Sunday, August 17, 2008

Jason Voorhees Rises Again: Evidentialism and Nihilism in Resurgence

Rhology, my longtime Christian adversary, whose intellect and facility with the English language have kept me engaged despite this blogalogue long since having become post-mortem equine savagery, has composed another attack on evidentialism and my articulation thereof. Hence, like a horror movie monster that is repeatedly resurrected for lucrative (and lesser) sequels, I have reactivated My Case Against God, though only to respond to this latest attack. Because Rhology likes to select snippets from my writing and respond directly to them, I shall quote those (where applicable) in italics before posting his rebuttal and, finally, my rejoinder.

Prior to delving into the multifarious issues, I shall quote my own definitions of “Cosmic First Principle” and “Philosophical First Principle”…definitions with which Rhology never expressed disagreement.

I would define a Cosmic First Principle as one that, quite literally, explains everything: Such a principle would presuppose nothing (not even the coherency of “principle” as a concept), yet, in itself and through itself, illuminate everything. Such a principle would be true, active and vital before any consciousness was around to grasp or utilize it; that is, it would in no way be dependent on humans, our sentience or our thoughts. A Cosmic First Principle would be there—true, active and vital—even before matter condensed in the cosmos.

By contrast, a Philosophical First Principle is an indivisible, unsplittable foundation of human thought. Taking certain things (including, but not restricted to, one’s own existence, one’s own sentience and the existence of abstract concepts such as principles) as granted (all those things are manifest, by the way), such a principle aspires to be a roadmap for efficacious reasoning. [Think of it this way: “Here we are…sentient beings on this planet in this universe. How best might we harness our minds?”]

First off, I'd like to point out that he hasn't answered the questions raised here.

Nihilist: I have addressed every relevant point in your post in our assorted comment box discussions. I have not had much to say because your attack on evidentialism was misguided from its conception: Not recognizing the distinction between a Cosmic First Principle (hereafter “CFP”) and Philosophical First Principle (hereafter “PFP”), you conflated them, criticizing one for not being the other. In other words, you complained my PFP was not sufficiently CFP, despite the fact that they are substantially different concepts.

Rhology: No one who reads his blog or his comments would think that he is unsure or agnostic about whether he's right, about whether he is pretty sure that evidence is the best way for humans to approximate truth, but if he doesn't defend his own position and if he destroys mine, then he's left drifting in a morass of agnosticism.

Nihilist: On its own terms, as a PFP, that is, a lens through which an individual interrogates the world in which he finds himself, my position has sustained no appreciable damage. Again, the entire foundation of your critique was unwarranted conflation. This is illustrated when, in your evidentialism post, you write, “I asked him for a, one, (1) First Principle, and he provides one that is totally inadequate, to the point that he has to smuggle in numerous other concepts that he didn't mention.” Evidentialism, as I embrace it, might be insufficient according to CFP standards but, once again, it is not a CFP.

Rhology: And notice how he's vacillating. One moment he's crying "axiom!" to get out of the infinite regress of asking for evidence for the evidence for the evidence for the evidence for the evidence for the idea that evidence is a good way to discover truth.

The very next minute he's saying "evidence (relevant facts) can be marshaled to demonstrate evidence’s utility", thereby utterly begging the question.

Nihilist: My evidentialist PFP is axiomatic (a postulate or supposition)…is foundational. However, self-subsistence can be tested and, fortunately, my PFP passes. I constantly cite the mathematics example, but I shall do it again because, apparently, you have not fully understood my point. “Mathematics is the only way humans can reach truth” is a self-annihilating postulate because one cannot appeal to mathematics in order to show mathematics is the only way humans can reach truth. By contrast, “Evidence is the best, most reliable way for humans to approximate truth” is a self-subsisting PFP because one can marshal evidence to demonstrate evidence’s utility. You might call the exercise—drawing on evidence to substantiate evidence—question begging; in actuality, it is proof of self-subsistence. Indeed, it is definitive demonstration that my PFP does not annihilate itself.

Rhology: The next minute he's differentiating between a "Cosmic" 1st Principle (CFP) and a "Philosophical" 1st Principle (PFP) and claiming that his PFP is useful for observing and living in this universe. This... "cosmos", if you will. Hmm. Seems a little arbitrary.

Nihilist: This is just semantics-driven taunting. Call one “Larry” and the other “Moe,” for all I care. All that matters is recognizing two separate concepts.

I do not have to deal with the “brain in a vat” question because the location of my brain—inside my skull—is manifest.

Rhology: This deals with the concept in point 4 here. He's begging the question again.

"Well, obviously I'm not a brain in a vat. My brain's right here!"

For one thing, he's never directly observed his brain. He's observed his SCALP, not his brain. I don't encourage him to try it, but to stop begging this question, a bone saw would need to be involved.

Nihilist: Although I have never directly observed my brain, it has been seen before. When I was one year old, I fell down the basement stairs and suffered a skull fracture; I needed to undergo surgery and have a metal plate installed in my skull. During this delicate procedure, the doctors saw my brain: It was there, in my skull, exactly where it belonged. There is no reason to suppose that it wandered off in the intervening years. Anyway, I am still a living, thinking, conscious human…surely my brain must get some credit for that!

Rhology: Also, if you're a brain in a vat, you are simply being deceived by the electrical stimuli being fed into your brain by the evil alien/demon in charge of creating your illusions. Go ahead and marshal evidence that this is not the case.

Nihilist: Enter the Cartesian Demon, who is inventing the elaborate illusion I call reality. Can I be certain there is no Cartesian Demon? No, I cannot. It always shall remain a possibility (the likelihood of which is essentially inscrutable). However, in fact, the whole question is irrelevant. Here, I yield to Richard Carrier, writing in “Sense and Goodness without God.” The context is the consistency of our cosmos, and Carrier’s discussion dances dangerously close to addressing PFP (that, once again, being a foundational axiom for interrogating the world in which one finds oneself).

“…if the demon were really this consistent in giving us results, through which we satisfy our every goal and desire, there would hardly be any intelligible difference between what we call ‘reality’ and the world the demon is inventing for us. [The Cartesian Demon’s construct] would
be reality, in every sense of the word we normally use. And since we observe some methods [of discovering truth] to work better than others, and indeed some work best of all, a Cartesian Demon would have to be arranging it this way, constructing reality for us solely in accord with a fixed plan it has chosen. In that case we have just as much reason to pursue the relevant methods for discovering that plan, and to abandon the bad ones, so we can gain the reward of a successful life experience from this mischievous demon. In other words…even if [the Cartesian Demon theory is true], nothing significant changes for us regarding method [of truth discovery].”

The only world with which to be concerned is the world in which one finds oneself—that is, the world of experience. If my existence is the elaborate illusion of a Cartesian Demon, this confected reality is, in fact, reality for me. The “actual reality” of my brain in a vat is not the world of my experience. With that, its relevance vanishes.

Second, the entirety of your line of reasoning is based upon what I deem to be a fallacious notion: that the bare facts of reality cannot be the bare facts of reality, but, instead, require “grounding.” The cosmos exists—this is manifest.

Rhology: 1) Prove the cosmos exists, and that you are not being deceived by a grand illusion.

Nihilist: Cartesian Demon. Redux. The world of experience is the only world with which I must concern myself. For me, the reality that I experience is reality. Some gratuitous reality beyond it, even if existent, has absolutely no relevance to my life: My consciousness is here…not there.

Rhology: 2) I love it - the JN wants me to bring forth evidence all the time for the existence of TGOTB, but when it comes to other things that make him uncomfy, all of a sudden, things are just "manifest". Arbitrary, again.

3) Very well then - TGOTB's existence is just a bare fact of reality. It doesn't require grounding. See, wasn't that easy when we just invoke the ipse dixit? Perhaps the JN thinks he's the infallible Pope of Reason.

Nihilist: One cannot claim just anything to be manifest; in order for that word to be applicable, the fact at hand must be blindingly obvious: The sun’s existence is manifest; humankind’s existence is manifest; water’s existence is manifest. Your particular god character could never be described as such…could never be placed alongside the afore listed bare facts. If nothing else, my favorite Christopher Hitchens quote from “god is not Great,” in which the Chinese express bafflement as to why, if god has revealed himself, he has allowed so many centuries to elapse before informing them, goes to show just how far from manifest Yahweh is.

Rhology: He's already shown he's willing to put on and take off the Pope of Morality hat when it suits him; now his authority apparently extends to even more areas of life than I originally realised.

Nihilist: I am endlessly bewildered by your morality-related snipes. I have been unfailingly clear in my rejection of moral truth. There is no reason to believe anything is objectively moral or objectively immoral; it is merely a matter of person-by-person opinion, analogous to whether one likes a film or whether one finds a joke amusing. To imply I claim to divine moral truth is outrageous, because I deny moral truth’s very existence. Any moral judgments I render are pure opinion…no different from my annual Top 10 Films list.

Abstract concepts such as principles can be dealt with by the human species—this, per the pattern, is also manifest.

Rhology: Humans may be able to "deal with" these concepts, but this speaks not at all to the question of whether they're true or not. The JN may have lost track of just what we're arguing here.

Nihilist: I am merely showing that the existence of principles does not need to be “grounded” within my PFP; the existence of abstract thought is manifest. That is, in the world in which we find ourselves, abstract thought exists…it is a bare fact of this world. Therefore, my PFP does not need, somehow, to “account” for it.

[Of CFPs] First, I share Russell’s concern that such musings exist solely in the land of metaphysics, having no real relationship with the world of experience.

Rhology: Your PFP is also 100% metaphysical, as we've seen and as you've admitted, sometimes (when it suits you). You can't prove evidence is a good way to discover truth by bringing forth evidence. What is your evidence for that?
See how he's forcing us to regress in our conversation? Suddenly we're where we were 3 months ago!

Nihilist: Your invocation of the Cartesian Demon theory ably evinces the extent to which you are wallowing in empty metaphysical musings. I, by clear contrast, am concerned with the world of experience. My PFP accepts certain things as “granted,” among those the cosmos, my species, me as an individual, my sentience, etc. I look the world of experience square in the eye and, with my PFP and the intellectual tools with which I have been endowed, attempt to interrogate it. As we shall see shortly, when we come to your “Flying Catfish” critique, you are doing everything but confronting the world of experience.

Ultimately, in terms of voluntary actions, one always follows one’s desire.

Rhology: I had asked him a question about morality - what one SHOULD do. He responds with a long paragraph about what humans DO. Apparently what IS is what OUGHT, but he doesn't always believe that. If he did, he would never, ever criticise any action, ever, b/c it IS. He does criticise certain actions, however, on moral grounds, so he doesn't really believe this. It's hard to talk to someone who's so inconsistent.

Nihilist: In fact, you asked, “Is there any compelling reason you could offer someone as to WHY they SHOULD accept your FP over mine?” This was not framed as a moral question but, instead, a practical one. To your practical question, I gave a practical answer:

Every voluntary action undertaken by a human is an attempt (successful or unsuccessful) to fulfill a desire. Suppose you are standing in the dining room, with the kitchen to your left and the den to your right. If you turn left and walk into the kitchen, it is because you desired to do so. Every voluntary action represents an attempt at desire fulfillment. Sometimes, desires are conflicting. Suppose you are a college student and your alarm has roused you. It is 8AM…time for class. Part of you desires to roll over and go back to sleep. Another part of you desires to rise, dress and go to class. If you do get up and start moving, it is only because you desired to do so—and desired it more than staying in bed. In fact, in the case of directly contradictory desires, one desire becomes dominant and the other ceases to be a genuine desire. Ultimately, in terms of voluntary actions, one always follows one’s desire.

That rambling preface was required to show my PFP’s worth. If evidence is an excellent way to approximate truth—and it is—then people would benefit from following my PFP because accurate, truthful knowledge enables them to align their behaviors with their desires. Every voluntary action undertaken by a human is an attempt to fulfill a desire, but if said human is filled with false information, his attempt at desire fulfillment might be entirely wrongheaded and counterproductive. Only with accurate knowledge can desire and action be aligned effectively. Thus, if I were evangelizing my PFP, I would make exactly this argument. If one uses evidence as a guiding light, the effectiveness of voluntary actions is maximized.

If you intended to pose a question of objective moral fact then I have no answer, because I reject objective moral fact’s existence.

You also referenced self-revelation through the Bible, but I do not see how that is a core essentiality.

Rhology: It is not an essential attribute for God, but objective revelation is essential for our epistemology. If we don't know anything about God, then... we don't know anything about God. This will be a very important point as these discussions advance.

Nihilist: And, in my reply to your original post, I anticipated this answer and responded in advance, saying, “I could simply say ECC condescended to reveal itself to me, and I was charged with passing along the news of the revelation.” Perhaps said deity seared its message into my brain, so I could never forget even the most piddling detail. Or, perhaps, over a period of many days, the deity shared an extensive revelation, from which I composed a thousand-page gospel. Yahweh/the Bible are not the only conceivable revelatory sources. Thus, lack of knowledge of their nature is not an intrinsic problem for my confected gods.

The Green God possesses:

* Omnipresence

* Omnipotence

* Omniscience

* Ability to create this universe and having done so

* Functionality as “grounds” for all logic, rationality, induction, and morality


When the deity, from his ethereal perch, looks down upon his wondrous creation, he "sees" everything with a slight tint of green. You see, this deity likes green, and so, his vision is tinted as such.

Rhology: 1) Maybe TGOTB *does* see everythg tinted green.

2) How is the Green God omnipresent if he has physical eyes with which he sees "green", like we do?

3) How do you know this god exists, and more to the point, how do you know he sees everythg tinted green?

Nihilist: 1) Perhaps he does. However, he could not simultaneously see everything tinted exclusively in green and everything tinted exclusively in red. He sees either with green tinting, red tinting, tinting of another color or no tinting at all. It could not simultaneously be exclusively green and exclusively red. That means Green God and Red God—although sharing identical core essentialities—are certifiably different. And, given those essentialities and an objective revelation to, say, me, you would have no justification for dismissing either as my CFP.

2) I never said anything about “physical eyes” or sight identical to our own. If a being is omnipotent, and wishes to see everything with a colorized tint, it can do so. If it could not do so, it would not be omnipotent.

3) As already noted, one could claim objective revelation, either with the message seared permanently into one’s brain or translated into a written gospel. The Bible is hardly the only imaginable gospel to claim itself “revealed truth.”

The Melodic God possesses:

* Omnipresence

* Omnipotence

* Omniscience

* Ability to create this universe and having done so

* Functionality as “grounds” for all logic, rationality, induction, and morality


* There is a melody that this deity finds endlessly pleasing. As such, in a ceaseless loop, that melody "plays" in the deity's vast consciousness. It does not dominate the consciousness, but serves as permanent "background music."

Rhology: 1) TGOTB *does* have endless background music.

2) You even admitted: "It does not dominate the consciousness". Precisely. This god is no different from TGOTB.

Nihilist: 1, 2) Perhaps he does. However, he could not have the specific background music you described (omitted here for space) and simultaneously have entirely different background music (say, reminiscent of heavy metal). Either he experiences the background music you described, the background music I described, background music of another variety or no background music at all. He could not simultaneously experience exclusively your music and exclusively my music. This means every god that has specific, exclusive background music is distinct from every other god that has different specific, exclusive background music. Given an objective revelation of each, you have an infinite set of god characters, each fully capable of serving as a CFP.

Of course, mixing and matching “green tinting,” “red tinting” and “heavy metal” variables is terribly silly; nevertheless, it is necessary to make a critical point. As long as a god character possesses the specified core essentialities (and Rhology has not objected to my list) and has condescended to offer revelation—if only to one individual—that god could be used as a CFP. And, as we have seen, for every exclusive color tinting and every exclusive background music tune, we have a recipe for different gods…infinite varieties of different gods…easily one for every human who has ever lived. Such is the folly of CFPs, which comprise little more than—presto!—defining things into existence.

Let us resolve to restrict our concern to the actual, hard, manifest world of experience.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Clarifying the State of Affairs

Although geocentric cosmology has been abandoned for centuries, its philosophical analogue pitifully persists even today in the solipsistic and speciocentric thinking exhibited by persons of varied theological (and atheological) persuasions. The delusive notion of which I write can be understood as two intertwined components: (a) The cosmos is purposeful and (b) our meager species is of central importance to this purpose. Steven Weinberg, an American physicist and Nobel laureate, once observed, “In the same way that each of us has had to learn in growing up to resist the temptation of wishful thinking about ordinary things like lotteries, so our species has had to learn in growing up that we are not playing a starring role in any sort of grand cosmic drama.” The present composition is submitted as a corrective to human ego with respect to matters cosmic.

The first, and most important, realization to which a thinking person must come is that the cosmos—by all evidentiary indications—is purposeless and dispassionate…striving toward no goal, operating with no aim, hoping for no particular result. Some commentators have called the cosmos an immoral place or, in my own case, an unjust one; to do so is mistaken. “Good” and “evil”…“just” and “unjust”…“moral” and “immoral” are judgments that cannot be made in the absence of purpose; to declare the universe an evil place is equally ludicrous as judging one’s car to be wicked or one’s computer to be morally wretched. The cosmos’ utter indifference precludes all such characterizations.

Even if the universe does have a purpose—and there is not a single credible reason to believe that is the case—there are no grounds to suppose that humans are part of it. The universe, whose estimated age is 13.73 billion years (plus or minus 120 million years), long preceded Homo sapiens sapiens (estimated age: perhaps 100,000 years), a species that is a newcomer even on Earth, which itself is a tiny, long-forgotten-about speck of stardust. Indeed, Earth is just one of, conservatively, a billion billion planets strewn about the cosmos. The folly of thinking Earth to be cosmically important is exceeded only by imagining one’s own species to be so.

Let us make a few things clear. If a global pandemic were to strike tomorrow, and the entire human race were rendered extinct in 30 days, “indifference” would vastly overstate the cosmos’ concern with such a development. Bertrand Russell, a thinker who courageously rejected the temptations of human ego, remarked in “A Free Man's Worship” (1903) that it is very nearly certain “That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins….” The upshot, of course, is that, although our day-to-day travails seem to be of great importance, none of our deeds, nor anything that happens to us, is of any enduring cosmic significance. One day our solar system shall end, and it shall be as if none of us ever existed.

Must, then, we be consigned to a life of despair? I think not. Recognizing our place in the grand scheme—a place of supreme insignificance—does little to diminish the pleasures one may experience. The triviality of our existence, as a species and as individuals, does not make, for example, family vacations any less pleasurable. It does not make a joke any less funny. It does not make a swimming pool any less refreshing, nor does it lessen the succulence of a juicy steak.

Yes, we are subject to an uncaring, unfeeling universe. Yes, we are utterly impotent when faced with inevitable death. Yes, all our achievements and pleasures are fleeting, much like our existence as a sentient life form. However, our species would be in a sorry state, indeed, if mere recognition of this basic truth were to doom us to a life of despair.

The neophyte to issues scientific and philosophical should not let the abstruseness toward which these conversations tend leave him at a loss. There is but one life we have been afforded. I urge readers to live it to the maximum, wringing pleasure from wherever it can be wrung.

One never knows when the chaos out of which the cosmos formed might again reign supreme.