Bad Ideas, Belief, Boyd Stace-Walters, Consciousness, Delusion, Epistemology, Guest Authors, Humor, Knowledge, Logic, Memes, Observation, Philosophy, Reason, Science, Scientist, Truth

Scandalous! The Shocking Truth About Objects!

(About a 9 minute read)

It will surprise few of my familiar readers that, when I was but a tender child, my devoted mother would lullaby me to sleep by softly chanting over and over again four sweet questions:

What is truth?
What is belief?
What is knowledge?
What is justification?

Eventually, I was to discover at the age of seven, in one the most significant revelations of my life (second only to the understandably puzzling revelation that my first wife desired for us to indulge in sexual congress on our very wedding night!), that my mother’s four questions were the four foundational questions of epistemology.

Perhaps you can imagine the ecstatic, blissful joy I felt upon it being further revealed that the four questions could actually be studied, pursued with zeal, and that there might be answers to them!  Altogether, it was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Soon afterwards, my happiness was made nearly complete by my very first ever discovery in philosophy: Namely, that objects do not exist.

To be sure, I was reinventing the wheel, for the notion had long been known to philosophers and scientists.  Yet, the discovery encouraged me to write my first academic article, which was published in the even then strangely unpopular, Journal of Philosophical Investigations for Children, Ages 3 to 11.  I was off!  Off to becoming the epistemologist and logician that I am today!

I now wish your indulgence as I guide you on a wonderful trip down memory lane to revisit my “old haunt”, the scandalous problem of the object!

Exposed! The Sordid, Hidden Nature of Objects!

We should in all propriety begin with a definition: An object is anything that exists as an independent or discrete physical reality.

Now, perhaps nothing seems more obvious to us than that objects do exist. For instance, my copy of Gettier’s Almanac appears to physically exist independently of the desk it graces.  So why should I think Gettier’s Almanac is not an object?

Dear Reader, the astonishing fact is that claiming objects exist entails dreadful conclusions.  Simply dreadful conclusions!  I must strongly advise you to have your smelling salts at hand as we proceed with our revelations! Philosophy is not for the mild of heart!

The True Nature of Physical Reality Revealed!

Barring such implausible notions as that we are all disembodied consciousnesses, I believe the physical world is real, and that it exists apart from our minds.  Moreover, it appears to be made up in part of fundamental units of highly concentrated energy — call them what you will, “strings”, “quarks”, or even “atomic particles” — which when arranged in various ways, produce the material world that we empirically experience.

Purely for the sake of our convenience, we conceive of the various arrangements of those fundamental units as “objects”.  But the fact we conceive of them so, does not make them so.  For objects do not exist as physical entities, but only as concepts in our own minds.  And that, dear reader, has several implications, a few of which are actually quite stimulating even to very worldly minds, such as my own.

Objects Discredited by the Change Problem!

The notion that objects do not exist has ancient roots.  Around 500 B.C., Heraclitus had the imposing insight to observe, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”.  Thus Heraclitus raised what I call, “The change problem”.

The change problem is, as the name implies, the fact that objects tend to change over time and circumstance.  Heraclitus’ river, for instance, is in a constant state of flux — as is virtually everything else, albeit quite often at a slower pace.  But if that is so, then how is it possible to define something as an object?  Constant physical change raises the issue of what it means to say an object “physically exists”.

For instance, a high mountain over time is worn down by the elements until it becomes a mere hill, or even flat land.  So, precisely what can we mean when we call the mountain an object?  Do we mean the mountain as it was a million years ago?  A half million years ago?  Today?  And if today, do we mean today at 10:59 AM, or today at 3:23 PM?

There is basically only one way in which we can rationally claim all of those different mountains are in reality one and the same mountain.  That is to assert that, the mountain possesses some essential nature that has remained constant and unvarying though-out all the physical changes that the mountain has undergone.  But we must ask,  what could be the nature of that essential nature?  For it certainly cannot be something physical.

Frankly, the problem has driven some philosophers into raving madness.  That is, into scandalously metaphysical speculations!  The poor, depraved creatures have ended up imagining the mountain remains the same mountain by virtue of its possessing an indemonstrable metaphysical essence.  That is, an essence or nature “beyond the physical”.  But how can they possibly justify such an appalling delusion?  There is, in my opinion, simply no good argument for that distastefully speculative notion.  Simply none.

I shall not, however, digress into the reasons I am convinced, absolutely convinced, most days of the week that there is no justification for the metaphysical speculations of my poor, depraved colleagues.  We — by which I mean you and I, dear reader — have already put ourselves at sufficient risk of a coronary arrest from the sheer excitement of discussing the steamy topic of how the concept of the object so frequently seduces us humans.  Thus, I will reserve the alluring topic of metaphysical speculations for another day.

In sum, we cannot say that the mountain exists as an object in reality, but only as a concept in our own minds, without resorting to wild metaphysical speculations.  And what applies to the mountain, applies to all alleged objects.  They exist only as concepts, but not as physical realities.

Objects Compromised by the Boundary Problem!

The “boundary problem”, as I call it, is a philosophical dagger plunged by the passionate force of logic straight into the very heart of the notion objects physically exist independent of other objects.

To illustrate, first suppose you had a pile of sand.  Allow such a pile of sand to stand in for objects.  All objects.  Now, further suppose you were to diminish the pile by removing just one grain of sand at a time until no sand at all was left.  At which point in the process does your pile of sand cease to exist as an object?

You see, dear reader, if the pile of sand is actually an object — that is, something that exists as an independent physical reality, rather than as a mere concept of the mind — then there must necessarily be a precise boundary between when it is a pile of sand, and when it is no longer a pile of sand.  Were we to say, “There is no precise boundary, but it is still an object”,  we would be indulging ourselves in the terrifying sin of self-contradiction!  For then, we would be arguing that one object can merge into another object while yet remaining independent of the object it is merging into.  Frightful!

And the very same problem — the boundary problem — applies not just to our pile of sand, but to all objects.  When, for instance, does a shirt become not a shirt if we start picking away at it, one molecule at a time?

Shocking as it might be to us, we must now come to the full realization that we have been shamelessly seduced by our own imaginations into believing that physical reality is promiscuously strewn with objects.  In truth, those “objects” are nothing more than wanton concepts in our mind.

A Most Titillating Implication!

No doubt the natural excitements of the discussion have so far been just as robust and numerous for you, dear reader, as they have for me.  Perhaps you are even thinking, “Too much!  Far too much fun!”.  But I must ask you to stick with me for only a few words longer, for I now aim to briefly expose an astonishing implication of all that has gone before.

 You see, if objects are merely concepts, then it follows that scientists can not actually study them as physical realities.  But this logically raises the question of how can scientists, when studying physical realities, distinguish one physical reality from another?

The question is a large one, too large to explore here in this one post.  I propose, however, to explore it in a future post to be published on this same blog.  For now, it is time to bring to a close what, doubtlessly for some of my readers, has been a day of strenuous excitements!

Belief, Boyd Stace-Walters, Epistemology, From Around the Net, Guest Authors, Humor, Knowledge, Logic, Observation, Philosophy, Poetry, Reason, Thinking, Truth

The Shocking Truth About Truth!

(About a 10 minute read)

What is truth?  That question is certain to excite the latent epistemologist in all of us.  Consequently, I would be remiss were I not to inform you, my beloved readers, that the material we are to cover today may periodically induce you to reach for your smelling salts, such is the very nature of epistemology.

As myself not only an epistemologist, but a worldly epistemologist, I cannot properly tell you how appalled I am by the most common answers that I have heard made to the question, “What is truth?”

At the risk of causing you momentary heart palpitations, I would like to quote here an alarming exchange that I discovered on the internet!  On the internet and, I might add, in plain view of impressionable, young children who could thus have their tender, budding notions of logic warped forever by such a savagely circular exchange:

First Person: “I only know the truth according to me…my truth.”

Second Person: “How are you defining ‘truth’?”

First:  “The quality or state of being true.”

Second:  “Ok. And what makes something true?”

First:  “The quality of being true.”

Second: “What makes somethings have that quality and somethings not have that quality?”

First:  “It either does or doesn’t.”

Of course, the good news here is that the First Person in that exchange still has something left to look forward to in life, something as tangibly exciting as a first kiss, a massive job promotion, or the birth of a grandchild.  Namely, they have The Correspondence Theory of Truth to look forward to!

I myself believe it’s a safe wager that those scurrilous wags who say, “Epistemologists are stuffy and no fun”, have never yet partied with an epistemologist holding forth on the topic of The Correspondence Theory.  Why, at the last party I was invited to, back in ’86, I so enthralled my audience with the Theory that they fell one by one into blissful sleep, just as if I’d sung them the sweetest lullaby.  Even my wife later remarked how “creatively” I’d returned the best man’s toast on our wedding day!

Of all the theories of truth (and there are five major ones), the Correspondence Theory is both the oldest and most popular.  It dates in some form or another all the way back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, roughly 2,400 years ago.   The gist of it is that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to a reality, and that a statement is true if it corresponds (i.e. describes) a reality, and false if it does not.

For example:  Were I to say to you, “The scholar is sipping wine”,  that statement would be true if it were indeed the case that there was a scholar sipping wine.  And the statement would be false if that were not the case.

Now, the key take-away here is that the word “truth” is not synonymous with the word “reality”, but rather describes a quality of the relationship between a statement and a reality.  This is very much like the relationship of a map to its terrain.

A map is said to be accurate or true to the extent that it corresponds to a  terrain.   But we do not think of a map as being the same thing as its terrain.  Just so, we should not think of truth as being the same thing as reality.  To do so would, among other atrocities, make the word “truth” a mere redundancy.  Perhaps more importantly, it would tend in practice to close off any attempt to answer the question, “How do we know something is true?”

As it turns out, that question — “How do we know something is true?” — is far from suitable for bedtime reading.  One desires then only to be gently lulled to sleep by some fast-paced action/adventure or steamy romance novel, and a heart-pounding foray into the finer points of epistemology is the very last thing one needs!  The wise reader will thus be forewarned to grip their desk or chair in preparation for my next revelation!

How do we know something is true depends on, among other things, what we mean by “reality”.

Suppose we were to take the ghastly tack of defining “reality” in such a way that it could not — even in theory — be fully known to us!  Let us say, for instance, that at this very moment there exists an undetectable leprechaun singing inaudibly beneath my windowsill.  What on earth could I possibly mean by saying, “I know it to be true”?  You would be quite justified in asking, “How?”

For if the leprechaun is indeed undetectable, and if his singing is indeed inaudible, then there would seem to be no basis at all for my claim that he exists.  Of course, there is always the possibility, however remote, that he exists — if only because there is always the possibility that we might someday come up with a method of detecting him.  But we can no more claim that we are certain to come up with such a method as we can claim that we know today he exists.

Moreover, suppose I cannot even give a purely logical argument for why my leprechaun exists.  For it is possible for something to be known — not through empirical observation — but through logic alone.  For instance, 2 + 6 = 8 can be known through logic alone.  It can also be known through observation, but that does nothing to change the fact it can be known through logic alone.

If I can give you neither empirical evidence nor pure logic to support my claim that my leprechaun exists, then what can I possibly mean if I were to say, “The truth or falsity of my claim rests on its relationship to reality”?

It should be quite obvious to us now that The Correspondence Theory of Truth depends on “reality” being something discernible, if only in theory.

It can be discernible through pure logic, or it can be discernible through empirical observation, or through a combination of empirical observation and logical reasoning, but for The Correspondence Theory to make any sense at all, the “reality” it refers to must be discernible.

Now, despite being an artist, a creative genius, a mystic, a visionary, and a madman, William Blake had his limits: He was also a poet.  Perhaps for that reason alone, Blake tragically failed to leave us with a decently well-formulated epistemology.  Hence, precisely what he meant by, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”, has ever since his death been scandalously open to promiscuous interpretation.

Did Blake mean to imply by it that truth is different for different people?  That the tree the fool sees is just as legitimate as the tree the wise man sees?

I think not!

We can logically believe that only if we believe that the tree can be two separate, but epistemologically equal, things.  To illustrate, suppose the fool sees the tree as “yellow”, the wise person sees the tree as “blue”, and neither sees the tree as the other.  Can the tree be both discernibly yellow and discernibly blue at the same time?  Apart from some interpretations of quantum mechanics, they cannot.

Not, that is, if the fool and the wise person are using the same exact method of discernment or inquiry.  For it is possible that they could both arrive at legitimate differences of opinion if they were using different means of inquiry.

Many of my beloved readers might now be reaching wildly for the smelling salts, for I am admittedly come close to positing that the truth can be legitimately different for different people!  But I daresay “Epistemology is not for the faint of heart! To boldly go where no sane groom epistemologist has gone before is but the bread and butter of my days! I am a man of passions, huge, towering passions! It means practically nothing to me to toss out the possibility that truth might be legitimately different for different people.   To toss it out and then — properly qualify it!”

To my thinking, the most perfected description of a reality would be an operational definition of the method of inquiry used to establish the reality.   By an “operational definition” I mean a step by step description of the process one uses to discover or arrive at the reality.   For instance, the operational definition of the cake I made last Wednesday would be the step by step recipe I used in creating it.  Or, the operational definition of “oxygen” may be described as the specific tests and measures one uses to recognize its presence.

So, for example, were I to say, “There is a cake on my table”, then the most perfect way for me to define the reality would be for me to offer every possible operational definition of what I mean by there is a cake on my table:  “I see a cylindrical object on my table.  The frosting tastes sweet when I lick it.  The body appears light and airy when I cut into it.”  And so forth.

Put differently, the most perfected — if seldom the best — way to describe a reality is to describe it in terms of the operations used as a method of inquiry into its existence.  For when we do so, we make precisely clear what we truly mean by the reality.

For instance, were I to say, “I lost my virginity at the age of 16”, you would know very little for certain about the profound experience I had.  That is, the extraordinary reality I am referring to.  But were I to truthfully add, “I lost my virginity at the age of 16 by reading a biology textbook”, you would at once know how remarkably worldly I was even at such a young age.  Thus we can see how specifying the method of inquiry can properly qualify, and much further define, the reality being discussed.

I would submit then that, apart from quantum mechanics, reality is most likely the same for everyone, provided that “everyone” is using exactly the same method of inquiry under the same or similar conditions [(and is qualified to assess the results of their inquiry) an offer not good where the truth is prohibited by law, such as within the city limits of Washington D.C.].

We have now reached a point where we may safely hazard a summary of all that has gone before.  First, we found that “truth”, according to the oldest and most popular theory, is a matter of the relationship between a statement and the reality it refers to.  Next, we had an exciting romp through the notion that there are two kinds of knowledge — knowledge that requires no experience to know it is true, and knowledge that requires experience to know it is true.   Next, in a truly climatic moment, we discovered that some method of discernment or inquiry is logically implied in any meaningful claim that something is true. Finally, in the afterglow of our blissful romp, we experienced the epiphany that a poet — of all people! — was undoubtedly right about something.  Exactly what though, we’re not sure, given his appalling failure to leave us with an extant epistemology.   That’s the trouble with poets, you know; why they don’t properly footnote their truth claims must remain one of life’s greatest mysteries.


For a much more thorough discussion of these topics, see my lively little book,  How Do We Know It’s True that “the Eggs and Ham are Green”?: Conversational Breakfast Table Gambits in Truth Theory for the Layman.  Tokyo: Taikutsuna Publishing House, 2004.  Print.

Bad Ideas, Boyd Stace-Walters, Epistemology, Humor, Intellectual Honesty, Logic, Philosophy, Reason, Thinking, Truth

When Logic Breaks Bad: Three Shocking Errors that Turn an Appeal to Authority into a Depraved Fallacy!

(About an 11 minute read)

Before we properly begin today, dear reader, I feel it is my duty to inform you that some of the material we will be covering is scandalous in its nature.  I must therefore recommend that, as a simple but necessary precaution, you have handy your smelling salts.

With that said, let us now properly begin: I think it is reasonable of me to hazard that you, dear reader,  are a dedicated student of both logic and epistemology, just as am I.  Therefore, I can deduce that you, too, might be aware of the well established fact that poets are suspect.  Highly suspect.

Obviously, that is because poets far more often than not harbor theories of knowledge, truth, justification, and belief that are so poorly defined a sensible man or woman might be fully justified to believe the typical poet has never more than two or three times in his or her life studied an academic journal’s worth of articles in the blissful fields of logic and epistemology!

Now, it is quite understandable if you think I’m exaggerating, if you think such a thing is improbable.  But please trust me: I know what I’m talking about.  For, as it happens, I’m a worldly man, an experienced man, a man who has seen shocking things in his life, even things as appalling as the heartbreaking story of a poor, wretched, old homeless woman I once befriended only to discover in an especially poignant moment during one of our casual conversations that she was entirely ignorant of the simple distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge!

Instantly, I was so choked up that tears welled in my eyes and my voice failed me.  I could not even lecture her, let alone speak to her, and all I could think to do was mutely give her all the money I had on me — a hundred or so dollars — though I felt that was not possibly enough to console her.  Perhaps you can imagine how touched I was when the poor dear, bless her, pretended to be thrilled merely in order to comfort me.

You may be forgiven, dear reader, if you are now in something approaching a state of shock.  Yet, I fear what I have to say next will —  will, if you fail to stoutly brace yourself at once — topple you into madness or, worse, into committing a tu quoque, arguably the most easily avoided of all known fallacies of logic.

You see, poets now and then get it right!

A case in point: Byron by name; Lord by title; English by birth; poet doubtlessly by horrific accident.  His exact words were,  “If I am fool, it is, at least, a doubting one; and I envy no one the certainty of his self-approved wisdom.”

Now, a clear implication of “Byron’s Theorem”, as I like to call it,  is that we cannot absolutely rely on the authority of anyone, not even that of ourselves, for it is always possible for a human — or even dare I say, an epistemologist — to make a mistake.  Clearly, that is implied by the Theorem.

I will not go into the precise and exacting reasons why that is implied. I would only be repeating myself, for I engagingly lay out those reasons in a chapter in the second volume of my insightful sex manual for newlyweds, Towards an Epistemology of Carnal Knowledge: A Popular Guide to the Hot Topics Every Couple Lusts to Discuss on Their Wedding Night. Colorado Springs: Charging Bore Books, 2009. Print.  I confess though, the chapter might not fully satisfy your thirst for an in-depth discussion of Byron’s Theorem because the whole series itself is light reading targeted to a wide audience.  Unfortunately, the only country the volumes have sold well in is England.  Odd, that.  I suppose it must mean English epistemologists are tops.

As it happens, Byron’s Theorem matches a principle of deductive logic.  Since even an authority could be wrong, any and all deductive arguments that appeal to an authority in support of their conclusion are necessarily fallacious.  There are no exceptions.

Yet, the same is not true in inductive logic.  Inductive logic is far less strict in this matter than deductive logic and it allows for some appeals to authority.

But why does deductive logic forbid all appeals to authority while inductive logic permits some appeals?  At the risk of being slightly superficial, this is as short of an explanation as I can personally make of it:

♦ In a deductive argument, the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises if the premises are true.

♦ In an inductive argument, the conclusion probably follows from the premises if the premises are true.

♦ Even though an authority on some subject might usually be right, it is always possible that they could be wrong.

♦ Hence, appealing to an authority as a premise for a deductive argument is invalid because doing so would mean that the conclusion would not necessarily follow from that premise (since the authority could be wrong).

♦ But, in an inductive argument, appealing to an authority as a premise is valid because doing so would mean that the conclusion was made more probable (since the authority is probably right, and despite that the authority could be wrong).

In brief, the reason appeals to authority are allowed in some inductive arguments, but not in any deductive arguments hinges on the difference between “likely to be true” and “must be true”.

Now, I think I might safely say that just about any person who knows me, if asked to pick but one word with which to best describe my emotional side, would pick the word, “passionate”.  I am, after all, a man of passions, strong, towering passions — especially, say, when savoring an argument exquisitely formulated in doxastic logic that perhaps suggests to me a floral hint of orange blossom when I am perusing its axioms.

And like most people of a passionate nature, I sometimes wear my emotional side on my sleeve.  Thus, I should warn you, beloved reader, that we are about to embark upon a discussion of fallacies — a topic almost certain to provoke me, perhaps even provoke me to raw, untamed outbursts in which I might express my opinions with unusual force and vigor — even for the internet.  So I apologize in advance if my stormy language at such moments causes you the vapours.

Having given fair warning, I will now turn to three common ways in which an appeal to authority becomes a fallacy of logic, beginning with:

Citing Someone Who is Not an Actual Authority

Suppose you have a Valentine’s Day date with your cute research colleague in paleobotany.  You’ve already turned off the lab lights, romantically lit a couple Bunsen burners, slipped out of your lab coats, and ordered the pizza.  Now you and your colleague are gazing into each other’s eyes over the soft blue glow of the burners, exchanging witty small talk about the lab director’s fossilized pollen samples, when suddenly, out of nowhere, your beloved colleague cites Albert Einstein as an authority on post-glacial plant recolonization.

Alas!  The mood is broken.  But is there a way to recover it?  Yes!  The trick is to gently correct your colleague’s faux pas when inevitably pointing out to him or her that they have indulged themselves in the fallacy of appealing to an authority because Einstein, while an authority on physics, was not an authority on post-glacial plant recolonization.  That is, an appeal to an authority is only good if the authority’s expertise is in the relevant field.

Be sure to avoid harsh words, shocked expressions, and spontaneous squawks of disbelief when gently pointing out your colleague’s indulgence.  If you manage that, the rest of the evening can be saved.

Asserting that Authority is Proof

Suppose you and your friends have spent a few hours in the coffee shop pounding down the green teas while good naturedly bragging about the impressive lengths of your curricula vitae.  After legitimately citing a string of human resource personnel who’ve all said your c.v. was the longest they’ve ever seen, the dangerous levels of caffeine you’ve consumed finally get the better of you, and you blurt out, “That absolutely proves mine is the longest!”

Proves?  On the contrary, no number of authorities, no matter how many you cite, can actually prove your conclusion.  Instead, they merely support your conclusion.  The reason is because it is at least possible that all your authorities are wrong.  Thus, you can only say they make your conclusion probable, but you cannot say that they make your conclusion necessary.

Tut! Tut!  Tut!

I must apologize now in case my nearly spontaneous outburst of passionate “tutting” has disturbed your composure.

Giving More Weight to a Minority of Experts than to an Opposing Majority of Experts

Suppose you are spending a pleasant sunny afternoon with your best friend in the park, lying on the green grass idly chitchatting about ancient Sumerian technologies.  Casually, you toss out the fascinating fact that 97% of the experts in the field agree that it was the Sumerians who first invented the sail.

Your friend nods agreeably and you are about to happily go on when a passing member of the merchant marine overhears your conversation and, quite unexpectedly, interrupts you to arrogantly list a mere half dozen or so authorities who disagree with the 97% consensus view you mentioned.

How can you correct the old salt without unduly embarrassing him?

Perhaps the best way to begin is to politely point out to him that his claim is extraordinary since it would seem highly unlikely for 97% of the authorities in a field to be wrong, while a mere 3% were right.   You should then remind him of the principle that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, and then gently ask him to provide you with the top fourteen or so reasons he believes his half dozen or so experts have the edge on most of the rest of the researchers in the field.

You see, it is possible that his minority of experts are right and that your majority are wrong.  Yet, it is unlikely that’s the case.  And since an inductive argument rests on the likelihood of the evidence supporting the conclusion, the sailor is more or less obliged to add weight to his claim by going into detail about why his minority of experts are right after all.

To summarize, there are at least three common ways of turning an appeal to authority into a fallacy of logic.  Those ways are (1) citing someone who is not an actual authority during a romantic evening in the lab, (2) mistaking authority for actual proof of one’s conclusion while pounding down the green teas at the coffee shop, and (3) giving more weight to a minority of experts than to an opposing majority of experts without any justification for doing so while lying on a green lawn in the park.

Now to be sure, the mere fact that an argument contains a fallacy does not mean that the conclusion must be false.  It is quite possible for a fallacious argument to have a true conclusion.  However, one should get into the habit of considering fallacious arguments suspect, much as one is already in the habit of considering poets suspect.

This is because fallacious arguments tend to arrive at false conclusions, just as poets tend to arrive with scandalous frequency at radically speculative epistemologies.  I confess I have my days when I suspect poets seldom properly study The Philosophical Review at all!  How on earth they so often arrive at sharp insights and deep observations is simply beyond the grasp of any sensible man or woman.

Bad Ideas, Biology, Boyd Stace-Walters, Evolution, Humor, Logic, Philosophy

A Most Titillating Fallacy of Logic!

(About a 4 minute read)

Like most people, I am keenly aware the reason you do not often see “sex” and “logical fallacies of relevance” in the same sentence together is because logical fallacies of relevance are intrinsically so exciting they do not need sex to sell them.

Merely mention one of the numerous fallacies of relevance — say, the Ad Hominem Fallacy, the Red Herring Fallacy, or the Naturalistic Fallacy — and you create an atmosphere of tingling anticipation.  To toss “sex” into the mix would only be overkill.

So it may astonish my readers that I am about to bring up both the Naturalistic Fallacy and the subject of sex — together.

Make no mistake about it, though:  I am not mixing the bliss of logic with the occasionally interesting topic of sex merely to super-excite you, my beloved readers.  Nor am I mixing sex with logic merely because I am a  man of passions — strong, huge, even alarming passions — especially when reviewing a decent first order propositional calculus!   No, there is nothing gratuitous about this.

Instead, I reassure you that it is actually necessary here to mention sex, just as it was — I eventually discovered — necessary to mention sex now and then during the course of my two marriages.

And why is that?  Because someone — someone! — has made a mistake on the internet!  That is, they have committed the Naturalistic Fallacy in the all but certain presence of impressionable children. Children who might now grow up to promiscuously introduce fallacies into the very core of their reasoning.  Children who might one day run large multinational corporations, huge NGOs, entire governments, or even — more importantly — departments of philosophy.   DOESN’T ANYONE THINK OF THE FUTURE OF OUR SPECIES BEFORE THEY COMMIT FALLACIES OF RELEVANCE ANYMORE?

The person in question — let us call him the “Perpetrator” — committed the fallacy in the course of arguing that we should derive our morals from “evolutionary biology”.  Allow me to quote:

My position is that evolutionary biology lays on us certain [moral] absolutes. These are adaptations brought on by natural selection to make us functioning social beings. It is in this sense that I claim that morality is not subjective. [bracketed material mine]

As it happens, there is more than one way to lay out his argument. In the spirit of good sportsmanship, I shall now lay out the Perpetrator’s argument in the strongest possible manner I can come up with, despite the risk of giving us all the vapours:

  • We evolved various behaviors (“adaptations”) that make us functioning social beings.
  • Because the evolved behaviors (“adaptations”) make us functioning social beings, they are moral absolutes.
  • We ought to behave according to moral absolutes.
  • Therefore, we ought to behave according to the various behaviors (“adaptations”) that make us functioning social beings.

As you see, the second premise is the offending one.  It constitutes a mini-argument within the larger argument, for it has the form of a premise (“our evolved behaviors make us functioning social beings”) and a conclusion (“our evolved behaviors are therefore moral absolutes”).

But that is precisely the form of the Naturalistic Fallacy, which can be described as, “An argument whose premises merely describe the way that the world is, but whose conclusion describes the way that the world ought to be….”  The Naturalistic Fallacy is a fallacy because you cannot reason from an “is” to an “ought”.

If you could reason from an “is” to an “ought”, you could reason all sorts of ridiculous things. “There is theft, therefore there ought to be theft.” “There are wars, therefore there ought to be wars.”  Even, “There are murderous fallacies of logic, therefore there ought to be murderous fallacies of logic.”

Yet, for the moment, let us accept the Perpetrator’s reasoning, despite it’s power to shock us.  What, then, might happen if we were to buy into his notion that “evolutionary biology lays on us certain [moral] absolutes?

Would not any behavior with a genetic basis that increased someone’s reproductive success then become moral? I cannot see why it would not.

For instance, it appears that war has a genetic basis in territorial instincts and other such things.  But if that is so, then wars would be moral if they increased someone’s reproductive success.  Again, there is a hypothesis that rape has a genetic basis.  But if that is so, then rape would be moral if it increased someone’s reproductive success.

Such implications must disturb even the calmest of men and women.  To permit the notion that evolutionary biology lays on us moral absolutes seems to invite a deluge of undesirable consequences.  Fortunately we need not permit it, for sound logic does not compel us to permit it. For that, and for other reasons, men and women of conscience may justifiably and emphatically wag their fingers while saying to the Perpetrator in the most passionate terms, “Buffoonery! Mr. Perpetrator, your notion is buffoonery!”

Bad Ideas, Boyd Stace-Walters, Epistemology, Philosophy, Science, Scientific Method(s)

Help! I am Being Assailed by a Bizarre and Shocking Notion!

(About a 4 minute read) 

It is a truth nearly universally recognized that few things can shock the worldly epistemologist. Even those folks who insist the Red Herring is not a proper fallacy of logic must fail to scandalize the man or woman who has seen it all.

Seen the careless confusion of analytic and synthetic propositions. Seen operational definitions rise and fall in faddish favor.  Seen whole and entire epistemologies come and go.

No, the most experienced epistemologists are very much like old sailors who have been to nearly every major port: Not many sights are left to shock either one of those “old salts”.

Yet, I have just come from absolutely the most horrifying kerfuffle you could possibly imagine!

Brace yourself, for I mean to speak frankly and tell all!

Someone at this very moment is — despite my impassioned protests — is asserting that “objectivity is the core of the empirical sciences”!

And they are saying it on the internet — on the internet, where impressionable children might see it and thus have warped their tender, young epistemologies!

Please allow me to quote the criminal: “The basis for science is objectivity, yet the foundational premise for science is based on an assumption (existence of objects).”

If you are like me, you must now — despite your worldliness — feel significantly more shocked than if someone were to suggest to you that you might someday wake up with a hang-over in a South China Sea whorehouse to find yourself in bed with a grinning orangutang — and not a truth-table in sight to cling to!

BY THE GREAT GODDESS OF PROPOSITIONAL CALCULUS! DOESN’T ANYONE THINK THROUGH THEIR TERMS THESE DAYS?

I humbly apologize if the sheer emotional violence of my response to that person has caused you to reach for the smelling salts.  I realize I am a man of passions. Strong passions.  Heart-thundering passions! And that sometimes my passions might be a tad overwhelming, especially when an epistemology is involved.  But please bear with me while I say this: It is a myth — it is only a myth — that in order to do science I must believe in an objective reality.  I am, of course, permitted to believe in an objective reality.  But my belief in an objective reality is not necessary because I can do science even if I do not believe in an objective reality.

I myself favor throwing the concept of objectivity out the door.  We don’t need it.  It is unnecessary baggage, and it reeks of the Middle Ages.  Moreover, the concept of objectivity is quite easily and very soundly replaced by the concept of intersubjective verifiability.

All of us intersubjectively verify things — even if we do not call it “intersubjective verification”.  Someone tells us something is true and we say, “Show me!”  In a nutshell, that’s the principle behind intersubjective verification.

Suppose I say to you, “It is snowing outside.”  You look out the window, see snow, and say, “So it is!”  You have just intersubjectively verified my statement, “It is snowing outside.”

Again, you say to me, “If you run an electric spark through a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen, the mixture will explode, after which, you will be left with some water.”  I don’t believe you.  So I experiment by running an electric spark through a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen.  The mixture explodes, after which I notice some water.  I have just intersubjectively verified your claim.

Imagine thousands of people do the same experiment and almost all of them get significantly the same results.  Would we not have considerable evidence — a weight of evidence — that we can rely on a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen to produce water when a spark is passed through it?  I think so.  But have we in any way demonstrated there necessarily is some objective world out there — a world separate from our awareness — in which hydrogen and oxygen are real things that produce real water when a real spark is passed through them?

Strictly speaking, we have not.

Yet — and this has a certain beauty to it — we don’t need to.  We do not need to figure out with absolute certainty what the ultimate nature of reality is before we can arrive at reliable facts through processes of intersubjective verification. For example, we can discover that a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen reliably produces water when a spark is passed through it without ever needing to speculate about such a distasteful and wretched subject as  metaphysics.

In short,  the sciences do not crucially rest upon the metaphysical notion that objects really exist.  Rather, the foundation of the sciences can much better be thought of as the principle of intersubjective verifiability.

So take that, Mr. Internet-Child-Corrupting-“The-Basis-For-Science-Is-Objectivity”-Poo-Poo-Head-Man!

Once again, I must apologize to you, my dear readers, on the chance that my strong, vigorous language has forced you to reach for the smelling salts.