Thursday, June 28, 2012

Proof Positive

Last night I left a few comments on another blog that reported the news that a German court had declared it illegal to circumcise children under the age of consent. The comments on the blog veered to several side issues, one of which was condemnation of religions that practice circumcision. This led to a couple of commenters making the claim that atheism is not disbelief in God, it's merely the absence of belief in God. I've written about that before so I challenged them to define what the "absence of belief" is and how it's different from withholding belief (agnosticism) and disbelief (atheism as it has been understood historically and today). The "absence of belief" position was popular in the mid to late 20th century among some atheist philosophers, but they eventually abandoned it because they couldn't define it. Their motive for suggesting it was that if one simply lacks a belief then they (allegedly) do not share any burden of proof: the burden is entirely on the person who claims that God exists. If you assert that God does not exist, however, then you're making a claim to knowledge and so must shoulder the burden of proof just as much as the theist does. So the "absence of belief" position is basically an attempt to think whatever you want without having to go to the trouble of having reasons or evidence for it.

This led to someone else making a statement that is popular among atheist laymen. He wrote, "You can't prove a negative." I responded, "You can't? Why not? I can prove negatives. Who told you that you can't prove a negative?" Really, negatives are proven all day long and are very easy: you can prove that there is no full-sized elephant in your room right now. You can prove that, under normal conditions, if you drop a pencil, it will not fall up instead of down. These are perhaps silly examples, but proving negatives is one of the most common things to prove. Here's a more realistic case. Many scientists and philosophers of science follow Popper in claiming that science cannot prove anything it can only falsify. Science cannot prove "if A --> B" because A and B may just be occuring together by coincidence. However science can falsify "if A --> B" by finding an example of A occurring without B. If we accept this account then not only is it possible to prove a negative, it means that science only proves negatives.

Now I suspect the atheist who says you can't prove negatives is really thinking something else. Perhaps he's thinking that while you can prove negatives about observables you can't prove negatives about unobservables, like God. But of course this is false as well: you can prove that God did not just create a full-sized elephant in your room right now. The atheist may counter-respond that if we appeal to God we can make any absurd qualification we want. Maybe God just created a full-sized invisible elephant in your room right now. If you object that part of your anti-elephant proof is that your room is not big enough for an elephant, you can maybe qualify it further. But these attempts are non-starters. Absent the specific qualification that the elephant is invisible (or any other ad hoc qualification) the phrase "a full-sized elephant" by itself would mean that the elephant in question is visible (or lacks the ad hoc qualification). I think the people who make this objection are thinking something along the lines of: the concept of God has been repeatedly qualified to render it immune to disproof. It used to refer to a physical person-like object, but then when that became philosophically and scientifically untenable it was upgraded to a non-physical person-like object, etc. This seems to presuppose a naive view of the origin and development of religion which was common in the second half of the 19th century. Certainly, the theistic concept of God has developed -- as it should -- but it is not clear to me that this has been a series of ad hoc qualifications like, "Well, well, maybe he's just invisible!" At any rate, atheism is guilty of the same thing, so it strikes me as a tu quoque argument.

Or perhaps the atheist is thinking you can't prove a universal negative. That's a more respectable claim: to say there are no X's would seem to require that one had searched all of reality and determined that no X's exist. Even more, it would seem to require that one had searched all of reality simultaneously: otherwise, perhaps the X's were somewhere other than where you were looking at each particular moment; maybe they moved around so that they were always behind you or something. Unfortunately, this claim is still false. It assumes the only way you can prove something is via observation, that is, through scientific methods. This is scientism and scientism is a naive and foolish position. To make the most obvious point, you can prove things via logic -- specifically you can prove universal negatives via logic. If something contradicts a law of logic then it is impossible and cannot exist anytime, anywhere. If the atheist challenges the laws of logic we can simply point out that science presupposes the laws of logic. Once you've abandoned logic you've abandoned science (not to mention knowledge and rationality). However, this has a limited application. That's why this objection is more respectable: in many cases you can't prove a universal negative. It's only when the universal negative contradicts a law of logic that it can be disproven.

A third possibility: perhaps the atheist is defining "prove" in the logical sense. You can give an argument for something, you can demonstrate that something is more likely true than false, you can even show that it is very probably true. But a logical proof is an absolute proof. It cannot fail to be true (or, conversely, fail to be false). It holds of all possible worlds. But of course, this was already dealt with: to prove a universal negative via logic is to prove it absolutely.

Finally, I would just like to point out that the claim "You can't prove a negative" is a negative. So by its own lights, it can't be proven. This doesn't necessarily render it invalid, since there are many things we can know that we can't prove. However, it does mean, at the very least, that the person who claims you can't prove a negative must give us a reason for thinking why you can't prove a negative. This is likely to lead to one of the three possibilities above.

(Updated to add a point and clean up some awkward phrasings.)

Update, 12 July: Defining ignorance.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Quote of the Day

The other motive which prompts Naturalism in its attempt to deny the efficiency of mind is of a more positive and ambitious sort. It is, namely, the desire to make all forms of matter, of motion, and of energy susceptible to the same sort of description, explanation, and prediction; the wish to get a single world formula under which everything that happens may be subsumed. "We have achieved the impersonal point of view," hymns one of the most ecstatic of the behaviorists, "in the interpretation of stars and stones and trees and bacteria and guinea pigs. Our next step is to achieve it for the phenomena of human behavior." Thus shall we at length achieve that consummation devoutly to be wishes, that thoroughly scientific point of view, from which we shall be unable to find in man anything essentially different from what we observe in stones, bacteria, and guinea pigs. There is, to be sure, absolutely no evidence to show that such an achievement is possible, no argument to indicate that the actual world is such as to submit to such a formula; but the great longing heart of Naturalism demands that it shall be so, and the naturalistic philosopher solemnly declares that it is so -- it is so because it must be so. It would be impossible to find in the most sentimental and unreasoning forms of religious experience a more extreme case of the pious wish or the Will to Believe. Nor can the annals of Scholastic Philosophy or of Protestant Theology give us a more admirable example of dogma, pure and undefiled. No evidence that Galileo could give as to the motion of the earth had any influence upon his judges; the earth did not move because it could not move. In similar fashion we are assured that the mind cannot move nor influence the movements of the body -- to say that it does so is heresy, for so one would deny the universality of physical law. -- E pur si muove!

Here is the real issue of the mind-body problem, here is the only important question. And looking back over our course with this fact in mind we can now see that there are not, as we had supposed, three or four chief views of this problem, but only two, namely Interaction and its rivals. The various forms of Materialism, of Parallelism, and of Behaviorism are only different ways of saying pretty much the same thing, only varied attempts to prove the same thesis. The aim of all is identical, namely, to write down and explain the whole of reality in physical formulæ, to deny to mind any influence whether direct or indirect upon matter and motion. The first expression of this naturalistic thesis is the blatant form of Materialism. The difficulties to which this gives rise are too patent to permit of its acceptance, so they are later disguised under the gentlemanly costume and the idealistic mask of Parallelism. But the splendid promises of Parallelism lead to disillusion at the end, and the mask which it wore is easily torn from its face. No one weeps its fall, for few besides Fechner and Paulsen were ever very much interested in it except as a means of defeating Interaction and establishing Naturalism. So its old upholders rapidly desert it to give in their allegiance to Behaviorism. Behaviorism, also, would like to avoid the blatancy of Materialism. It has many brave words as to the nobility and the significance of intelligence. But when we get at the real meaning of the words we learn that intelligence is simply a specific form of activity and set in nerves, muscles, and glands. Thus, Behaviorism, in common with its predecessors and allies, is merely a specially devised way of denying the efficiency of consciousness.

And when one stops to face squarely this proposition that mind has no effect on conduct, -- when, I say, one stops to face it squarely, and leaving aside pet theories, gives it serious consideration int he light of all that one knows of oneself and of other men and of human history and civilization -- the proposition reveals itself to the steady gaze as unspeakably preposterous. In the words of Professor Lovejoy, "Never, surely, did a sillier or more self-stultifying idea enter the human mind than the idea that thinking as such -- that is to say, remembering, planning, reasoning, forecasting, -- is a vast irrelevancy having no part in the causation of man's behavior or in the shaping of his fortunes -- a mysterious redundancy in the cosmos which would follow precisely the same course without it."

We are told we must deny the efficiency of consciousness because of the difficulty in believing in any exceptions to the action of mechanical law and the difficulty of imagining how mind can act on matter. I submit that to be so nice with little difficulties, and so omnivorous with monstrosities that approach the mentally impossible is a case of straining at one poor gnat and swallowing a whole caravan of camels. Like others I find it difficult to imagine an idea affecting a brain molecule; but I think I am also like nearly everybody else when I find it impossible to believe that thought and purpose have had nothing to do with building up human civilization and creating human literature and philosophy. How the opponents of Interaction manage to believe these things I confess I find it very difficult indeed to imagine.

I know this is not decisive. I know indeed what the upholder of Naturalism will probably reply. His reply, in fact, will be in substance not very different from that of the Red Queen to Alice, after Alice had told her there were some things she couldn't believe. "Can't you?" said the Queen in a pitying tone. "Try again; draw a long breath and shut your eyes."

"There's no use trying," said Alice, "one can't believe impossible things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

When one remembers the materialistic assertions that consciousness is matter and that logic is ground out by mechanical processes, the parallelistic thesis that the non-existent brain determines wholly the existent mind, the neo-realist denial of all reality to the subjective, the behaviorist identification of thought with the action of the larynx, one sees that Naturalism, like the Red Queen, has had some practice in believing the impossible; that in fact it would be stating its case with great moderation, not to say modesty, if it should claim that sometimes it had believed as many as half a dozen impossible things before breakfast. Moreover, the Red Queen's formula for belief is the one which must necessarily be adopted if we are to imitate successfully the remarkable achievements of Naturalism in the arousal of faith in the impossible, -- namely, "Draw a long breath and shut your eyes!"

I too can believe a good many things with my eyes shut; but if I keep them persistently open I becomes less and less impressed with the ambitious claims and the false dignity of Naturalism. And by Naturalism I mean, of course, not natural science but the unempirical philosophy, the a priori theory, which would extend the formulæ of natural science into spheres in which the true scientist has no ambition to advance. Taken in this sense Naturalism appears to me the great hoax of our times. Its seemingly adamantine fortifications, with their tremendous and terrifying guns, are mostly camouflage. Its walls are enormously impressive; but like those of Jericho they will fall before whosoever has the courage coolly to examine their foundations -- and to blow upon the trumpet.

This being the case, I must also say frankly that Interaction seems to me the inevitable outcome of our argument. It is the only view that makes history and human life really intelligible. Indeed if we were right in believing (and we have seen no reason for doubting) that Materialism, Parallelism, Interaction, and the denial of the mind-body relation are the only answers to our problem worth serious consideration; and if we were justified also in our conclusion that the relation is a real one, and that neither Materialism nor Parallelism is tenable, and that the alleged difficulties of Interaction are much slighter than at first they seem, it follows that we are plainly compelled by the very process of elimination to conclude that Interaction is the true doctrine and that mind has an independence and a power of its own. And now we can begin to understand the wild attempts of Materialism, Parallelism, Neo-Realism, and Behaviorism to invent some method by which Interaction might be avoided. Not for nothing were the strange twistings and writhings of these theories. For if Interaction be accepted a momentous turn has been taken in our philosophy. We shall namely have given in our assent to a Dualism of Process with the universe.

The consequences of such a Dualism of Process are fateful and endless. There is no time to deal with them this afternoon and they must be postponed for consideration to our final lecture. But we can, I think, already begin to form some notion of what is involved in this Dualism of Process, to which, by the force of logic and of experience, we seem to have been driven. Such a world view will mean a profound, if not a fundamental, distinction between matter and spirit. It will mean the return of all sorts of possibilities against which the iron gates of Naturalism were forever closed. It will mean that perhaps Plato and Christianity were right after all.

James Bissett Pratt
Matter and Spirit: A Study of Mind and Body in Their Relation to the Spiritual Life (1922)
(footnotes omitted)

Monday, June 18, 2012

On Anti-Semitism in Europe

Walter Russell Mead has been blogging a lot on European anti-Semitism recently: see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here (and actually read them; Mead is a voice of deep moral clarity). On one of those posts I left a comment regarding something I experienced last month. I was getting off a train at Brussels-Midi and, while waiting for the train to stop, stood by a door that had the "danger: electricity" sign on it to warn passengers not to open it. Under the sign, someone had scrawled, "Only Jews inside".

I stood there staring at it for about half a minute as it sank in. I was standing on a train in western Europe looking at a casual statement wishing death to Jews. It made me sick to my stomach.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Popular media finally gets around to covering medieval philosophy

I Want a New Left points to an article on Ibn Rushd a.k.a. Averroës. I wrote my M.Phil. thesis on Averroës and originally planned to do my Ph.D. dissertation on him, Ibn Bajjah (Avempace), Ibn Tufail, and Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and how they were influenced by Alexander of Aphrodisias. I still hope to be able to come back to that and write it someday.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Thought of the Day

"Agnostic" is the Greek-based word for someone with "no knowledge". The Latin-based word is "ignoramus".

Friday, June 15, 2012

On libertarianism (not the political one)

The Maverick Philosopher (William Vallicella) has some interesting posts on free will. Start here where he states categorically that he believes in libertarian free will. I strongly agree with this as I don't see how one can deny libertarian free will without falling into self-defeat. He links to another post here where he takes down a pseudo-philosopher who tries to argue against free will, which in turn leads to a companion post on neuroscience and free will here. That then links to an excellent article by Alfred R. Mele, "Free Will: Action Theory Meets Neuroscience". Returning then to his original post, Vallicella links to yet another post where he points out that it's incoherent to say that free will, moral responsibility, and consciousness are illusions. (On the latter, if consciousness is an illusion, who is having the illusion? An illusion is an illusion to a consciousness) And finally he also links in the original post to another take-down of the pseudo-philosopher here.

And just in case that's not enough for you, read Ted Chiang's brilliant short (one page) story "What's Expected of Us".

Thursday, June 7, 2012



Photos shamelessly stolen from here and elsewhere via Google Image Search. I may add some more later when I can download the pictures and post them myself rather than use someone else's bandwidth. (Update: Done)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In memoriam

Ray Bradbury has passed away. I lift a glass of (unfortunately imaginary) dandelion wine and propose a toast to his life and writings.