An Atheist’s Flowchart, Part 4: Metaphysics and Paying Rent

The second pillar of my atheistic treatise is the one I called “via metaphysics”. Of the three, it is probably most applicable to the religious beliefs that fall into the pantheistic genre, like those held by Spinoza and Einstein. This framing of religion and god is popular among scientists and other empirically-minded people since it does not suffer from the lack of concrete evidence for more traditional religious beliefs. However, the fact that it does not suffer for a lack of evidence in fact reveals a different flaw, in that it does not pay rent.

Another useful way of approaching this argument is through Carl Sagan’s analogy of The Dragon in My Garage; this hypothetical discussion conveniently parallels the way more traditional religious believers might behave when challenged on the metaphysical implications of their beliefs.

Now these two links on their own give a pretty good in-depth explanation, so I suppose I could just leave it at that. But that would make this a short and boring post, so I’m going to state my own “plain” version of the central claim without any fancy analogies, just to be clear:

If a belief has no practical implications or observable results, in other words if it does not change what we expect to happen in the universe, then that belief is useless.

The second half of the argument is the much simpler claim that useless beliefs, in this sense, are false for all intents and purposes. More practically, their truth-or-falsiness literally by definition doesn’t matter. Since there are an infinity of such possible beliefs (just start with Sagan’s dragon in all shapes and sizes; why couldn’t they overlap?) and we have no way to distinguish between which ones might be true or false, the alternative to discarding the entire category is to go mad trying to accommodate an infinity of contradictory beliefs. The only reasonable solution is to discard the category.

Now obviously not all religious beliefs fall into this “useless” category, but a surprising number of them do, even ones you might not suspect at first. The easy test is to see if your belief can point to something in the real world that it expects to happen as a result. If it can’t, then you’ve just managed to tie some pretty words together and call it god without actually affecting the world.

If you *can* point to a real-world expectation that comes from your belief, congratulations! Go do science to it.

Speculation and Metaphysics

OK then, back to the roadmap which I posted (oh goodness) 3 years ago now.

Over the last rather… “spread out” batch of “planned” posts we’ve used the handy tools of abstraction and social negotiation to answer some standard philosophical questions. Today we’re going to add another useful concept to our toolkit, and use it to take on metaphysics (no not all of it, but a lot of it).

The concept we’re going to deal with today, as suggested by the title, is speculation. Speculation is a fairly ordinary word, and I’m using it in the ordinary sense, so there’s really not a lot going on here. It’s can be a useful thing to speculate, and it’s a critical component of the second step in the scientific method. However, this means that testable speculation is science, not philosophy. Perhaps poorly-performed science, but still science.

Conversely, untestable speculation wanders dangerously close to meaninglessness (just as I am now wandering dangerously close to logical positivism). It can by definition have no influence on reality whatsoever, and so nothing speculated in this way can matter or exist in any useful sense.

Note: it is of course important to distinguish pragmatically-untestable speculation (e.g. quarks in the mid-twentieth-century) from actually-untestable speculation (more along the lines of Russel’s Teapot).

Classic metaphysics (especially of the Greek variety) tends to fall mostly in the was-actually-bad-science camp, for example Thales of Miletus who believed the underlying principle of nature was that everything was made of water. Other metaphysics (e.g. free will) will have to wait for a later post.

Charles Taylor, Iris Murdoch, and Me

For Christmas this year I received a collection of essays by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (specifically the Harvard University Press edition of Dilemmas and Connections, 2011). Thus far I have only managed to read the first essay, Iris Murdoch and Moral Philosophy, though I’ve now been through it a handful of times. Taylor’s writing can be dense. Still, the essay raises an interesting problem.

Much of the essay deals with the possibility of axiomatic value (in the moral sense) beyond simple human life, in a form that may not be explicitly religious but is at least deeply spiritual. It is a meandering, fascinating path being explored that clearly is intended to end in religion in some later essay (Taylor is a practicing Roman-Catholic) but none-the-less drew me along a lot farther than I was expecting. I have to acknowledge the pull of some kind of value beyond the secular-humanist: the feeling that may lead a man to religion, or rebellion. It seems undeniable that within many (most? all?) people is this half-felt, unexpressed need for some sort of higher cause.

My instinctive philosophical response, as might be expected by those who’ve read my previous posts, is (over-simplified) an extension of Hume’s Guillotine. A feeling is not a true gap in our metaphysics, and in this case is like any other claim (or question) of intrinsic value: the byproduct of a spandrel of human cognitive architecture rather than anything real in the world.

Here is where my hypothetical interlocutor pounces (this was originally a conversation I had with myself; I’m not crazy, I swear). The guillotine cuts away all intrinsic values, and yet my life is lived by a certain set of these values, the ones more-or-less described by the term secular-humanist. Given my commitment to the truth, there is a conflict, a cognitive dissonance, at play here:

Is it inconsistent to live by a set of values while denying instrinsic value so brutally at a philosophical level?

If it is inconsistent, then by what means shall I make decisions? The resulting life guided by no intrinsic values at all seems incoherent and unlivable. Even the thesis of this direction is incomprehensible, for am I not intrinsically valuing truth and logical consistency in order to reject my secular-humanist values as inconsistent in the first place? I can make no further progress in this branch.

If it is not inconsistent, then by what right do I reject religion? It has no more grounding in empirical truth than my secular-humanist values. Even Occam’s Razor glances off, since I have already admitted to the pull of some kind of transcendental belief. And if I am to add a ninth axiom to the set of eight with which I opened this blog, then on what basis do I choose between secular-humanism, Christianity, Buddhism, or some other far weirder set of ethical values?

I have no answers yet.

Building Reality, Part Two: The Mind

Five axioms down, three to go. I’ve titled these three “The Mind” because they’re more to do with that kind of concept, but I don’t mean to imply that the mind is necessarily distinct from metaphysics (which was the title I gave the previous three axioms). As I mentioned in the discussion of axiom #4, that’s not true by definition.

Axiom 6: My senses provide me with information that is functionally determined by the underlying reality.

Reliability of the senses is a big question in empiricism, philosophy of science, etc. This axiom doesn’t go quite that far; all it gives us is the fact that our senses are somehow determined by the underlying reality. Maybe we only have access to a subset of reality, or maybe there’s some random transform in place between reality and what we sense. Regardless, we have some sort of access, however mediated or probabilistic.

Axiom 7: My memory is usually a reliable and valid guide to my past experiences.

Reliability of memory is another big question in a lot of disciplines, and there are obviously cases where it doesn’t hold. Amnesia and memory implantation both seem to be real phenomena after all. As with reliability of the senses, I’ve chosen to split the difference. We assume our memory is usually reliable, for some definition of “usually”.

Axiom 8: Logic is a valid form of reasoning.

This one is kind of cheating since I’m explicitly leaving the definition of “logic” so vague. I am intending it here to include forms such as propositional and predicate logic, and all the other weird mental constructs without which it’s hard to make sense of things like mathematics. Perhaps this would be better phrased as something more to do with thought processes in general than pure logic. Hmm…

Regardless, we now have our eight core axioms from which we can start to build up an understanding of the world. I expect to revisit these occasionally as I think up better wordings, or discover missing concepts, but as per axiom #2 I hope not to add to them unless absolutely necessary. Let’s at least see how far we get with just these eight!

Building Reality, Part One: Metaphysics

We now have two relatively basic axioms that let us pull ourselves up by our bootstraps without falling into a nihilistic or explosive view. However, that’s about all they do on their own, so beside these we will lay out a bare handful more axioms that will let us really get going. While several of these axioms may be hard to articulate, none of them should be controversial.

Axiom 3: There is some underlying consistent reality that is made up of things.

There are a couple of different ideas wrapped up in this, most importantly those of existence, consistency, and divisibility. Consistency is hard to define at this level, but is something like “follows unchanging rules”. It should be easy to understand though; if reality isn’t consistent then there’s no way to make sense of anything. It is also worth noting that the “things” which make up reality in this axiom are intentionally vague. They could be atoms, quarks, Platonic ideals, Cartesian egos… What kind of things they are doesn’t really matter at this point.

Axiom 4: I (or the thing that I think of as “me”) exist in some form in that reality.

This one is more straight-forward, it gives us a reference point to work from, although it tells us nothing at all about that reference point. The key here is that the self is part of or contained in reality, not separate from it. It isn’t necessarily a fundamental “thing” in the third axiom’s sense, but it does belong to reality. This is purely definitional: reality is all the things that actually exist, so the self is either one of those things or made up of them.

Axiom 5: Things in reality interact, forming temporal and causal relationships.

This one just works in the concepts of time and causality. Nothing tricky, though lots to argue about if you feel like it. Importantly, this axiom makes causality a property of things in reality, not reality itself. There is no commitment here to the peculiar idea that reality itself must have a cause. Something about the wording of this one still bugs me, but I haven’t been able to pin it down.

These three axioms give us some metaphysical meat to work with, but we need a just a little bit more. I have three more axioms planned for the next post, at which point we’ll hopefully be able to move beyond this low-level mucking about.

An Axiom is an Axiom is an Axiom is an…

In my previous post, I discussed the so-called circular trap and how it does not really seem escapable. I also mentioned that that wouldn’t stop me – I’m basically going to ignore it because otherwise nothing can be discussed. Onwards.

This, of course, leaves us with the question of where to start if we want to move beyond the circular trap. I’m a logician at heart, so I’m going to start with an axiom. And since the circular trap is still fresh in our minds, the axiom I’m going to start with is intentionally circular. In fact, it is:

Axiom 1: Axioms are valid starting points.

Nice and circular, and generally implied whenever somebody reasons from axioms in any situation. Because of this, and because of its extremely tight circularity, I tend to regard this axiom as the beating heart of the circular trap, so it seems like a reasonable starting point. This is where I plant my flag, flying proudly unsupported by anything but itself.

Of course, this axiom on its own doesn’t really get us much in the way of practical consequences. We’re going to have to add a few more axioms to our collection before we can coherently think about all the things we want to think about. But the validity of all the other axioms we use will rest on the validity of this axiom, so I shall leave them for the next post.

Doubt, Nihilism, and the Circular Trap

Underlying philosophy is a tangled nest of peculiar questions that don’t seem to have satisfactory answers. These include apparent stumpers like:

  • Does anything exist?
  • What is reality?
  • Why is there something instead of nothing?

In some sense it seems that anything can be doubted or questioned. Of course, applying this principle to doubt and question itself immediately results in a paradox of sorts: if everything can be doubted, can we doubt that everything can be doubted? But despite this problem it still seems that “why?” can be asked of any statement. It is part of the nature of statements to be doubtable.

While it is part of the nature of statements that they can be questioned, it is part of the nature of most questions to include statements. In fact two of the three “stumpers” I listed above implicitly involve some sort of premise which must be true for the question to be coherently meaningful. When asking “what is reality?” the question assumes that there is a reality; when asking “why is there something instead of nothing?” the question assumes not just that there is something, but that its existence has a cause.

In fact, it seems that the only questions which don’t involve some sort of explicit premise are the simplest ones of the form “Does such-and-such exist?”, and even these involve certain complications when filling in the value of “such-and-such”. If we fill it in with “the French Riviera” to form the question “Does the French Riviera exist?” then the question still isn’t meaningful to people who don’t know what I mean by “the French Riviera”.

So what happens when we fill in “such-and-such” with a word like anything or some other such abstract term? We have a yes-or-no question with no apparent way of picking an answer. Any reason we give for answering Yes or No can be doubted, or reversed. We have reached the dead end of epistemic nihilism. Additionally, if we choose to answer “Does anything exist?” with a No, then we have also reached metaphysical nihilism; there doesn’t seem anything philosophically wrong with this, it just doesn’t explain all of the various things that seem to be, and doesn’t lead to much practical advice for living.

All of this to say that at the bottom level there isn’t a lot that makes sense no matter which way you look at it. Some philosophers blame this on language, claiming the questions themselves are meaningless phrases that we only entertain in the first place because they follow the rules of grammar. Some philosophers (famously Descartes, with his I think therefore I am) start with a premise as given and try and derive their way from there.

But of course this entire discussion is circular at heart, one of the great sins of philosophy. Simply by reasoning, making claims, asking questions I am implicitly accepting the validity and existence of all of the constructs I am invoking. This circular trap seems inescapable – simply to discuss it involves taking premises which are either unsupported or self-supporting. And the requirement for a premise to be supported and non-circular is itself a premise. So.

While the circular trap is, to the best of my knowledge inescapable, that doesn’t mean we should give up right away. Some circles are prettier and more useful than others, and we can still build a useful theory even if it fundamentally rests on nothing but wishful thinking (if, of course, that exists). We’ve got no reason to do anything else instead, right? And who knows, our theory might even provide an explanation for the circular trap itself – wouldn’t that be a circle!