Friday, January 08, 2010

Bad philosophy and bad criticism

Mitchell LeBlanc at Urban Philosophy criticizes a debate at between a theist, "Wolfhart Pannenberg" and atheist "Hackenslash" regarding the existence of God.

I don't share LeBlanc's admiration of Pannenberg's "proof" that God exists.

First, Pannenberg makes many assumptions: ten "logic assumptions", seven "metaphysical assumptions", and three "epistemic assumptions" (with one of them containing four parts and referencing a long, external account of scientific causality). Additionally, some of the assumptions contain terms undefined in his own posting, e.g. "MA #1: For any entity x, x exists just in case x is a relata of a property-exemplification nexus." Nowhere does Pannenberg precisely define "property-exemplification nexus" nor how one would determine precisely whether x is or is not a relata of such an entity.

Furthermore, in this assumption Pannenberg is defining existence; we have to wonder on what basis he would define the existence of property-exemplification nexus. A lot of assumptions means a lot of room to invoke the Universal Philosophical Refutation; unlike mathematics, there are no uncontroversial assumptions in philosophy. Also many of his logical and metaphysical assumptions assume the existence of possible worlds and reasoning about those worlds, elements that have not yet been tested empirically.

Second, the proof itself is on the long side. There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip, and each step in a long derivation has to be very carefully scrutinized, especially when some of those steps (such as Pannenberg's explanation of Yablo-Conceivability) are made in English rather than symbolic logic. Any causual reader is more than justified on the form alone to treat the argument with agnosticism pending the detailed investigation by several disinterested experts as to its formal validity: Pannenberg might well be trying to baffle us with bullshit. The inability to rebut an argument is not by itself sufficient justification for accepting its conclusion as true.

Pannenberg's assumptions are prima facie suspect on their content. A giant red flag is his introduction of causality as metaphysical and epistemological assumptions.

Causality is not a metaphysical or philosophical concept, it is a scientific concept. Furthermore, scientific causality is a statement about existence, not about how we gain knowledge (i.e. it's an ontological statement, not a metaphysical or epistemic statement). Causality is justified scientifically: it is the most compact theory to explain actual observations; it is completely unjustified as an a priori, i.e. physically prior to experience.

(All scientific theories about the world are formally or logically "prior to" experience, in that we derive statements about experience from those theories. But deductive reasoning is not itself at all an epistemic method in science. Even if we actually believe some scientific theory were true, and even if we are sure that some observable state of affairs deductively follows from that theory, we do not know that what follows is actually true unless it's been actually observed. Hawking's conjecture about black hole quantum radiation is a perfect example: it's derivation from laws of physics is as tight as can be, and it's as promising as a scientific conjecture can be, but we will not know whether it's true until we've actually made enough observations to rule out the alternatives.)

More importantly, scientific causality is a description only of the relationship between space-time events in this physical universe. It does not say anything whatsoever about the relationship of space-time to anything else. It does not say anything whatsoever about the relationship between "possible worlds" other than this particular physical universe. In just the same sense, we can know everything there is to know about the arrangement of atoms within a diamond without knowing anything whatsoever about how that diamond is arranged in the larger universe... or even if there is a larger universe for the diamond to be arranged in.

Furthermore, causality might well not be a fundamental property of the universe: we do not yet have sufficient evidence to rule out radical acausality in quantum mechanics. It might be the case that causality is an abstract, emergent property of a fundamentally random universe in much the same sense that the macroscopic laws of thermodynamics emerge from the fundamental randomness of molecular motion.

Indeed, it looks very much as if Pannenberg has just sexed up the old "first cause" argument with a lot of philosophical jargon.

Most importantly, though, we are completely justified in dismissing Pannenberg's argument as trivial based on what he sets out to prove:

Bare Theism = (df.) There is an entity x, such that x is a metaphysically necessary being. Metaphysically Necessary Being = (df.) An entity x that exists at all metaphysically possible worlds, or all metaphysically possible situations, or the proposition—that x exists—is necessarily true.
Pannenberg here is using very complicated philosophical jargon to express the simple idea that "something just exists." This conclusion is not seriously in doubt; the controversy is about what specifically just exists. Pannenberg has done nothing but elaborately (and with uncertain validity) concluded the obvious.

LeBlanc then goes on to criticize Hackenslash's post. LeBlanc is mostly correct about Hackenslash's philosophical errors, but so what? It's a pure ad hominem fallacy to draw any conclusions whatsoever about "New Atheists" as a class; we can conclude only that Hackenslash himself (?) is a sloppy philosopher. We require more than a single data point to draw even statistical generalities about "New Atheists".

LeBlanc goes on at mind-numbing length about the definition of "atheism", beating a horse long dead. Constructing the definition as "lack of belief" rather than explicit disbelief or belief in the negative is a fussy technical definition intended to address theists' propensity to leave "god" undefined or define "god" in an unfalsifiable manner. It is logically impossible to disbelieve or believe the falsity of an unfalsifiable utterance. Indeed an unfalsifiable statement is not a proposition, it is not an assertion; it is no more capable of being true or false than the utterance, "Yay!". The "lack of belief" definition is intended only to compactly express disagreement with a wider range of theists' statements of belief.

Fundamentally, atheism is the position that all god talk is ridiculous and stupid. Either the god talk is manifestly false (e.g. asserting the actual existence of various imaginary characters in works of fiction such as the Bible, the Veddas or the Koran), trivial ("god" is the universe; "god" is the laws of physics), or nonsensical philso-babble ("god" is the ground of all being). Historically, the whole concept is such obvious bullshit that the continued attention of supposedly serious academic philosophers is an indication not of the value of the concept but only of the intellectual corruption and dishonesty of institutional, academic philosophy.

Note that LeBlanc's disclaimer, that Pannenberg makes only "an attack on Hack’s specific type of empiricism," seems disingenuous or dishonest. We have of course LeBlanc's post title, which is not "The Folly of One Anonymous Internet Debater on a Message Board" but rather "The Folly of the 'New Atheist'". Why waste any ink at all on an evaluation of one anonymous internet poster's lack of philosophical rigor? Who cares whether or not a guy (?) who calls himself "Hackenslash" has a rigorous and philosophically sound epistemology.

Hackensack's personal philosophical failings are worthy of discussion only if either Hackensack's views or his sloppiness were typical of "New Atheists". And indeed, we LeBlanc's exhorts "atheists who currently have their atheistic justifications on a scientific basis critically rethink their positions." We can conclude only LeBlanc considers Hackensack's view of empiricism to be typical of "New Atheists". Furthermore LeBlanc explicitly excludes scientific knowledge as being applicable to the question of the existence of God, saying, "Philosophy is the only means by which one can reach a reasoned position on the existence of God whether it be theism or atheism."

Indeed we can infer that not only does LeBlanc consider Hackenslash's view of empiricism to be typical, but also to be the best (or at least close to the best) form of empiricism possible, saying, "It is in fact, impossible for science to [disprove the existence of God] given it’s methodological restrictions." This statement would be a complete nonsequitur if LeBlanc did not consider Hackenslash's views to be not only typical but optimal.

Indeed, LeBlanc goes on to say, "As should be evident from the debate between Pannenberg and Hackenslash, the New Atheists are not the intellectual heroes of our modern world." I don't see this as saying anything less than that Hackenslash is typical of the best that New Atheists can do, and that the whole philosophy of science is "absurd, demonstrably false and wholly incoherent."

Hackensack's does appear to be a very sloppy philosopher, but his only failing is trying to debate a professional philosopher on a technical issue without enough specialized knowledge to usefully contribute. (Similarly, I would not even try to debate tetrapod evolution with Per Ahlberg.) And the only conclusion we can draw from the debate is that one specific person is not very well-educated in philosophical argumentation. That's hardly a basis on which to exhort atheists to abandon scientific epistemology as being even relevant and adopt prolix bullshit philosophy as the "only" applicable methodology.

LeBlanc invokes the circularity argument, stating, "Hack cannot know his own epistemology by his own critieria unless there is some empirical evidence which serves as justification. But what possible empirical evidence could justify Hack’s epistemology?" LeBlanc quotes Pannenberg approvingly,

[W]e have an epistemic justificatory circle around HJEP on Hackenslash’s view... a circle he can’t get rid of.
Both statements are philoso-babble expressing the simple idea that you can't prove your assumptions (if you could prove them, they wouldn't be assumptions). It's not an argument against scientific empiricism, which privileges observation and experience as a filter to exclude some theories as definitely false. It's an argument against deductivism, the idea that only statements derived from true premises are true.

LeBlanc deprecates pragmatism, which is the fundamental justification for scientific epistemology. LeBlanc says that Hackenslash

also attempts to invoke a pragmatic justification of (H) stating that “it works”. But this surely is of no use to him for not only would a pragmatic epistemic justification contradict the very epistemology he’s espoused, it might even force him to accept theism should it be successfully shown that theism is a superior explanation that “works better.”
There are a couple of technical problems with this statement. First, LeBlanc refers to "(H)", but "(H)" is Pannenberg's interpretation of Hackenslash's presentation of scientific epistemology (Pannenberg himself labels this interpretation as "HJEP"; LeBlanc's relabeling appears gratuitous and unnecessarily confusing). And Hackenslash does not attempt to even analyze the specific wording of Pannenberg's restatement. (A tactical mistake on Hackenslash's part: one should never blithely accept an opponent's interpretation or restatement of one's own views.) Hackenslash furthermore does not attempt to justify "(H)" or "HJEP" directly; he says explicitly that "empiricism [not HJEP] is bottom-up, and it is supported by the simple fact that, it works." [italics added; boldface original]. We can't draw any conclusions at all about an advocate's position from any problems we might find with an opposing advocate's interpretation of that position.

Based on the broad conclusions LeBlanc draws from his analysis, we must see LeBlanc's charge as applying not just to Pannenberg's restatement, not just to Hackenslash's sloppy formulation of epistemology, not just to the typical scientific epistemology of the "New Atheists" but to the best scientific philosophy they have promoted and employed. In other words, LeBlanc is either muttering trivialities or constructing an argument against scientific epistemology itself.

The self-contradiction argument, "a pragmatic epistemic justification [would] contradict the very epistemology [Hackenslash has] espoused," is valid only against naive empiricism, which is itself deductivist, not pragmatic. The proof by contradiction of naive empiricism is well-understood and uncontroversial:

  1. A statement is true if and only if it is
    1. a statement about experience
    2. or
    3. derivable from statements about experience
  2. Neither statement (1) nor its inverse are statements about experience, nor are either derivable from statements about experience

  3. If (1) is true, then (1) is neither true nor false (i.e. false or meaningless).

Therefore naive empiricism is false. Well, yeah.

Scientific empiricism is pragmatic, not deductivist. Pragmatism is not self-contradictory, because it doesn't deduce the truth of pragmatism; it's definitional, not deductive. The definition of "knowledge" as "statements about the world that are pragmatically useful in explaining and prediction experience" is itself pragmatically useful.

The counter-argument that such a definition is circular is irrelevant. Circularity is a deductivist argumentative fallacy: If you show that an argument deductively "concludes" a statement by assuming it, you have shown only that the argument is not deductive; you have not said anything at all about the truth or falsity of the statement. The "circularity" argument against scientific epistemology says nothing other than that pragmatism is not deductivism. Indeed: pragmatism is not deductivism. It's better.

LeBlanc's subsequent objection goes beyond ordinary philosophical bullshit into egregious stupidity: scientific empiricism, "might even force him to accept theism should it be successfully shown that theism is a superior explanation that 'works better.'" That's not an argument against scientific epistemology, that's what it's actually for: to force us to believe counter-intuitive statements. Do you think I want to believe that Quantum Mechanics is true? Of course not! It's horrible! Classical mechanics is much nicer. But scientific empiricism forces me to believe it. If theism does indeed "work better", if it is indeed a simpler way of precisely predicting and explaining the specific experiences we actually experience out of the range of logically possible experiences we might have, then we would indeed be forced to accept theism.

The point, though, is that theism doesn't work better. It doesn't explain our specific experiences. It has zero predictive power in general.

Had I been debating Pannenberg, I would have first replied, "Congratulations, you have gone to great lengths to demonstrate that something just exists. But that's one point among many that we already agree on. What we don't agree on is: what precisely that something actually is. Your conjecture and conclusion does not seem to deserve the label 'theism', bare or otherwise; else 'theism' no longer labels any matter of controversy: you might as well say that you arbitrarily label your left great toe as "god", this toe exists, therefore god exists. Valid, true, and not at all interesting.

"What can you tell us about this something? What properties does it have? I'm open to an alternative suggestion, but it seems to me that to be interestingly and usefully applied, 'theism' has to mean that this something that just exists has to have characteristics at least vaguely resembling personality, desires, preferences, reasoning, i.e. the sort of characteristics we ascribe (more or less) exclusively to human beings and not at all to mindless things such as rocks or stars. Furthermore, we have to be able to know that this something has those characteristics, in the same sense that we can know whether or not a human being is actually alive.

"Empirically, scientifically, we are forced to conclude that whatever it is that does just exist either does not have any sort of personality; if it did have a personality, it has perfectly hidden that personality from us, and of course the former is simpler than the latter. (And if it were to have anything even vaguely resembling a personality that it is perfectly hiding from us, we must conclude that it wants us to believe it has none at all.)"

I would expect Pannenberg to object that god does not necessarily have anything even remotely like a human personality. Based on the conversation, I would expect him to also bring up the uncertainty of scientific empiricism. I would respond, "Yes, you're absolutely correct: we cannot know with philosophical certainty whether scientific empiricism gives us any sort of knowledge, much less that it's the only way to acquire knowledge. But that's not a problem with scientific empiricism, it's a problem with philosophy.

"Every epistemic method by definition has exactly the same problem. Given any definition of epistemology: "(E): For all statements X, we know X if and only if X is true and X is Y." (E) is a statement. Therefore we know (E) if and only if it is true and it is Y (whatever Y is). But this is either self-contradictory (if (E) isn't Y) or circular (if (E) is (Y)).

"But you have failed to answer the questions: What are the properties of this "god" of which you speak? You've mentioned only what they are not. Furthermore, how can we tell the difference between true and false assertions about the property of the "something" we both agree just exists? At least scientific empiricism actually works, it allows us to compactly explain and predict the world of experience. Perhaps experience — and that which causes or otherwise underlies experience — isn't everything there is, but if something exists and/or has some properties that by definition have no experiential consequences whatsoever under any possible circumstances, then I need some reason to care about such a being or its properties.

"If you say that god exists and has some unspecified (or even specified) properties different but indistinguishable from a blind, uncaring, unknowing, mindless universe composed of simple physical entities and mechanical physical laws, you haven't said anything interesting. Indeed what's the difference between 'being' and perfect seeming? It's hard to see how you've really said anything other than that the universe actually is blind, uncaring, unknowing and mindless, composed of simple physical entities and mechanical physical laws.

"Atheists often define atheism as 'lack of belief in god' precisely to counter this sort of move. If I can't tell the difference between the truth or falsity of a statement, I can't have one belief or another: acceptance, rejection, and dismissal as meaningless are all equivalent. You can say a lot of things about "god" without fear of being rebutted only so long as you don't say anything meaningful; stray one inch out of your circle of perfect vacuity and science will push you right back in it."

This is not a complicated debate, and the best that theists (and bad philosophers like LeBlanc) can do is try to bury the obvious bullshit under an avalanche of technical-sounding philoso-babble.

UTA: At "Wolfhart Pannenberg's" request, I have edited this post to use his pseudonym throughout.


  1. For any entity x, x exists just in case x is a relata of a property-exemplification nexus.

    Anyone who writes shit like that should be summarily fucking executed.

  2. This response to Mitch LeBlanc comes off as rather rude.

    Your criticism may or may not be valid (I will leave it up to Mitch to defend his own argument), but such condescending language tends to make one not want to read this at all.

    Ditto for ComradePhysioProf.

  3. Awwww.. po' baby. Did I hurt your pwecious widdle feelings?

  4. "Awwww.. po' baby. Did I hurt your pwecious widdle feelings?"

    Umm...not really. It was just an observation. However, this comment further compounds the problem. Do you have an issue with civility?

  5. I'm guessing you're not a regular reader of this blog.

  6. I've published your opinion, even though I didn't ask for it and I really don't care what you think. If you have something substantive to contribute, feel free. Otherwise, this issue is closed.

  7. Ephemerance: If I want psychological counseling, I'll pay someone with a degree and a license.

  8. hackenslash1/24/10, 8:27 PM

    Thank you for this. It was most informative and educational.

  9. Dear Barefoot (may I be informal?),

    I acted as hackenslash’s second in the debate you discuss here. I’d like to make a few comments, if I may.

    Firstly, neither hack (lower case used advisedly) nor myself are philosophers. Indeed, we both seem to hold the view that, for the most part, philosophy as normally practiced consists of little more than creative intellectual masturbation. Sure, it may be personally satisfying, but in general it achieves little more than soiling the bedsheets in an orgy of fantasy and self-congratulation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and hell, some people actually make a living out of doing it in a public forum. Well done to them, say I, and whatever melts your butter. It must be quite nice to make a living doing something you enjoy.

    Please note, by the way, I state this in terms of “most cases”. I am not dismissing all philosophical behaviour as worthless, just as I would not condemn masturbation as same. Sometimes it can be very useful, and sometimes others can learn from our efforts. I daresay I would be poorer in experience and as a lover if I’d never come across the Reverse Chicken Grip developed by the famed masturbator known only as SS. But I digress.

    There is something I think that commentators on the debate seem to be missing, and it’s really central to why hack took the approach that he (yeah, he’s a he) did, to whit: it was not hack’s job to prove the opposite of the statement being debated (“God exists”). Quite aside from the party for the affirmative attempting to lure hack into the stagnant backwaters of what you yourself characterise as “philoso-babble” (and what I myself termed something like “the Fireswamp of pseudo-technical bullshit”) and pronounce triumphantly that hack was now marooned in a foetid backwater of nonsense, the decision was made to (as I said it), “Do a Prince Humperdinck on his arse” and simply refuse to be drawn in.

    Hack (capitalised here because it begins a sentence) knows he’s not a philosopher, doesn’t pretend to be one, but can smell bullshit from quite a distance. He’s also smart enough to realise when he’s on firm ground, and that firm ground is simply this: All the wibble that the party for the affirmative spewed out doesn’t even remotely prove that god (whatever the fuck that may be) exists. This is something that you yourself noted. It doesn’t prove it logically, nor present evidence.

    Now, hack and myself are of similar mind when it comes to this stuff. Evidence is of paramount importance, and logical proof is all sorts of fun but ultimately means jack shit when no evidence supports it. I refute it thus, kicking a rock, and all that.

    We’re pretty uncomplicated blokes, it has to be said.

    Oh, and regarding the argument about definitions of “atheist”: I’m not a theist. I don’t believe that god/s exist, since I’ve never seen one single fucking scrap of evidence that they (it?) do (does?) that cannot be dealt with by a more parsimonious explanation that better fits the observable facts. Every god so far actually defined makes no fucking sense and is at the least self-contradictory, so why the hell should I believe in it?

    I’m an atheist, in that I don’t believe. I’m not a theist. I also happen to think that believing shit for which there is no evidence is bloody stupid, and often harmful. On either count, I may turn out to be incorrect, but I cannot choose to believe something. Either I (provisionally) accept that something has convincing evidence to support it as being the case, or I feel safe in not assuming it to be the case, pending the provision of such evidence.

    Thanks for reading. I could be wrong.

  10. Indeed, we both seem to hold the view that, for the most part, philosophy as normally practiced consists of little more than creative intellectual masturbation.

    I mostly agree, except that I think masturbation is a far more honorable and socially useful activity than whatever it is that most academic philosophers (especially Weaver) do. My criticism of hack as a sloppy philosopher should be seen in that light.

    Regardless of the value of academic philosophy, there are an endless number of conventions, rules and tropes. Because hack tried to engage Weaver directly within that domain, his lack of familiarity with the conventions worked to his disadvantage. (Of course, hack is in no way responsible or at fault for LeBlanc drawing broad conclusions completely unwarranted by the evidence.)

    and what I myself termed something like “the Fireswamp of pseudo-technical bullshit”

    I like your terminology better.

    the decision was made to (as I said it), “Do a Prince Humperdinck on his arse” and simply refuse to be drawn in.

    And my point is that you failed to correctly execute this this tactic: not a condemnation, but a criticism honestly intended constructively.

    Oh, and regarding the argument about definitions of “atheist”...

    Keep in mind that I was referring exclusively to LeBlanc's own discussion of this topic; AFAIK, hack did not give undue attention to this mostly irrelevant topic.

    Personally, I find the "certainty" argument banal. We cannot be certain of anything (at least not anything interesting); if certainty is a requirement for knowledge or even definite belief, we're stuck knowing nothing, asserting nothing; we must remain mute. Where's the fun in that?

  11. Barefoot,

    I'm a little too drunk right now to make sense. I'm not going to try. I will say that hack did try to explicitly stay outside of the philo tropes. Such things aren't in our bailiwick.

    Maybe we failed in avoiding the swamp of nonsense. So be it. Aside from anything else, thanks for your considered input.

  12. Maybe we failed in avoiding the swamp of nonsense.

    I wouldn't feel ashamed. Philosophers spend half their time learning how to set traps for the unwary.

  13. hackenslash1/26/10, 2:51 AM

    Do you mind if I post your critique on the forum? I have recommended to people in the commentary thread that they read it, but it would be read more if it were posted there. It may also serve the purpose of bringing more peeps to your blog, if you wish that.

  14. Hey, BB. I had occasion to revisit the debate and this blog (Urban Philosophy appears to have gone the way of the dodo), and I still find it very informative, and have directed others to it as the debate came up.

    I'm not nearly as naïve now.


  15. I'm pleased you still enjoy my work. Posting has been light lately, as my formal edumacation is taking a lot of my time.


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