A note to our friends at Uncommon Descent

I see that Denyse has taken time away from misinterpreting / misrepresenting decade old articles she found on google to visit our little home. Come on in Denyse! Would you like a cuppa? Don’t worry, there are no “Brit Toffs” here.

Listen, as you’ve stopped by, we’d like to have a quick chat about UD:

Frankly, we’re a bit disappointed. We were hoping for some design science to chew on, some CSI calculations to review. But instead we were saddened when we learned that neither Barry Arrington nor KairosFocus understand CSI. We’re going to give you a little time to get up to speed with the literature so that we can re-engage when you know the stuff. You don’t need to make up more acronyms like FIASCO: FOCUS on mainstream ID concepts. We may find fault with Dembski’s work but he was leagues ahead of where you are now.

Start here:

http://www.designinference.com/documents/2005.06.Specification.pdf

There’s an EleP(T|H)ant in the room that you need to come to terms with. Perhaps when you understand the source material we can have a better chat (and therefore more posts).

We also note that UD has expanded to more general science denialism / Republican talking points. Are you sure you want to do that? Pretending to be a science blog was more entertaining.

Well thanks for dropping by. We’ll keep our ears to the ground and report back if scientists ever isolate the specific, “selfish gene”.

218 thoughts on “A note to our friends at Uncommon Descent

  1. KN:

    There are cultures and languages whose numeral systems are non-existent or rudimentary (“one, two, many”). To their native speakers it may at best be “self-evident” that 2+2 = many. The idea that “zero” is an integer was practically unknown to European mathematicians before Fibonacci.

    There are also languages whose basic-colour systems lack a term corresponding to English “red”. Their speakers categorise colours and hues differently from you or me, though their colour vision is “normal”. English did not have a word for the colour “orange” before the 16th century, or a word for “blue” before the Norman Conquest. Russian has two words for colours that would both be “blue” to an English-speaker, but are treated as different basic colours by Russian-speakers.

    Children learn empathy and the moral code of their culture in due course as they grow up. Some inclinations may well be innate, but it’s an easy bet that cultural transmission play a greater role than any putative “moral universals”.

  2. In other words, for Arrington, “self-evident” is defined as ‘so obvious to me that I don’t even bother to think about it. And neither should you.’

  3. Piotr Gasiorowski: Children learn empathy and the moral code of their culture in due course as they grow up. Some inclinations may well be innate, but it’s an easy bet that cultural transmission play a greater role than any putative “moral universals”.

    Hi Piotr and welcome to TSZ,

    (I haven’t seen you comment here before, at least.) I always look out for your comments when lurking at Sandwalk and I’ve been enjoying your recent sallies at UD.

    I posted on evolution of language a while ago and Michael Tomasello’s ideas came up. I wonder if you have a view on the evolutionary origin of language that you’d be interested in sharing..

  4. SeverskyP35: In other words, for Arrington, “self-evident” is defined as ‘so obvious to me that I don’t even bother to think about it. And neither should you.’

    That seems about right. 🙂

  5. Piotr Gasiorowski,

    Fair points, and presumably those are the kinds of trivial falsifications that Petrushka had in mind.

    But are those real objections to what is philosophically correct in the concept of “self-evident”? I don’t think so, for the following reason: the correct sense of “self-evident” is non-inferential knowledge:

    A claim p is self-evident to a subject S just in case S is justified in believing p (according to the norms implicit in the relevant social practices) and S does not infer p from any other claims (according to the norms implicit in the relevant social practices), and so p is non-inferential for S.

    From this it follows that it is self-evident to a native Piraha speaker (for example) that there aren’t any numbers, to native Russian speaker that “goluboy” and “siniy” are different colors, and so on. (I had to look these examples up.)

    And of course the parenthetical phrase I introduce there — “according according to the norms implicit in the relevant social practices” — is a huge move that would have Arrington et al. up in arms. I made it because I’m trying to show what I think is philosophically correct about the concept of “self-evident”.

    I think that once that work is done, it will be clear that the concept of self-evident truths cannot provide the solution to Agrippa’s Trilemma, and that Arrington, Kairosfocus, StephenB et al. are completely mistaken in believing that it can.

  6. Alan Fox: I posted on evolution of language a while ago and Michael Tomasello’s ideas came up. I wonder if you have a view on the evolutionary origin of language that you’d be interested in sharing..

    I read Tomasello’s latest A Natural History of Human Thinking and really should go back and read Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Since I work on the differences between human and animal minds in various philosophical contexts, I like to take empirical research into account (especially when, as is always the case, there are unexamined philosophical views at work in how scientists conduct their research and interpret its results).

  7. Here’s some more food for thought:

    When I feel what is called ‘hungry’ in English, that feeling is self-evident. When I feel the urge to what is called ‘pee’ in English, that feeling is self-evident. I didn’t have to learn anything to feel those things, but I did have to learn to call them ‘hungry’ and ‘pee’.

    When I see 2+2=? it is evident to me that the answer is 4, but that is only because I’ve been told that 4 is the answer since I was a little kid. If I had always been told that the answer is ‘garf’ it would be evident to me that ‘garf’ is the answer. Before I learned (was told) that the answer is 4, neither 4 nor ‘garf’ was evident or ‘self-evident’ to me as the answer.

    When arrington and his ilk say ‘self-evident’ they mean that it’s at least as fundamental or innate in humans as feeling hungry or the urge to pee. That it’s inseparable from the human ‘mind’ and inseparable from the existence of ‘creation’. That it’s something that cannot be ignored or denied or there will be negative consequences. Their religious dogma tells them that ‘self-evident-truths’ are created by and derived from ‘God’ (only their chosen ‘God’ of course) and that those particular ‘self-evident-truths’ are as fundamental, obvious, and necessary as ‘God’ is, and that anyone who doesn’t believe that is willfully evil and should be chastised and/or killed and sent to hell after death.

    I’ll add that even though arrington and his ilk preach lots of sermons about ‘self-evident-truths’ they sure are lousy at being truthful.

  8. Creodont2: When I feel what is called ‘hungry’ in English, that feeling is self-evident. When I feel the urge to what is called ‘pee’ in English, that feeling is self-evident. I didn’t have to learn anything to feel those things, but I did have to learn to call them ‘hungry’ and ‘pee’.

    True, except that, for someone who has successfully acquired those concepts (and knows how to use them correctly, etc.), the relevant feelings are self-evident as “feeling the need to pee” or “feeling hungry”. It’s not as if one has the feeling and then has to infer, from the feeling, some further claim!

    The point I was trying to make here is that one can arrive at a perfectly good conception of “self-evident”, but that in doing so, we will see that — and here’s the point — non-inferential knowledge is not presuppositionless. By “presuppositionless” I mean the following:

    A claim P is presuppositionless for a subject S just in case S can be justified in believing that P even if S knows no other “truths of fact” or “truths of reason”.

    Why might anyone believe there is any such thing as presuppositionless knowledge in this sense? One pressing motivation is the need to resolve Agrippa’s Trilemma: there seems to be a need to avoid an infinite regress of justifications by positing true claims that do not depend on any knowledge, and which can therefore serve as an epistemological foundation for everything else.

    But I think it is clear that this can’t be the case, if we understand “non-inferential knowledge” as cases in which a subject’s experience passively elicits in him or her the use of the concepts which he or she has previously acquired. (E.g. having acquired the concept “red”, I do not undergo any inferential process to know that something that I am looking at is red — I simply see it as red.) That is, acquired concepts can be elicited by experience in making judgments that are “self-evident” just in case no inference was required. It is not necessary, for the very concept of “self-evidence”, that self-evident truths be universal, shared, a priori, etc. — those are all further assumptions that Arrington et al. make because of their conflation of non-inferential knowledge (which does exist) and presuppositionless knowledge (which does not).

  9. Alan Fox,

    Thanks for your kind welcome, Alan! I’ve been a lurker here for ages, though I can’t remember if I have ever posted. I have a lot to say about the evolution of language, and will be glad to do so if the subject comes up again.

  10. OMagain,

    Talking of colours, it’s particularly interesting that language and perception influence each other: the impact is reciprocal. On the one hand, being exposed to a particular colour-naming system shapes one’s ability to partition the colour space into “distinct colours”. On the other, the cultural evolution of such systems is constrained, to a significant extent, by the physiology of vision, which makes it roughly predictable (google the “Berlin-Kay hypothesis”). Basic-colour term inventories tend to increase as a result of technological progress, trade contacts, greater availability of dyes and pigments, etc. But new terms are added to pre-existing ones following certain cross-linguistic patterns, not at random.

    This means that colour-naming systems are neither universal (they differ from culture to culture and from language to language) nor quite arbitrary (they are biologically grounded, after all). The analogy with moral codes is quite clear (I won’t say “self-evident”).

  11. Creodont2: “When arrington and his ilk say ‘self-evident’ they mean that it’s at least as fundamental or innate in humans as feeling hungry or the urge to pee.”

    I think that you give them too much credit (or, at least, Arrington). When he uses the term “self-evident”, he uses it as a discussion stopper. If he declares that something is self-evident, anyone who disagrees with this suffers the risk of banination. I say this from repeated experience.

  12. Along the same lines, StephenB always says, “as clear as the day follows the night” when introducing some controversial premise for which he has no non-circular argument.

  13. Kantian Naturalist:
    Along the same lines, StephenB always says, “as clear as the day follows the night” when introducing some controversial premise for which he has no non-circular argument.

    Yeah, it’s almost like saying “here’s gaping hole in my argument”.

    Bonus comic.

  14. Piotr Gasiorowski: I have a lot to say about the evolution of language…

    Yes, I just followed the link to your blog “Language Evolution”. There’s a clue in the title, I think! 🙂

    Just a reminder to Piotr and anyone who feels the muse come upon them. Lizzie intended that this blog be democratic and anyone who has something (interesting, I hope – but this is a guideline, not a rule, being entirely subjective) to say is welcome to craft an opening post. Just flag it in the moderation issues thread if you don’t already have the necessary permissions.

    ETA

    Imagine you are in a Quaker meeting. Enjoy the silence but don’t be afraid to speak!

  15. “Imagine you are in a Quaker meeting.” – Alan Fox

    Right, except for that at most Quaker meetings, the participants are @ (but not always) 95% Quaker, while at TSZ the participants are @95% atheist, agnostic, anti-religious or simply ‘a skeptic’ of theology and ‘Intelligent Design’ (in addition to ‘intelligent design’), which of course includes Alan Fox. That spoils the imagination somewhat.

    A nod to the meditative technique of silence/non-silence in Quaker Protestant Christianity as far as it relates here.

    I would not ‘welcome’ Piotr at TSZ to a company of disenchanted anti-IDists. But I agree with Alan if he was suggesting a thread on ‘language evolution’ by Piotr would likely be welcome at TSZ. Does it not seem that Piotr would also defend the view that ‘language’ is ‘intelligently designed’?

  16. Piotr Gasiorowski,

    Yes, the entanglement of biology and culture (though culture is also biological in some sense) is impossible to think through if one insists on using the objective/subjective dichotomy.

    Steve Fuller, who I find actually pretty insightful in a lot of ways here, remarks that the debate between naturalists and theists is whether we are “senior creatures” or “junior creators”. The point could also be put as follows: is our philosophical anthropology grounded in biology or theology?

  17. Gregory,

    No, language looks designed is some respects, but it’s just the kind of messy semi-regularity that you can expect as the outcome of an evolutionary process. Who would have designed anything like I am, you are, he is, they are; I was, you were, he was, they were as the finite forms of to be (pp. been)? Language structures are not necessarily rational despite the fact that they are used by intelligent speakers. We don’t normally design our language. We are born into a speech community and learn to conform to the way other people speak. Conscious design is of hardly any importance in the construction of a child’s mental grammar.

  18. Can we view languages like species that arise and thrive if circumstances are favorable or simply go extinct if circumstances are unfavorable. And what of actual designed languages like Klingon from Star Trek? Are they just novelties that will disappear once the generations of Trekkies die off?

  19. SeverskyP35:
    Can we view languages like species that arise and thrive if circumstances are favorable or simply go extinct if circumstances are unfavorable.And what of actual designed languages like Klingon from Star Trek?Are they just novelties that will disappear once the generations of Trekkies die off?

    I think the analogies work well. The language environment has changed with mass travel and easy world-wide communication. Language extinction is a real problem for minority languages, especially among the older generation who can become isolated from the young. And languages certainly evolve over time. I don’t know if its the same in US speak, but an old British movie from the Forties can be an assault on modern ears, sounding like caricature.

    The big question I hope Piotr may comment on is if there was a LUCL analogous to the LUCA.

  20. Well, language is certainly intelligently shaped, maybe “intelligently evolved.” Irregular forms tend to disappear much faster in little used words than in very commonly used words, like the forms of to be

    It’s a weird form of evolution, neither really like biologic evolution, nor much like technological evolution. The reason it often (but not always) forms patterns like biologic evolution is largely due to the fact that both biologic and linguistic evolution are seriously constrained by their prior histories (over the evolutionary timespans of each–language evolving much faster, but often exhibiting patterns similar to patterns that occur over much longer timespans in biologic evolution), unlike real design evolution/revolution. With inherited constraints being so important in the evolution of both language and life, you typically get the branching “trees” reflecting their genealogies, despite the fact that the mechanisms of evolution differ greatly between the two forms of descent with modification.

    I suspect that something like Klingon is rather derived from human languages, only in the way that design happens, with ideas coming from here, there, and anywhere, rather than being derived via “true inheritance,” as life is, or via the analogous inheritances of “natural languages.” That it can be designed, even though rather derivatively (as I suppose–I haven’t bothered to consider it), means as little as some future human-designed life would mean to the evolution of life heretofore.

    Glen Davidson

  21. I got curious and found this with minimal googling:

    Several American Indian languages (but few languages elsewhere) feature subject/object pronoun tables (examples are Lakhota and Wichita) but these tables always (?) exhibit a clear internal structure. I have never seen such an irregular and arbitrary-looking table as that of Klingon.

    Conclusion
    I think Klingon is an independently created language, based mainly on components of a general American Indian nature; Mutsun played a very small role, if any, in its creation. The vocabulary may be totally independent (that is, created at random, using a probability distribution for the phonemes.)

    http://www.dickgrune.com/NatLang/Summaries/MutsunKlingonComparison.pdf

    If true–and I have no idea if it is independent of this source–Klingon structure derives from “American Indian” languages, while randomness seems to “explain” vocabulary. Maybe the IDists were finally right about randomness and evolution, but only with respect to Klingon vocabulary, and possibly the vocabularies of some other artificial languages.

    Glen Davidson

  22. And the chicken and egg!

    Speech requires a large dedicated area of the brain for processing and specialized voice-generating equipment and the motor control too.

  23. Sorry if I misinterpreted during a quick glance, Piotr. I had thought that you were advocating some kind of ‘intelligent/Intelligent design/Design’ somewhere on UD. Are you not a proponent of Discovery Institute-style or any other kind of ID?

    At least for me, please leave the ‘language evolution’ stuff for another time, another thread as you’ve now been invited. You’ve seen quickly that there’s an interest for it here among evolutionists.

  24. Gregory:
    Sorry if I misinterpreted during a quick glance, Piotr. I had thought that you were advocating some kind of ‘intelligent/Intelligent design/Design’ somewhere on UD. Are you not a proponent of Discovery Institute-style or any other kind of ID?

    Hell, no, not me. I visit UD from time to time to skirmish with Arrington & Co a little. My latest visit is already over — only a masochist would stay there too long at a time.

    At least for me, please leave the ‘language evolution’ stuff for another time, another thread as you’ve now been invited. You’ve seen quickly that there’s an interest for it here among evolutionists.

    It’s precisely what I intend to do.

  25. Piotr Gasiorowski: I devoted a long series of blogs to that very problem some time ago:

    Proto-World

    As far as I’m concerned, you can talk about your “language evolution stuff” here anytime, as often as you like. That blog series is one of the most fascinating reads I’ve had in a long time.

  26. Acartia,

    I agree, and I’m just exploring some of the crud that’s swirling around in arrington’s mind and the minds of people like him.

    IMO, the absolute fundamental thing that drives people like arrington is extreme narcissism. He’s an autocrat, but he’s also a theocrat. His ‘base’ is autocracy (or the desire for it) and on top of that is theocracy (or his desire for it). His autocratic and theocratic mindsets blend in some ways and he’s a dictatorial bully regardless of how they specifically blend. His theocratic mindset is a tool (or weapon) for his autocratic mindset and it’s possible that he doesn’t realize it because his extreme narcissism makes him unwilling to explore and face his own basic drives and ways of thinking.

    I had more to say but I lost my train of thought and I might add more later if it comes back to me.

  27. Piotr (and others), do you think that the communicative sounds, gestures, movements, and/or facial expressions that animals make/do can (or should) be called ‘language’?

    And what would you say to this:

    The ability to communicate with sounds, gestures, etc., evolved and in the case of some organisms, including but not limited to humans, the ability to intelligently (or consciously) expand/modify/refine those abilities along with actually expanding/modifying//refining those abilities also has also evolved and continues to do so.

    And one more question for now: Are pheromones ‘language’?

  28. Creodont2: Piotr (and others), do you think that the communicative sounds, gestures, movements, and/or facial expressions that animals make/do can (or should) be called ‘language’?

    I’m inclined to think of those as language.

    However, language of this form is very limited unless in a social species. I think people should be looking at intensely social species (may prairie dogs) to evaluate such forms of communication as language.

    And one more question for now: Are pheromones ‘language’?

    I have thought about that. I’ve never been able to make up my mind. The stumbling block, for me, is that they are innate rather than learned.

  29. Piotr Gasiorowski,

    “You can be both a theocrat and an autocrat without running into contradiction if you truly identify with God.”

    Yeah, in arrington’s blended autocratic/theocratic mindset, he is ‘God’ (or at least wants to be).

  30. Creodont2,

    Personally, I think it was a disastrous move — both logically and rhetorically — for non-theists (humanists, naturalists, secularists, etc.) to accept the premise that moral objectivity requires theism. Arrington and StephenB are not wrong in pressing the argument that giving up on objectivity is too high a price to pay. The hard problem is to show how to make sense of moral objectivity within naturalism.

  31. Piotr Gasiorowski,

    Piotr, I’m sure you also noticed that barry ‘the authoritarian’ arrington also spewed this:

    “God is the only possible source of transcendent objective moral norms.”

  32. Further commentary:

    Arrington is presenting Nietzsche as an exemplar of someone who took naturalism and atheism seriously enough, and understood that atheism entails nihilism. Hence the need for a “re-evaluation of all values”: the value of everything must be created anew. By contrast, the New Atheists believe that they can retain core Christian moral values — the importance of kindness, or humility, or solidarity with the oppressed — without the metaphysics in terms of which (Nietzsche thinks) those values make any sense to begin with. This inconsistency, Arrington points out, is one that Nietzsche himself found deeply repulsive among 19th-century humanists and free-thinkers.

    There is, I think, a genuinely hard question here for humanists and naturalists about how to respond to Nietzsche’s provocation. I think Arrington is deeply mistaken to think that we’re being inconsistent by not being nihilists, but I also think that Nietzsche’s challenge can’t be brushed aside lightly.

  33. Creodont2,

    It’s effective communication (transfer of information between individuals), often using quite elaborate (and poorly understood) codes, but I’d be reluctant to call it “language”, and would prefer to restrict the term to the kind of communication specific to humans (employing a huge lexicon and complex morpho-syntax). Some types of animal communication may come close to language in this sense (see this study of Campbell’s mona monkeys), but still the complexity and communicative power of human language are unrivalled.

  34. Piotr Gasiorowski,

    Actually, I want to follow up on this. I’m often asked by my students whether non-human animals have language, and I want to say that they don’t — but I don’t know how to express this clearly enough to my students. What you recommend I say?

  35. Kantian Naturalist,

    “Personally, I think it was a disastrous move — both logically and rhetorically — for non-theists (humanists, naturalists, secularists, etc.) to accept the premise that moral objectivity requires theism.”

    I suppose that would be a mistake, but in my mind there’s no such thing as moral objectivity so I think it’s a mistake to accept the premise of moral objectivity period. To me, ‘moral’ or ‘morals’ are labels applied to subjective interpretations of behaviors, thinking, and/or ‘feelings’ and that such interpretations (opinions, judgments, etc.) are subjective regardless of whether they’re innate (inborn) or learned. I’m aware that my interpretations of ‘morals’ are subjective too (but of course I’m always right, LOL).

    “Arrington and StephenB are not wrong in pressing the argument that giving up on objectivity is too high a price to pay.”

    I don’t understand what you mean by that.

    “The hard problem is to show how to make sense of moral objectivity within naturalism.”

    To me, that’s not a problem, for the reasons I stated above.

  36. Kantian Naturalist,

    I don’t know about “New Atheists” but as an ordinary ol’ atheist/anti-theist I strongly disagree that “the importance of kindness, or humility, or solidarity with the oppressed” are “core Christian moral values”. Christians really like to claim that those are their core values and that only christianity has and can ‘ground’ those values but it’s all a festering pile of dishonesty, self-serving selective mining of the bible, and narcissistic arrogance. The ‘Christian’ bible contains lots of horrible, coercive, murderous, oppressive, threatening, malicious, sadistic crap and its overall dictate is OBEY OR ELSE, DO AS I COMMAND-NOT AS I DO, and FORCE MY COMMANDS ON EVERYONE ELSE. That is not kind, humble, or solidarity with the oppressed.

  37. Kantian Naturalist,

    I think you can tell them that:

    (1) Humans use a finite, culturally transmitted inventory of elements to construct a practically unlimited variety of messages conveying complex meanings. Those messages refer not only to present or imminent facts (or mental states), but also to hypothetical situations (plans, wishes, expectations, predictions), generalisations drawn from facts (from folk wisdom to science) and chains of events (narratives). This ability is quite unique (as far as we know), so it’s good to have a special term for it (language will do).

    (2) Beside language, we of course continue to use many of the older forms of communication that we share with other animals: body language, gestures and facial expressions, non-linguistic vocalisations, etc. Not only do we fall back on them when communicating with foreigners whose language we don’t understand, but we use them all the time as useful “paralinguistic” accompaniments enhancing linguistic communication. (We can also quite successfully communicate with some animals in this way: my dog understands my signals and vice versa.)

  38. Piotr Gasiorowski,

    LOL, I wrote “body language”, apparently contradicting myself. But of course it’s a figurative, non-technical use of the word (as opposed to “sign language” which is a form of language using a different medium from speech).

  39. Piotr Gasiorowski,

    That’s exactly what I was looking for — thank you! I’ll use that in a few weeks when I teach the animal rights section of my introduction to ethics course!

  40. I read the dog reference just as my cat can in to demand attention.

    Cats are not as flexible or communicative as dogs, but they have and understand gestures. I find that shy cats respond to an outstretched, motionless hand. They will often come up to be petted, but if you approach them, they run away. Cats seem to train people rather than the other way round.

  41. I want to let you all know that when I don’t respond right away or disappear for awhile it’s not because I’m ignoring you. I just need time to think, or a break, or I have something else to do. 🙂

  42. Creodont2:
    I want to let you all know that when I don’t respond right away or disappear for awhile it’s not because I’m ignoring you. I just need time to think, or a break, or I have something else to do.

    Or it is that Barry has hacked into TSZ and enacted his version of the protection of free speech.

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