Atheists vs Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

An atheist who goes by [theresidentskeptic] is one of many atheists who have demanded that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy change its definition of atheism to their preferred one, namely, the dishonest “lack of belief” definition.  Here’s how the SEoP’s definition reads:

AtheismStanfordDEF

And here is [theresidentskeptic]’s email and Stanford’s reply:

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dear Stanford,

I am constantly having your definitions of atheism and agnosticism regurgitated to me by people who don’t seem to understand what they mean and your authoritative definition completely muddies the waters.

Your definition which can be seen at the the following link states:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheis…sticism/#1

“‘Agnostic’ is more contextual than is ‘atheist’, as it can be used in a non-theological way, as when a cosmologist might say that she is agnostic about string theory, neither believing nor disbelieving it.”

I am forced to point out to you that agnosticism deals with knowledge claims, not claims of belief. Why are you conflating the two? A belief necessarily deals with a single claim; God exists is one claim; God does not exist is another claim- or String theory is true is one claim; string theory is not true is another claim.

A cosmologist who does not know if either position about string theory is true would be considered an agnostic. The cosmologist then disbelieves claim 1; string theory is true, therefore, for lack of a better term, is an atheist with respect to string theory. They do not necessarily believe that claim 2; string theory is false, is true.

Similarly, with respect to god claims, a person who does not know if either claim (god exists / god does not exist) is true would be an agnostic. The person who disbelieves claim 1; God exists is an atheist and this does not say anything about their acceptance that claim 2; god does not exist, is true.

I will use an analogy:

If I made the claim that there are an odd number of blades of grass in my front yard, would you believe me?

No, you wouldn’t unless I could substantiate that claim (if you are rational). Does that then mean you believe the opposite of that claim? That there are an even number of blades of grass in my front yard? No, you wouldn’t accept that claim either. With respect to your belief in the true dichotomy of the nature of the grass then, you are an atheist; you disbelieve claim 1; there are an odd number of blades of grass. If you don’t know which claim is true, you are an agnostic. The terms are not mutually exclusive.

With respect to god claims, I identify as an agnostic atheist; I do not know if a god exists or not, and I disbelieve the claim that a god does exist.

Gnostic: Of or relating to knowledge, especially esoteric mystical knowledge. –> Therefore it’s opposite, agnostic, relates to a lack of knowledge.

Theist: Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures –> Therefore it’s opposite, atheist, relates to a lack of belief in the existence of gods and not necessarily the belief in the opposite claim, that no gods exist.

Belief: an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists

Source [for definitions]: Oxford English Dictionary*

Kindly update your definitions to reflect this.

Thank you.

Sincerely,
[theresidentskeptic]

*EVE NOTE: [theresidentskeptic] is being dishonest here: his definitions are from the Oxford Dictionary, not the Oxford English Dictionary or OED, which is an important distinction—the OD accepts and uses much looser standards than the OED. The OD is what you get from Google. The OED requires a hefty fee to access.

———————————-REPLY FROM STANFORD BELOW———————————-

Dear [theresidentskeptic]

Thank you for writing to us about the entry on atheism and agnosticism. We have received messages about this issue before and are continuing to consider whether and how the entry might be adjusted.

That said, the matter is not as clear cut as you suggest. While the term “atheism” is used in a variety of ways in general discourse, our entry is on its meaning in the philosophical literature. Traditionally speaking, the definition in our entry—that ‘atheism’ means the denial of the existence of God—is correct in the philosophical literature. Some now refer to this standard meaning as “positive atheism” and contrast it with the broader notion of atheism” which has the meaning you suggest—that ‘atheism’ simply means not-theist.

In our understanding, the argument for this broader notion was introduced into the philosophical literature by Antony Flew in “The Presumption of Atheism” (1972). In that work, he noted that he was using an etymological argument to try to convince people *not* to follow the *standard meaning* of the term. His goal was to reframe the debate about the existence of God and to re-brand “atheism” as a default position.

Not everyone has been convinced to use the term in Flew’s way simply on the force of his argument. For some, who consider themselves atheists in the traditional sense, Flew’s efforts seemed to be an attempt to water down a perfectly good concept. For others, who consider themselves agnostics in the traditional sense, Flew’s efforts seemed to be an attempt to re-label them “atheists”—a term they rejected.

All that said, we are continuing to examine the situation regarding the definitions as presented in this entry.

All the best,
Yours,
Uri

——————————————————-
Uri Nodelman Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Senior Editor
CSLI/Cordura Hall editors@plato.stanford.edu
Stanford University ph. 650-723-0488
Stanford, CA 94305-4115 fx. 650-725-2166
——————————————————-

[EVE NOTE: Emphasis mine.]

“Fallacies” aren’t what you think they are—and they aren’t very useful.

If you spend any amount of time online following or taking part in debates, you’ll eventually see someone accuse someone else of committing or employing “a fallacy.” What exactly does this mean?

The superficial thing it means as that the accuser is claiming that there is something wrong with the other person’s argument—specifically that the conclusion they are drawing doesn’t follow from the premises they are using; and so (by definition) their argument is logically invalid—where “logically invalid” just means “it is possible that the premises are true and the conclusion is false.”

But people often assume or act as if a fallacy were something more than this, that it is a kind of meta-error that makes arguments erroneous, that it is a kind of formal invalidity maker. But “fallacies” are no such thing.

What is a “fallacy”?

There is fairly wide agreement about what one is, some kind of error in reasoning, but if you take a close look at how logicians both professional and popular define “fallacy,” you will quickly see that there seems to be no “something more than just an error” that people seem to think there is. Here’s a representative list of definitions:

“A fallacy is a deceptive error of thinking.” – Gensler, Introduction to Logic

“A fallacy is a mistake in reasoning.” – Kreeft, Socratic Logic

“A fallacy is a flaw in reasoning.” – yourlogicalfallacyis.com

“A fallacy is an error in reasoning.” – The Nizkor Project

“A fallacy is the use of invalid or otherwise faulty reasoning or ‘wrong moves’ in the construction of an argument.” – Wikipedia

“Fallacies are deceptively bad arguments.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“A fallacy is a kind of error in reasoning.” – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

What makes an argument valid or invalid?

There are two basic principles of logic that you must grasp to understand this, and one false principle that you must recognize as false. Let’s start with the correct principles:

(V1) An argument is valid if and only if it instantiates any valid argument form.

(V2) An argument is invalid if and only if it fails to instantiate any valid argument form.

This principle is INCORRECT:

(F1) An argument is invalid if it instantiates an invalid argument form.

Reasoning is movement of the mind from premises to a conclusion, from point A to point B. An argument is valid if it can get from point A to point B by any possible route; it is invalid only if one cannot rationally get from A to B at all. Note that the fact “you can’t get from A to B by route F” doesn’t entail “you can’t get from A to B at all.” This is why (F1) above is a FALSE PRINCIPLE: The fact that a given argument A instantiates a given invalid argument form F shows nothing at all about the validity of A; A can, in principle, instantiate any number of invalid argument forms and still be valid—it only has to instantiate just one valid argument form to be valid.

Consider: “You can’t reach the North Pole by going south; therefore, you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going east; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going west; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going southeast; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going southwest; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” ETC.

The fact that there are innumerable directions by which you cannot reach the North Pole doesn’t show anything at all about whether you can reach the North Pole.  The fact that there is one direction you can travel in which will get you to the North Pole—namely, north—shows that you can, in fact, reach the North Pole. The only thing that matters is that there is a way that succeeds.

And logic is just like that. If there is a valid route from A to B, it doesn’t matter whether there is an invalid route from A to B, or many, or an infinite number (which there are: there are always an infinite number of invalid routes from A to B you can propose).

AN EXAMPLE: Consider the following argument:

  1. q ⇒ q
  2. q
  3. ∴ q

This argument instantiates the invalid argument form affirming the consequent. Is it invalid? No. Why not? It also instantiates the perfectly valid form modus ponens.  So it really doesn’t matter that it instantiates an invalid form, since it also instantiates a valid form—which is all that matters.

THE UPSHOT: people think that IF they have correctly identified an invalid argument form that an argument instantiates, THEN they have shown something about the argument’s validity.  But they haven’t. That no more works than what is sometimes called the “fallacy fallacy,” which is to hold that showing that an argument for conclusion C is invalid shows that conclusion C is false. But this doesn’t work. An argument for C can be invalid and C still be true.  And it is just as wrong to hold that showing an argument A instantiates an invalid argument form F shows that argument A is invalid.

Sophia vs Jacob: A Hypothetical Twitter exchange

Suppose Sophia and Jacob are having a Twitter exchange, and Sophia makes an argument, to which Jacob responds by typing (in all caps of course) “BANDWAGON FALLACY!” and ‘helpfully’ providing Sophia with a link to yourlogicalfallacyis.com’s description of the Bandwagon fallacy:

1. Jacob hasn’t shown anything about Sophia’s argument. All he has done is say the name of an alleged fallacy. If Jacob’s position is that an argument is proven to be invalid on the condition that someone says the name of a fallacy, then he’s in pretty dire trouble. Sophia can simply elect to accept Jacob’s rule and proceed to “refute” all Jacob’s arguments by saying the names of various fallacies; or she can ask him to prove his rule is correct—and defeat every argument he attempts to give for it by saying the names of various fallacies; or if Sophia is feeling particularly snarky, she can post one of my cards to Jacob, which uses the rule he is implicitly appealing to to defeat itself. When someone thinks they can refute your argument by saying the name of a fallacy, this is the name of the fallacy you say to refute their argument that they have refuted your argument by saying the name of a fallacy:

evecardfallaciesnominalfallacyfallacy

THE UPSHOT HERE is that Jacob has still failed TO DEMONSTRATE HIS CLAIM that Sophia has made an error in her argument. All Jacob as done so far is argue “I have said the name of an error; therefore your argument is in error.

2. Suppose Jacob mans up and really does try to show that Sophia’s argument fits the alleged pattern of the “bandwagon fallacy.” And let’s suppose he succeeds. Well, he still hasn’t shown anything about the validity or invalidity of Sophia’s argument. We’ve allowed that he has shown that Sophia’s argument instantiates a type of reasoning that, as an informal fallacy, can be invalid, but it is the nature of informal fallacies (aka material fallacies) that they are sometimes errors and sometimes not. I’ve written a lot about this, mostly for Twitter. If you like, you can have a look at what I have to say about material fallacies HERE.  But just to give some examples:

(a) an appeal to authority is sometimes erroneous, sometimes not; appeal to experts in their fields or a scientific consensus are not errors of reasoning. In the 1990s, Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s Last Theorem is indeed a theorem.  How do I know this? Because a few dozen of the the few thousand people capable of understanding Wiles’ proof checked it very carefully and agreed. So, my belief that Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem is sound is based entirely on the authority of some of the world’s foremost mathematicians. I could verify Wiles’ proof for myself, but it would require around a decade of mathematical study before I’d be in a position to—and frankly I don’t have the time or inclination. That is what expert mathematicians are for. If we were disallowed from appealing to authority, we’d have to establish all knowledge for ourselves at all times, which would completely defeat the point of the division of intellectual labor, and completely wreck science, since no established scientific “conclusions” could ever be appealed to.

(b) an argument from parts to whole is not always an error.  If you argued that “every brick in the Yellow Brick Road weighs 3.5 kg, so the entire Yellow Brick Road weighs 3.5 kg” you’d be making an error (and if you want to call it “fallacy of composition” go ahead).  But if you argued “every brick in the Yellow Brick Road is brick, so the Yellow Brick Road is a brick road” or “every brick in the Yellow Brick Road is yellow, so the Yellow Brick Road is yellow” you wouldn’t be making an error.

(c) An appeal to universal human experience is not an “ad populum fallacy,” for example in the case of such claims as: “minds exist” or “human beings by nature are divided into two sexes” or “time has three dimensions, past, present, and future” or “anger and fear are emotions found in human beings” or Euclid’s Common Notions: “The whole is greater than the part” or “equals added to equals are equal” or “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another.”  The point here is that there really are COMMON NOTIONS, as Euclid uses that term, namely, things which all human beings know or can recognize that do not stand in need of any formal proof, because they are too simple or too obvious to have one (this is also called the consensus gentium, “the consensus of the whole species”—I’ve discussed how it differs from an ad populum error HERE.

THE UPSHOT HERE is that Jacob has still failed to TO DEMONSTRATE HIS CLAIM that Sophia has made an error in her argument, even if he has shown that her argument instantiates the form some informal fallacy or another. All Jacob has done so far is argue “Your argument instantiates a form which may or may not be an error; therefore it is in error!

3. But let’s make it a bit easier on Jacob, and suppose that he has detected in Sophia’s argument not an informal fallacy but a formal fallacy, such as affirming the consequent. Now, formal fallacies are different from material or informal fallacies in that they are invalid just in virtue of their form, and so do not depend on the situation, context, or content as to whether they are valid or invalid. They are simply invalid. Period.

Now, let us suppose that Jacob succeeds in showing that Sophia’s argument does indeed instantiate the invalid argument form called affirming the consequent (P⇒Q; Q; ∴P). Has Jacob now shown that Sophia’s argument is invalid? No, he has not. He has not, because to do so, he would have to be appealing to principle (F1): An argument is invalid if it instantiates an invalid argument form, which as we have seen, is a false principle.

Sophia is therefore entirely within her epistemic and logical rights to says to Jacob, after he has demonstrated that her argument instantiates the form of affirming the consequent, “So what? You still haven’t shown my argument is invalid. You wasted a lot of effort on showing something that has no logical bearing on whether my argument is valid or invalid.”

THE UPSHOT HERE is that Jacob has still failed TO DEMONSTRATE HIS CLAIM that Sophia has made an error in her argument, even if he has shown that her argument instantiates the form even of a formal fallacy. All Jacob has done so far is argue “Your argument instantiates a formally invalid argument form, an error; therefore it is in error.” And this argument is an enthymeme that requires the false principle (F1) as its hidden premise, and so is unsound.

4. Jacob’s problem is that, in order to show that Sophia’s argument is invalid, he has only two options: (A) the direct logic-indifferent method, in which he can show that Sophia’s argument is invalid by showing that, while her premises are true, her conclusion is false.  This isn’t really a “method” at all—it is simply showing that Sophia’s argument is a case of the very definition of an invalid argument, namely, an argument with true premises and a false conclusion; or (B) Jacob can attempt to show that there is NO logically valid argument form which Sophia’s argument instantiates (remember, her argument only needs to instantiate ONE to be valid), in any formal-logical system, including those which have not yet been discovered or constructed.  In other words, to use method (B) Jacob would have to prove the nonexistence of a logical form which Sophia’s argument instantiates. And as most people are well aware, it is damn-near impossible to prove absolutely the nonexistence of something (showing it to be contradictory is the only way I know that this can be done).

THE UPSHOT HERE is that all appeals to fallacies as a way of refuting arguments or proving invalidity all seem to be instances of (B)—and they all fail because they can’t actually do the work of demonstrating invalidity.  THE MOST they can accomplish is to raise a doubt about the validity of an argument by suggesting that the argument in question has nothing more to it than the invalid form it instantiates.  That is to say, that the person making the argument is appealing to the invalid form as a valid form, which he or she means to establish validity, either in the mistaken belief that it is valid or disingenuously as a rhetorical move.  But if the person making the argument says “No, I see that pattern is invalid, but that’s not what I’m claiming makes my argument valid,” then an appeal to fallacy really can’t DO anything else. People WANT to say “No! Your argument instantiates an invalid argument form! It’s invalid!” But they can’t logically say that. That’s (F1) again, and (F1) is false—obviously false, even: “You can’t get from A to B” obviously does not follow from “You can’t get from A to B by route F.”

Why aren’t “fallacies” very useful?

A fallacy is usually a name given to some general type of error or mistake. The problem with this is that errors do not, strictly speaking, have ‘types’—there are no general forms of error, because error by its way of being is indefinite and indeterminate—and what is indefinite and indeterminate is cannot be defined or determined rigorously.

Fallacies aren’t very useful because they CAN’T DO MUCH.

Naming a fallacy certainly doesn’t show anything about an argument’s validity or invalidity.

Showing that an argument fits the form of a informal fallacy doesn’t show anything at all, since material fallacies aren’t always fallacious—that depends entirely on the content, and you’d still have to show that the argument in question is in error, something which, if you are able to do it, makes the citation of the “fallacy” completely redundant and superfluous, and if you can’t do it, makes the citation of the “fallacy” completely toothless and pointless.  So in the case of informal fallacies, citing the fallacy accomplishes nothing either way; everything turns on whether you can demonstrate an actual error in the argument. EITHER WAY, the citation of the fallacy adds nothing and does nothing.

Showing that an argument instantiates a formally fallacious argument form also doesn’t show anything about the validity of the argument. Because (F1) is false, from the fact that a given argument A instantiates a given formally invalid argument form F, NOTHING FOLLOWS ABOUT THE VALIDITY OR INVALIDITY OF A.  So, once again, if you are going to get anywhere, you’d have to show an error in the argument itself, and the appeal to the fallacy (1) does not show any error, nor (2) add anything to the demonstration of error if one is able to show an error in the specific argument. So in the case of formal fallacies, citing the fallacy accomplishes nothing either way; everything turns on whether you can demonstrate an actual error in the argument. EITHER WAY, the citation of the fallacy adds nothing and does nothing.

Basically, citing a fallacy or appealing to a fallacy is just a roundabout way of saying “Your argument is in error”—and this is something that still needs to be shown. Either can you can show an error, in which case the citation of the fallacy is superfluous and adds nothing; or you cannot show any error, in which case the citation of the fallacy is pointless and accomplishes nothing.

EITHER WAY, the citation of a fallacy ADDS NOTHING and DOES NOTHING. 

ADDENDUM:

It is with satisfaction and pleasure that I learn that Peter Geach, one of the greatest logicians of the 20th century, and a philosopher I respect extremely highly, makes the same point that I do: that ‘fallacies’ understood as invalid argument forms are not invalidity-makers of arguments:

GeachValidInvalid

As Geach notes, if it were the case that invalid argument forms were invalidity-makers, then all arguments would be invalid, since all arguments can be reformulated an the conjunction of all their premises with &s, leaving us with the invalid form

  1. p1 & p2 & p3 & p4 & … & pn
  2. ∴ q

or more simply

  1. p
  2. ∴ q

which gives us a simple modus tollens

  1. If instantiating a logically invalid argument form makes an argument invalid, no arguments are logically valid.
  2. But some arguments are logically valid.
  3. ∴ Instantiating a logically invalid argument from does not make an argument invalid.

Q.E.D.

Philosophers are (or should be) interested in truth, not originality, so I am always pleased to find points that I make in philosophers I respect.

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.

“You Can’t Prove a Negative” Part 2

As I wrote in my post “You Can’t Prove a Negative”, this claim—that you can’t prove a negative—is a silly urban legend of logic that needs to die.

So it came up again on Twitter, and someone was kind enough to direct me to an essay by another philosopher addressing this same absurd bit of “folk logic” (as he aptly calls it). I also think his view that “you can’t prove a negative” is largely a view held by people who  have “a desperate desire to keep believing whatever one believes, even if all the evidence is against it.” In other words, “you can’t prove a negative!” is code for “you can’t prove I’m wrong, so I’ll continue to think I’m right!”

I think it is worth reblogging, so here is Steven D. Hales “You Can Prove a Negative”:

________________________________________________________________

THINKING TOOLS: YOU CAN PROVE A NEGATIVE
Steven D. Hales

A principle of folk logic is that one can’t prove a negative. Dr. Nelson L. Price, a Georgia minister, writes on his website that ‘one of the laws of logic is that you can’t prove a negative.’ Julian Noble, a physicist at the University of Virginia, agrees, writing in his ‘Electric Blanket of Doom’ talk that ‘we can’t prove a negative proposition.’ University of California at Berkeley Professor of Epidemiology Patricia Buffler asserts that ‘The reality is that we can never prove the negative, we can never prove the lack of effect, we can never prove that something is safe.’ A quick search on Google or Lexis-Nexis will give a mountain of similar examples.

But there is one big, fat problem with all this. Among professional logicians, guess how many think that you can’t prove a negative? That’s right: zero. Yes, Virginia, you can prove a negative, and it’s easy, too. For one thing, a real, actual law of logic is a negative, namely the law of non-contradiction. This law states that that a proposition cannot be both true and not true. Nothing is both true and false. Furthermore, you can prove this law. It can be formally derived from the empty set using provably valid rules of inference. (I’ll spare you the boring details). One of the laws of logic is a provable negative. Wait… this means we’ve just proven that it is not the case that one of the laws of logic is that you can’t prove a negative. So we’ve proven yet another negative! In fact, ‘you can’t prove a negative’ is a negative  so if you could prove it true, it wouldn’t be true! Uh-oh.

Not only that, but any claim can be expressed as a negative, thanks to the rule of double negation. This rule states that any proposition P is logically equivalent to not-not-P. So pick anything you think you can prove. Think you can prove your own existence? At least to your own satisfaction? Then, using the exact same reasoning, plus the little step of double negation, you can prove that you aren’t nonexistent. Congratulations, you’ve just proven a negative. The beautiful part is that you can do this trick with absolutely any proposition whatsoever. Prove P is true and you can prove that P is not false.

Some people seem to think that you can’t prove a specific sort of negative claim, namely that a thing does not exist. So it is impossible to prove that Santa Claus, unicorns, the Loch Ness Monster, God, pink elephants, WMD in Iraq, and Bigfoot don’t exist. Of course, this rather depends on what one has in mind by ‘prove.’ Can you construct a valid deductive argument with all true premises that yields the conclusion that there are no unicorns? Sure. Here’s one, using the valid inference procedure of modus tollens:

1. If unicorns had existed, then there is evidence in the fossil record.
2. There is no evidence of unicorns in the fossil record.
3. Therefore, unicorns never existed.

Someone might object that that was a bit too fast  after all, I didn’t prove that the two premises were true. I just asserted that they were true. Well, that’s right. However, it would be a grievous mistake to insist that someone prove all the premises of any argument they might give. Here’s why. The only way to prove, say, that there is no evidence of unicorns in the fossil record, is by giving an argument to that conclusion. Of course one would then have to prove the premises of that argument by giving further arguments, and then prove the premises of those further arguments, ad infinitum. Which premises we should take on credit and which need payment up front is a matter of long and involved debate among epistemologists. But one thing is certain: if proving things requires that an infinite number of premises get proved first, we’re not going to prove much of anything at all, positive or negative.

Maybe people mean that no inductive argument will conclusively, indubitably prove a negative proposition beyond all shadow of a doubt. For example, suppose someone argues that we’ve scoured the world for Bigfoot, found no credible evidence of Bigfoot’s existence, and therefore there is no Bigfoot. A classic inductive argument. A Sasquatch defender can always rejoin that Bigfoot is reclusive, and might just be hiding in that next stand of trees. You can’t prove he’s not! (until the search of that tree stand comes up empty too). The problem here isn’t that inductive arguments won’t give us certainty about negative claims (like the nonexistence of Bigfoot), but that inductive arguments won’t give us certainty about anything at all, positive or negative. All observed swans are white, therefore all swans are white looked like a pretty good inductive argument until black swans were discovered in Australia.

The very nature of an inductive argument is to make a conclusion probable, but not certain, given the truth of the premises. That just what an inductive argument is. We’d better not dismiss induction because we’re not getting certainty out of it, though. Why do you think that the sun will rise tomorrow? Not because of observation (you can’t observe the future!), but because that’s what it has always done in the past. Why do you think that if you turn on the kitchen tap that water will come out instead of chocolate? Why do you think you’ll nd your house where you last left it? Why do you think lunch will be nourishing instead of deadly? Again, because that’s the way things have always been in the past. In other words, we use inferences — induction — from past experiences in every aspect of our lives. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, the chicken who expects to be fed when he sees the farmer approaching, since that is what had always happened in the past, is in for a big surprise when instead of receiving dinner, he becomes dinner. But if the chicken had rejected inductive reasoning altogether, then every appearance of the farmer would be a surprise.

So why is it that people insist that you can’t prove a negative? I think it is the result of two things. (1) an acknowledgement that induction is not bulletproof, airtight, and infallible, and (2) a desperate desire to keep believing whatever one believes, even if all the evidence is against it. That’s why people keep believing in alien abductions, even when flying saucers always turn out to be weather balloons, stealth jets, comets, or too much alcohol. You can’t prove a negative! You can’t prove that there are no alien abductions! Meaning: your argument against aliens is inductive, therefore not incontrovertible, and since I want to believe in aliens, I’m going to dismiss the argument no matter how overwhelming the evidence against aliens, and no matter how vanishingly small the chance of extraterrestrial abduction.

If we’re going to dismiss inductive arguments because they produce conclusions that are probable but not de nite, then we are in deep doo-doo. Despite its fallibility, induction is vital in every aspect of our lives, from the mundane to the most sophisticated science. Without induction we know basically nothing about the world apart from our own immediate perceptions. So we’d better keep induction, warts and all, and use it to form negative beliefs as well as positive ones. You can prove a negative — at least as much as you can prove anything at all.

Steven Hales is professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University, Pennsylvania.

Abusus Non Tollit Usum

Abusus non tollit usum is a Latin expression, which articulates a fundamental principle, both of life in general and in law.  It means “abuse does not take away use.”

This is a very obvious principle, which essentially states that we should not get rid of a good or useful thing because said thing can also be misused—since literally everything that can be used can be misused in some way.

A hammer or a screwdriver can be used to commit a murder. This is not an argument for banning hammers or screwdrivers.  Words can often be misapplied; this is not an argument to stop using the word in its proper, useful application.

This principle is so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be said.  But I have learned from experience that a favorite fallacy of certain ideologues is the “argument to abuse,” which goes:

  1. Some case of X did something bad.
  2. ∴ All X are bad.
  3. ∴ We should get rid of X.

Among anarchist-libertarians, it looks like this:

  1. Some governmental actions are bad.
  2. ∴ Government as such is bad.
  3. ∴ We should get rid of all government.

Among feminists it looks like

  1. Some men are bad.
  2. ∴ All men are bad.
  3. ∴ We should get rid of men, either literally or by forcing men to stop being men.

Among the Politically Correct word police it looks like

  1. Word W can be used as a hurtful insult or a “microagression.”
  2. Word W is bad.
  3. We should ban the use of word W

The fallacy should be obvious. It’s an argument from “some” to a conclusion about “all,” containing the hidden, self-evidently false premise that “Whatever is true of some Xs is true of all Xs.”  This doesn’t work unless you can demonstrate that in all cases the thing in question is bad—but of course this is just what pointing to only some cases fails to do.

I once again apologize for insulting your intelligence with ridiculously simple graphics, but some people seem to need them:

euler-circles-use-abuse

euler-circles-all-some

Revisiting Whales and Fish One Last Time

As some of you know I have been involved in an argument on Twitter with one DrJ (@DrJ_WasTaken) concerning the usage of the term “fish.”  It began when he asserted that Geoffrey Chaucer was using the word “fish” (or “fissh”) wrongly, because Chaucer includes whales under the term “fish.”

I pointed out something I took to be something very obvious, that correctness and incorrectness in word usage is conventional, and is therefore contextual and relative to the community of language speakers of which one is a part.  The fact that many modern English speakers would not use the word “fish” in such a way as to include whales merely reflects a change in usage, where popular language has tended somewhat to conform to usage in science, in which whales, being mammals, would not be regarded as “fish.”

Although it is not actually clear that biologists use the word “fish” in any formal sense—”fish” is, at most, a paraphyletic classification, similar to “lizard” and “reptile.” That is to say, it based on phylogenetic ancestry, but includes a couple of arbitrary exclusions.  For example, here is a chart of the paraphyletic group Reptilia:

traditional_reptilia

Reptilia (green field) is a paraphyletic group comprising all amniotes (Amniota) except for two subgroups Mammalia (mammals) and Aves (birds); therefore, Reptilia is not a clade. In contrast, Amniota itself is a clade, which is a monophyletic group.

In other words, “reptiles” seem to be defined as “all animals which are descended from the Amniota, with the (semi-)arbitrary exclusion of mammals and birds.”

There was once a Class Pisces, but this is no longer recognized as a valid biological class.  Nowadays, the biological use of “fish” seems to refer to three classes: Superclass Agnatha (jawless “fish”; e.g. lampreys and hagfish), Class Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous “fish”; e.g. rays, sharks, skates, chimaeras), and Class Osteichthyes (bony “fish”), but excluding Class Amphibia, Class Sauropsida, and Class Synapsida, although these all belong to the same clade.  So “fish”, like “reptile” is a paraphyletic classification. It includes some members of a clade but just leaves some other members out.  Here’s a chart:

fishparaphyleticchart

I think this element of arbitrariness in the biological taxonomic classification of fish is important, and goes to substantiating my point about the flexibility of the usage of the word “fish.” In this case, the point is: the term “fish” even as used in contemporary biology is essentially arbitrary.  It involves drawing a line around certain kinds of living beings and saying “These are fish.”

The issue is that DrJ holds the position that, for any given English word, such as “fish,” there is one and only one absolutely correct usage of this word, that this correct usage is completely independent both of all historical context and of actual usage, and that any other usage of the word is, in some absolute way, INCORRECT or WRONG.

Thus, he maintains, that English speakers in Chaucer’s day, including Chaucer, were using the word “fish” wrongly, because they do not use it as modern scientists use it, which is the one, single, eternally correct way—even though, as I mention above, this modern “scientific” usage is essentially an arbitrary paraphyletic grouping.

This position generates what I take to be a number of absurdities, more than sufficient to refute the position by a reductio ad absurdum.  For example, it entails that in many cases, and definitely in the case of the word “fish,” whatever English speakers first coined the word “fish,” used the word they had created WRONGLY, the very instant they used it at all.  They had just now made a new word to name something, but they were ignorant of the fact that the word which they had just now created, really names something else—their intentions in creating the word notwithstanding.

Now, there are many natural facts about animals, e.g. that whales give live birth and so are mammals.  But “the correct name of this animal or animal kind in English” is not a natural fact.  I would have said that it is a social fact or a convention (which still seems correct to me).  But DrJ denies this.  He maintains that there are facts about the correctness of word usage which are neither natural facts nor conventions.

As a Platonist, I am perfectly prepared to admit that there are such facts, non-natural facts,  for example, facts of logic or mathematics.  Logical facts and mathematical facts are neither natural or physical, because they are about things which are immaterial, nor are they conventional or social, since they are entirely objective.  I would not, however, have thought that English word meanings were the sorts of things about which there could be transcendent metaphysical facts outside time and space, not subject to the actual usage and conventions of English speakers. I had always taken it to be obvious that word usage was a convention or social fact.

I have spoken of DrJ’s belief in PLATONIC WORD-MEANING HEAVEN. I intended this term to show (what I take to be) the absurdity of his position, but I want to stress that it is LOGICALLY NECESSARY that he believe in something like this. If the CORRECT meaning of words is determined neither by nature nor by convention, it MUST necessarily have some kind of eternal, transcendent ground beyond convention and outside of nature—if not God, then at least something like Platonic Word-Meaning Heaven. I don’t care what he calls this transcendent ground beyond nature which determines eternal correct word meaning—all that matters to me is that he must believe in such a thing, because whatever it is (and perhaps he knows the one, true, eternally correct name for it?), this is what he is appealing to when he holds there is a standard of correctness for words which is non-conventional and above nature.  He cannot be, for example, appealing to the usage of modern biologists, because his claim JUST IS that this usage is eternally correct, and—he has been very clear on this point—it was correct in Chaucer’s day, before any actual English speaker used the word “fish” in this way—which is what enables him to say that Chaucer’s use of “fish” is incorrect, and that the use of “fish” by whichever English speakers who first used the word “fish” was equally incorrect.

We are not debating about HOW the word “fish” is used by modern biologists (although that might be interesting—it’s paraphyletic nature seems to add an ad hoc, arbitrary element, which makes his case that it is the one, true, eternally correct use even more suspect.)—we are discussing the grounds of DrJ’s claim that ONLY the use of the word “fish” by modern biologists is or can be CORRECT, and that any and all other uses, past, present, or future, are, necessarily, INCORRECT or WRONG.  It is very clear DrJ is maintaining that correctness in word-usage is in some way an eternal truth comparable to the truths of mathematics and logic.  I remain unconvinced by this claim, and have yet to see any good evidence offered for it, beyond a dogmatic insistence that it is so, ad nauseam.  But I want to know what his actual arguments are for this Platonic position on word-usage.  I am a Platonist, so he’s already got my concession that there are such things as eternal, non-physical, not-temporal standards (e.g. of math, logic, ethics, etc.).  I’m just not convinced that word usage is like that. Given the way that words vary among languages and the way they change meaning over time, it seems absurd to me to class word-meanings among the eternal objects—although of course we are forced to speak of eternal entities by means of temporal words, but that’s another story.

My suspicion is that he is continually confusing the USAGE OF A WORD TO REFER to some truth about the world with the REFERENT BEING REFERRED TO IN THE USAGE.  That is to say, I think he is doing the equivalent of confusing the natural fact that snow is white with the English sentence “snow is white.”  The fact of the color of snow is what it is, regardless of how that fact is EXPRESSED in English.  The very same fact can be expressed in German as “Schnee ist weiss.”  But the WORDS USAGE which expresses the fact is CONVENTIONAL.  Nothing in the fact of snow’s being white in any way entails that the stuff has to be called “snow” or the color called “white.”  These are arbitrary sounds that convention has linked with the frozen precipitate that falls from the sky and the color or tint which is a quality of said precipitate.

Plato’s Cratylus is devoted to the question of whether or not there are “true names” for things, or whether names are conventional.  Cratylus says there are true names, and Hermogenes holds they are conventional.  For SOME MAD REASON the two call upon Socrates to decide the matter—Socrates then proceeds to refute Cratylus and argues him into conceding that words are conventional, and before Hermogenes has time to gloat, Socrates turns on him, refutes him, and argues him into the position that there are true names for things.  And with the opponents having switched sides, and the question still unanswered, Socrates leaves. RULE OF LIFE: DO NOT ASK SOCRATES TO “SETTLE” AN ARGUMENT.

Anyway, I have a number of questions for DrJ that still remain unanswered, to wit:

1. What are the reasons for your belief in a transcendent ground which determines CORRECT word usage over and above actual historical usage? Can you demonstrate that such a Platonic realm of word meanings exists? Or that there are transcendent facts about word meaning in the same way or in a similar way that there are transcendent truths about mathematical entities and logical entities?

2. How do you access this transcendent place wherein the one true eternal correct word meanings of English are stored? I would like to know the true, eternally correct meanings of words, so I can use them properly.  How do I check which definition is the one, true, eternally correct one?  What sort of argument would demonstrate that usage X of a word is the ‘one, true, eternally correct’ one and usage Y is not?

3. If your thesis is true, why don’t linguists, who study language, recognize that it is true? Or if any linguists do maintain that there is one and only one eternally correct usage for any given English word, can you please give me their names?  And can you point me to their arguments as to why they think this is true?

4. If your thesis is true, why don’t lexicographers recognize it to be true? Why do dictionaries, at least every one I am familiar with, give more than one definition for some words? Are lexicographers unaware that there is and can be only one true correct meaning for each word? For example, the Oxford English Dictionary says of itself

The OED is not just a very large dictionary: it is also a historical dictionary, the most complete record of the English language ever assembled. It traces a word from its beginnings (which may be in Old or Middle English) to the present, showing the varied and changing ways in which it has been used and illustrating the changes with quotations which add to the historical and linguistic record. This can mean that the first sense shown is long obsolete, and that the modern use falls much later in the entry.

Why does the OED focus on “the varied and changing ways in which [a word] has been used” instead of on the “one, true, eternally correct meaning” of a word? Shouldn’t the one, true, correct meaning be regarded as more important than all the historically incorrect usages? Why does the OED speak as if multiple senses of one word are all valid, if this is (as you say) false? Or again, the OED says

What’s the difference between the OED and Oxford Dictionaries?

The OED and the dictionaries in ODO are themselves very different. While ODO focuses on the current language and practical usage, the OED shows how words and meanings have changed over time.

Why does the OED think that word meanings change over time, when they are, in fact, static and fixed by your transcendent standard of correctness? Why do all dictionaries think this? Why have you not corrected the OED and the various other dictionaries on this extremely important point? Surely, if it is worth taking the time to explain to me on Twitter that words have only one, true, eternally correct meaning, it is worth explaining this to the OED and other dictionaries, so they can change their priorities.  Or can you point me to a dictionary whose policy is to give ONLY the one, true, eternally correct definition of each word?

5. If every English word has one, true, eternally correct meaning, does this go in reverse? Does every eternal meaning have only one true word to which in corresponds? Or do you hold that although there is only one, true, eternally correct meaning for each word, there can be arbitrarily many words (e.g. in other languages) that express this meaning?  In other words, is “fish” the one, true, eternally correct word to express the one, true eternally correct meaning of “fish,” so that all other languages are wrong to not use the English word “fish”? Is Chaucer’s “fissh” wrong? Is the German “Fisch” wrong? Are they “less wrong” than the French “poisson”? Is it always English words that are correct, so that all speakers of non-English languages are always using all words wrongly, just because they are not speaking the one, true, eternally correct language, English? Or are the true, eternally correct words divided among the various languages of the world?

It brief:

  1. What is your argument that words have only one, true, eternally correct meaning, such that all other uses are wrong?
  2. How do you access whatever supernatural eternal ground of word meanings there is wherein you find these eternal standards of correct word use?
  3. If you are correct, why don’t linguists acknowledge that you are correct?
  4. If you are correct, why don’t lexicographers acknowledge that you are correct?
  5. Are you saying that not only does every English word have one, true eternally correct meaning, but that every meaning has one, true, eternally correct word that expresses it?

Proofs and Demonstrations

There seems to be widespread misunderstanding about what proofs are, or as I prefer to call them, demonstrations. The Greek word is ἀπόδειξις, which means “to make something manifest, to show something, to place it before one’s view as evident.”

For something to be evident (as you can surmise from the vid– root) is for it to be “fully seen, completely in view, manifest to one’s eyes”.

A demonstration aims to make the truth of something evident.  “Evidentness” is the aim or end of a proof or demonstration.  This is important, because “evidentness” is also involved in every demonstration, and not simply as its end.

For a demonstration to succeed in making something evident, it must be both logically valid and have true premises.  And the validity of the demonstration as well as the truth of its premises must themselves be evident.  Sometimes this requires further argument or demonstration, but sometimes it does not.

Demonstrations are arguments, and they take place at the level of λόγος or discursive reasoning.  The level of λόγος is also the level of language, so all arguments, proofs, and demonstrations (I am using these as synonyms now) are presented in language, which can be informal or highly formalized.

The dependence of demonstrations on evidentness is shown in that

  1. Demonstrations aim at making the truth of a proposition, the conclusion, evident.
  2. Demonstrations require evident propositions, i.e. true premises, to succeed.
  3. Demonstrations require evidently valid reasoning whereby the conclusion is reached.

What this shows is that there is a power of the soul upon which discursive reasoning, λόγος, depends, and to which it is inferior. In Greek, this power is called νόησις [noēsis].  In Latin, it is called intellectus.  It comes uncertainly into English, sometimes as “the intellect,” sometimes as “intelligence” sometimes as “understanding” or “the understanding,” and sometimes as “intuition.”  Modern English-speaking analytic philosophers sometimes call it “a priori intuition.”

Personally, I loathe to word “intuition,” since it connotes, to me and many people, something like “a vague hunch or feeling about something.” And νόησις is the opposite of vague.  It is, in fact, the very touchstone of certain knowledge.

Let me take an example I’m fond of, given by Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame).  One of the simplest logical forms is modus ponens, which has the following schema:

  1. P ⇒ Q
  2. P
  3. ∴ Q

or

  1. If P is true then Q is true,
  2. P is true.
  3. So Q is true.

Well and good. How do we know this is valid? How do we know it is the case that “If P is true then Q is true” taken together with “P is true” allows us to know that Q is true?

The answer is, we see that it is so. That is to say, it is evident. Or if you prefer, noetically evident.

There is no possible way in which modus ponens can be demonstrated to be valid. As with many other basic logical truths and axioms, it is “too simple” to be demonstrated. It is, rather, one of the basic elements any demonstration always and necessarily relies on.

Aristotle famously emphasizes this, that it is an error (and he adds, a sign of lack of sufficient education) to think that everything requires a demonstration. If this were the case, then every demonstration would require a demonstration, and that too another demonstration, resulting in an infinite regress, such that nothing would ever be demonstrated.  Demonstrations require that we can “go back” to evident starting points. If there were nothing that was evident without demonstration, that is, self-evident, there would be no demonstrations—remember, the very idea of a demonstration involves the idea of the evident.  Their purpose is to make something evident.

The reason one gives a λόγος is to make something evident, manifest to νόησις.  Two more Greek words are useful here. One of Aristotle’s favorite words is δήλον [dēlon], which means “clear, evident, manifest.”  Anywhere I’ve written evident in this post, you could substitute δήλον.  Another very important Greek word is ἀληθής, which means “true.” The noun form, for ‘truth’ is ἀλήθεια.  Note the initial alpha privative α-.  The Greek word for “truth” is a-lēthē-ia where λήθη (lēthē) like the river and the goddess Λήθη means “hidden, concealed, covered.” So the Greek word for truth means, literally, “unconcealment” and thus shows its connection to what is evident or δήλον.  What is true, ἀληθής, is what is evidentδήλον.

What is crucial to emphasize is that being evident/δήλον is something that relates to our power of intellectual sight, to the νοῦς and νόησις. νοῦς is the power or faculty of the soul. νόησις is the activity. νοῦςνόησις :: power of sight : activity of seeing. νόησις is the being-at-work or actuality or ἐνέργεια of νοῦς.

One consequence of this that Aristotle (and others after him, such as St. Thomas Aquinas) draws is that God is pure νόησις.  The divine knowledge, divine omniscience, does not need λόγος, because λόγος is both subordinate to νόησις and inferior to it. When Aristotle defines the human being as “the living being with λόγος, he is distinguishing us from both lower animals and higher divine beings, gods, and very emphatically from the Unmoved Mover, Aristotle’s term for God.

Unlike νόησις, which can only fail to happen, λόγος can be false as well as true, it can be ψεῦδος as well as ἀληθής.  Plato explores the ψεῦδης λόγος [pseudēs logos] at length in The Sophist. In that dialogue, the Eleatic Stranger and Theaetetus are attempting to answer the question posed by Socrates (who is present, but silent save at the beginning) “What is the sophist?” They arrive at what seems to be the correct definition, namely, that “the sophist is the one who gives the ψεῦδης λόγος,” when all of a sudden, an imaginary sophist (voiced by the Eleatic Stranger) pops up and declares this to be impossible. “To speak falsely,” he argues, “is to say that which is not. But that which is not—is nothing.  As nothing at all, that which is not can neither be said nor thought. Parmenides himself has shown than nonbeing or nothing or ‘that which in no way is’ cannot be thought or said, and therefore, since ‘that which is not’ cannot be said, there is no one who says ‘that which is not,’ and therefore, there are no sophists, and therefore,” the sophist concludes with a self-satisfied smirk, “I am not a sophist!”

I won’t fully go into Plato’s analysis of how it is possible to say that which is not (the short answer is what Hegel will later call determinate negation—one cannot say what “in no way is” or absolute nonbeing—but one can say what something is not, by saying it is something other than it is; the ψεῦδης λόγος is a kind of covering over or obscuring of something by means of something else, rather than making it manifest as what it is).

For our purposes here it is enough to note that the realm of discursivity/λόγος is the realm of both truth and falsehood, unconcealment and concealment, making evident and obscuring from view.

Now, every argument will have certain necessary components.  Arguments are not things that happen “all at once” (like νόησις) but rather step by step.  This means they have parts.  Arguments have a form; this form may be valid or invalid. Arguments are composed of propositions, the premises, which can be true or false.  And propositions in turn are composed of terms, which may be clear or unclear.  A sound argument will have clear terms, true premises, and a valid form.

This is not hard to understand. But because all arguments have this structure, all arguments may be challenged on any of these three grounds: the validity of the argument may be called into question, the truth of the premises may be called into question, and the clarity or meaning of the terms may be called into question.

What I want to emphasize is that this is always possible, for any argument, by the very nature of an argument.  It is therefore also subject to sophistical abuse.  The philosopher Peter Geach gives two examples of this:

PeterGeachDefineYourTerms

PeterGeachGivingReasons

It is trivially easy to use the sophistical tricks of

  1. demand terms used in a demonstration be defined. When they are defined, as they must be, in other terms, demand that the new terms be defined in turn. Repeat infinitely.
  2. demand that the premises of a demonstration be demonstrated. If a new demonstration is given, demand that its premises be demonstrated in turn. Repeat infinitely.
  3. demand that the validity of a demonstration be demonstrated. If a new demonstration is given, demand that its validity be demonstrated in turn. Repeat infinitely.

The trouble is that some of the ancient sophists and some people today believe that these sophistical tricks constitute actual refutations of arguments or demonstrations.

But they obviously do not, since they can be applied to any proof, argument, or demonstration whatever, regardless of what it actually says.

I bring this up because these are favorite techniques used by many modern atheists.  Frequently, one hears them say “There is no evidence for God.” If one gives a demonstration, they demand that the demonstration be demonstrated, and so on, ad infinitum, and when one fails to meet this impossible demand, they smugly conclude that one has failed to demonstrate the existence of God. This is sophistry.  One could ask them to demonstrate that one’s demonstration has failed, and if they answer, demand that they demonstrate the demonstration, etc.  Anyone can play sophistical games.

I think that a very common error today is that people misunderstand the nature of proof or demonstration.  They seem to believe proof is something that COMPELS ASSENT.  But that isn’t what proof does. The task of a demonstration is to make something evident, that is, to place it before one’s eyes as clearly true. No one, however, and certainly not a demonstration, can compel anyone to actually look at what is placed in front of them.  Whether or not to actually look at or follow a demonstration is a decision of the will.  And so is the act of  ASSENTING to the truth of a proposition. If I “know in advance” that a given conclusion is wrong, I need not pay any attention to any argument given for that conclusion—other than, as Peter Geach once put it, to locate the fallacy.

What can we take away from this?

One can willfully and sophistically reject a perfectly cogent demonstration.  The fact that one is unconvinced by a demonstration is not a refutation of that demonstration.  The mother of a criminal might refuse to be convinced that “her baby boy” committed the crime, regardless of any amount of argument or evidence presented to her. This is not, however, a refutation of the case for her son’s guilt.

One way to short-circuit at least some kinds of sophistical regress tricks is to invoke Socrates’ principle of fair play in dialogues, which boils down to taking turns:

SocratesPrinciple

In other words, in a dialogue, which is a back and forth, you get one.  If you ask me to demonstrate something once, that’s fair enough (assuming your are asking in good faith). If I comply, and you then ask me to demonstrate my demonstration, the proper response is “No. I gave you your one. Now it’s your turn to show there’s something wrong with my argument, if you can.  Until you do this, I have no more responsibility here.  But if you do give a refutation of my demonstration, then it will be my turn to show why your refutation fails.”

I’m constantly amazed that so many people think “I’m not convinced” is a refutation. It isn’t. It’s not even a statement about the demonstration, but about one’s own psychological state.  The mere fact that someone is unconvinced may be because the demonstration is defective; but it may also be because the person in question is stupid, or ignorant, or failed to follow the demonstration, or is willfully set against being convinced for some extraneous reason (like the mother of the criminal’s love for her son).

As I said, the purpose of a proof or demonstration is to make something evident as true. But “evident” means “can be seen to be true” not “must be seen to be true.”  A matter may be evident in itself, but not evident to some people. Nothing can be made evident to those who will not look, or who refuse to accept the testimony of their eyes. You can reasonably be said to have “fed” someone if you set food before them to eat.  If they refuse to eat it, that isn’t your responsibility, but theirs. There was food there to be eaten.

This is why it is almost always pointless to argue with the completely convinced ideologue.  It doesn’t matter what you say. He will refuse to hear you, or to look at anything that would contradict his ideology. Ideologues are often recognizable by their win/win stance: for example, many feminists hold that arguments for feminism are strong and sound, and also hold that any arguments against feminism are instances of “misogyny” and therefore are also arguments for feminism.  Marxists hold that arguments for Marxism are strong and sound, and arguments against Marxism show the ideological prejudices of the bourgeoisie, and are therefore arguments for Marxism. Freudians hold their arguments for sexual repression and neurosis to be strong and sound, and hold any arguments against sexual repression and neurosis to be evidence of sexual repression and neurosis and therefore as evidence for psychoanalysis.  And if you think it matters that strict Freudian psychoanalysis is not longer that popular, consider the way the pseudo-Freudian word “phobia” has invaded our modern political discourse, e.g. an argument for gay marriage is strong and sound; an argument against gay marriage is “homophobic” and therefore really an argument in favor of gay marriage. Any praise of Islam is justified; any criticism of Islam is unjustified, because it is “Islamophobia” and therefore indicative of mental illness, rather than reason.

“Racism” and “misogyny” in our day have also essentially become “-phobia” words.

Positions and arguments are dismissed as supposedly being signs of psychological and/or moral properties, e.g. “hate” and “fear.”