When it comes to matters of size and age, especially that of the immensity of the universe, never put too much faith in your own intuitions, too much stock in your own incredulity. Trying to fit the universe into a human sense of scale will almost always come up short of reality.
We humans begin life with a distorted sense of scale, as we are not intuitively talented to handle the world of the very large nor that the very small, the world of galaxy clusters down to the world of quarks. For those, we are better served by the tools of mathematics, of Einsteinian Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.
No, we are much more suited to the middle-realm of everyday existence, that readily accessible on a planetary surface to our immediate reach and perception. We have only within the last few centuries extended that to a much wider breadth than the tens of thousands of years of our (pre-)history prior.
This is only anecdotal, but when I was a kid just newly resident in my home city, my sense of scale, of distance, was seriously inaccurate. The world seemed enormously larger than it does now, and has correspondingly shrunk as I’ve aged: It at first seemed an adventure just to travel downtown to the toy store.
Going up north for the holidays seemed an unthinkable journey, almost too far away to contemplate, though as an adult, I can at least “contemplate the depths of interstellar space…” as neuroscientist VS Ramachandran has put it, even if I cannot literally visualize it with my mind’s eye.
My intuitions of scale, of time, and of…things…are less prone to fooling me now than then. I now know to watch out for occasional muck-ups, since the universe is often reluctant to conform to them.
The universe doesn’t give a crap what I can immediately imagine, understand, or believe. It is what it is.
My intuitions, expectations, and incredulity can still fool me if I let them. But I’m better than I was about seven years ago when I had the nebulous idea that some arguments were better than others. Then, I had no real understanding of logical fallacies or the psychology of belief, two things in particular I’m still an amateur about.
But through these years sevenfold and onward, I’m a bit more skilled an amateur than I was.
One of the most famous questions in logic is the Problem of Induction, the difficulty of ultimately justifying the use of inductive reasoning in the sciences, the problem being how to logically validate the conclusions we draw from it.
The main criticism is that induction invokes the uniformity of nature, and this can only be justified inductively, and in so doing, we are arguing in a circle.
First, deduction itself is also, to a degree, circular. All of formal and symbolic logic is question-begging, and this is because of the very thing that also makes it truth-preserving — whatever truth you start with will automatically follow in full to the conclusion, provided the form or meaning of the argument is valid.
This makes it impossible for a deductive conclusion to be false with solid reasoning and true premises, but it also limits it in that the conclusion cannot go beyond what the premises assume or state. It can highlight or rearrange data already in the premises, but cannot tell us anything that is not already there at least implicitly.
Seeking deduction to discover the undiscovered without data is a mistake, for formal reasoning isn’t designed to work like that. It is a misapplication of an otherwise useful and powerful tool.
This is why the unaided reason has consistently failed in the history of attempts to prove the existence of various gods to those not already convinced of this.
To discover truth, reason needs data. And it needs to admit error. We need reason and experience working as one. I do not think it overbold to say that this is how we get the vast bulk of our knowledge of the world.
But we do not know reality as it is, but through the contributions we bring to our observations via our prior beliefs, our biases, heuristics, expectations — our often flawed interpretations of reality created by our brains and central nervous systems.
That’s the reason induction is so widely used in the sciences; it can tell us new and wholly unexpected things, which deduction cannot. It can go beyond the premises, letting us chart new worlds of understanding.
Induction renders conclusions that follow probably, according to the data and the reliability of the chain of argument we use. Induction thus isn’t deductively certain because it doesn’t need to be. That’s not what it’s intended for.
There are other ways alleged to be alternative, even superior to scientific reasoning and methods in general. These include religious faith, intuition, revelation, inspiration, mystical experience, and authority to note a few.
To invoke these is to imply that conclusions arrived at by any one of them are more reliable for understanding things as they really, really are, and therefore more accurate than other means.
We can then ask the questions,
“By what criterion is this way of knowing better, more reliable, and in what way superior to method ‘X’?”
“What ultimate grounding does THIS method have that makes it more effective in gathering knowledge? How can we correctly say we KNOW it is better?”
If ANY one way of obtaining knowledge needs ultimate grounding, then they ALL do, even your personal favorites.
But maybe none of them actually do. Maybe some are just better than others when they ALL have limits.
Yes, there’s a Problem of Intuition, a Problem of Revelation, a Problem of Authority, a Problem of Faith, in fact, one for every way of knowing that one can bring to mind. All are limited, often severely so on matters of objective fact.
If you say that one way of knowing is superior to another, you are implying in the strongest sense that it is more objective, more likely to lead to knowledge than a competing method, more “truthy” in its factual content.
There’s no way to get around that, even if you openly deny the value of objectivity.
The history of human knowledge, in those areas where progress has been made, shows that the most reliable way to see if an idea works, and reliably answers our questions, is to test that idea or an implication of it against experience, and see how that matches with our expectations or not.
To try it out and see if it works as hoped.
Intuition, revelation, mystical experience, and a variety of other attempts at obtaining knowledge all have one problem. None of these alternates to rational empiricism has any way of showing its own errors, and so steering the one using it nearer to the truth.
You have no way of getting at the truth if you cannot tell if something is false.
Instead, with most of these, there is often only the subjective feeling of certainty, and as someone who has intuitive experiences frequently, I’ve learned — from experience — to not trust my feelings of subjective certainty.
It’s best to test my impressions out before giving them too much weight.
Alleged alternative ways of knowing may indeed be free from doubt, but that doesn’t make them free from error.
For each claim by an alleged authority, there is a counter-authority who says differently; every intuition has its rival somewhere, somewhen, in someone’s mind; and every revelatory experience is often mutually inconsistent with the revelations of others; every faith-claim in one religion contradicts those in another.
Without falling back on empirically testing our claims, experiences and impressions, there doesn’t seem to be any real way around the problem of justifying our claims of fact save through science.
I submit that there is no ultimate grounding in first principles for any way of knowing, but that it is also doesn’t matter.
It simply will not do to require ultimate grounding for rival means of gaining knowledge while ignoring the lack of the same for one’s own. It’s fallacious, and an illegitimate presumption to demand it when one’s own means fail the same criteria.
That won’t even get into orbit, much less onto the launchpad.
This is why I don’t need a leap of faith to accept science. It’s why I’m suspicious of my own subjective impressions. It is why I am wary of my flashes of insight. It is why I’m skeptical of authority.
But I can see for myself that science works, even when it makes and admits mistakes. Hell, because of that, time and means being available for me to look.
Many arguments we make in daily life are incompletely stated, or less than completely certain, in structured debates and in informal discussions.
Some such arguments are called Enthymemes, arguments in which one of the premises, or the conclusion, is left omitted but implied and needed for the argument to follow.
Why leave these out?
It depends on the situation, and upon the shared understanding of those involved in the discussion.
Generally, one part of an argument may be left out because it is assumed by both and doesn’t need to be stated, though these parts will need to be teased out by a third-party analyst of the argument to determine fully what is being argued.
This can be an intellectually honest form of argument, as follows with a few examples.
I’m using standard form deductive syllogisms, or conditionally certain three-part arguments with two premises and a conclusion, for ease of presentation here. First below is a 1st order, or unstated major premise, argument:
- The Magnus is a mutant.
- So the Magnus is radioactive.
With the major premise being:
- All mutants are radioactive.
This next has a hidden minor premise, or 2nd order enthymeme.
- Not giving the proper homage to the Nine Who are One will endanger all our lives.
- So we should not fail to give proper homage to the Nine.
With the hidden premise given as:
- The Nine would wish us to do that which preserves our lives.
Finally, we have one in which the conclusion is left unstated, of the 3rd order:
- We must eliminate all freakishly powerful dangers.
- The Mirus is a freakishly powerful danger.
It’s not hard to see where this one will go… The conclusion, though unstated, should be obvious.
In some situations where one of the arguers is less than intellectually honest, and when the assumptions are NOT shared, or should be fully expressed, an argument of this sort may be used to confuse matters — as a rhetorical fallacy — as a tactic that obscures the meaning of an argument and makes misdirection and confusion easy.
This happens when the aim intended is thwarting the goal of honest critical discussion. I’ll provide an example of this as a fallacy, this one from a hypothetical creationism/evolution debate in which the major premise is obscured:
- No fossil meeting my (unattainable) criterion as transitional has ever been found,
- So there are no transitional fossils, so evolution is false.
But here is the missing major premise, NOT shared or expressed — but assumed by the creationist:
- To count as transitional, a fossil must be an impossible, half-formed monstrosity combining unlikely features of dissimilar species or ‘kinds,’ like a lizard/bird hybrid with incomplete, useless wings… (or a crocoduck)
‘Enthymeme’ is also used to refer to Maxims, or probabilistic arguments, such as those used in inductive reasoning or in informal argumentation where language is bound up with an argument’s content, and the conclusion follows from the premises more or less strongly, but debatably depending on the audience.
One such maxim may be “Present-day Continental philosophy is not credible,” which could elicit different responses and have differing levels of credibility depending on the philosophical schools of those involved.
As can be seen, some of the very same sort of statements used in ordinary argumentation can be fallacies, and indeed, when informal, their fallaciousness depends on their misuse as argument strategies, not so much the the structure of the argument — violations of procedure rather than logical form.
Many fallacies are not always such, but even otherwise good arguments, when they are put to that use, are pure argumentative poison.
- Philosophical Fallacies in Political Reasoning (kingsofdeceit.wordpress.com)
- Asserting and Arguing (maverickphilosopher.typepad.com)
- The Schadenfreude Objection to John Stuart Mill (ajrogersphilosophy.wordpress.com)
- On Argument and Why Men Should Never Show Their Legs in Public (louisrose.com)
- A Common Fallacy In Global Warming Arguments (wmbriggs.com)
- Composition: Formal or Informal Fallacy? (maverickphilosopher.typepad.com)
- Aristotle’s Three Musketeers: ethos, logos, pathos (justwriteonline.typepad.com)
- An Interview with Don McLeroy, Part IV (theness.com)
- on the reality of sherlock holmes etc (3ammagazine.com)
The title of this post comes from an autobiography by Isaac Asimov published posthumously by his widow, Janet, and brings up a topic I’ve written on very little before: My accident in 2007, about a year before I started blogging.
I was struck by a vehicle while at a crosswalk on my way to a nearby bus stop, planning to do some writing when I got home, though the collision and its several month-long period of recovery weren’t the important part — it was the change in my thinking up until then.
It was, to my perception at the time, a close brush with death — I was pretty messed-up by the accident, though after the stitches for the head injuries, the major damage was a broken arm and fractured hip, both now healed with time and physical therapy.
During my recovery, especially the first ten days of bedrest, I thought long and deeply about life and what it meant — and not once did those thoughts involve a return to anything resembling religious faith.
As I lay on the gurney in the ambulance, on the way to the hospital only moments after being struck, I was aware that this could be it, that this could be my end. But fear of death wasn’t involved — I was angry.
I was angry at this inconvenience that would set my writing project back months, angry at my not seeing the car before it struck me, and concerned about how this would affect my family.
If this was what it is like to die, then it wasn’t so bad. I just sat back and relaxed, and let the paramedics do their job. I might come out of this, I thought, or I might not. Either seemed perfectly acceptable at the time.
My several-hour stay at the hospital was touch and go, but I survived. And over the next few days I came to this:
Life’s been more than fair to me, much more, I think, than to many others who never had the fullness of existence I’ve had.
After my accident, it’s not that I fear dying anymore, though it would be a great inconvenience. There’s a lot I would like to do first, projects to complete. It would be irritating, but not frightening, to die sooner.
I don’t fear dying because I’ve no reason to believe in an afterlife, neither hoping for reward in paradise nor fearing perdition in an imagined (and as far as I’ve reason to think, imaginary) eternal torture chamber.
But even then, life has been very good to me, and I think it has a lot going for it. There is much good to be done, much to accomplish, and life is precious, made more so with my relinquishing any belief in reward or punishment to come after.
To repeat the title, it’s been a good life, and I thank all those I’ve known, friends and family, online and real-time, past and present, for making it so.
But when I’m gone, that’s it. Lights out. No more me. Anywhere.
When I’m gone, the energy content stored up in my body’s molecules will go back to their source, returning to the Earth and the Cosmos whence they came.
Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but that doesn’t imply anything spiritual, not in a supernatural sense.
But it’s cool that the atoms I’m made of, which cycle in and then out of my body even now, have almost an immortality of a sort, and will eventually find their way into the bodies of new life arising long after my death. And you know what?
I think that’s kind of neat.
The above was something I’d posted to Facebook earlier today, though in plain text, on the wonder felt even — no, better — especially by religious nonbelievers toward our connection to the universe, not the trivial sorts promised by mysticism or supernaturalism, but our actual, deeper connection and our awareness of it.
This feeling of the sublime I think is something that anyone who’s seen the night sky, or beheld a waterfall, seen the Earth from orbit, or better still, seen it from the orbit of another planet in our solar system though a spaceprobe’s camera, can relate to.
There’s the serious misconception (I think it’s myopic) that reality is dull, lifeless, drab, uninteresting, and that another world, an ideal perfect world beyond this one, is far better and much to be preferred over this life, this ‘vale of tears.’
I understand this, but I also think it’s wasteful and shameful — reality has both beauty and horror, not one or the other — and the phrase “none are so blind as those who will not see” applies just as easily to dogmatic belief as dogmatic denial, and many times in the same individuals.
The desire to believe fantasy as truth, to denigrate the real, and to spead this desire and denigration to others by indoctrinating the young and vulnerable, is one of the greatest — if you’ll excuse my use of the word — sins — against the human mind, crippling its ability to appreciate what actually is over what never was nor likely will be.
Supernaturalism promises wonders, but it only promises them — there is no instance it it ever having fulfilled that promise — and I think it would take better evidence than someone’s favored holy book to show otherwise.
In the entire recorded history of our species, brief flash of time though that’s been, no mystery that has ever been adequately looked into and explained has ever been shown to have an occult or supernatural cause, and the cases that haven’t been explained are just that — only unexplained, and only through a lack of data — not vindication of anyone’s pet doctrine.
Supernaturalism poisons the mind, and dulls the imagination, starving it of and blinding it to the real wonders and feeling of awe that comes from understanding of what is, supplanting these with unrealistic and unreasonable expectations of centrality to the universe, imposing on us a false sense of purpose and meaning rather than letting us find our own, endangering our personal integrity and intellectual honesty in uncritically accepting tales told originally by those ancients whose knowledge and understanding of the world pales before our own in the modern era.
To be frank, even with what little I’ve learned about the worlds discovered through science and philosophy, I find reality far more interesting and preferrable to believing the evidently unreal. As a former religionist, I’ve thrown off the chains of doctrine and dogma, freed my mind from its demons — and its gods — and my only regret is not having done it before I did.
I’ve no reason to believe in anyone’s god, least of all the one I walked with as a child and now without as a man, no idols, no gods, no devils, no celestial saviors nor tyrants, no myths except those I may free myself of whenever they are brought to my notice.
It seems so strange now, having been so focused on an imagined hereafter that both the awesomeness and terror of the world around me seemed dull and distant, but now seems so sharp and clear.
I’m not a scientist, not yet, but from what I see now, reality, however it turns out to be, is far preferrable, far stranger and for more interesting that anything any human mind can imagine.
Even mine….especially mine.
And to me, the unending search for truth is far more important than the supposed guardianship of it by those absolutely convinced they’ve already found it in millennia-old books or the claimed revelations of bronze-age hermits.
No one owns a sense of the numinous, no matter their belief or conviction. Appreciation of the truly wondrous can happen to anyone, and belongs to us all as a species.