Cartesian skepticism and the Sentinel Islander thought experiment

Cartesian skepticism has been a hot topic lately at TSZ. I’ve been defending a version of it that I’ve summarized as follows:

Any knowledge claim based on the veridicality of our senses is illegitimate, because we can’t know that our senses are veridical.

This means that even things that seem obvious — that there is a computer monitor in front of me as I write this, for instance — aren’t certain. Besides not being certain, we can’t even claim to know them, and that remains true even when we use a standard of knowledge that allows for some uncertainty. (There’s more — a lot more — on this in earlier threads.)

In explaining to Kantian Naturalist why I am a Cartesian skeptic, I introduced the analogy of the Sentinel Islander:

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Consilience and the Cartesian Skeptic

It is not all that infrequent here at TSZ that some opponent of theism or ID makes a statement that makes me scratch my head and wonder how it is possible that they could make such a statement. This OP explores a recent example.

Cartesian scepticism, more impressed with Descartes’ argument for scepticism than his own reply, holds that we do not have any knowledge of any empirical proposition about anything beyond the contents of our own minds. The reason, roughly put, is that there is a legitimate doubt about all such propositions because there is no way to justifiably deny that our senses are being stimulated by some cause (an evil spirit, for example) which is radically different from the objects which we normally think affect our senses.

– A Companion to Epistemology, p. 457

Imagine my surprise when I found keiths (a self-identified “Cartesian Skeptic”) appealing to the senses.

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Thorp, Shannon: Inspiration for Alternative Perspectives on the ID vs. Naturalism Debate

The writings and life work of Ed Thorp, professor at MIT, influenced many of my notions of ID (though Thorp and Shannon are not ID proponents). I happened upon a forgotten mathematical paper by Ed Thorp in 1961 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that launched his stellar career into Wall Street. If the TSZ regulars are tired of talking and arguing ID, then I offer a link to Thorp’s landmark paper. That 1961 PNAS article consists of a mere three pages. It is terse, and almost shocking in its economy of words and straightforward English. The paper can be downloaded from:

A Favorable Strategy for Twenty One, Proceedings National Academy of Sciences.

Thorp was a colleague of Claude Shannon (founder of information theory, and inventor of the notion of “bit”) at MIT. Thorp managed to publish his theory about blackjack through the sponsorship of Shannon. He was able to scientifically prove his theories in the casinos and Wall Street and went on to make hundreds of millions of dollars through his scientific approach to estimating and profiting from expected value. Thorp was the central figure in the real life stories featured in the book
Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System that Beat the Casino’s and Wall Street by William Poundstone.
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Primary and Secondary Qualities

Every student of philosophy knows how to draw up the lists of primary and secondary qualities: on the left go extension, size, shape or figure, solidity, motion or rest, and number; on the right go color, sound, scent, taste, heat and cold. But what is the principle of the distinction? Does it have to do with objective versus subjective? Categorical versus dispositional? Intrinsic versus extrinsic? Or several or none of these?

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Galen Strawson’s Panpsychism

This Strawson piece just appeared in the NY Times.

It’s a position that I found attractive long ago.  FWIW, I preferred Strawson’s father as a philosopher but I give the son some credit for consistently pushing this position for years.  (IIRC, correctly, he also has no sympathy for compatibalism, and is an old-fashioned hard determinist.

What do y’all think?

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Does Naturalism Exclude Exceptional Phenomenon?

Would naturalism insist 500 fair coins 100% heads on a table could not possibly emerge from a random process (like random coin flipping)? How about a buzzillion fair coins being 100% heads after an explosion from a terrorist event at a bank? If naturalism won’t exclude such improbable events (events statistically indistinguishable from miracles), then naturalism doesn’t exclude miracles.
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Biology as viewed through 19th Century Lenses

Most modern readers have difficulty appreciating the resilience of spiritual or metaphysical overtones to 19th Century scientific thought, alternatively referred to as “vitalism” & “teleology”. At this point, a quick historical digression is in order.

What exactly is life?”! Traditional education systems were well-grounded in the classics, and many 19th Century naturalists could relate to an ancient Greek philosopher named Aristotle who was convinced no real boundary existed between “living” and “non-living”. According to Aristotle, non-living matter could give rise to living things because our universe possesses some vital life force or soul, “anima”, which could “animate” non-living matter. In Aristotle’s view: the universe, as a whole, had its own soul. In modern terms the universe could be considered as some giant fractal and we are all but elements therein. Even today, various mystical traditions hold similar ideas.

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The Death of Humanity

The Death of Humanity is a new book by Richard Weikart.

Are humans intrinsically valuable, or are they simply a cosmic accident with no real meaning or purpose? Since the Enlightenment this debate has raged in Western culture, profoundly influencing our understanding of bioethics and informing the debate over abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, genetic engineering, etc. The title of this book, The Death of Humanity, refers not only to the demise of the concept that humans are intrinsically valuable, but also the the resultant killing of actual human lives.

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Burden tennis

Burden tennis is an intellectual parlor game, wherein the players “hit” the “burden of proof” across the net from one side to the other.  We see this expressed as “the burden is in your court” or “the burden of proof is yours”, with often both sides making similar statements.

Burden tennis can be a fun game to watch, but it is sometimes wiser to avoid being a participant.

Note:  I did not invent the term “burden tennis”.  I saw that being used on the net somewhere many years ago.  But it seems like a good term.

This post is really a reply to Patrick’s post in the moderation thread.  I’ve started a new thread, because the discussion really doesn’t belong there.

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The Disunity of Reason

Last night I was talking with an old friend of mine, an atheist Jew, who is now in the best relationship of her life with a devout Roman Catholic. We talked about the fact that she was more surprised than he was about the fact that their connection transcends their difference in metaphysics. He sees himself as a devout Roman Catholic; she sees him as a good human being.

This conversation reminded me of an older thought that’s been swirling around in my head for a few weeks: the disunity of reason.

It is widely held by philosophers (that peculiar sub-species!) that reason is unified: that the ideally rational person is one for whom there are no fissures, breaks, ruptures, or discontinuities anywhere in the inferential relations between semantic contents that comprise his or her cognitive grasp of the world (including himself or herself as part of that world).

This is particularly true when it comes to the distinction between “theoretical reason” and “practical reason”. By “theoretical reason” I mean one’s ability to conceptualize the world-as-experienced as more-or-less systematic, and by “practical reason” I mean one’s ability to act in the world according to judgments that are justified by agent-relative and also agent-indifferent reasons (“prudence” and “morality”, respectively).

The whole philosophical tradition from Plato onward assumes that reason is unified, and especially, that theoretical and practical reason are unified — different exercises of the same basic faculty. Some philosophers think of them as closer together than others — for example, Aristotle distinguishes between episteme (knowledge of general principles in science, mathematics, and metaphysics) and phronesis (knowledge of particular situations in virtuous action). But even Aristotle does not doubt that episteme and phronesis are exercises of a single capacity, reason (nous).

However, as we learn more about how our cognitive system is actually structured, we should consider the possibility that reason is not unified at all. If Horst’s Cognitive Pluralism is right, then we should expect that our minds are more like patchworks of domain-specific modules that can reason quite well within those domains but not so well across them.

To Horst’s model I’d add the further conjecture: that we have pretty good reason to associate our capacity for “theoretical reason” (abstract thinking and long-term planning) with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and also pretty good reason to associate our capacity for “practical reason” (self-control and virtuous conduct) with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (and especially in its dense interconnections with the limbic system).

But if that conjecture is on the right track, then we would expect to find consistency between theoretical reason and practical reason only to the extent that there are reciprocal interconnections between these regions of prefrontal cortex. And of course there are reciprocal interconnections — but (and this is the important point!) to the extent that these regions are also functionally distinct, then to that same extent reason is disunified. 

And as a consequence, metaphysics and ethics may have somewhat less to do with each other than previous philosophers have supposed.

 

 

God said “Let there be light”

No, this isn’t a religion thread.  It’s a response to some posts in the intentionality thread.

Quoting from Genesis:

1:3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

I’m going to take that as a metaphor.  I’ll take “let there be light” to stand for the evolution of light sensitive cells in some biological organisms.  Once they had light sensitive cells, they had the possibility of distinguishing between light and dark.

1:4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

1:5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.

I was taught that the most basic step in geometry is to draw a line, and divide the world into the part on one side of the line and that on the other side of the line.

So, what we see here can be considered geometry.  It is also an example of what philosophers describe as “carving the world at the seams”, except that there are no seams.  We divide the external world on the basis of an internal criterion (the state of the light sensitive cells).

This dividing can also be called “categorization”.  That’s one of the possible meanings of “categorization”, and I see it as the important one.

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Foundationalism and Anti-Foundationalism

There’s a deep and fascinating question about whether we need “foundations” in our philosophical system, and if so, why and what kind.

First question: is the foundationalism primarily epistemological (foundations of knowledge) or ontological (foundations of being)?*

Second question: insofar as foundationalism implies a hierarchy, is the grounding or fundamental principle at the top of the hierarchy or at the bottom?

These two questions give us four positions:

top-down epistemological foundationalism: rationalism
bottom-up epistemological foundationalism: empiricism
top-down ontological foundationalism: theism/idealism
bottom-up ontological foundationalism: materialism

The ontological foundationalism can be reductive or non-reductive. Hence:
reductive top-down ontological foundationalism: idealism
non-reductive top-down ontological foundationalism: emanationism
reductive bottom-up ontological foundationalism: physicalism
non-reductive bottom-up ontological foundationalism: emergentism

Likewise, anti-foundationalism can also be epistemological or ontological:

epistemological anti-foundationalism: pragmatism (or: the good parts of Hegel/Peirce/Sellars)*
ontological anti-foundationalism: process ontology (or: the good parts of Spinoza/Whitehead/Deleuze)*

The main reason why I have resisted efforts to interpret me as an empiricist or materialist is that both empiricism and materialism are forms of foundationalism. Since I am an anti-foundationalist (both in epistemology and in ontology) I am as opposed to empiricism as I am to rationalism, and as opposed to materialism as I am to theism. My views might look like those of an empiricist/physicalist, but only if one insists on interpreting those views through the lens of the foundationalism that I reject.

As time permits I’ll explore the arguments for epistemological anti-foundationalism and ontological anti-foundationalism. For now I just wanted to get the conversation started.

*I’m leaving aside ethical and political versions of foundationalism and anti-foundationalism, though I think that’s where the philosophical action is really at.

** I’m only citing philosophers in the Western canon here, but Nagarjuna in the Madhyamika tradition of Tibetan Buddhism developed a consistently anti-foundationalist epistemology and ontology one and a half millennia  before it was even conceived of in the West. Within the West, probably Nietzsche and Dewey would be the first consistently anti-foundationalist philosophers.

Philosophy and Complexity of Rube Goldberg Machines

Michael Behe is best known for coining the phrase Irreducible Complexity, but I think his likening of biological systems to Rube Goldberg machines is a better way to frame the problem of evolving the black boxes and the other extravagances of the biological world.
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The Great Chain of Being: Anthropocentrism

I am reading a book in which the authors set forth the evils of belief in “The Great Chain of Being.”

The Great Chain of Being is, in fact, firmly ingrained in our culture and spirits. It leads to certain grave errors that are commonly acknowledged but difficult for teachers to correct.

The first of these is Anthropocentrism, “the view that man is the measure of all things.”

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The Reasonableness of Atheism and Black Swans

As an ID proponent and creationist, the irony is that at the time in my life where I have the greatest level of faith in ID and creation, it is also the time in my life at some level I wish it were not true. I have concluded if the Christian God is the Intelligent Designer then he also makes the world a miserable place by design, that He has cursed this world because of Adam’s sin. See Malicious Intelligent Design.
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Being

Three powerful commentaries on the nature of our existence:

The first is a BBC programme called The Secret Life of Waves.  My father, who died earlier this year, was very keen that we should all watch it, and it helped us hugely after his death, to know that this was what he thought, and wanted to share with his children and grandchildren.

The second is a lecture someone introduced me to recently by Alan Watts, It Starts Now.

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