Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Risk in Sharing a World View - A Second Prelude to "My World View"

As mentioned before, I’ve had the misfortune recently to have listened to the ever-humble Don Johnson’s performance in some of his podcasts.

Humble Don and his shaved chimp sidekick (Brandon), both self-described as “evidentiary Christians”, are keen debaters of atheists, alternate theists and also incorrectly believing Christians.  Humble Don has written a book, which he occasionally refers to (read as “often refers to”), in which he tries to map out how Christians can successfully engage atheists, alternate theists and incorrectly believing Christians.

The recommended first step in a successful engagement is to ask the opponent to describe their world view.  The shaved chimp puts it like this:

“Everybody has a belief and they need to be able to make a positive case for it.”

Right, there’s a problem here.  While I’ve got no fundamental problems with describing my world view and I think it is only reasonable to establish up front what presuppositions both sides of the debate are grappling with, I do have a problem with presuppositions about my presuppositions.

I don’t have a belief in the same sense that Humble Don and the shaved chimp mean when they say “What are your beliefs?”  I’ve talked separately about my issues with the word “belief” in these sorts of debates, so I’ll just state up-front that if I am describing my world view, I am describing a world view, not (and I repeat NOT) a set of beliefs.

I remain a little wary of presenting my world view in certain contexts.  Don Johnson and his sidekick provide good reasons for this wariness.  Here’s an example.

In his podcast “Why Christianity is more reasonable and scientific than atheism”, Humble Don plays a short excerpt from Adam Savage’s speech at the Reason Rally.  Adam talks how he flew to Washington on a plane which was the result of tested and proven hypotheses, a product of reason and a direct consequence of “human capacity to make sense of the world”.  At no time during the speech does Adam mention the terms “positivism” or “scientism”.  At no time during the speech does Adam mention "David Hume".

Humble Don then speaks:

“Adam Savage describes a metaphysical world view, it’s called positivism or scientism, it’s the idea that all you can know must be measured through your five senses and perhaps mathematical equations based on those measurements. So you need to be able to empirically measure it with your five senses and you are then allowed to use mathematics to make certain conclusions based on that.  But beyond that, you can’t know anything … for certain.

“This goes way back, I’m going to give you a quote from Hume.  You know we had a guy on a few weeks ago who called himself a big Hume fanboy.  Well, Hume is a big hero to a lot of these guys.  Let me give you a little quote from Hume.  This is a presupposition that lies at the basis of this pseudo-scientific attitude.  Ah, this is what David Hume said:

“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

“So, he says when you pick up a book in the library, does it offer you quantifiable number that you can measure and, no? Then burn it.  If it’s metaphysical at all, if it deals with big questions of life that you can’t measure, burn it.  This is David Hume.

“Now, those of you who might have thought through that little paragraph, that Hume wrote there, might already realise that it is self-refuting – on it’s face That the proposition that you cannot know anything unless it can be empirically measured, or calculated via mathematics, is itself not something that can be empirically measured or calculated via mathematics.  It’s a metaphysical claim, right.  He says: ‘Burn all those metaphysics books because they’re not empirically measured!’  How did you get that, David?”  (There is chittering in the background: “Burn your own book, man!”)

“How do we know that’s true, right, how do we know that what David Hume said there is true?  You … not via empirical measurement and not via mathematics!  It’s a metaphysical claim, it’s a metaphysical claim saying that all metaphysical claims can’t be trusted.  There you have it.  And y’know … and that lies at the heart of the irrationality of this project, okay.  Adam Savage says ‘I want stuff that’s testable and provable, like the way they built that airplane … and, this is what I’m gonna build my life on … and, this is the only thing you should build your life on …'

“Hold on, hold on, hold on.  How do I know that, Adam?  How do I know that that’s the only thing you should build your life on?  How do I know that this is all that there is to reality, that … that epistemologically all we can know is stuff we can measure?  Well, we can’t know it via measuring, right?  I mean this is just taking a huge leap of irrational faith to start your project, your intellectual project, saying ‘Oh, we’re, we’re just empir(ic)ists.’  Already, you can’t prove that.”

And they continue (it's worth listening to them with a critical ear; painful, but instructive).

It should be noted that Adam Savage is not, and has never been, David Hume.  It should also be noted that Adam Savage never claimed to be a devotee of positivism or of scientism.  Nor did he make mention of David Hume, or any of David Hume's views in his speech.

David Hume may be wrong about certain things, no-one doubts that.

Adam Savage may be wrong about certain things, no-one doubts that either.

But when Adam Savage is wrong about things, he is wrong about those things entirely by virtue of his own arguments.  You can’t claim, with any sort of intellectual honesty, that person A is wrong on the grounds that you think that person X is wrong about a subject that person A didn’t even mention.

Furthermore, Humble Don’s quote from Hume is the very last paragraph of his “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” (EHU).  Earlier in the document, Hume makes clear what he means by “metaphysics”:

But this obscurity in the profound and abstract philosophy, is objected to, not only as painful and fatiguing, but as the inevitable source of uncertainty and error. Here indeed lies the justest and most plausible objection against a considerable part of metaphysics, that they are not properly a science; but arise either from the fruitless efforts of human vanity, which would penetrate into subjects utterly inaccessible to the understanding, or from the craft of popular superstitions, which, being unable to defend themselves on fair ground, raise these intangling brambles to cover and protect their weakness. Chaced from the open country, these robbers fly into the forest, and lie in wait to break in upon every unguarded avenue of the mind, and overwhelm it with religious fears and prejudices. The stoutest antagonist, if he remit his watch a moment, is oppressed. And many, through cowardice and folly, open the gates to the enemies, and willingly receive them with reverence and submission, as their legal sovereigns.  (EHU 6)

It was a specific type of “metaphysics” that Hume, some 240 years ago, was railing against.  He was not railing against a more modern philosophical definition of metaphysics”, per Wikipedia:

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined.

In any event, Hume was not making a metaphysical claim; he was making an epistemological claim.  Humble Don accidentally confirms that he knows this is the case when he says “How do I know that this is all that there is to reality, that … that epistemologically all we can know is stuff we can measure?”  Epistemology is the philosophical field concerned with knowledge, what can we know?

Humble Don, who likes to claim that he uses his terms carefully, should not be using the term “metaphysical” at all, since it is unclear whether he means the term in its supernatural (beyond nature) sense.  He should be using either “epistemological”, as would have been correct here, or “ontological”, referring to the nature of being, existence or reality (“ontology” can be considered a part of classical metaphysics, the other parts being “natural theology” and “universal science”).

So, why does Humble Don use metaphysical?  If I were to make the generous assumption that he doesn’t do it deliberately to sow confusion, I would say it is because he’s a bit of an Aquinas fanboy.

According to Aquinas “something can exist separate from matter and motion ... because by its nature it does not exist in matter and motion; but it can exist without them, though we sometimes find it with them” and it is this something that is separate from matter that is the subject matter of metaphysics.  Therefore, things you cannot see or touch, or sense in some way, are sometimes – in the Thomistic sense – metaphysical.

But … and this is a big but … Aquinas in not just talking about something that “can exist separate from matter and motion”, but goes further to clarify that he is talking about something that “can exist without (matter and motion)”.

Ideas, such as being presented by Hume and Savage, satisfy the requirement stated in the first part of the description, if you twist your thinking enough.  However, ideas exist in physical brains which are composed of matter, they do not exist separate from matter and motion – unless you make a huge, unjustified assumption that the mind and body are separate.

Sorry boys, that’s a big embarrassing fail on your part.  Your straw man failed.  Your (ab)use of philosophical terms failed.  Your quote from Hume failed.  If you did indeed attempt to rely on Aquinas then that failed too.

Anyways, despite my misgivings that some idiot(s) might take my world view, misrepresent it, then compare it unfavourably to a misrepresentation of somebody else’s world view which, in reality, only obliquely resembles mine … I’m going to present that world view.

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