Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sceptical scenarios and theism

There are many large-scale sceptical scenarios: brains in vats, evil demons, anti-inductive worlds, evolutionary scenarios that lead astray, mathematical faculties out of touch with Platonic reality, Boltzmann brains, the five minute hypothesis, etc. I'll just call these "sceptical scenarios". The crucial feature of a sceptical scenario is that some doxastic faculty of ours is completely out of whack with reality in such a way that we have no way of correcting for the error by using this and other faculties.

Now, most people aren't in any sceptical scenario. I am not claiming I know this (though in fact I think I do know this), but only that it is true. What explains the striking fact that most people aren't in any sceptical scenario? For any particular sceptical scenario, the naturalist can try to explain why most people aren't in it. That explanation may or may not be very good. But the theist can explain all at once why most people aren't in any sceptical scenario: God is unlikely to create a world where most people are in a sceptical scenario. This is a significant explanatory advantage of theism.

Notice also what happens when a new sceptical scenario is invented, such as my scenario that all the apparently random processes in our world are probabilistically non-measurable, but look like they were measurable. The theist's explanation automatically extends to cover it. But the naturalist may well need to scramble to create a new explanation or posit yet another brute fact.

44 comments:

Kenny said...

"I am not claiming I know this ... but only that it is true."

Good thing knowledge is not a norm on assertion!

Alexander R Pruss said...

Hey, even if knowledge is a norm on assertion, one can claim p without claiming to know p. If one automatically claimed to know p whenever one claimed p, one would also claim to know that one knows that one knows ... p. And that's too much.

Miles Andrews said...

This struck me as well when I took a Knowledge and Understanding (essentially epistemology) course last semester.

Midas said...

Dr. Pruss, it appears that someone has responded to this post here: http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/god-is-greatfor-answering-philosophical.html. The response is... interesting.

March Hare said...

"What explains the striking fact that most people aren't in any sceptical scenario?"
Because we wouldn't be able to tell if they were and neither would they? But apparently you can? Please explain how - and saying "god wouldn't create such a universe" won't cut it as you'd also have to show that.

"But the theist can explain all at once why most people aren't in any sceptical scenario"
No, they can't. Repetez: The whole point of sceptical scenarios is that we have no way of knowing if they're real or not, they've been devised that way. Even going so far as to create a universe where it appears there is a god, perhaps even the one you believe in currently, still gives you no way out of the possibility that you are in such a sceptical scenario.

"This is a significant explanatory advantage of theism."
You explain nothing by explaining everything.

Eli Horowitz said...

Glad to have piqued your interest, Midas - but I'd be gladder still if you'd tell me what you thought directly, instead of hiding behind Pruss's skirts.

Alexander R Pruss said...

March Hare:

Do you know whether you have a body? Do you know whether evolution is true?

Alexander R Pruss said...

By the way, Eli, the reason I only said that most people aren't in a sceptical scenario, is that presumably some of them are--severe psychosis is the main, maybe the only, example.

March Hare said...

Alexander, I have no way of knowing if I have a body, a brain, or any independent existence of any kind.

All I appear to have is some form of information processing capability, and even that is dubious, it could be the memory or a recording of something which did.

Having said that, 'I' take the pragmatic decision to investigate anything 'I' can, what choice do 'I' have, and figure out if there is anything to learn about what 'I' experience. Once that is done you can stop using scare quotes round everything and prefacing it with 'assuming I'm not a brain in a jar and everything wasn't created last Tuesday...'

Once you have taken those steps then you can start to do things like science because the universe appears to be consistent enough to be measured and tested with consistency to discover rules about how it operates. This is important whether it's a real thing or it's a computer simulation or Laplace's Demon's funland. So, yeah, it appears as if the universe as I see it now has been shaped by natural processes over a long period of time, and one of those is evolution.

Do I know it? No. But it fits in well with everything else I don't know based on the shaky presumption that I exist in some form and can consistently and rationally experience and process inputs into my sensory processing centre (and generate outputs), whether that be a real brain here, or in a vat, a computer simulation or some other form of processing centre.

Eli Horowitz said...

Sure, of course - but then you have to admit that your writing could have been a smidge better, Alex. You said that you were going to use the phrase "skeptical scenarios" as a shorthand for large-scale skeptical scenarios, and then you didn't - you just used it as the more generic, "skeptical scenarios of any scale."

I considered making more of this in my original post, but it wouldn't have led anywhere besides the variant on the problem of evil, and that (I thought) was sufficiently explained all on its own.

Alexander R Pruss said...

March Hare:

Well, it seems like you at least seem to think it's more likely that the sceptical scenarios aren't true. And if you think it's more likely that they aren't true, then that gives at least some epistemic weight to any reasonable explanation of why they aren't true.

Eli:

By a large-scale sceptical scenario, I mean one that wipes out a large swath of ways of knowing for a particular agent. For instance, if I am a brain in a vat, that's a large-scale sceptical scenario, as it wipes out all my empirical knowledge. Or if our moral beliefs are just fictions created by genetic or mimetic evolution, that's a large-scale sceptical scenario, as it wipes out all our moral knowledge.

A few psychoses may present someone with a large-scale sceptical scenario. And some people are temporarily in one as a result of hallucinogenic drugs, I suppose.

As for the variant on the problem of evil, that's definitely an issue here.

Eli Horowitz said...

No kidding? Then why the plural pronoun?

"The crucial feature of a sceptical scenario is that some doxastic faculty of ours is completely out of whack with reality in such a way that we have no way of correcting for the error by using this and other faculties."

In particular, psychotic people do have ways of correcting for the errors in their cognition - not all on their own, granted, but they can be made to see the bars of their cage (so to speak) just by popping some pills. Maybe you really were using the plural in lieu of the singular "one" or something like that, but it still doesn't seem to fit, in my opinion: the one group of scenarios is such that nobody can outwit it no matter what, the other is such that everybody could outwit it if they were in the right place at the right time.

At the very least, if you go with the weaker of the two definitions, you do that much more to open yourself up to empirical objections, because as a matter of fact there have been lots and lots of people who weren't in the right place at the right time to receive the help that would've corrected their ways of knowing. You may, therefore, be attempting to "explain" a premise that isn't true.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I was thinking at the individual level. But I think you may be right that the argument improves if one makes it more collective. Thanks!

Midas said...

Eli, are you always this rude to online strangers or did I do something to provoke you? To answer your question, though, I'm not quite sure what to think of Dr. Pruss' argument, which is why I linked your reply to him. I often benefit greatly from watching exchanges like these, and they also help me develop a more informed view.

March Hare said...

Alex,
"Well, it seems like you at least seem to think it's more likely that the sceptical scenarios aren't true."
Not at all. I have literally no evidence to go on to put any weight on any of the possibilities.

It is pragmatism, or force of habit, that makes me assume it's all real. If pushed, intellectually, I would, as I did above, say that I have no way to know.

In fact, if we take the leap that this universe in some way conforms to some kind of reality somewhere then it appears that a sufficiently advanced intelligence would be able to create simulations of its own and other universes and so the vast majority of apparent universes (with sentient, intelligent creatures) in existence would, in fact, be 'computer' simulations. So if you pushed really, really hard I'd say the universe had a slight disposition to being a simulation of some kind. But, to emphasise, that's based on the leap of faith that this universe represents some kind of reality and that we'll be able to produce simulated universes at some point.

Either way, it makes no difference, you still have to exist here and try to understand it and the best way to do that is through the scientific method with assumes consistency, repeatability, objectivity, and a lack of (inconsistent) supernatural forces.

If you have any reason why this is real that doesn't include "my personal deity wouldn't allow it" then I'm all ears.

Eli Horowitz said...

"Eli, are you always this rude to online strangers"

Yes. Well - actually, I take that back: usually I'm much ruder; I toned myself down cause I'm in someone else's comment section at the moment.

"I often benefit greatly from watching exchanges like these, and they also help me develop a more informed view."

I wager you'd benefit more if you participated, though.

And also, to be honest, I find this explanation to be fairly unconvincing, given that you had no idea whether or not an exchange would develop as a result of your comment. Certainly you had no idea that an exchange would have developed in the way that it actually did (i.e., me coming back here to watch Hare).

So assuming that your comment was a rational decision at all and trusting your appeal to "exchanges like this one" (with the implicit premise of not involving yourself), it sure looks like you basically tattled on me in the hopes that Alex would either comment on my blog (which, again, you should've just done yourself) or would write a follow-up post; in short, you hoped that he would fight your battle for you. Suffice to say, I'm not a fan of that sort of thing. It drives me straight up the wall to know that someone has something to say about my work but refuses to actually say it, and it only makes matters worse when that person (essentially) invokes a third party to act as their proxy. So I could just as easily turn your question around: are you usually that rude?

That, however, is an unproductive and boring conversation; the endgame is the same every time and always arrives too quickly. Why not, instead, simply tell me what caught your attention about my post? Then we can have a normal discussion like normal people instead of playing at this ludicrous passive-aggressive psychoanalytical meta-argument.

Alexander R Pruss said...

No more comments will be accepted on the question of Eli Horowitz's and Midas' etiquette.

Alexander R Pruss said...

March Hare:

Unless you think (or or are inclined to think or the like) something like that breakfast is more likely to nourish you than to make your head explode, it's irrational to eat breakfast.

As for how we know that there is an external world, I am happy with a theistic strategy where you first use a cosmological-type argument to show that there is a God, and then argue that this makes it likely that our senses have some reliability.

But I am also happy with a Moorean "I know I have two hands."

And with proper-functionalist and reliabilist answers.

But I am not an epistemologist. I just know we have two hands, that humans and oak trees descend from a single ancestor, that the sun is a star, and so on. I leave it to the epistemologists to figure out how we know these things.

March Hare said...

Me: If you have any reason why this is real that doesn't include "my personal deity wouldn't allow it" then I'm all ears.

Alex: I am happy with a theistic strategy where you first use a cosmological-type argument to show that there is a God, and then argue that this makes it likely that our senses have some reliability.

But OK, you think God is an answer, so let's look at your reasoning for that:

1. Your proof* of God's existence is the appearance of the universe to our senses.
2. Your proof of our senses accurately representing an external universe is God.

I believe that's an example of circular reasoning, but I don't do philosophy for a living, I'm just an idiot on the internet with a keyboard, maybe I'm missing something...?

* I find such evidence falls short, but let's skip that argument for now at least.

Midas said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alexander R Pruss said...

Comment deleted as no more comments will be accepted on the question of Eli Horowitz's and Midas' etiquette.

Alexander R Pruss said...

March Hare:

Actually, the cosmological argument only needs the existence of one contingent entity, say myself.

March Hare said...

Alex, that simply can't be true. Laplace's Demon, "brains in vats", and computer simulation to name but three make the cosmological argument unworkable.

And that's without even going into whether it is valid to consider oneself a contingent entity... Or whether the cosmological argument has any merit.

Alexander R Pruss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexander R Pruss said...

The Cosmological Argument uses a number of controversial metaphysical assumptions, but about the only empirical assumption it needs to get started is that there is at least one contingent thing in existence. And none of the scenarios rule that out.

March Hare said...

The Cosmological Argument (most variants anyway) take brute facts about this universe (pre-Relativity and QM) and extend to all of creation. If this universe is illusory then all the reasoning in the world won't save the Cosmological Argument from being based on potentially false premises. That is why (radical) Creationism*, Last Tuesday-ism, and the Dream Argument are three more scenarios that disprove the base that the Cosmological Argument rests on.

* This one is deliciously ironic.

Alexander R Pruss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ozero91 said...

Alex, I believe the link isn't functioning properly.

Alexander R Pruss said...

March Hare: I'm afraid not. See, for instance, my paper on the Leibnizian cosmological argument (link fixed).

March Hare said...

Alex, rather than go through your entire essay and point out all the places you presuppose a god, occasionally even a particular god, and how you really need to not use libertarian free will when you actually describe determinism, how you use induction to describe the 'nature' of the creator of the universe...

Let me just say that your essay quite clearly does not say, imply or otherwise rely on "the only empirical assumption it needs to get started is that there is at least one contingent thing in existence".


(1) Every contingent fact has an explanation.
(2) There is a contingent fact that includes all other contingent facts.
(3) Therefore, there is an explanation of this fact.
(4) This explanation must involve a necessary being.
(5) This necessary being is God.

1 is not true, 2 has no evidence and is not logically necessary, especially in light of 1 being untrue, 3 is therefore clearly false, 4 is not true even if 3 was, and 5 is a massive leap given that you have capitalised a word with such metaphysical baggage to try and make it mean something specific when even if everything else was true it would simply be a generic term for something that met the prior criteria.

March Hare said...

Let me just be clear, you claim PSR must be true otherwise "for instance, if we deny the PSR, then for no reason at all, a cloud of photons, À9314 in number, could suddenly appear ex nihilo just near the moon".

Indeed. However, they do, they are just more measurable around black holes, but virtual particles do pop into existence all the time. Just not enough to be easily noticed, but generally agreed to exist and potentially be measured: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_hole_radiation

Other things popping into existence, or happening, uncaused: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spontaneous_emission
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_radiation

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. Photons don't pop into existence in the quantity I indicated.

2. As for the cosmological argument, you obviously don't agree with its premises. But that does not mean that the premises depend on empirical assumptions, besides the existence of at least one contingent thing. (That said, some of the arguments for some of the premises will rely on empirical stuff, but each premise can also be held by a priori intuition.)

March Hare said...

1. Photons don't pop into existence in the quantity I indicated.

How do you know? And that's besides the point because your argument was that they don't pop into existence at all!

2. No, I don't agree with its premises. I also don't agree with the tortured logic that tries to show that from "the existence of at least one contingent thing" you can reason to, well, anything, but certainly not any kind of monotheistic god that is proposed (Good? The reasoning on that is woeful.) But mainly I don't see how it is impossible for there not to be a contingent thing. I don't see how you can prove that.

Crude said...

Alex,

Are you conceding that, similar to some interpretations of quantum physics (at least as I've seen it put), some things do indeed pop into existence without cause - even if small in number/size?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Crude:

No. On these interpretations of quantum mechanics, there is a cause, namely the "vacuum" quantum state.

March Hare said...

Alex, vaccum quantum state is no more a cause of virtual particles than 'being unstable' is a cause for nuclear radiation.

Crude said...

Alex, vaccum quantum state is no more a cause of virtual particles than 'being unstable' is a cause for nuclear radiation.

Nonsense, and what's more, there is no reason to think of these particles as uncaused. Now, lacking a physical cause? Maybe you can argue in that direction, given current definitions of physical. But then, neither theists nor the PSR require all causes be physical causes anyway - and the best science, as science, can ever get to is the lack of a cause being identified, or ruling out possible physical causes. Period.

Some scientists like to metaphysically and philosophically speculate that science is a fruitless endeavor, ie, that things can occur utterly without cause. They're welcome to that - they simply are outside of science when they do so, and the smarter ones know as much.

March Hare said...

Crude, any chance you're going to put forth a better argument than "nonsense"?

The particles are uncaused because there's no rhyme nor reason for which particles are actually going to pop into existence, where, what their wavelength will be (if they're photons), what their velocity will be etc.

Likewise, nuclear radiation is merely a statistical process. There is no 'cause' for any given nuclease decaying at any given time.

At least, as far as we currently know.

March Hare said...

"nuclease"???

The door went as I was typing. Nucleus, obviously.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I assume there is a well-defined probability distribution. Having a well-defined probability distribution is an instance of quite significant order, and it allows for stochastic explanations. It's quite far from cases where "there's no rhyme or reason". Those would be cases where there is no probability distribution.

I am inclined to think that if we have a mixed quantum state, say 2|up>+3|down>, then what explains the system ending up in, say, a pure up state after measurement is that it had an |up> component to its quantum state prior to measurement.

There is a large philosophy of science literature on stochastic explanation, and while there are significant differences between authors, many people do agree that one can have stochastic explanations of low-probability outcomes. A standard case in the literature is paresis in syphilitics. Only a small percentage of syphilis sufferers develop paresis. But the following is, nonetheless, a perfectly fine explanation: "Jim got paresis because he had syphilis."

March Hare said...

Alex,

This: ...many people do agree that one can have stochastic explanations of low-probability outcomes. A standard case in the literature is paresis in syphilitics. Only a small percentage of syphilis sufferers develop paresis. But the following is, nonetheless, a perfectly fine explanation: "Jim got paresis because he had syphilis."

Is not in the same category as virtual particles or nuclear radiation.

There is a clear causal, physical relationship between Jim having syphilis, what it did to various cells etc. and him getting paresis.

There is no known chain of events that lead to a nucleus decaying or a pair of virtual particles appearing.

One is unknown in any given situation for practical reasons, the other is unknowable for fundamental physical reasons.

Crude said...

Rabbit,

Crude, any chance you're going to put forth a better argument than "nonsense"?

I did.

The particles are uncaused because there's no rhyme nor reason for which particles are actually going to pop into existence, where, what their wavelength will be (if they're photons), what their velocity will be etc.

Yes, we are unable to figure out the rhyme or reason. Exactly what I said.

This does not get you to, "And therefore they are not caused."

I even granted that it's possible to make an argument along the lines of, "There cannot be a physical cause for this." But we're not limited to physical causes. This is exactly the sort of thing many atheists/materialists have been demanding of non-materialists for a long time - something that cannot be accounted for physically. So what happens when that's discovered?

Apparently, people ditch causality.

At least, as far as we currently know.

We've been in the dark about correlations of many things in the past. It was never a reason to abandon reason and explanation then, and it isn't now. If you want to get into the metaphysical position of denying causality, you and any scientist who wants to do so is welcome. You've just given up science and have gone off into metaphysics and philosophy land - which is all well and good. It just ain't science.

March Hare said...

"Yes, we are unable to figure out the rhyme or reason. Exactly what I said."

No. We are, according to the currently accepted theory, not unable to figure it out because our microscope is too small, but unable because it's not available to us even in principle, it's probabilistic.

"This does not get you to, "And therefore they are not caused.""

I think it does. Obviously you can posit god choosing when each thing happens, but that stretches most people's notion of what god does.

"So what happens when [we're not limited to physical causes] is discovered?

Apparently, people ditch causality."


Yes, because there's a better explanation, a natural one, and isn't that how science is supposed to work?

And, just to be clear, causality hasn't been abandoned, it has just been shown not to work as our monkey brains expect it to at the ultra-small scale. Just as things are counter-intuitive at high velocities, or large masses, or high accelerations, or ultra-low temperatures, or ultra-high temperatures. So, sure, if you want to deny that all these guys are doing science because it doesn't fit with what you experience at low speed, low acceleration, low mass, medium temperature then fine, but don't pretend you have the first clue what constitutes science.

ozero91 said...

Hare,

The particles emitted from a black hole are not ex nihilo, according to your wiki link.

"I think it does. Obviously you can posit god choosing when each thing happens, but that stretches most people's notion of what god does."

If I'm reading you right, you seem to be stating that something like vacuum fluctuation cannot be called the reason/explanation/cause for virtual particles appearing because it does not predict exactly which particles arise and what there properties are. I'm just wondering what your justification for this claim is, and why we should constrain explanations in this manner.