Saturday, May 13, 2006

May Open Thread

Last month's open thread seemed to go pretty well, so here's another one for you. Discuss whatever you want, though preferably something to do with philosophy and/or this blog. (Any suggestions - e.g. for future post topics, or whatever - are most welcome.)

P.S. I'm pleased to see more regulars introducing themselves in the introductions thread. If you haven't yet, feel free to hop over there now!


  1. I'll kick things off with a comment from John B.:

    "It seems to me that no one ever talks about the language that theists use (and that non- or a-theists use in talking back to them). To wit: take a (fundamentalist) christian proposition repeated from scripture like "god created the world in six days." The most important words in that sentence - "god" and "created" - recede into swamps of non-meaning. Who or what is god? If he is defined by his actions, well, what exactly did he do in creating the world? How did he do it? The answer is beyond our comprehension, presumably. We end up with the proposition "a being I cannot conceive did something I cannot comprehend at some point in the past I'm not sure of." Ah. Glad we cleared THAT up.

    My larger point is this; if we engage theists in arguments referring to entities and events that no one claims to understand, how is this rational discourse? It ends up being more like two seagulls squawking at one another on the beach than it does "discourse" or "argument."

    Again, if I am missing any obvious points or should post somewhere else, let me know. Thanks!"

  2. To an extent this happens with any word - for example what exactly is love? or what is an object? but I'll admit we dont ahe he same sort of clearly defined sensation experiences of "god" or creation (or do we?)....

  3. Timothy J Scriven5:36 am, May 13, 2006

    I've always thought that there is something absurd about extreme skepticism, henceforth ES. ES is the claim that all statements are unjustified, even tautologies are unjustified.

    As far as I can see since someone who accepted ES could not possibly have a positive epistemic system of their own their argument must be not that there is something wrong with our epistemic system from the standpoint of their own, but that our epistemic system is in some way by our own standards wrong.

    However this implictly presupposes that the proponent of ES can understand our epistemic system, and understanding implies knowledge, not something the skeptic wants to claim he has. Besides in what sense is our epistemic system meant to be, by it's own standards, wrong? Is it meant to be self contradictory? That is does it break it's own rules? If the skeptic answers yes the problem is this, why do they think there is something wrong with an epistemic system breaking it's own rules? Because they believe that it won't lead to the truth? Ah, but this presupposes that they have some knowledge of what will.

  4. I think John B.'s question, while understandable, is a bit upside-down. After all, where else is one to have rational discussion except over subjects no one understands? If everyone understood, there would be much less need to discuss or inquire into it at all. And I think Genius's point is exactly right: it's at this point that philosophy -- and, through philosophy, ultimately any rational inquiry -- kicks in. In a sense, that's the whole point of the Socratic dialogues: you some idea like justice, and, goaded by the gadfly's questions, you find you don't really understand what justice is after all. There are two roads you can take: you can set out to find what justice is, or you can treat this conclusion as if it were a sign that talk about justice is useless. The former is the philosophical route; the latter (as Peter Geach notes somewhere) is something like the assumption of those who decided Socrates deserved the death penalty for corrupting the youth. Plus, theistic language, even at its very least sophisticated is not pulled out of thin air: there are experiences, analogies, and guesses; and they provide as much a place to start as the experiences, analogies, and guesses that are involved in our least sophisticated beliefs about justice, the external world, time, or anything else. If we stopped the discussion when we recognized the crudeness of our understanding of those things, we'd never get started on any philosophical discussion. The rational response when we achieve such a recognition is to wonder about the thing we so poorly understand: and philosophy begins with wonder.

    Besides, it's not really true that no one talks about the language theists use; due to logical positivism (and later Popper), there was a period of at least thirty years in which that was almost all people in philosophy of religion did. (The works of Antony Flew for most of his career are a good, and very influential, example of this. There were about a jillion and two books and articles in response arguing that he was right or that he was wrong.) There's still some discussion of it here and there, but it turns out that talking about language really doesn't help move discussions forward unless at some point you stop talking about language and get back to the arguments.

  5. John B. is right on the money.


    We do not have infinite precision in meaning, and I for one would not say that we need that. However, infinite uncertainty in meaning is a problem.

    I can identify what experiences I would call "love." Upon a deeper reflection I may define different types of love, or conclude that some special case once defined as love, no longer meets a refined definition. Love is as real and detectable as mass. It's just not as precise.

    "God" is infinitely imprecise. Nothing I experience can raise or lower my confidence in any proposition about him. It's one thing to suppose there is some existent X with detectable properties, it's another to define X as having no detectable properties, then assign X the attribute of existing which is defined as the way in which a thing has detectable properties.


    Rational discussion relies on shared definitions to describe the world. In fact, I think this is what philosophy is mostly about - agreeing on assumptions and definitions, such that you would agree with your interlocutor if you accepted his assumptions.

    There's nothing wrong with introducing fuzzy notions of God for analysis in our discussions. But rational discussion requires definitions, and most common definitions of God are simply incoherent. If we cannot establish shared definitions, we haven't found anything to discuss beyond the mere fact that people have a fuzzy, linguisticaly incoherent notions.

  6. No, I think the God hypothesis is rationally assessable, at least for particular conceptions of God (e.g. as omnipotent, benevolent, etc.). It's not total nonsense. It simply fails to correspond to reality, as a matter of contingent fact.

    Timothy - I like that point, and have discussed something similar here.

  7. Timothy J Scriven5:13 am, May 14, 2006

    I need to get my own blog instead of using your open threads :). I stop by here all the time to use your blog roll. But anyway, here's an attempt to expand on what I said earlier.

    I find ES to be the most illuminating of philosophical mistakes. It asks us to evaluate the epistemic status of our basic criteria for evaluation and come to a negative conclusion, and I think, as I demonstrated, this is impossible. How can we understand such criteria if we do not have criteria for understanding etc etc. But it seems to me that even our basic beliefs are not infallible, we can change them. But how?

    Well we can't evaluate them all at once. This leads me to my quasi foundationalism. There are quasi basic beliefs that can only be evaluated by a process of coherence checking between basic beliefs. There is also a set of higher order beliefs that must be justified by chains of reasoning leading from basic beliefs and sense experience. Does anyone know if there are any precedents for such a half foundationalism, half coherentism Frankenstein(1)?

    (1)- Please note, I am aware that “Frankenstein” should be “Frankenstein’s monster” pedantry makes baby Jesus cry.

  8. I've heard of a "foundherentism" before. But Google knows more about it than I do.

  9. Tis I, again. Doc, thank you for your support, and Timothy/Genius/Brandon, thanks equally for engaging my half-developed provocation. I must say that Brandon's objections seem most salient. What I am getting at, y'see, is not that less-than-perfect understanding of important terms precludes argument, but rather that the presumption of at least reasonably good understanding where none exists (the scripture-parroting theist being one example) creates a kind of simulacrum of conversation rather than the real thing. And that this is the rule in most (christian) religious conversations rather than the exception. A second example might be an argument about the divinity of Jesus. Son of god? Again we have the undefined entity ("god"), plus now the mysterious paternity in which both the process of Jesus' conception and "genetic" (yes, I'm being anachronistic) relationship to his "father" are unknown and unknowable. If we are discussing the divinity of Jesus, what the blue-blazes heck are we really talking about? Nothing, it seems. And Timothy, this is not ES, insofar as I understand that term; some statements (the universe began with a big bang) have terms that, while difficult, are understandable at least insofar as their definitions (however theoretical) can be articulated.

  10. Upon reflection, I realize my point seems rather pedestrian: fundamentalists don't know what they're talking about. This is news? But in its defense, I would argue at least that a recognition of this point should encourage others to confront the epistemic vacuum at the center of much theological discourse. So maybe it's more of a political point than a philosophical one.

    But anyhoo. Far be it from me to bog down the free wheels of philosophical discourse Timothy, can you expand on your quasi foundationalism? Sounds interesting. I'll take a back seat & watch the pros go at it for a while.

  11. OK 5 points to Brandon,
    congradulations mr watson!

    I think part of what you may be seeing is the way language can be used (particularly in politics)to sneek unsubstantiated connotations past the other side (or their own suporters) .

    So you place a word with good connotations in oyur sentance and then declare it to be a metaphore (thereby stripping it of meaning).
    eg using terms like "resistance fighters" or terrorists or "liberators" even when no actual facts are being disputed.


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