.
  3. It is not unreasonable simply to refuse to have discussion with atheists. However, there may be other considerations in play, such as the possibility of opening their eyes.
  4. Whether or not it is reasonable to have discourse with an atheist depends on whether the atheist in question shows himself capable of a certain kind of rationality-in-discussion, even though his doctrine is irrational in the highest degree.

In sum:

  1. Wikipedia’s citation of Professor Cargile’s article to broadly affirm that “the one who makes the claim has the burden of proof” does not actually provide substantive support for this claim.  We are unsurprised to find, yet again, that Wikipedia is not a reliable basis for supporting serious claims.
  2. This claim, at least according to an analysis unfolded by Professor Cargile, would not help the atheist in any case, given that he is the one attempting to assert a claim in evident opposition to the consensus gentium, wherein it would be necessary to locate what Professor Cargile calls “a proper presumption that something is true.”

For a related line of reasoning, see my reblog of Professor Ralph McInerny’s article “Why the Burden of Proof is on the Atheist.”