“Naturalism” and “Rationality”

At Uncommon Descent — though not only there! — one often come across the view that naturalism is inconsistent with rationality: if one accepts naturalism, then one ought not regard one’s own rational capacities as reliable.   Some version of this view is ascribed to Darwin himself, and we can call it “Darwin’s Doubt” or simply “the Doubt.”   Should we endorse the Doubt?  Or are there reasons for doubting the Doubt?

Here are some positions I can think of about the relationship between naturalism and rationality:

(1) Endorse the Doubt: if naturalism is true, then rationality is undermined; but rationality is a basic presupposition of all thought and discourse; so we should reject naturalism. (C. S. Lewis seems to have held this view, and Alvin Plantinga has a really nice, very powerful version of it he calls the EAAN, or Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism — we can get into that in the comments, or we can start another thread just about the EAAN);

(2) Endorse the Doubt (inverted): if naturalism is true, then rationality is undermined — but naturalism is true, and therefore so much the worse for rationality.  (I would ascribe a sophisticated version of this view to Nietzsche.)

(3) Defuse the Doubt: naturalism and rationality are consistent, if we have a sufficiently emergentist (non-reductive, non-materialist) naturalism and a deflationary conception of what the philosophical tradition has called “rationality” — e,g. “intelligence”.  (On my reading this is John Dewey’s position, and he’s very clear that we should reject the entire Plato-to-Kant/Hegel tradition — what he calls “the Quest for Certainty” — in favor of a more modest conception of human cognitive abilities.)

(4) Reject the Doubt: naturalism and rationality are consistent, if we think of rationality in terms of (a) discursive, inferential capacities that intrinsic to <I>language</I>; and (b) these capacities emerge from, and are grounded in the perceptual-practical abilities that we share with other animals (and that characterize each of us at a very early moment of our lives).  (On my view, (a) was nicely worked out by Wilfrid Sellars and Robert Brandom, and (b) is implicit in the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty.)

The key issue at stake between (3) and (4) is how much continuity or discontinuity there is between the cognitive abilities of non-sapient animals and the discursive-inferential abilities of sapient animals.   But I take it that a satisfactory hybrid view of (3) and (4), one that locates correctly the different dimensions of continuity and discontinuity, would be sufficient to refute both (1) and (2).

I have some thoughts about how to sketch out such a view, but I thought it better to turn this over to comments before saying too much more.

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178 thoughts on ““Naturalism” and “Rationality”

  1. Kantian Naturalist:
    By contrast, Churchland gives a detailed account of just how neurophysiological processes do have semantic content — they have content by virtue of being a mostly reliable, partial mapping of the organism’s environment.

    Good point, though I for one would prefer the word “modelling” to “mapping”, as I think “mapping” can convey the impression of a relatively direct sort of correspondence (like a geographical map).

    I find that computer analogies can be helpful. With computers we can see more clearly what’s going on, so it helps dispel the sense of mystery. It seems to me that people with a computer science background often have less trouble understanding these things than some philosophers.

    Consider a simple robotic vaccum cleaner, one that moves around the floor and maintains a database of the locations of objects it’s bumped into, so it can avoid bumping into them again. The robot acquires data about the objects in its environment. There goes the problem of “intentionality” or “aboutness” that so many philosophers worry over. The data is about the objects by virtue of the fact that it resulted from the right sort of causal process, a process of modelling the objects. But this can also be considered “semantic content” of a very basic sort. The data has a meaning to the robot. A certain set of data means that there’s an object located in a particular location. If it didn’t have that meaning, the robot wouldn’t be able to avoid the object.

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  2. Kantian Naturalist:
    Besides which, as I’ve argued many times over at Uncommon Descent, the whole “stolen concept fallacy” is a sham. It doesn’t make any sense, because it confuses conditions of genesis and conditions of validity. Nor is this “fallacy” mentioned in any critical thinking textbook I’ve read or used.From what I can tell, it was invented by self-serving anti-Communist reactionaries (i.e. Objectivists).

    From what I’ve read, the Stolen Concept Fallacy is a logical error as a debate tactic, however given the definition as I understand it, William is claiming it for something that is not actually the the SCF. Here’s the definition from Don Lindsay:

    Stolen Concept:

    using what you are trying to disprove. That is, requiring the truth of something for your proof that it is false. For example, using science to show that science is wrong. Or, arguing that you do not exist, when your existence is clearly required for you to be making the argument.

    This is a relative of Begging The Question, except that the circularity there is in what you are trying to prove, instead of what you are trying to disprove.

    It is also a relative of Reductio Ad Absurdum, where you temporarily assume the truth of something.

    In other words, the Stolen Concept Fallacy is the erroneous attempt to show that the points in someone’s argument are invalid by using the points as valid for one’s own argument. It’s like trying to have your cake and eat it too; if the points are invalid for your opponent, then they are invalid, period, and cannot be assumed to support your own argument.

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  3. Kantian Naturalist:
    The thought that our norms must be grounded in meta-norms — a meta-norm that authorizes our norms — is an illusion crafted by Plato to reassure himself that we do not live in a world in which tragedy is possible.

    I don’t quite understand this point KN. Could you elaborate a little? What do you mean by reassuring himself that we do not live in a world in which tragedy is possible? I mean, a cursory reflection on the world should reveal pretty quickly that tragedy does, in fact, occur.

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  4. Sounds like essentialism, a characteristic meme of creationists. for every thing-word there must be an ideal form.

    It’s seductive because it is so easy to define ideal mathematical forms, like circles.

    When creationists argue about kinds, they are just extrapolating mathematics to “kinds.” Living species are to real kinds as drawn circles are to ideal circles.

    Moral behavior is compared to the ideal template, which must exist.

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  5. Kantian Naturalist: I appreciate the objection, but I’m still willing to press the analogy.

    You are right that the question, “why ought we act in order to promote human flourishing?” does not have an empirical answer. But in just the same way, “why ought we act in order to comprehend the world?” also does not have an empirical answer. Yet that the comprehension of the world is the final cause of empirical inquiry, of science, in exactly the same way that the promotion of human (and non-human) flourishing is the final cause of ethics.

    Yeahbut. “why ought we act in order to comprehend the world?” is the same kind of question as “why ought we act in order to promote human flourishing?” These are both normative questions, the answers to which tell us not what the world is like, but what we ought to do. You call the answers to these two questions “the final cause” of science and ethics respectively. My point is that both of these are normative statements that cannot be “naturalized,” i.e. derived from empirical observation. Their final justification, if any, lies in introspection.

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  6. Robin: I don’t quite understand this point KN. Could you elaborate a little? What do you mean by reassuring himself that we do not live in a world in which tragedy is possible? I mean, a cursory reflection on the world should reveal pretty quickly that tragedy does, in fact, occur.

    The point I’m rehearsing here is Nietzsche’s interpretation and criticism of Plato, which is pretty complicated, but I’ll give you the short-ish version: Plato invented the “Forms” (or “Ideas” — either term works) as the eternal, unchanging, incorruptible counter-parts of the things and people he loved, because he was unable to bear the pain of living in a world in which the things we love most (and which are most worthy of our love) are so easily broken and destroyed.

    So, it’s not that Plato doesn’t notice that terrible and tragic events happen — but rather that he doesn’t want the world to be that way, and so — through the sheer power of his creativity and genius — creates “the appearance/reality distinction” — in which everything awful is just “appearance” and not “real”. In other words, on Nietzsche’s interpretation, Plato’s metaphysics is one big escapist fantasy.* And Nietzsche thinks that this gets transmitted down through Christianity (“Christianity is Platonism for the masses”), and then gets further watered-down and secularized through the modern period — finally culminating in Kant’s attempt to have his cake and eat it, too.

    *Worth pointing out, though, that Nietzsche thinks that all metaphysics is fiction, and that’s no objection to them — for him, it’s all a question of what the fictions do to us.

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  7. SophistiCat,
    To be honest, I think there are two problems here.

    I was trying to say that the end-goals of ethics and science are the fundamental, constitutive rules which make those respective conceptual frameworks intelligible as projects for us to engage in.

    The first problem is how the distinction is drawn between empirical observation and introspection, and the second is that normative facts can be derived from introspection. Introspection — our immediate (non-inferential) awareness of our own mental states — is very much like empirical observation. My awareness of my own mental states, just like my awareness of my physical surroundings, depends on certain basic biological facts about me together with the concepts that I’ve acquired. The more fine-grained my conceptual framework, the more sensitive I am to what’s going on, whether it’s physical or psychological.

    So my psychological states are just as natural and empirical as my sensory states about the physical world, but if the latter cannot ‘ground’ normative facts — and I agree that it can’t — then neither can the former. Hume is right: one cannot derive an ought-claim from an is-claim, regardless of whether the is-claim concerns the physical (“outer”) world or the psychological (“inner”) world.

    Now, this might seem like a fatal concession for naturalism, but I don’t think it is. Because Hume’s point is just that one cannot logically derive ought-claims from is-claims. But that’s not a task that naturalism must accommodate.

    Instead, a naturalist can (and should) happily accept that normative facts are “irreducible” to naturalistic facts — where “irreducible” means “not logically derivable from or conceptually analyzable into” — and only try to explain the emergence of norms within the natural world — and that can be done in terms of patterns of social behavior.

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  8. I agree that mental states are natural, subjectivity is natural, and introspection is a kind of observation (though it takes a certain kind of introspection to motivate action: me being fatigued and hungry does not motivate me to promote the flourishing of humankind).

    Kantian Naturalist:

    So my psychological states are just as natural and empirical as my sensory states about the physical world, but if the latter cannot ‘ground’ normative facts — and I agree that it can’t — then neither can the former.

    Ah, but psychological states don’t ground normative facts – they are basic normative facts. When I ask myself whether or how I should act, the result is a psychological state that motivates (or doesn’t) action – be that feeding or promoting the welfare of humanity. I don’t get that just from registering facts about the outside world.

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  9. That’s kind of what I thought when I saw the Plato reference, but I don’t get what that has to do with tragedy or the lack thereof.

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  10. Ohhhh…woooow! Ooookay. Well, that’s interesting. Never heard that interpretation of Plato before, but it’s kind of cool. Explains some other comments and concepts I’ve come across.

    Thanks KN!

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  11. SophistiCat:
    I agree that mental states are natural, subjectivity is natural, and introspection is a kind of observation (though it takes a certain kind of introspection to motivate action: me being fatigued and hungry does not motivate me to promote the flourishing of humankind).

    That seems right — whereas a feeling of empathy would (ceteris paribus) would motivate one to give food or money to a homeless person, or donate to charity, or volunteer in a soup kitchen. It all depends on the relevant psychological states.

    Ah, but psychological states don’t ground normative facts – they are basic normative facts. When I ask myself whether or how I should act, the result is a psychological state that motivates (or doesn’t) action – be that feeding or promoting the welfare of humanity. I don’t get that just from registering facts about the outside world.

    I see the psychological states as our motivations, but not the justifications — the normative facts themselves. Although a morally decent person is someone who is motivated to do the right thing, his or her motivations don’t constitute the rightness of the action.

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  12. I have already stated that I’m using “stolen concept” in the objectivist sense provided my source for, and use of, the term, KN. From wiki:

    the act of using a concept while ignoring, contradicting or denying the validity of the concepts on which it logically and genetically depends.

    For example, there is no such thing as “moral obligation” under atheism, even though atheists use the term. Under atheism, morals are subjective proclivities, feelings, and desires. One is not “obligated” to act according to feelings and thoughts held as “subjective”.

    The concept of “moral obligation” is genetically dependent upon morality being something that can ground a behavioral obligation, which means it must be done whether one wants to or not, and whether on feels like it or not. Under atheism, it is an oxymoron.

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  13. The problem with all attempts to “rationalize” morality is that being “good” or helpful is seldom reducible to a list of rules. Being good is a creative act, not unlike being good at performing music or making art.

    Anyone who has raised children knows that rule books do not tell you how to act from moment to moment. They cannot tell you how adamant you should be with rules and discipline, or what kind of education is best for your child.

    The same applies to many, if not most, interactions. Either the inner drive is there, or you need constant supervision by police or social workers. I suppose for some people, god is supposed to behave like an invisible cop, threatening you if you get off track.

    I have to assume that there are such people.

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  14. Kantian Naturalist: No, I don’t think that (1) [Beliefs are reliable] is a premise of the EAAN.

    In his SEP article on Science and Religion, which summarizes his 2010 version of the EAAN, he says

    Let R be the proposition that our cognitive faculties are reliable […]
    1 P(R | N&E) is low.
    2 Anyone who accepts N&E and sees that (1) is true has a defeater for R.
    3. Anyone who has a defeater for R has a defeater for any other belief she holds, including N&E itself.

    Not that important to the discussion, but that is where I got my understanding that (1) is a premise.

    Kantian Naturalist:
    Actually, I don’t think Plantinga’s argument here is that sophisticated.I think he just assumes that there couldn’t be a naturalistic mechanism that implements semantic content.

    There is this paper he published in 2011 where he goes through various naturalistic approaches to mental contents and tries to disprove them. My understanding of the concepts he is addressing is not strong enough to understand his arguments. If you google Content Natural Selection Plantinga you can also find naturalist replies to this paper.
    I have not taken the time to understand his brand of dualism better (thank to KeithS for links). But if he relies on dualism, it’s not clear to me why he bothers with guided evolution, which I had thought might have been a way for God to guide our physical evolution to produce reliable beliefs.

    Anyway, enough for EEAN for me for now. I’d prefer to spend more of my time understanding the various naturalistic approaches to mental contents.

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  15. BruceS: Anyway, enough for EEAN for me for now. I’d prefer to spend more of my time understanding the various naturalistic approaches to mental contents.

    That’s a strong interest of mine as well. Maybe we could start a separate thread on it here, if enough folks are into it.

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  16. WJM:

    I have already stated that I’m using “stolen concept” in the objectivist sense provided my source for, and use of, the term, KN. From wiki:

    the act of using a concept while ignoring, contradicting or denying the validity of the concepts on which it logically and genetically depends.

    In what respect does morality genetically depend upon there being a God (or some other such non-human Arbiter)? If (through our shared genetic and cultural heritage) we have a common sense of restraint against certain acts, and a warm glow contingent upon doing others, we have something that we are perfectly entitled to call ‘morality’, and ‘objective’ – a common sense shared by most. What is your warrant for insisting that theism came up with the concept first? I think you are squatting in the territory, and pretending it was yours all along. Let’s see your deeds of title.

    For example, there is no such thing as “moral obligation” under atheism, even though atheists use the term. Under atheism, morals are subjective proclivities, feelings, and desires. One is not “obligated” to act according to feelings and thoughts held as “subjective”.

    It is not a black-or-white MUST for the atheist, any more than it is for the theist. But one is retrained by by one’s moral sense from doing certain things, with a revulsion according to degree. I might, for example, be less restrained by my feelings against infidelity than against murder. But it is a real restraint, which by common consent we all experience, apart from those few whose sense is atrophied or undeveloped.

    The concept of “moral obligation” is genetically dependent upon morality being something that can ground a behavioral obligation, which means it must be done whether one wants to or not, and whether on feels like it or not. Under atheism, it is an oxymoron.

    Whereas theists ALWAYS do the ‘right thing’. Yeah, sure they do.

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  17. petrushka: The problem with all attempts to “rationalize” morality is that being “good” or helpful is seldom reducible to a list of rules. Being good is a creative act, not unlike being good at performing music or making art.

    The analogy seems apt to me, but I wouldn’t conclude from the analogy that ethical life doesn’t require concepts, that the concepts aren’t available to reflection, criticism, or improvement, or that morality (or art) doesn’t have a rational component.

    We can think of moral theory as being like art theory — and just as knowing some art theory can make one a more nuanced spectator of art or a better artist, knowing some moral theory can make one a more nuanced judge of ethical actions and a better moral agent. The main difference is that a society can flourish without everyone being a competent artist, but it can’t flourish if it is not the case that the vast majority of its members are competent moral agents.

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  18. William J. Murray:
    I have already stated that I’m using “stolen concept” in the objectivist sense provided my source for, and use of, the term, KN. From wiki:

    For example, there is no such thing as “moral obligation” under atheism, even though atheists use the term.

    Hahahahahaha! Oh William…you kill me!

    Here’s the thing – that you’ve declared that “there’s no such thing as ‘moral obligation under atheism” doesn’t make the claim true. In fact, as you so amply demonstrated time and again, you’re batting average on the accuracy and validity of the claims and concepts you put forth William are – to put it mildly – pitiably low. So here’s the thing…merely claiming that there’s no ‘moral obligation’ under atheism doesn’t make the use of the phrase ‘moral obligation’ a ‘stolen concept’. You’d actually have to show that A) atheists were the ones trying to say that ‘moral obligation’ doesn’t exist and B) were then using said ‘moral obligation’ (and here’s the clincher) in the same context and conceptual framework as the one they were trying to discredit. So, point blank William…you’re not even wrong. You’re not even close.

    So I’m sure you’ll agree that my disregarding your rant against strawmen atheists is the most rational thing to do under the circumstances. I do appreciate the chuckle or two though. Heh!

    Under atheism, morals are subjective proclivities, feelings, and desires. One is not “obligated” to act according to feelings and thoughts held as “subjective”.

    Funny how theists are not obligated to act according to objective thoughts or feelings either. Oh well…

    The concept of “moral obligation” is genetically dependent upon morality being something that can ground a behavioral obligation, which means it must be done whether one wants to or not, and whether on feels like it or not. Under atheism, it is an oxymoron.

    Here’s the problem – only you think morality is oxymoronic for the atheist, William…and you’ve demonstrated time and again that what you believe is idiotic and erroneous.

    That you wish to project your limitations on strawmen versions of the atheist doesn’t make your arguments any more sound or useful. But please, don’t stop the humorous declarations because of that inconvenient fact, William. Your proclamations are just that entertaining!

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  19. Even artists and musicians talk about their trade, and most professionals have formal training. It’s not that you can’t talk rationally about morality, but that there is not Platonic template for goodness.

    Moral goodness is similar to art goodness or culinary goodness in that it is judged by people rather than by absolute standards, and much to WJM’s dismay, tastes in morality evolve.

    We no longer think its cool to murder entire cities at the behest of priests, or stone women for the crime of being raped.

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  20. William J. Murray:
    I have already stated that I’m using “stolen concept” in the objectivist sense provided my source for, and use of, the term, KN. From wiki:

    the act of using a concept while ignoring, contradicting or denying the validity of the concepts on which it logically and genetically depends.

    For example, there is no such thing as “moral obligation” under atheism, even though atheists use the term. Under atheism, morals are subjective proclivities, feelings, and desires. One is not “obligated” to act according to feelings and thoughts held as “subjective”.

    The concept of “moral obligation” is genetically dependent upon morality being something that can ground a behavioral obligation, which means it must be done whether one wants to or not, and whether on feels like it or not. Under atheism, it is an oxymoron.

    Two points:

    Firstly, it’s precisely this conjunction — “logically and genetically depends” — that I’m objecting to. Logical dependence is one thing, and genetic dependence is something else entirely. The former is about validity, and the latter is about origins. They are different dimensions of conceptual significance, and they can’t be conflated. But when you object that its invalid for a concept which has its origin in context to being used in another context, it’s precisely that conflation which you are committing, and that’s what I’m objecting to. In other words, the Objectivist account of concepts on which this notion depends is a mistaken account of concepts.

    Secondly, whether or not ‘obligation’ just means ‘subjective preference’ in a wholly non-theistic world-view isn’t something that can be determined a priori or by definitional fiat. If one begins by taking for granted a certain conception of what obligation must be, and then says, “but there’s nothing like that!”, then yes, I can see how the view would proceed.

    That’s precisely what I was getting at when I wrote my post a few months ago on normativity, naturalism, and nihilism. If one assumes a conception according to which norms (values, reasoning, responsibility, etc.) just cannot be naturalized, but then insists that the natural is all there is, then one will arrive at nihilism in fairly short order. But all that one has done there is left intact the assumption that the non-naturalistic conception of norms s the only one available. And that assumption seems to me to be clearly false, because of the extensive work that’s been done (and is being done, and will continue to be done) on a naturalistic conception of normativity. (Take a look at Naturalism and Normativity for a recent example.)

    So even though our central concepts of obligation or responsibility have been shaped by several hundred years of theistic accounts or conceptions of those concepts, that doesn’t matter — it doesn’t matter because (a) theistic conceptions of those concepts aren’t the only ones available and (b) conditions of genesis are not conditions of validity.

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  21. petrushka,

    Yes, that all sounds copacetic to me. The only point at which I’d disagree is that I still want to advocate for the intelligibility of the idea of “moral progress,” whereas I don’t know if “artistic progress” makes sense. So I’m inclined to be a little bit more of a cognitivist about ethics than I am about art.

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  22. I think you can talk about moral progress the same way you talk about technological progress. And for many of the same reasons.

    There is a sense in which gadgets are getting better; there is also a general sense that craftsmanship is becoming rare. Watches, for example, are more accurate, but they are not reparable.

    One could make parallel statements about some social institutions, such as marriage. Just my opinion, but I think marriages might be statistically happier than they a few hundred years ago, but they are also disposable. Often viewed as not worth fixing.

    In my cynical moments I think humans require a certain level of tension and stress, and when a source of stress is removed, we make a new one. Life is by most objective measures, healthier and safer and longer than it was two hundred years ago, but we have new moral quandaries and new ways to be unhappy about social institutions.

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  23. petrushka:
    There is a sense in which gadgets are getting better; there is also a general sense that craftsmanship is becoming rare. Watches, for example, are more accurate, but they are not reparable.

    I don’t think the word you want here is “reparable”. I think the proper word is “durable” or perhaps “refined”.

    The thing about craftsmanship is not so much that it’s reparable, but that real craftsmanship leads to quality that comes at a cost. The materials as well as the workmanship either lead to an object that lasts a long time or that is so resource intensive, that repair is actual a cost-effective option.

    However, I think in principle your point is pretty good. Marriage used to be a more costly proposition, certainly for women, but also for men, particularly men with property and reputations. It was much more cost-effective to stay in marriages then than it is now. Marriage now is much more like DVD players; getting married is relatively cheap now, but the energy cost to maintain it is significantly more (in many cases) than energy to get a new one. There is significantly less social cost to getting divorce or being married a second time than there used to be.

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  24. I don’t think the word you want here is “reparable”. I think the proper word is “durable” or perhaps “refined”.

    A truly minor and trivial point, but I stick to my original claim. A decent modern watch requires no maintenance and has an almost unlimited expected lifetime. I have several solar powered watches that can go a generation without being opened for any reason.

    But no one could repair them, at least not at any reasonable cost. At best, the case is worth installing a replacement movement.

    It’s a trend rather than an absolute fact. We make things that are in many ways better than earlier versions, but which are cheaper to replace than repair. I personally hope it’s a temporary thing.

    My main point is that definitions of goodness evolve in many spheres of life. I personally associate with very few people who think moral standards haven’t evolved. I don’t know anyone who wants to return to Leviticus.

    At the same time, the evolution of standards does not imply or guarantee improvement in all dimensions.

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  25. Fair point. I sit corrected.

    Your post got me thinking a bit. I like many finely crafted things, but these days it seems that real craftsmanship is relatively more expensive than craftsmanship items used to be, but I may be looking back with rose-colored glasses and the mist of nostalgia clouding my vision.

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  26. William,

    You still can’t come up with an answer, can you?

    William,

    The self-contradiction is in the quote that preceded my comment. It’s been pointed out to you dozens of times.

    Here’s the quote to which you are referring:

    Even if you assume there is [an Absolute Arbiter], we definitely do not have reliable access to it, which means we can never be certain of the truth of any particular thought.

    Please make it explicit. If there is a contradiction, then P and not-P must both be asserted for some P.

    What is P?

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  27. Should we endorse the Doubt? Or are there reasons for doubting the Doubt?

    Or should we doubt the Doubt of the DOUBT!?

    I have here the book Atheism and Naturalism and in it the author (Nicholas Covington) writes (in response to Plantinga):

    Natural selection would surely favor reliable and accurate memory (for obvious reasons)…

    Well, no. not obvious at all.

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