Saturday, September 19, 2020

Searle contra Dennett

In 1992 when John Searle published The Rediscovery of the Mind. Daniel Dennett reviewed the book in The Journal of Philosophy, and you can read his review here. Then Searle published a critique of several then-recent books on philosophy of mind, including Dennett's Consciousness Explained in his column in The New York Review of Books, which you can read here: scroll down to the bottom, or do a page search on "Quotes 11".

Here's where it gets interesting: Dennett then wrote a letter to the NYRB blasting Searle, to which Searle responded, and you can read both here. Prior to this, Searle and Dennett were, I think, friendly rivals. Not after. Dennett writes, "Searle doesn't have a program of research. He has a set of home truths to defend. They land him in paradox after paradox, but so long as he doesn't address the critics who point this out, who’ll ever know? ... There is not room in these pages for Searle to repair fifteen years of disregard, so no one should expect him to make good here, but if he would be so kind as to tell us where and when he intends to respond to his critics with the attention and accuracy they deserve, we will know when to resume paying attention to his claims."

I have to agree with Searle's assessment of Dennett's accusations: "Dennett’s letter has a peculiar rhetorical quality in that he is constantly referring to some devastating argument against me that he never actually states. The crushing argument is always just offstage, in some review he or somebody else wrote or some book he published years ago, but he can’t quite be bothered to state the argument now."

I should also point out that I tend to agree with Searle's argument:

An intuition in [Dennett's] sense is just something one feels inclined to believe, and such intuitions often turn out to be false. For example, people have intuitions about space and time that have been refuted by relativity theory in physics. In my review, I gave an example of an intuition about consciousness that has been refuted by neurobiology: the commonsense intuition that our pain in the arm is actually located in the physical space of the arm. But the very existence of my conscious states is not similarly a matter for my intuitions. The refutable intuitions I mentioned require a distinction between how things seem to me and how they really are, a distinction between appearance and reality. But where the existence of conscious states is concerned, you can’t make the distinction between appearance and reality, because the existence of the appearance is the reality in question. If it consciously seems to me that I am conscious, then I am conscious. It is not a matter of “intuitions,” of something I feel inclined to say. Nor is it a matter of methodology. Rather it is just a plain fact about me—and every other normal human being—that we have sensations and other sorts of conscious states.

However, I am suspicious of making it into an argument because it allows Dennett and others (like the Churchlands) to argue that you can make a distinction between appearance and reality with regards to conscious states, and their philosophies of mind explain how. All they have to do is deny that premise. Certainly that's not a very plausible option, but they could do it. I'm not sure if you could prove Searle's point via an argument to someone who was dead-set against it.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Arguing from Authoritah

I sometimes get frustrated by common logical misunderstandings. Here's one that just boils my butternut squash: when people think that, since there are fallacies of appealing to authority, all appeals to authority are fallacious. This is not the case. In informal logic (inductive and abductive inference) appeals to authority are fallacious when the authority is an authority in an unrelated field. The fallacy does not rest in the appeal to authority per se but it in the irrelevancy of the authority's authority. For example, if you want to find out whether Newton or Leibniz discovered calculus first, I wouldn't ask someone who's an authority in pharmacological science. Of course, this person may have researched the subject such that they are uniquely situated to answer the question, but if we appeal to the fact that she is an authority, by virtue of her standing in pharmacology, we commit a fallacious appeal to authority.

That may seem easy, but people tend to strongly react against it. Here, for example, is a standard example of a fallacious appeal to authority. 

See, Einstein was a physicist. His area where he could speak as an authority is physics and other closely related fields. He was neither an expert nor an authority in political science or international diplomacy. Was he really, really smart? Yes, of course. Shouldn't we accept his claims about political science and international diplomacy by virtue of his extreme smartness? NO. That is a fallacious appeal to authority. His statement might be right (spoiler: it isn't), he might even be in a good position to affirm it, but it is outside his field of expertise. This is precisely why he declined the offer to be one of the first presidents of Israel.

But there are valid appeals to authority. Traditionally in Western civilization arguments from authority have been considered the weakest possible type of argument, at least according to the medieval Christian theologians. The reason it's extremely weak is because it doesn't involve you coming into direct contact with the truth of a matter: you're just accepting it because someone else has supposedly come into contact with it. But it's still a valid argument merely because, well, let's let Asimov say it:

What this counts for is a matter of dispute among philosophers. There are plenty who say that it only has relevance alongside other arguments. Others say it has strength by itself, but not so much to overturn an assertion. And some just reject the whole shebang.

Where people tend to gloss over the distinctions between valid and invalid appeals to authority is in appeals to science. Authority, supposedly, is of the old system, but science and a rejection of authority is the new system. Ignoring the point that the old system explicitly specified valid arguments from authority as the weakest of all arguments, science is completely beholden to authority. The glory and strength of science comes from its ability to challenge authorities -- background assumptions, traditional modes of understanding -- but of course the individual scientist cannot challenge all authorities. In order to get any work done, she has to accept the vast majority of claims on the basis of the authority of those who made them. She has to build up from what others have already accomplished, and this requires her to accept their claims on the basis of their authority. And of course the non-scientist has to accept scientific claims on the basis of the authority of the scientists who make the claims and the strong authority of science in general. I'm not challenging science at all, by the way, I'm just pointing out that a) appealing to authority isn't intrinsically bad and b) appeals to authority cannot realistically be removed, even from science. If your concept of science doesn't allow this, you're probably thinking of it as fundamentally iconoclastic rather than truth seeking. (Having said that, I'm writing these posts because I thoroughly enjoy telling people that they're wrong. So maybe we're even.)

The rabbit hole goes much deeper, of course. Does all this apply to individual authorities, or should it be reserved for the consensus of authorities? Can the collective efforts of the scientific community avoid appealing to authority even if the individual scientist can't? And who gets to decide who qualifies as an authority -- and who gave them that authority?

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Modal Ontological Argument

Arguments for and against the existence of God constitute one of the main topics in philosophy over the last few thousand years. By far, one of the craziest family of arguments is ontological arguments. They claim that the concept of God entails his actual existence. God is, by definition, the supreme being, the greatest conceivable being, the maximally great being, the perfect being, the being greater than which none can be thought. But if our conception of God is that he doesn't exist, he wouldn't be the greatest conceivable being since we could conceive of him existing and hence being even greater. Therefore, God must exist. Right? Anyone? Hello?

Ontological arguments sound like riddles, but some of the greatest intellects throughout history have defended them. Just in the last 100 years we've had Kurt Gödel (inarguably the greatest logician of the 20th century), Norman Malcolm, Alvin Plantinga, and Charles Hartshorne all defending versions of it. The standard objection to ontological arguments, from Kant, is that they treat existence as if it were a property a being could have or fail to have. But a being that failed to have existence wouldn't be a being at all. The recent counterargument is that this would only apply to Descartes's ontological argument, not to those of others, like Anselm's (or, for that matter, Kant's).

The contemporary versions use modal logic. This is basically the logic of possibility and necessity. If it's logically possible for you to do or be something -- say, waking up one morning as a giant cockroach -- then you have the modal property of "possibly existing as a cockroach." The weird thing is that, if it is possible for you to wake up one morning as a cockroach, then this modal property would not itself be a possible property you may or may not have, it would be an actual property. If something is possible, then its possibility is necessary (possible in all possible worlds), and if it's necessary, it's actual. So if it's possible you may wake up as a cockroach, then you actually have the modal property of "possibly existing as a cockroach." This sounds weird but it's a basic premise in modal logic (axiom S5) and as far as I know, it is uncontested in logical and philosophical circles.

So: say God is the maximally great being -- he has all positive properties, has them without limit, and has no negative properties. If this is logically possible, then God exists in at least one possible world. Now say God exists in only one possible world. Then he would lack the modal property of "possibly existing in world 2," and so wouldn't be maximally great. OK, so he has the property of possibly existing in worlds 1 and 2 and that's it. But then he lacks the modal property of "possibly existing in world 3." Now say he has the modal properties of "possibly existing in all possible worlds but one." Then he would lack the modal property of "possibly existing in that one world," and by lacking that modal property, wouldn't be maximally great. So if God exists in one possible world, he exists in all possible worlds. And the real world is a possible world, since if something is actual, it must be possible. Another way to say this is that any maximally great being worth its salt would exist necessarily, not just contingently; and if a necessarily existing being exists in one possible world, it exists in all possible worlds. Here's a rundown.

1. A maximally great being (God) is logically possible.
2. Therefore, a maximally great being exists in at least one possible world.
3. Therefore, a maximally great being exists in all possible worlds (otherwise he wouldn't be maximally great).
4. Therefore, a maximally great being exists in the actual world.
5. Therefore, a maximally great being (still God) exists.

There are some very interesting things about this, each one leading to the next. First, virtually every step in this argument is uncontroversial among logicians and philosophers, including atheists. But, second, there's a way to avoid the conclusion: deny the first premise. Deny that God, a maximally great being, is logically possible. Then God doesn't exist in any possible world. In fact, Plantinga, one of this argument's advocates, explicitly makes this point. Third, this means that God either exists in no possible worlds or all possible worlds. He either can't exist or can't not exist. He's either logically impossible or logically necessary. Fourth, since in order to say that God does not exist we have to say God cannot exist, the atheist bears the burden of proof. They must show that it is logically impossible for God to exist, that a maximally great being entails a logical contradiction. The theist only has to maintain that it's logically possible. But you don't have to prove something is logically possible unless you have a reason to think it may not be.

Naturally, one of the main objections to God is precisely that a maximally great being entails logical contradictions. For example, such a being would be maximally merciful but also maximally just. But these are, allegedly, incompatible since perfect justice would conflict with perfect mercy. Some individual traits are accused of being incoherent: could a maximally powerful (omnipotent) being create a stone so big that even he couldn't move it? If he can't, then there's something he can't do: make that stone. If he can, then there's something he can't do: move that stone. Either way, there's something he can't do and so omnipotence is a chimera. Naturally again, there are plenty of counterarguments and countercounterarguments and countercountercounter . . . . etc. Regardless, the modal ontological argument is fascinating, not least because it makes denying God's existence much more problematic.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Burden of Proof

It seems like everyone has a simplistic idea of who bears the burden of proof and it drives me freakin' nuts -- almost as much as people using "begs the question" to mean "forces us to ask."* The simplistic idea is that the person making a claim must bear the burden of proof, while the person who denies the claim does not. This is the standard in formal debates to keep them from going too far afield. Courts of law apply it as well because our justice system is premised on the "innocent until proven guilty" standard. So it's not unreasonable to mistake it as the universal standard, but it's still a mistake.

In philosophy burden of proof issues are notoriously difficult. Sometimes the person making a claim bears the burden of proof, but sometimes the person denying a claim bears it. Sometimes all parties bear it. It depends. And there's no absolute standard agreed upon by philosophers, although there are some clear examples. One traditional philosophical issue is the problem of other minds. How do we know that other people are really sparks of self-consciousness? The simplistic idea of burden of proof would say the person who denies other minds exist (solipsism) does not shoulder any of the burden of proof, but in this case he shoulders all of it. The person who affirms that other minds exist does not need to prove anything.

One objection people raise is that you can't prove a negative. Except you can. Of course you can. I can prove there is no full-sized elephant in this room right now. I can prove that there is not an army of fifty foot tall badgers ransacking downtown Portland as we speak. In fact, Karl Popper's philosophy of science says that all science can do is falsify claims, not prove them, in which case, science only proves negatives. It can't prove the positive claim "All swans are white" but it can prove the negative claim "Not all swans are white" by finding one example of a swan that isn't white. What you cannot do is empirically prove a universal negative. But you can still empirically prove a non-universal negative (like "Not all swans are white") and you can logically prove a universal negative (if it's a logical contradiction).

Another objection people raise is Bertrand Russell's suggestion of a teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. The person making this claim shoulders the burden of proof because in the absence of any evidence or reason to think such a teapot exists, the rational response is to disbelieve it, not just to be agnostic about it. We don't need a reason to disbelieve it, since in the absence of evidence we don't shoulder any burden of proof. But we do have a reason to disbelieve it: it's completely ad hoc or contrived. The more ad hoc a suggestion is, the less likely it is true. The teapot apologist must provide evidence to overcome the ad hoc-ness of the claim. Contrast this with the problem of other minds: there the solipsist is making the ad hoc claim and so must bear the burden of proof.

Most claims end up somewhere in between orbiting teapots and other minds (orbiting minds?), meaning that burden of proof is difficult to establish. The more ad hoc a claim is, the larger the share of the burden of proof one has, and sometimes denying a claim is more ad hoc than affirming it, not least because denying some claims can have repercussions that are outrageous. Carl Sagan said, "Incredible claims require incredible evidence," which is also simplistic and false, but if we restate it as "Ad hoc claims require sufficient evidence to counter their ad hoc-ness" then it can be salvaged, although it may not work as well as an aphorism.

* Incidentally, "begs the question" means you're arguing in a circle. You are assuming (begging) what is at question. So if I said "Trump is the most honest President ever," and when you asked why I believe that, I said, "Trump said so, and the most honest President ever wouldn't lie about something like that," I would be begging the question. The question is whether Trump is honest and my reasoning assumes he is in order to conclude he is. It argues in a circle, it begs the question. I actually wrote about this on Quodlibeta back in the day.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Some recent acquisitions


William Alston, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience. (I should have read this one years ago. Written by one of the most important epistemologists of the last hundred years.)

Nathan Aviezer, In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science. (A Jewish perspective.) 

Raymond E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus

Frederick Copleston, Aquinas: An Introduction to the Life and Work of the Great Medieval Thinker

Charles Darwin, From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books (Voyage of the Beagle, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals), edited by Edward O. Wilson. (Unfortunately, it doesn't include The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits, so I'm kinda bummed.)

Cardinal Avery Dulles, A History of Apologetics. (I've been wanting this one forever.)

The Interlinear NIV Hebrew-English Old Testament. (Almost 3,000 pages. Got it for about $25.)

Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers. (I had this years ago and it was lost in shipping when we moved back to the States.)

John Lennox, God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? 

C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. (One of the few Lewis books I didn't have, although I've read it more than once.)

Alister McGrath, Iustitia De: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. (OK, this one I've really wanted forever)

_______, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology.

_______, The Science of God.

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, 2 volumes. (I love Nietzsche, and my impression of Schopenhauer is that he's a forerunner of Nietzsche who was more pessimistic.)

Wilbur Marshall Urban, The History of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. (This was published in 1898, so as a history it's a little out of date. I'm just a big fan of Urban.) 


Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions. (This is all of his short story collections in one volume.)

Fredric Brown, From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown. (Gold.)

Ted Chiang, Exhalation. (Short stories, and the ones I've already read are amazing. The title story is incredibly relevant to philosophy of mind.)

James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes.

_______, Caliban's War.

_______, Abaddon's Gate. (I've watched The Expanse, the show based on these books, and loved it, but the books were expensive. I got these first three as a boxed set for about $20 which is much cheaper than I've seen any of them.

Cixin Liu, The Wandering Earth. (His short stories. I've loved everything I've read from him.)

Ken Liu, Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation. (Chinese short stories that Ken Liu translated and edited. He also writes his own books and stories, so I'm going to give those a look in the near future.)

Fred Saberhagen, Love Conquers All. (Same author as the Berserker series. I wanted this one because Saberhagen was a Catholic and from what I understand, this is his version of Brave New World.)

John Scalzi, Redshirts.

Lucius Shepherd, The Best of Lucius Shepherd.

Michael Swanwick, The Dog Said Bow-Wow.

John Varley, The Persistence of Vision.

Peter Watts, Blindsight. (This supposedly has some philosophical relevance to the Chinese Room argument.)

Andy Weir, Artemis. (Same author as The Martian.)

Robert Charles Wilson, The Harvest.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020


Today I read two articles critical of Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism. The first was an exercise in frustration. It took passages in the Bible which say God sent a deceiving spirit or something similar, and use this to argue that the Judeo-Christian God lies. In this case, Judeo-Christian theism gives one a defeater for the belief that their cognitive faculties are reliable just as much as naturalism allegedly does. It was exasperating to read this just because the authors' exegesis was so painfully bad. One of the foundational rules in exegesis -- in exegeting any text, not just the Bible -- is to interpret the unclear in light of the clear. These authors never mention the explicit passages in the Bible that say unequivocally that God does not, will not, and cannot lie. They just superficially accept what they want the text to mean. They go on to suggest that allowing miracles opens the door to chaos, although they condescendingly invite theists to provide some sort of repeatable, predictable evidence of miracles. It was just so incredibly superficial. It reminded me of a fictional conversation between Carl Sagan, Sylvia Plath, and Allen Carpenter in Escape from Hell by Larry Niven and the late great Jerry Pournelle

"I'm still getting used to this," Carl said. "Allen, you must have thought about this a lot. How can you justify keeping people in Hell? What gives God the right to demand we worship Him?" 
"Come now," Sylvia protested. "Where does right come from? You're going to judge God? By whose standards? You say yours, but what makes yours any better than anyone else's?" 
"I mean it, Allen. You two are smarter than almost anyone I ever met, but you sure have awful educations! People have been arguing about this for thousands of years! And you act like you've just thought of the questions." 
"I notice you never answered my question," Carl said. "What gives God the right to demand we worship Him?" 
"I haven't heard any such demand," Sylvia said. Maybe we just need Him, and we're miserable if we don't have Him."

"People have been arguing about this for thousands of years and you act like you've just thought of the questions." That pretty much sums up the article.

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Unconscious Violinist

The pro-choice position is that women have the right to do what they want with their bodies, but the pro-life position claims that the fetus is not the woman's body; it's the fetus's body. Since the right to swing your arms ends where another person's nose begins -- that is, your right to do what you want with you body ends where your use of your body harms someone else's body -- then if the fetus is an actual person, this would bear on whether a woman has the right to abort it. One problem with this is that the the woman and the fetus are organically connected, so the relationship between the mother and the fetus would be a unique one (really, the only example I can think of that's even remote comparable is conjoined twins), and that's a detail that could potentially change the equation.

Judith Jarvis Thomson is a moral philosopher and she came up with an argument that has greatly influenced the abortion debate. She grants these pro-life claims for argument's sake in order to construct a thought experiment. Say you wake up in a hospital bed and discover you're hooked up via tubes and whatnot to another person who is unconscious. Then you're told that this person is a famous violinist, a great artist, and has a kidney disease or something, and the only way to save him was to hook him up with someone else who closely matches his various biological conditions so that this other person's kidneys will filter his blood as well as your own -- and congratulations! your kidneys fit the bill. After nine months, everything can be disconnected and the violinist can be woken up, cured of his disease or condition. So do you have the right to refuse to take part in this procedure?

Thomson says yes. Granted, the unconscious violinist is a person; granted he will not survive without this procedure, this does not entail any responsibility on your part to allow your body be used as an object or tool to keep him alive for the next nine months. As a person, the violinist has the right to live, but he does not have the right to use someone else's body for his own purposes. So even if the fetus is a human being, a person, it does not have the right to the use of the woman's body.

Some people have raised objections to this. For one thing, at best, it would only apply to pregnancy by rape. Thomson argues that the fetus is using the woman's body in a nonconsensual way, but if the woman chose to have sex, the parallel between Thomson's thought experiment and abortion doesn't hold. We could add the detail that the woman attended a party with the understanding that there was a nontrivial chance of her being hooked up to an unconscious violinist for nine months afterwards. But this muddies the waters enough so that it isn't obvious that she has the right to unplug herself from the violinist. She knew that was a possible outcome of going to the party. Honestly, the first time I heard the Unconscious Violinist Argument, I thought it was an argument against abortion because of this point.

Another question we can ask is, how long is too long? What if she only has to be hooked up to the violinist for nine days? Or nine minutes? We can stand on principle here so that no amount of time is acceptable, but would you really think not having your autonomy overruled for nine minutes is more important than the violinist's life? What about nine days? Nine weeks? Or, to add another wrinkle, what if it's only nine hours but you know you only have fifteen hours to live and this will prevent you from accomplishing what you want during this time?

Again, this is all granting the pro-life position that the fetus is a person which is eminently contestable. I would conclude that the abortion issue does not have an obvious solution one way or the other, and if you're really confident of your position, maybe spend some more time thinking on it. I actually grew up with one side being the obvious, unquestioned one and then had some ideas presented to me which had never occurred to me, and after some contemplation, I switched teams.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

This is interesting

 Entire cities could fit inside the moon's monstrous lava tubes. The lower gravity means the tubes are significantly larger than on Earth.

"The largest lava tubes on Earth are maximum [about] 40 meters [130 feet] of width and height," said study co-author Riccardo Pozzobon, a geoscientist at the University of Padova, Italy. "So like a very large motorway tunnel."

That's certainly big enough space for some people to fit inside. But on Mars collapsed lava tubes tend to be about 80 times larger than Earth's, with diameters of 130 to 1,300 feet (40 to 400 m). Lunar lava tubes seem to be still larger, the researchers found, with collapse sites 300 to 700 times the size of Earth's. Lunar lava tubes likely range from 1,600 to 3,000 feet (500 to 900 m).

A lava tube on the moon, Pozzobon told Live Science, could easily contain a small city within its walls.

Yes, I know, my love of science is fueled by my love of science-fiction. I just like the idea of giant caves on the Moon and Mars with cities inside them. Sue me.

Monday, August 17, 2020

I'm very happy

 I just got a book I've been wanting ever since I heard about it: From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown. I'm delighted to see how many of these stories I haven't read before. Fredric Brown is one of my favorites, he wrote flash fiction before it was called that. He was science-fiction's O. Henry. I've read two stories so far: "The New One," which has the same general idea as one of his other stories, "Murder in Ten Easy Lessons"; and "The Angelic Angleworm," which was delightfully weird. So, sorry, I'm going to be busy for the rest of the day reading.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Lottery Paradox

Henry Kyburg was a philosopher who developed a theory of probability called statistical (or epistemological or sometimes just Kyburgian) probability, in contrast with Bayesian probability and logical probability. He's famous for coming up with the Lottery Paradox. Say there's a raffle with one million tickets, so one of the tickets between 1 and 1,000,000 will be picked. Since ticket 1 only has a one in a million chance of being selected, rationality requires us to believe that ticket 1 won't win. What is the probability that ticket 2 will win? Well, the same, one in a million. So rationality requires us to believe that ticket 2 won't win either. In fact, since every individual ticket only has a one in a million chance of winning, we should believe that every individual ticket will lose. But of course, we also know that one of those tickets will win. So rationality requires us to believe that ticket 1 will lose, ticket 2 will lose, etc. all the way up to ticket 1,000,000, but also that one of those tickets will win. This is a contradiction, there is no possible world where all the beliefs are true, yet it is irrational to deny any of them.

Kyburg was pointing out that there are three rational principles that lead to contradiction, and so we must reject one of them. First, if a proposition is probably true, it is rational to accept it. Second, if rationality requires us to accept proposition X and rationality also requires us to accept proposition Y, then rationality requires us to believe X and Y. Third, it is not rational to accept an inconsistent proposition. The Lottery Paradox shows that the second principle would mean we should accept that each ticket will lose and that one of them will win. This contradicts the third principle. To avoid this, we need to reject one of the three principles. Kyburg advocated rejecting the second: just because it is rational to believe ticket 1 will lose, ticket 2 will lose, etc., it doesn't mean it's rational to believe every ticket between 1 and 1,000,000 will lose. Many logicians, however, argue that we should reject the first principle: we shouldn't believe that ticket 1 will lose, we should believe it is very improbable that ticket 1 will win, but it might. Another possibility is to just throw up your hands and accept that an ideal form of rationality would still be imperfect and could entail contradictions. This is a rejection of the third principle. But accepting all three is not an option.

I'm inclined to reject the first premise -- or rephrase it so that instead of saying rationality requires us to believe a low probability entails falsehood, we say rationality requires us to believe a low probability entails ... wait for it ... a low probability. But regardless, the Lottery Paradox shows that logic, rationality, and probability are not as simple as they may appear.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Descartes's Evil Demon

Descartes was a 17th century philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. Once, in his early 20s, he went into a small cabin to stay warm. When he came out the next day he had invented analytic geometry. It's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished.

He wanted to explore the nature of knowledge, so he came up with several methods allowing him to hypothetically doubt even the most obvious truths, such as that other people exist, that the physical world exists, that he has a body, etc. Again, this was all hypothetical. People often mistake him as actually calling these things into question, but Descartes explicitly says you'd have to be a lunatic to seriously doubt them. He was engaged in an exercise to see if there was some belief he could not doubt in a logical sense.

To this end he came up with the Evil Demon. That's how English speakers refer to it. In French it's mauvais génie which can mean evil genie or genius.

The evil demon has the power to manipulate your thoughts so that falsehoods seems obviously true. Descartes used this to ask whether he could doubt that 2 + 3 = 5. It's logically possible that such a demon exists (that is, it's not a logical contradiction) so it's logically possible for Descartes's belief that 2 + 3 = 5 to be one of those beliefs that seem so blatant and obvious because the evil demon is messing with his mind to make it seem so. Ex hypothesi, 2 + 3 does not equal 5, it's just the evil demon's machinations that make it appear so. With this scenario, Descartes realized he could doubt that 2 + 3 = 5.

At this point, Descartes is (theoretically) denying the existence of other people, his body, the physical world, and even the obvious truths of basic mathematics and logic. There doesn't seem to be anything he can't doubt. But this is where he reaches what is called the cogito: he's doubting, so he can't doubt that he's doubting. But doubting is not an event, it is an action, and so it requires an actor, a subject that is doing the doubting. Since doubting is a form of thinking, Descartes concludes "I think therefore I am" (Latin: cogito ergo sum). I can't doubt my own existence, because in order to do so, I have to surreptitiously affirm my existence. I am the one who doubts my own existence. So it is impossible to doubt one's own existence. On a practical level, he can't really doubt that 2 + 3 = 5 either, but there is a logically possible scenario that allows him to do so. There is no such scenario where he can doubt his own existence: in every possible world where he tries to doubt his existence, he exists.

From this foundation, Descartes tries to reestablish his beliefs about everything else, but on a much surer footing. He goes from his own existence to God to the physical world and other people, etc. It is at this point that many philosophers reject his arguments -- not that they necessarily deny these things are real, but that Descartes can't really prove them. And of course, there have been plenty of philosophers who have argued that one can deny one's own existence, such as David Hume and Peter Unger. Nevertheless, Descartes's evil demon argument has been one of the most influential ideas in philosophical history.

Saturday, August 1, 2020


I really dislike the charge of whataboutism, partially because there's already a fallacy addressing the issue with a glorious Latin name: tu quoque ("you too"). The idea is that you justify an action by saying other people do it too -- perhaps even the person accusing you -- and it's a fallacy because pointing to other people who have committed the same action doesn't say anything about whether said action was appropriate or not. So what if someone else did it too? So what if the person accusing you has done it too? Couldn't the action still be inappropriate? Granted it's insanely frustrating when someone who swears like a sailor gives you grief for calling someone a poophead, but that doesn't mean it was OK to call them a poophead.

The problem is how whataboutism is being used today in political discourse. One side says J is doing something bad. The other side says H did the same thing. Pretty straightforwardly fallacious, no? Well . . . no. In most cases, the second side is not defending the action or behavior -- they're not even really addressing it's rightness or wrongness. What they're doing is accusing the first side of hypocrisy: "Your guy, H, did the same thing and you didn't object to it. Therefore, you are selectively applying your moral outrage." And that's a completely valid point to make. It might be true, it might not; perhaps the two cases are not similar enough to make the case. Or maybe the first side did object to it, or never heard about their guy doing the same thing. The point is that tu quoque/whataboutism only becomes a fallacy when you use the "your guy did it too" objection to say that the action is acceptable. But if you're just countering with "If you were really offended by this, you would have been just as offended when your guy did it -- but you weren't," you're not addressing the rightness or wrongness of the action but the moral consistency of the accuser. So yes, the tu quoque approach can be fallacious, but it can also be perfectly justified. There are plenty of valid tu quoque arguments.

At this point another fallacy raises its ugly head: ad hominem ("to the person"). Here, one argues that a person's claim is false because the person is bad in some way, like they're untrustworthy or they have ulterior motives, etc. But of course untrustworthy people with ulterior motives can say true things; we're still not addressing the alleged truth of the claim. So using the tu quoque/whataboutism fallacy to accuse someone of hypocrisy is supposedly an ad hominem: it's arguing against the person instead of the claim.

But once again, this doesn't work, for pretty much the same reason. The second side isn't arguing against the person in order to say that the action in question was justified or appropriate. They're still just arguing that their interlocutors are hypocrites, and that can be a valid point. They're not addressing whether the action was unjustified, they're saying, "Whether it's unjustified or not, YOU don't believe it's unjustified because your guy did the same thing and you had no problem with it."

I'd like to stop here, but someone could still say that the second group is committing a fallacy of irrelevance, like ignoratio elenchi ("ignoring refutation"), which basically means they're ignoring the argument. Instead of addressing the actual subject -- whether the action was justified -- they're changing it to whether the person arguing that it wasn't justified is being hypocritical. But why would the first person to speak get to decide what the debate's about? Refusing to accept the conditions of an assertion is not the same thing as committing the ignoratio elenchi fallacy. It's perfectly appropriate (or it can be perfectly appropriate) to accuse one's interlocutor of hypocrisy. It's not really changing the subject -- both sides are still addressing the appropriateness of an action -- but one side changes the focus of the subject to whether the other person believes the action is inappropriate or not.  How could rational conversation even be possible if we weren't free to change the focus like this?

Here's the bottom line: we already have names for informal fallacies, they're usually Latin and sound really cool, so don't go around making up other names for them that sound stupid.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Consequence Argument

The issue of determinism and free will have always been at the forefront in philosophy. We are inclined to define them as opposites: determinism means we have no free will and having free will means we are not determined. However, the majority view in contemporary philosophy is called compatibilism (or sometimes soft determinism) which tries to walk a middle path. If we define free will in the right way, then no conflict between it and determinism arises. So if we are free to do what we want, that's enough freedom and it's compatible with determinism. Whatever determines our actions also determines our desires so that our actions and desires match up -- or alternately, our actions are brought about by us in accordance with our desires, and our desires are determined by other forces. As Schopenhauer put it, "We are free to do as we will, but not to will as we will."

The motivation for compatibilism is to allow for moral praise and blame. If our actions are determined, it is difficult to see how we can be held responsible for them. Hard determinism accepts this and rejects moral responsibility. Libertarianism (NOT the political position) also accepts this and accepts moral responsibility. But if we are free to do what we want, then we can still say we are responsible for our actions, and so moral praise and blame is possible. Supposedly.

Peter Van Inwagen is one of the most important living philosophers. He earned his Ph.D. in 1969 and has began publishing on determinism and free will ever since. Eleven years into his academic career he converted to Christianity, which is interesting but unrelated to what I'm talking about. He also came up with the Consequence Argument which is essentially an argument against compatibilism. It argues that the free will of compatibilism does not allow for moral praise or blame, moral responsibility, and this takes away any motive for accepting compatibilism in the first place. We should either be hard determinists or libertarians.

The argument in a nutshell: if determinism is true, all of our actions are entirely produced by events in the remote past plus the laws of nature. But we have no control over events in the remote past or the laws of nature. Therefore, we have no control over our actions. If we have no control over our actions, we are not responsible for them, in which case praising us for our good acts and blaming us for our bad acts makes no sense.

Van Inwagen affirms free will, but also points out that it is a mystery. It has yet to be made into a coherent idea, despite the facts that we have an intuitive understanding of it and it has been something people have been discussing for as long as there's been people. Simply saying our actions are not determined is not enough, since we could hardly be held responsible for actions that just occurred spontaneously with no cause. Nicholas Rescher, another Christian philosopher and probably the most influential philosopher of science after C.S. Peirce and Karl Popper, published Free Will: An Extensive Bibliography, which is exactly what it says it is: over 300 pages of references. So I don't think the issue is going to be resolved anytime soon.

Sunday, July 26, 2020


Antilogisms are a form of argument that take a syllogism and negate the conclusion. So whereas a syllogism might say:

1. All men are mortal.
2. Socrates is a man.
3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Its corresponding antilogism would be:

4. All men are mortal.
5. Socrates is a man.
6. Socrates is not mortal.

The interesting thing about this is that you can now accept any two premises, but not all three. You can accept that Socrates is a man and is not mortal if you deny that all men or mortal. Or you can accept that all men are mortal and Socrates is not mortal if you deny that Socrates is a man. So any two premises in a genuine antilogism can be made into a valid syllogism by negating the remaining premise.

There are a lot of interesting antilogisms and pseudo-antilogisms in philosophy. One of the most famous goes back to the ancient Greeks, and was re-emphasized by David Hume.

7. God is omnipotent (all powerful).
8. God is omnibenevolent (perfectly good and loving).
9. Evil exists.

This really captures the intuitive sense behind the problem of evil, which asks how a perfectly good and omnipotent God could allow evil to take place. Unfortunately, premise 9 is not the negation of the valid conclusion of a syllogism:

10. God is omnipotent.
11. God is omnibenevolent.
12. Therefore, there is at least one omnipotent, omnibenevolent being.

I think what the antilogism is trying to say is something like this:

13. God is omnipotent.
14. God is omnibenevolent.
15. An omnipotent and omnibenevolent being would not allow evil to take place.
16. Evil does take place.
17. Therefore, God is either not omnipotent, not omnibenevolent, or neither -- perhaps by not existing.

(You could also throw omniscience in there to emphasize that God must be aware of the evil that takes place.) The problem here is defending premise 15. The history of philosophy (and theology) is filled with attempts to explain how God could allow evil to take place, called theodicies, which is not to say that any of them are successful. But if we negate 15 we get:

18. An omnipotent and omnibenevolent being could allow evil to take place.

Premises 7, 8, 9, and 18 are a consistent set. So 7, 8, and 9 is not a true antilogism. Naturally, we all want a reason to accept premise 18 -- a common claim is that God only allows evil when he is able to bring about a counterbalancing good from it -- but it's not necessary in the structure of the argument. As long as 18 is logically possible then premises 7, 8, and 9 do not form an antilogism.

To see an antilogism in action, let's apply it to this scene from "Gandhi."

This presents us with the following antilogism:

19. Gandhi is a "colored attorney."
20. Gandhi is in South Africa.
21. "There are no colored attorneys in South Africa."

Granted, premise 20 is never actually stated, but I think we can infer it with confidence. Once again, we can accept any two premises but not all three. So Gandhi reverses premise 21 to form a genuine syllogism:

22. Gandhi is a "colored attorney."
23. Gandhi is in South Africa.
24. "There is at least one colored attorney in South Africa."

And the rest of the scene shows how dangerous logic can be.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

The Chinese Room

The Chinese Room is a philosophical argument about the nature of mind that takes the form of a thought experiment. Imagine you're in a room with two slots. Tiles are slid in one with Chinese markings on them. You have a guidebook that tells you that if the tiles have such-and-such figures on them in such-and-such order, you are to take another tile that has other markings on it and slide it through the other slot. You eventually get very good at it, maybe you even memorize the guidebook. The question is: does your competence in operating the Chinese room mean that you understand Chinese? If you answer no, ask yourself what else it means to understand a language.

The answer most people would give is meaning. You know what symbols you should put through the output slot based on what the symbols that are put through the input slot are. But that doesn't correspond to knowing what the symbols actually mean.

John Searle, who first proposed the Chinese Room Argument, said it's the difference between semantics and syntax. Knowing what symbols should be made in response to other symbols is an issue of syntax, but semantics involves meaning, and that is left out of the equation.

Here's a great Kids in the Hall skit that accidentally makes this point.

Part of the reason this is absurd is that we could only take what he's saying as actual claims if he is actually asserting them. If he's just repeating sounds that, for him, have no meaning, we have no basis for accepting the meaning that the words have -- or the meaning they would have if spoken by someone who did understand them.

If the Chinese Room Argument is sound, there are some interesting consequences. One is that, if we believe that we do in fact understand meaning, that we are able to operate on a semantic level not just on a syntactic level, then our minds cannot be completely explained in mechanistic terms. Mechanism would only explain things on the syntactic level, and if we operate on a semantic level, then our minds transcend mere cause-and-effect mechanical processes.

Two, attempts to recreate minds on a mechanistic basis, i.e. artificial intelligence, will only ever operate on a syntactic level. It could be set up to respond in exactly the same way a mind operating on a semantic level does but it would be a sham. It would be an attempt to trigger our intuition that there is a mind behind the symbols that intends to communicate meaning (remember the movie Screamers?), but insofar as they are only functioning on a syntactic level, they are in the same situation as the non-Chinese speaker in the Chinese room.

Obviously, there's a lot more to be said about this: it's a live issue in philosophy with a lot of ink being spilled on both sides. It may be possible to generate an artificial intelligence that does operate on a semantic level. But how could we tell? It's output would be identical to one that only operates on a syntactic level. But then how do we know that other people -- friends, family, strangers -- are operating on a semantic level? This is the problem of other minds, which has also caused a lot of ink to be spilled.