Saturday, 12 November 2016

Why some things just cannot be regarded as rational, and why pragmatism gets us into trouble

Image result for ben carson
Carson: Neurosurgeon and
American GOP politician.

- Bruce Long

Why does it matter that people like Mike Pence, Sarah Palin, and Ben Carson promote the idea that evolutionary theory is a fairy tale and yet the Biblical creation story is not only not a fairy tale, but is somehow obviously more intellectually honest and coherent than evolutionary theory? (and yes - I am aware that there exists a whole range of theological interpretations of the creation story in between - from allegorical to metaphorical, to epoch-relativistic interpretations that substitute different meanings of time spans for the term 'day').

As Hemant Mehta has pointed out, the new President's entire advisory panel is so heavily skewed towards Christian Creationist evangelicals that the the words 'defacto theocracy' have hardly ever been more prescient.

Image result for Mike Pence

So why do we silly atheists complain that we know better than the imaginary deity anyway? Why do we feel so apparently pompously confident that it is in fact imaginary?

Nobody knows exactly what is really going on in the universe. Right? No one has enough information to tell you exactly why the universe is here, or whether there is or isn't a purpose. So why are these damned scientists - especially the atheist ones - so pompous and arrogant about their silly monkey-to-man theory?

Oh wait - correction. Evangelicals and Catholics (and Muslims and religious Jews and other godists) will tell you authoritatively what is going on in the universe and why it is here.

God did it, and they are his friends.

But I digress.

A non-scientifically aware theologian knows just as much about what is going on in the universe as the average knowledgeable molecular astrobiologist. Right? You don't mind hiring the former and not the latter as habitat food supply designer for your space mission - right? (There may be theologians with the astrobiological skillset - but which skillset will they deploy most comprehensively specific to solving the actual mission problems?)


Moreover, it follows logically from humanity's broad ignorance that we should assume that a bunch of ancients with little more understanding of astronomy and biology than their herds of bovine animals were right about there being a very human-like supernatural being who created everything, that that being thinks women are naturally untrustworthy and atheism and homosexuality are evil, and that non-believers should be punished quite severely for disagreeing and rejecting the whole idea. And not just punished a little bit: forever, and really hard-core man. Because the almighty creator of the infinite universe just cannot handle it somehow if one tiny atom of a human gets confused along the very short way from the cradle to the grave. Or a billion of them even.

This sounds a bit abrasive, but it is really just a short example of what philosophers call an RAA - or reductio ad absurdum. The idea is to state something that people must in fact believe to behave the way they do, but to state it so that it becomes difficult to avoid having an insight to the effect that the belief is a bit - well - insensible. It is reductio ad absurdum after all.

We can continue with our R.A.A rowdiness, and yet remain respectable intellectually (and probably even journalistically!) Just watch...

It also follows logically from humanity's broad befuddlement and existential angst that we should jump to the less extravagant conclusion (one without the complicated moral judgement, personality, and psychology thrown in as part of the deity) in the first place that there must be some kind of complex intelligence-endowed (in the sense that we understand intelligence) creative cause for everything complex and wonderful that exists, because that is what we are most familiar with in our day to day experience.

After all if believing that god exists and wants to tell you who to have sex with makes you feel safe and calm then it must be right.

If it feels good, then do it, Epicureans :) Wait -  I meant to say evangelicals.

But really - such conclusions about god type thingys existing as explanations are logical and rational - right? Especially if many people have the same intuition and/or beliefs. Especially if our societies have gone this way for millennia. Right? If everyone thinks something is true, then how can so many people be wrong?


That's never happened. 

Such god-positive conclusions are not illogical stated as possibilities - but almost nothing is unless it is inherently contradictory. The lack of inherent contradiction is not nearly enough to get one to rationality, however. It's just a basic non-negotiable.

No. Of course suggestions that a god must have done it aren't logical and rational assertions. Not if we care about ontological parsimony - which means being careful not to jump to conclusions that are too big and make very large assumptions about what has to exist already to sustain the existence of what is known to us. Not if we care that it is materialistic scientific method that gets results that are repeatable and provable, not to mention able to get you to the moon.The first conclusions  (gawd hateth pork) are nothing short of ridiculous, and the second (god exists) not very secure at all.

Yes. You should care about ontological parsimony. It is not some kind of sorcery (although it has certainly been demonised that way before). And you should care that adding a whole lot of extra stuff the the world to explain the universe - even if it is supernatural (especially if it is supernatural) - is not a very sensible move. Sure, you might win the pragmatic prize for fitting in the with community, but that does not mean there is not more downside to be found further down the road.

Something that the reader should recognise is that simplistic explanations like 'some kind of god did it' are not the same thing as ontologically parsimonious explanations. A complex psychological infinite god is a big complex thingy to have just lying around the place. Simplistic but complicated explanations like 'this specific kind of god did it and he thinks just like I do more or less' are even more dubious, for what should by now be obvious reasons.

Hang on, hang on, Mr Wizard-pants. Assuming that there is no such god being is an equivalent error - obviously. Right? I mean, you cannot assume there are not any god beings the same way that you cannot assume that there are. That's balanced. That's sensible. That's logical.


Actually - not really. No. And it is really quite obvious why that is so. Making such assertions is what philosophers and logicians call equivocation, and it is an error in reasoning. In fact, the 

'god is assertion = god isn't assertion' 

idea is demonstrative of an inability to think clearly. I say this not to attempt to offend persons that do think that way (although to be frank - if you are offended by things rational on the basis of doctrinal faith commitments - I could care less regardless of how you much you would like to bully me to shut up). It's just demonstrably factual. Here comes the demonstration (although it is evident in the statement of the comparisons above anyway.)

Assuming that you don't know anything and drawing no conclusions beyond ontologically conservative observations allowed by nature and the clues and evidence that it gives is one approach. 

Jumping to conclusions that involve the addition of complex god-like psychological beings (who have all the extravagant moral convictions of - err - humans) to the universe and world as prime movers or a-priori sources of intelligence-motivated purpose-driven causation:

That's a different thing to do altogether. 

It really is, and this is not hard to see.

It involves making far larger and more extravagant assumptions about what made the physical universe into that which we experience a tiny part of. It is far less ontologically parsimonious, even though it is far more simplistic.

Faith makes this imbalance worse - not better. Faith in the existence of such beings starts with the same assumptions, and is based upon them. So logically speaking you cannot use faith to justify or explain them. That is called circularity or begging the question. Even in conjunction with the perception of some kind of special internal experience: the assumptions that it was a god and not the wine or indigestion, or some kind of psychological affect (that's affect - not effect - although it is also both) you have neither ontic parsimony nor rationality. 

This lesson is an old one that as human societies - certainly as first world technologically advanced human societies faced with the overwhelming success of materialist scientific method - we should have learned long ago.

No one with any sense of intellectual dignity and honesty will try to tell you storms and droughts are caused by angry gods and goddesses. Well, some supernaturalist believers in angry gods will, but even many other people of faith would prefer just to stick with meteorology, than be prepared to assert that their gay neighbor's last happy time has brought on catastrophe.

It's about what is statistically more likely given the set of readily identifiable possibilities. That there are weather patterns because of such things as entropy and the second law of thermodynamics in nature:  that nature has a lot of chaotic non-linear physical processes of such enormous magnitudes that go ahead and do more or less 'what they like' despite us (with the exception of cases where we become collectively able to influence them despite ourselves - per global warming). That is one explanation. IT is an explanation for which we have testable and verifiable causation at hand. The simplistic but ontologically unparsimonious 'god is real and did it' - not so much.

This is one reason why instrumentalist and Jamesian pragmatist views of rationality cannot be regarded as a sound basis for human epistemology. Scientific pragmatic approaches that are not relativist are the most proven tools of advancement of humanity - by a very wide margin. All beliefs are not equal in terms of value, connotations, consequences, content, and implications. But if we think pragmatically too much then the idea of abstracting out information for the sake of clarity turns in on itself. You lose information you need. The rational baby goes out with the abstracted bathwater.