Friday, March 09, 2007

Democracy, Atheism, and Reference

A few more philosophy questions (imagine that).

C. Ewing asks,

"If we are obligated, as we'll just assume for this, to follow the general will, and the general will really is for the best of all concerned (and hence, the ultimate goal anyway), then how do we justify dissension? This is, if we're assuming our social contract is the moral notion, and hence we cannot have dual notions."
In other words, when we lose the democratic game, why should we keep on playing and how do we justify continuing to advocate for our positions when they are losers?

The key is that the general will changes with time. We can agree that a democratic system is not perfect, that it will lead to rash errors in which wishful thinking, coercion, or fear mongering sometimes wins out over reason, but still hold that on average it has the best shot of being effective or that it is the least worst alternative. For these reasons, it seems rational to remain loyal to the system, even when it fails to operate in the desired fashion because there appears to be a self-correcting mechanism -- you can reconsider things later and get them right this time. As such, democracy is like baseball. Even if your team was a real dog this season, there's always next year. Women's rights, slavery and civil rights, some of our greatest achievements have been long in the making and taken generations of slow progress fueled by those who refused to give up the cause when the popular sentiment was against them. We need dissent to keep us honest. If we are not constantly forced to reconsider and hone our arguments, we get intellectually lazy and fallacies easily creep in.

BeepBeep asks,
"If a theist claims that god exists, the burden of proof is with them as they are making the positive claim for the existence of something. An atheist is, therefore, (by definition), just stating that they don't believe the initial claim. If an atheist says that they don't believe in the existence of a god, the burden of proof is still not with them, as they are not making a positive claim for the existence of something. It is just a negative response to a positive claim." My response, "it depends."
Epistemologically, there are several brands of atheism.

Negative inductive atheism, we can call the first stance, is exactly the sort of inference you describe here. Are the respondents on this blog aliens from another planet? There is no evidence in favor of this hypothesis (well, little evidence) and since there is no good reason to believe it, I don't. In the same way, one could argue as you do that there is someone making a claim of the existence of a being and therefore assumes the burden of proof for it and if they have not met that burden then rationally, one ought not believe in the existence claim.

Positive inductive atheism would be what we could term the position in which one argues that there is evidence to believe in the falsity of the magical, invisible man in the sky hypothesis. Folks with this view often point to the incredible successes of purely naturalistic explanations for phenomena that were thought at earlier times to be entirely unassailable by scientific methods. With all the things that had been thought to be the result of magic, spirits or supernatural causes that we now understand and can control by the use of science, there seems to be reason to be suspicious of claims that any part of the universe is beyond scientific understanding. This is an inductive argument based on the historical relation between science and religion, and judging that the successes that science has had in the past in realms like astronomy, biology, geology, and psychology will thus probably go all the way down to eliminating non-naturalistic elements in all our beliefs.

Deductive atheism would then be the name for those who claim to be able to show that the notion of an all-being is self-contradictory, that the Judeo-Christian God or any supernatural being could not exist. Those who champion arguments like the problem of evil are taking this line. A world which contains terrible suffering by innocent children, the argument goes, could not have been created by a being who is all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful because if He knew about it and could stop it, but didn't, then he would not be all-loving. This is a deductive argument to show that it is impossible for a particular type of god hypothesis to be true.

Linguistic atheism would be a name we could apply to those folks like the Logical Positivists of the first half of the 20th century who were atheists, not because of deductive arguments or the lack of evidence, but because, they contended, God talk -- indeed metaphysical talk of any sort -- was simply meaningless. It isn't, as Saint Anselm argued, that the atheist and the theist both agree on what is meant by God, they just disagree on whether one exists. According to Carnap and company, the whole question is really a pseudo-question. It looks like a question, it sounds like a question, but it really isn't. A question is a request for information, if there is no such information to be had, then the string of words is not a real question even if it is grammatically proper. If you and a friend were to get into a huge screaming battle over what color my sister's car is, you would be debating forever, not because it is a deep mystery of the cosmos, but because I don't have a sister. In the same way, the Logical Positivists argued that questions like the existence or non-existence of god were simply meaningless squabble, linguistic muddles that were the result of taking anything that looks like a question seriously.

As such, there is only one of these atheistic stances that functions on the question of the burden of proof.

Since we've brought up questions of meaning, Jeff Maynes asks,
"What role out linguistic intuitions play in theory choice? (e.g., in choosing a theory of reference)"
Oy gevalt.

Starting with the folks we just talked about, in 20th century there came to be an understanding that many of the traditional philosophical problems were really linguistic problems. Our ordinary, everyday, spoken language is mushy, slippery, vague, ambiguous, not good for framing rigorous philosophical questions. So they wondered how much of philosophy really had content, how much was meaningful and how much was the result of muddles coming from our ill-equipped language misshaping our discussions. As such, they tried at first to create a new artificial language that would be cleaner, clearer and more rigorous, but they had to give up on that project because of insurmountable technical difficulties. They then set to work trying to understand how language does and should work. How does the linguistic structure in which couch all of our thoughts relate to the real world itself that we are trying to think about? this led to questions of reference.

There are now several intricate, sophisticated, and competing notions of reference. Jeff is asking how one should go about determining which is the best. This cannot be an empirical question because it does not deal with how the world is, rather with how we ought to interpret the foundations of the language in which we report how the world is. The usual means is an appeal to intuition in the form of testing boundary cases. You say, ok, assume this is the correct account, in this situation, it has this result but surely THAT can't be right. Mine gives THIS result which makes much more sense in terms of our usual understanding. Of course, the converse will then be done by those on the other side and if your example involves a something really cool and memorable like a swampman, rooms that speak Chinese, or undetached rabbit parts, then you get famous.

The problem here for Jeff is that the whole move to acquire a rigorous understanding of reference is to allow us to have something firmer than mere intuition to refer to in determining when something is meaningful and what it means, but if the selection of a view of reference relies on intuition, then the move undercuts the whole motivation for it in the first place. The question then becomes, if not intuition, then what?

My answer to Jeff is...hey man, I gave you your undergrad training, don't ask me to write your dissertation, too. ;) It's a hard question and fortunately there are well-trained, thoughtful, smart characters like Jeff who in five years will have several hundred pages to explain to us the right answer which will then be put on microfilm and stored away where no one can find it.