Do short blog posts drive away readers, or do they draw in even more?
There’s only one way to find out for sure.
Do short blog posts drive away readers, or do they draw in even more?
There’s only one way to find out for sure.
Is there anything that would convince you that Mormonism is false? If not, then why should you expect other people to leave their faiths and become Mormon when you aren’t prepared to do the same?
The main reason that our Mormon protagonist is unwilling to change his mind about religion is not because of the evidence in favor of Mormonism. There certainly is such evidence, as for example the witnesses who testified that they saw Joseph Smith’s golden plates. But such evidence is surely not the principal motive involved. Basically they have motives other than truth for continuing to believe. If a Mormon changes their religious views, this can have serious negative consequences for their social and personal life. This is not specific to Mormonism, but is common to religion in general, as well as to many political views, because of the way that such views are used to express social and political loyalties. As noted in the linked post, someone who changes his view is seen as a traitor to his community.
Gregory Dawes, a former Catholic, seems to have had this experience. He remarks (quoted in the post linked above):
Christian philosopher William Lane Craig writes somewhere about what he calls the “ministerial” and the “magisterial” use of reason. (It’s a traditional view — he’s merely citing Martin Luther — and one that Craig endorses.) On this view, the task of reason is to find arguments in support of the faith and to counter any arguments against it. Reason is not, however, the basis of the Christian’s faith. The basis of the Christian’s faith is (what she takes to be) the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” in her heart. Nor can rational reflection can be permitted to undermine that faith. The commitment of faith is irrevocable; to fall away from it is sinful, indeed the greatest of sins.
The Catholic Church does not teach that falling away from the faith is the greatest of sins. In fact, although it certainly teaches that it is objectively wrong for a Catholic to do so, it does not even teach that a Catholic is always subjectively guilty at all when they change their religious views. Dawes was a well educated Catholic, so he is probably aware of these facts. Why then does he call this “the greatest of sins?” It seems pretty reasonable to suppose that he is responding in a personal way to how he was treated by others after he changed his mind about his religion.
As I said in the linked post, I agree with Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes about the use of reason. However, this is not the only thing that Dawes and I have in common. Like Dawes, my family and background are completely Catholic. Like Dawes, my education was completely Catholic. Finally, I substantially agree with Dawes in his conclusions regarding Catholicism and regarding religion in general, considered as a body of factual claims about the world. Of course this is not the case not in every detail. I also suspect that I disagree with him to a larger extent on the reasons for those conclusions. This is not an opinion that I have just arrived at. I have held this view for over a year now. Nor was it the result of a brief process, but the result of a gradual process of thought which took decades of my life.
As with Dawes, and as with our theoretical Mormon, this has had serious consequences for my personal life, and not only on account of the reactions of others. Nonetheless, the reactions of others play a significant role here. Consequently I have a few remarks principally for those who know me in real life:
One additional remark concerning the “possessed by demons” point. Someone recently said in a personal communication:
By the strange things you write, I can see that your mind has been given blinders / tunnel vision, presumably by some evil spirit, who only lets you look at things from his point of view.
This refers to things written on this blog, and in that sense it is completely incorrect. Everything currently on the blog is completely consistent with a Catholic view, and only expresses views that I have held for many years. Many orthodox Catholics would agree in substance with virtually everything here.
As for the demon comment itself, I have noted in the past that if you say that a person’s beliefs are caused by a demon, you cannot have a conversation with them. In the same way, if you say that a person’s religious views are caused by a demon, you cannot have a conversation about religion with them.
In chapter 5 of his book Probability Theory: The Logic of Science, E. T. Jaynes discusses ESP:
I. J. Good (1950) has shown how we can use probability theory backwards to measure our own strengths of belief about propositions. For example, how strongly do you believe in extrasensory perception?
What probability would you assign to the hypothesis that Mr Smith has perfect extrasensory perception? More specifically, that he can guess right every time which number you have written down. To say zero is too dogmatic. According to our theory, this means that we are never going to allow the robot’s mind to be changed by any amount of evidence, and we don’t really want that. But where is our strength of belief in a proposition like this?
Our brains work pretty much the way this robot works, but we have an intuitive feeling for plausibility only when it’s not too far from 0 db. We get fairly definite feelings that something is more than likely to be so or less than likely to be so. So the trick is to imagine an experiment. How much evidence would it take to bring your state of belief up to the place where you felt very perplexed and unsure about it? Not to the place where you believed it – that would overshoot the mark, and again we’d lose our resolving power. How much evidence would it take to bring you just up to the point where you were beginning to consider the possibility seriously?
So, we consider Mr Smith, who says he has extrasensory perception (ESP), and we will write down some numbers from one to ten on a piece of paper and ask him to guess which numbers we’ve written down. We’ll take the usual precautions to make sure against other ways of finding out. If he guesses the first number correctly, of course we will all say ‘you’re a very lucky person, but I don’t believe you have ESP’. And if he guesses two numbers correctly, we’ll still say ‘you’re a very lucky person, but I still don’t believe you have ESP’. By the time he’s guessed four numbers correctly – well, I still wouldn’t believe it. So my state of belief is certainly lower than −40 db.
How many numbers would he have to guess correctly before you would really seriously consider the hypothesis that he has extrasensory perception? In my own case, I think somewhere around ten. My personal state of belief is, therefore, about −100 db. You could talk me into a ±10 db change, and perhaps as much as ±30 db, but not much more than that.
The idea is that after Mr. Smith guesses 7 to 13 numbers correctly (when by chance he should have a probability of 10% of guessing each one correctly), Jaynes will begin to think it reasonably likely that he has ESP. He notes that this is his subjective opinion, saying, “In my own case,” and “My personal state of belief.”
However, Jaynes follows this up by stating that if this happened in real life, he would not be convinced:
After further thought, we see that, although this result is correct, it is far from the whole story. In fact, if he guessed 1000 numbers correctly, I still would not believe that he has ESP, for an extension of the same reason that we noted in Chapter 4 when we first encountered the phenomenon of resurrection of dead hypotheses. An hypothesis A that starts out down at −100 db can hardly ever come to be believed, whatever the data, because there are almost sure to be alternative hypotheses (B1, B2,…) above it, perhaps down at −60 db. Then, when we obtain astonishing data that might have resurrected A, the alternatives will be resurrected instead.
In other words, Jaynes is saying, “This happened by chance,” and “Mr. Smith has ESP” are not the only possibilities. For example, it is possible that Mr. Smith has invented a remote MRI device, which he has trained to distinguish people’s thoughts about numbers, and he is receiving data on the numbers picked by means of an earbud. If the prior probability of this is higher than the prior probability that Mr. Smith has ESP, then Jaynes will begin to think this is a reasonable hypothesis, rather than coming to accept ESP.
This does not imply that Jaynes is infinitely confident that Mr. Smith does not have ESP, and in fact it does not invalidate his original estimate:
Now let us return to that original device of I. J. Good, which started this train of thought. After all this analysis, why do we still hold that naive first answer of −100 db for my prior probability for ESP, as recorded above, to be correct? Because Jack Good’s imaginary device can be applied to whatever state of knowledge we choose to imagine; it need not be the real one. If I knew that true ESP and pure chance were the only possibilities, then the device would apply and my assignment of −100 db would hold. But, knowing that there are other possibilities in the real world does not change my state of belief about ESP; so the figure of −100 db still holds.
He would begin to be convinced after about 10 numbers if he knew for a fact that chance and ESP were the only possibilities, and thus this is a good representation of how certain he is subjectively.
The fact of other possibilities also does not mean that it is impossible for Jaynes to be convinced, even in the real world, that some individual has ESP. But it does mean that this can happen only with great difficulty: essentially, he must be convinced that the other possibilities are even less likely than ESP. As Jaynes says,
Indeed, the very evidence which the ESP’ers throw at us to convince us, has the opposite effect on our state of belief; issuing reports of sensational data defeats its own purpose. For if the prior probability for deception is greater than that of ESP, then the more improbable the alleged data are on the null hypothesis of no deception and no ESP, the more strongly we are led to believe, not in ESP, but in deception. For this reason, the advocates of ESP (or any other marvel) will never succeed in persuading scientists that their phenomenon is real, until they learn how to eliminate the possibility of deception in the mind of the reader. As (5.15) shows, the reader’s total prior probability for deception by all mechanisms must be pushed down below that of ESP.
This is related to the grain of truth in Hume’s account of miracles. Hume’s basic point, that an account of a miracle could never be credible, is mistaken. But he is correct to say that the account would not be credible unless “these witnesses are mistaken or lying” has a lower prior probability than the prior probability of the miracle actually happening. His mistake is to suppose that this cannot happen in principle.
Something like this also happens with ordinary things that we are extremely sure about. For example, take your belief that the American War of Independence happened before the Civil War. You can imagine coming upon evidence that the Civil War happened first. Thus for example suppose you found a book by a historian arguing for this thesis. This would be evidence that the Civil War came first. But it would be very unpersuasive, and would change your mind little if at all, because the prior probability of “this is a work of fiction,” or indeed of “this a silly book arguing a silly thesis for personal reasons” is higher.
We could call this a “settled issue,” at least from your point of view (and in this case from the point of view of pretty much everyone). Not only do you believe that the War of Independence came first; it would be very difficult to persuade you otherwise, even if there were real evidence against your position, and this is not because you are being unreasonable. In fact, it would be unreasonable to be moved significantly by the evidence of that book arguing the priority of the Civil War.
Is it possible in principle to persuade you to change your mind? Yes. In principle this could happen bit by bit, by an accumulation of small pieces of evidence. You might read that book, and then learn that the author is a famous historian, and that he is completely serious (presumably he became famous before writing the book; otherwise he would instead be infamous.) And then you might find other items in favor of this theory, and find refutations of the apparently more likely explanations.
But in practice such a process is extremely unlikely. The most likely way you could change your mind about this would be by way of one large change. For example, you might wake up in a hospital tomorrow and be told that you had been suffering from a rare form of amnesia which does not remove a person’s past memories, but changes them into something different. You ask about the Civil War, and are told that everyone agrees that it happened before the War of Independence. People can easily give you dozens of books on the topic; you search online on the matter, and everything on the internet takes for granted that the Civil War came first. Likewise, everyone you talk to simply takes this for granted.
The reason that the “one big change” process is more likely than the “accumulation of small evidences” process is this: if we want to know what should persuade you that the Civil War came first, we are basically asking what the world would have to be like in order for it to be actually true that the Civil War came first. In such a world, your current belief is false. And in such a world it is simply much more likely that you have made one big mistake which resulted in your false belief about the Civil War, than that you have made lots of little mistakes which led to it.
This blog very frequently includes quotations. Some posts are essentially nothing but a quotation, as this one here, and others do not contain much beyond a series of long quotations, as for example this one.
Why do I use the thoughts of others rather than putting things in my own words? There are a number of reasons. It is very practical. It is much easier to compose a long blog post using quotations, while it takes a lot of time and energy to write everything yourself. And the idea of originality here is not really relevant. For as Qoheleth says, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” Most of the positions argued on this blog have been argued by others, and there is nothing surprising about this. In addition, insofar as a new contribution is possible, one can do this by organizing the thoughts of others, just as Socrates teaches the boy by helping him organize his thoughts.
But the most important reason is the following. Speakers and writers are addressing people, and just as beliefs have motives, so the act of speaking or writing has a motive. And whether or not people approve of doing this, the listener or the reader tends to think of these motives. As Alexander Pruss discusses in a blog post here, sometimes such considerations are necessary. Nonetheless, this can lead people away from understanding reality. If instead of thinking about what I am saying and what is true about it, someone thinks, “Why is he saying this?”, this can hinder them in their understanding of the truth of the matter.
Quotations are very helpful in reducing this effect. Since a quotation is taken out of context, it is removed from the motivation of the original speaker. Yes, there is still a motive on the part of the person who includes the quotation. But the reader who reads the quotation knows that it is not addressed to him in the manner of the original. He does not need to say, “Why is the original author saying this?”, because it does not matter in the new context. The only thing that matters is what he is saying, not why he is saying it. So it provides some impetus towards considering the truth of the matter. This remains true whether the quotation itself says something which is true, or something which is false.
If we consider the last two posts, we can see that they resemble a disputed question. However, unlike St. Thomas’s Summa Theologiae, and instead in the technical manner of a disputed question, there are arguments on both sides. Additionally, I did not include the typical “response of the master,” nor did I include responses to the arguments. I will explain these omissions shortly.
James Chastek, in the passage quoted here, asserted that it is difficult to make your opponent’s arguments without relating to them as something to be refuted. As we have seen from these examples, there is actually no big difficulty here, and historically this was done with the disputed question. In principle people could even write books this way, and they probably have, on occasion. One could write an entire book on the actual infinite with the structure, “Part I: An Actual Infinite is Possible,” and “Part 2: An Actual Infinite is Impossible.”
There are a lot of reasons why people don’t do this in general, and why for example I would not write blog posts like this in general. One factor is the practical issue that it is twice as much work. Another is the concrete goal of a book or a blog post.
Why did I not include the response of the master? In the medieval schools, the arguments on each side were formulated by the students, followed by the master’s response and his answers to the arguments. Thus, since the master did not compose the original arguments, he could make a new argument for his conclusion, outside of the original arguments. But since I was the one composing the arguments on each side, if I thought there was a very strong argument for one conclusion, I could simply include it there. Consequently a special response would simply repeat something contained in the series of arguments.
But there is more to it than this. A special response would also give away my personal opinion, which I preferred to avoid. If I could simply state the strong arguments in the series, nothing would be added by restating it as the “response of the master” except the bare fact that I agree with the one side rather than the other.
Consider how students will react to such a thing in real life. In terms of the argument, nothing is added to their understanding of reality by this response. Nonetheless, they receive additional evidence in favor of one conclusion, namely that the teacher agrees with one side. So they will have an additional reason to agree with that side, a real reason, but not one that adds to their understanding of the issues. Thus, to the degree that they believe that this response has contributed to their understanding, they are simply mistaken, and consequently believe that they understand things better than they do.
The issue of the responses to the arguments in somewhat different. If someone wrote the above book on the Actual Infinite, presumably Part I would also include responses to the main arguments in Part II, and Part II would include responses to the main arguments in Part I. This is in fact very important for understanding. Although arguments are never one-sided, they are frequently mostly one-sided, where most of the best arguments and evidence are indeed on one side. And in such cases, this usually becomes most clear when one considers the responses to the opposing arguments, and, consequently, where one begins to actually understand the matter at hand, and to recognize the truth of the matter.
So I did not include such responses because most likely they would reveal more clearly which side had the stronger argument, and which side I agreed with. But note that in principle these two things would be the same: the reasons which would show that I agreed with one side, would show that this was the better and more likely side. In practice of course there might be other ways that someone could guess my opinion, as for example from the style of the arguments and so on. (For the record, my opinion cannot be determined by which side went first; that was determined by the flip of a coin.)
Someone once posted on Twitter (I can no longer find the particular post) something along the lines of, “How can you be unbiased if I can tell which side you are on?” We can see here that in fact there is a valid answer to this: if I simply present all of the best arguments for both sides, together with their responses, then you can tell which side I am on by determining which side is probably right, and the fact that you can determine my side in that way does not suggest that I am biased. On the other hand, if you note that I have missed strong and important arguments on the side of the part that seems weaker in my presentation, that might be a reason for thinking that I am biased.
That said, the responses to the arguments in the previous posts, and consequently the “response of the master,” is left here as an exercise for the reader.
It is clear that lying is wrong in general. And there seem to be good reasons for saying that this is true without exception. In the first place, as was said in the linked post, lying always harms the common good by taking away from the meaning of language.
This is also related to St. Thomas’s argument that lying is always wrong:
An action that is naturally evil in respect of its genus can by no means be good and lawful, since in order for an action to be good it must be right in every respect: because good results from a complete cause, while evil results from any single defect, as Dionysius asserts (Div. Nom. iv). Now a lie is evil in respect of its genus, since it is an action bearing on undue matter. For as words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. iv, 7) that “lying is in itself evil and to be shunned, while truthfulness is good and worthy of praise.” Therefore every lie is a sin, as also Augustine declares (Contra Mend. i).
The idea here is that just as “killing an innocent person” is always wrong, so “speaking against one’s mind” is always wrong, and the harm consistently done to the language and to the common good is a sign of this wrongness. Still, there are cases where it is right to do something that involves the death of an innocent person incidentally, and likewise there could be cases where it is right to do something that incidentally involves speech apparently contrary to one’s thought. But just as such incidental cases are not murder, so such incidental cases are not lying. This post and the previous past are good examples, since I appear to be saying things contrary to my mind.
Even if someone does not accept St. Thomas’s manner of argument, there are reasons for thinking that lying is always harmful even in terms of its consequences. One should consider the consequences not only of the individual act, but also of the policy, and the policy “never tell lies,” seems more beneficial than any policy permitting lies under some circumstances. We can consider the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If everyone has the policy of cooperating, everyone will be better off. Likewise, society will be better off if everyone has the policy of never lying. Of course, not everyone has this policy. Nonetheless, the more people adopt it, the more other people will be willing to adopt it, and the better off everyone will be. Even the typically discussed case of the Nazi and the Jews may not change this. If you tell the truth to the Nazi, it will be bad for the Jews in the particular case, but the world as a whole may be better off because of your policy of consistent truth-telling.
On the other hand, it is also easy to argue that we should make an exception for cases like that of the Jews. In the first place, almost everyone would in fact make an exception in this case, and simply say that there are no Jews. Yes, you could respond with a verbal evasion, if you happened to think of one. But suppose that you are on the spot and one does not occur to you. Your real choice here is simply to say, “Yes, there are Jews,” or “No, there are none here.” If you do not respond, your house will be searched, which will have the same effect as giving an affirmative response. In practice most people would lie. Nor can this be dismissed as moral weakness, the way we can dismiss people’s tendency to overeat as moral weakness. For people regret overeating; they will say things like, “I wish I didn’t eat so much.” But in the case of the Nazi and the Jews, most people would lie, and would never regret it. They would never say, “I wish I had admitted the Jews were there.” This indicates that almost everyone agrees that it is ok to lie in that case: regardless of how they describe this situation philosophically, at a deep level they believe that lying is justified in this case. If you attempt to justify it by saying that it isn’t really lying in that case, then you are simply confirming the fact that you believe this.
And insofar as this is a practical matter, we can make a strong argument for their conclusion as a matter of practice, regardless of the theoretical truth of the matter. Suppose you are 95% certain of the arguments in the first part of this post. You think there is a 95% chance that lying is always wrong, even in the case of the Nazi and the Jews. Now the Nazi is at the door, asking about the Jews in your house. You can tell the truth. In this case, according to your opinion, there is 95% chance that you will be doing the morally right thing, and incidentally allowing the death of some innocent persons. But there is a 5% chance that you will be doing the morally wrong thing. That is, if you are wrong, you will not only be doing something morally neutral: you will be doing something morally wrong, namely allowing the death of innocent persons for no good reason. And the 95% chance is of telling a useful lie, and saving lives. If it is morally wrong, it is a small wrong. The 5% chance, however, is of pointlessly allowing deaths. If it is morally wrong, it is extremely evil.
And it is easy to argue that in practice there is only one good choice here: a certainty of saving lives, together with a 95% chance of a slightly wrong act, seems much better than the certainty of allowing deaths, together with a 5% chance of an extremely evil act.
There are good reasons to think that actual infinities are possible in the real world. In the first place, while the size and shape of the universe are not settled issues, the generally accepted theory fits better with the idea that the universe is physically infinite than with the idea that it is finite.
Likewise, the universe is certainly larger than the size of the observable universe, namely about 93 billion light years in diameter. Supposing you have a probability distribution which assigns a finite probability to the claim that the universe is physically infinite, there is no consistent probability distribution which will not cause the probability of an infinite universe to go to 100% at the limit, as you exclude smaller finite sizes. But if someone had assigned a reasonable probability distribution before modern physical science existed, it would very likely have been one that make the probability of an infinite universe go very high by the time the universe was confirmed to be its present size. Therefore we too should think that the universe is very probably infinite. In principle, this argument is capable of refuting even purported demonstrations of the impossibility of an actual infinite, since there is at least some small chance that these purported demonstrations are all wrong.
Likewise, almost everyone accepts the possibility of an infinite future. Even the heat death of the universe would not prevent the passage of infinite time, and a religious view of the future also generally implies the passage of infinite future time. Even if heaven is supposed to be outside time in principle, in practice there would still be an infinite number of future human acts. If eternalism or something similar is true, then an infinite future in itself implies an actual infinite. And even if such a theory is not true, it is likely that a potentially infinite future implies the possibility of an actual infinite, because any problematic or paradoxical results from an actual infinite can likely be imitated in some way in the case of an infinite future.
On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that actual infinities are not possible in the real world. Positing infinities results in paradoxical or contradictory results in very many cases, and the simplest and therefore most likely way to explain this is to admit that infinities are simply impossible in general, even in the cases where we have not yet verified this fact.
An actual infinite also seems to imply an infinite regress in causality, and such a regress is impossible. We can see this by considering the material cause. Suppose the universe is physically infinite, and contains an infinite number of stars and planets. Then the universe is composed of the solar system together with the rest of the universe. But the rest of the universe will be composed of another stellar system together with the remainder, and so on. So there will be an infinite regress of material causality, which is just as impossible with material causality as with any other kind of causality.
Something similar is implied by St. Thomas’s argument against an infinite multitude:
This, however, is impossible; since every kind of multitude must belong to a species of multitude. Now the species of multitude are to be reckoned by the species of numbers. But no species of number is infinite; for every number is multitude measured by one. Hence it is impossible for there to be an actually infinite multitude, either absolute or accidental.
We can look at this in terms of our explanation of defining numbers. This explanation works only for finite numbers, and an infinite number could not be defined in such a way, precisely because it would result in an infinite regress. This leads us back to the first argument above against infinities: an infinity is intrinsically undefined and unintelligible, and for that reason leads to paradoxes. Someone might say that something unintelligible cannot be understood but is not impossible; but this is no different from Bertrand Russell saying that there is no reason for things not to come into being from nothing, without a cause. Such a position is unreasonable and untrue.
Generally speaking, people who write something know in advance what they are going to say, and not surprisingly, they agree with it. Along these lines, Hal Finney says in this comment:
Michael Ruse is quoted above as saying, “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why.” That’s very much to his credit, that although he agrees with the conclusion of Dawkins’ book, he disagrees with the arguments. You don’t often get people willing to make these kinds of public statements that undercut arguments in favor of their beliefs.
Sounds like McGrath himself is a theist, unfortunately, so his book is arguing for a conclusion he believes in, as did Dawkins. And of course, as is true for virtually 100% of books every published. Can you imagine a book arguing page after page for the existence of God, written by someone who doesn’t believe in God? Or vice versa? Is it a sign of bias, that we never see that?
This isn’t so much a sign of bias, as an effect of a person’s goals. If someone thinks that something is true, he may want others to know that it is true. Normally he would not want others to think that it is false, which would be the expected effect of arguing that it is false.
Nonetheless, the fact that the writer knows where he is going can have bad effects. We saw that in the case of Spinoza’s ethics. But this can happen with anyone: if I am trying to make a point which is in fact false, then I will be likely to make fallacious arguments. Likewise, even if my point is true, but in reality I do not have very good reasons to think it is true, I will be likely to try to make my arguments look stronger than they actually are.
Despite such possibilities, however, the fact that I have a position and that I wish to persuade others gives me some reason to argue for that position rather than arguing for the opposite. Nonetheless, this results from my goal of persuading others. If my goal is to understand the truth myself, arguing one side rather than the other is not helpful: in such a case I should indeed argue both sides, as was done with disputed questions. In other words, the goal of making a point is different from the goal of understanding, and these goals require different means in order to accomplish them.
All the pleas for dialogue I have heard came from the Left, and all of them beggar belief. However sincere the Leftist might be – and I’m not a mind-reader in any position to decide the question – I can’t get beyond the fact that the Leftist himself never follows his own advice by just giving the reasons of his opponents. Why give a speech that “calls for dialogue” when you could give a speech that presents, without comment or judgment, both your own reasons and those of your opponents? Why are calls for dialectic so reliably non-dialectical?
So you want dialogue? Great. You first. Explain the arguments of the other side without continually relating to them as things to be refuted. I can’t do this, even after many years of criticizing my own thoughts and trying to find real insights in opponents (each of whom are sure believe, with some justification, that my thoughts are far more narrow than they seem to me.)
The goal of making your point only requires that you be able to make arguments for your position, but the goal of understanding requires that you be able to make the opposing arguments as well. So if you can’t do this, there is likely a great deal lacking to your understanding of reality.
In the following posts, for illustration, I will argue both sides of various positions.
There is still another problem with Spinoza’s manner of argumentation. Spinoza is trying to get geometrical certainty about metaphysics by a logical arrangement of his claims. But this cannot work even in principle. If you take the rules of logic and the forms of the syllogisms, and fit sentences into them using their mere verbal patterns, without thinking about what you are saying, what it means and in what sense it is true or untrue, then you are manipulating symbols, not actually making arguments, and it may well mean that your conclusion is false, whether or not each of your premises is true in some way.
Alexander Pruss, in a recent blog post, argues for the existence of God from certain facts about language:
This argument is valid:
- All semantic truths are knowable to members of the community of language users.
- There are semantic truths that are not knowable to human language users.
- Therefore, there is at least one non-human language user.
There is some reason to accept (1) in light of the conventionality of language. Premise (2) is going to be quite controversial. I justify it by means of a standard argument for epistemicism. Consider Queen Elizabeth II. There are 88 statements of the form:
- Elizabeth was not old at age n but she was old at age n+1
where n ranges from 1 to 88. It’s a straightforward matter of classical logic to show that if all 88 statements are false, then:
- Elizabeth was old at age 1 or Elizabeth is not old at age 89.
But (4) is clearly false: Her Majesty is old now at age 89, and she surely wasn’t old at age one. So, at least one of the 88 statements is false. This means that there is a sharp transition from being not old to being old. But it is clear that no matter what we find out about our behavior, biology and other relevant things, we can’t know exactly where that transition lies. It seems very plausible that the relevant unknowable fact about the transition is a semantic fact. Hence, (2) is true.
The most plausible candidate for the non-human language user who is capable of knowing such semantic facts is God. God could institute the fundamental semantic facts of human language and thereby know them.
(“So, at least one of the 88 statements is false” should be “So, at least one of the 88 statements is true.”) I would consider this to be more a case of manipulating symbols than of making a serious argument.
An atheist is likely to say about this argument, “Wait a minute. Maybe it’s not obvious to me what is wrong with your argument. But there’s just no way you can prove the existence of God from simple facts about how words are used. So there must be something wrong with the argument.”
I agree with the hypothetical atheist that reasonable intuitions would say that you cannot prove the existence of God in such a way, and that this is a reason for doubting the argument even if you cannot formally point out what is wrong with it.
But in fact I think there are two basic problems with it. In the first place, Pruss seems to be failing to consider the actual meaning of his premises. He says, “There is some reason to accept (1) in light of the conventionality of language.” What does this mean? A semantic fact is a fact about the meaning of words or sentences. Pruss is arguing that all facts about the meanings of words or sentences should be knowable to members of the community of language users, and that we should accept this because language is conventional. In other words, human beings make up the meanings of words and sentences. So they can know these meanings; whatever they cannot know about the meaning is not a part of the meaning, since they have not invented it.
But later Pruss says:
This means that there is a sharp transition from being not old to being old. But it is clear that no matter what we find out about our behavior, biology and other relevant things, we can’t know exactly where that transition lies. It seems very plausible that the relevant unknowable fact about the transition is a semantic fact. Hence, (2) is true.
But if this is right, it undercuts the justification for believing the first premise. For the only reason we had to believe that all of the semantic facts are knowable to the community of language users, was a reason to believe that they were knowable to human beings. If they are not knowable to human beings, we no longer have a reason to believe that they are knowable to anyone, or at any rate not a reason that Pruss has given.
This illustrates my point about the necessity of considering the meaning of what you are saying. The argument for the first premise is in fact an argument that human beings can know all of the semantic facts; thus if they cannot, we no longer have a good reason to accept the first premise. We cannot simply say, “This argument is logically valid, we’ve given a reason for the first and a reason for the second, that gives us reason to accept the conclusion.” We need to think about what those reasons are and how they fit together.
The second problem with this argument is that the “standard argument for epistemicism” is just wrong. And likewise, the argument consists of precisely nothing but manipulating words, without thinking about the meaning behind them. It is a “a straightforward matter of classical logic” in the sense that we can fit these words into the logical forms, but this does not mean that this process is telling us anything about reality.
To see this, consider this new word that we can construct by convention, namely “zold.” A person who is between 80 and 90 years old is said to be zold; a person who is between 1 and 10 years old is said not to be zold.
Now consider the 88 statements of the form, “Elizabeth was not zold at age n but she was zold at age n+1.” It’s a straightforward matter of classical logic to show that if all 88 statements are false, then either Elizabeth was zold at age 1, or she was not zold at age 89. But this is clearly false according to the conventions already defined. So at least one of the statements must be true, and there is a sharp transition from being not zold to being zold. It is obvious that no matter what we find out about human beings, that will not tell us where the transition is; the transition must be a semantic fact, a fact about the meaning of the word “zold.”
Obviously, in reality there is no such semantic fact. The convention that we used to define the word simply does not suffice to generate a sharp transition. The problem with the argument for the sharp transition is that the rules of logic presuppose perfectly well defined terms, and this term is not perfectly well defined.
And it is not difficult to see that the word “old” does not differ in a meaningful way from the word “zold.” In reality the two come to have meaning in very similar ways, and in a such a way that there cannot be a sharply defined transition, nor can classical logic force there to be such a sharp transition.
It is not enough to fit your sentences into a logical form. If you want the truth, the hard work of thinking about reality cannot be avoided.
Omitting his definitions and axioms for the moment, we can look at his proofs. Thus we have the first:
1: A substance is prior in nature to its states. This is evident from D3 and D5.
The two definitions are of “substance” and “mode,” which latter he equates with “state of a substance.” However, neither definition explains “prior in nature,” nor is this found in any of the other definitions and axioms.
Thus his argument does not follow. But we can grant that the claim is fairly reasonable in any case, and would follow according to many reasonable definitions of “prior in nature,” and according to reasonable axioms.
He proceeds to his second proof:
2: Two substances having different attributes have nothing in common with one another. This is also evident from D3. For each ·substance· must be in itself and be conceived through itself, which is to say that the concept of the one doesn’t involve the concept of the other.
D3 and D4 (which must be used here although he does not cite it explicitly in the proof) say:
D3: By ‘substance’ I understand: what is in itself and is conceived through itself, i.e. that whose concept doesn’t have to be formed out of the concept of something else. D4: By ‘attribute’ I understand: what the intellect perceives of a substance as constituting its essence.
Thus when he speaks of “substances having different attributes,” he means ones which are intellectually perceived as being different in their essence.
Once again, however, “have nothing in common” is not found in his definitions. However, it occurs once in his axioms, namely in A5:
A5: If two things have nothing in common, they can’t be understood through one another—that is, the concept of one doesn’t involve the concept of the other.
The axiom is pretty reasonable, at least taken in a certain way. If there is no idea common to the ideas of two things, the idea of one won’t be included in the idea of the other. But Spinoza is attempting to draw the conclusion that “if two substances have different attributes, i.e. are different in essence, then they have nothing in common.” But this does not seem to follow from a reasonable understanding of D3 and D4, nor from the definitions together with the axioms. “Dog” and “cat” might be substances, and the idea of dog does not include that of cat, nor cat the idea of dog, but they have “animal” in common. So his conclusion is not evident from the definition, nor does it follow logically from his definitions and axioms, nor does it seem to be true.
And this is only the second supposed proof out of 36 in part 1 of his book.
I would suggest that there are at least two problems with his whole project. First, Spinoza knows where he wants to get, and it is not somewhere good. Among other things, he is aiming for proposition 14:
14: God is the only substance that can exist or be conceived.
This is closely related to proposition 2, since if it is true that two different things can have nothing in common, then it is impossible for more than one thing to exist, since otherwise existence would be something in common to various things.
Proposition 14 is absolutely false taken in any reasonable way. Consequently, since Spinoza is absolutely determined to arrive at a false proposition, he will necessarily employ falsehoods or logical mistakes along the way.
There is a second problem with his project. Geometry speaks about a very limited portion of reality. For this reason it is possible to come to most of its conclusions using a limited variety of definitions and axioms. But ethics and metaphysics, the latter of which is the actual topic of his first book, are much wider in scope. Consequently, if you want to say much that is relevant about them, it is impossible in principle to proceed from a small number of axioms and definitions. A small number of axioms and definitions will necessarily include only a small number of terms, and speaking about ethics and metaphysics requires a large number of terms. For example, suppose I wanted to prove everything on this blog using the method of definitions and axioms. Since I have probably used thousands of terms, hundreds or thousands of definitions and axioms would be required. There would simply be no other way to get the desired conclusions. In a similar way, we saw even in the first few proofs that Spinoza has a similar problem; he wants to speak about a very broad subject, but he wants to start with just a few definitions and axioms.
And if you do employ hundreds of axioms, of course, there is very little chance that anyone is going to grant all of them. They will at least argue that some of them might be mistaken, and thus your proofs will lose the complete certainty that you were looking for from the geometrical method.