Saturday, July 02, 2005

What do you do about skeptics?

This is in response to the Carrier post that precedes it. Back in graduate school, the reigning idea was that the problem of skepticism was overrated and that the enterprise of refuting the skeptic was pretty much misguided. At least that was the prevailing attitude of the "naturalistic epistemology" that was popular at that time. My epistemology teacher, Fred Schmitt, used to like to refer to foundationalism and skepticism as "The Bobbsey Twins," that foundationalism attempts to provide a response to skepticism and so takes skepticism seriously in a way that perhaps it should not. I think there are three strategies in response to the threat of skepticism. The problem of skepticism arises classically by 1) the discovery that knowledge requires justified belief 2) attempting to justify beliefs by arguments, 3)noticing that arguments themselves have premises that have to be justified and 4) realizing that you need justification for the justification, and then justification for the justification for the justification, and then justification for the justification for the justification for the justification... and I'm going to disappoint Fred for wimping out here, but I think you get my drift.

It was Descartes, with what I have been calling the Satan Test, who wanted to put all beliefs up to the severest possible tests to see if any of them were justified. But even if, as I have argued he succeed with the existence of a self that thinks, in order to avoid a pretty severe skepticism he had to dumb down the Satan Test. At least that's how I see it.

Descartes' Evil Demon has been replaced by the modern Brain in the Vat, but the problem remains the same. How do we refute the skeptic about, say, rational inference? So long as I feel required, for the sake of my epistemic life, to refute the claim that we are brains in vats, it looks awfully difficult to answer the person who asks me to prove that I am not a brain in a vat. And no, theism won't do the trick here. That's why I do not recommend attacking naturalism on the grounds that we theists can refute the skeptic but the atheist cannot. That's what I call a skeptical threat argument. Whatever I appeal to as my justification for why I am not a brain in a vat, the skeptic is going to attribute to the masterful neuroscientific understanding of the vatkeepers.

It seems to me that two strategies are effective in responding to the skeptic. One is outright dismissal, and the straightforward denial that we need to refute the skeptic. The burden of proof should not be on me for denying that we are brains in vats, the burden should be on the skeptic to prove that we are brains in vats.

But secondly, it can be pointed out that the skeptic's position is self-refuting. If someone says that there are no rational inferences, it doesn't bother me much as a mere statement, but if the skeptic is trying to argue for it, then the skeptic is contradicting himself. Moreover, as Hilary Rodham Putnam pointed out, on a plausible causal theory of reference, the words in the statement "We are brains in vats" are meaningful in virtue of the causal relations between the words and their objects, in other words, if the words "brains" and "vats" stand in an ordinary causal relationship to brains and vats. If they don't, which would have to be true if we WERE brains in vats, then the words don't mean anything. In other words, the BIV hypothesis is meaningful only if it is false.

Now it seems to me that both of these strategies is available to the advocate of AFR. The attempt to argue empirically against the skeptic, which Carrier thinks is somehow undermined by accepting AFR, seems to have serious problems as a strategy against the skeptic anyway, since whatever empricial evidence is provided can be explained in terms of the omnipotent power of either the evil demon or the vatkeepers, depending of what mythos you are using to get the skeptical argument going.

25 comments:

Steven Carr said...

The theistic position is that there really are supernatural powers capable of attacking and deceiving our senses and reason, and that they are highly motivated to do so.

It is prima facie plausible on theism that people really are deceived (2 Thess. 2 springs to mind)

At least naturalists don't have this burden to overcome.

Ahab said...

Couldn't a person who believed we are 'just brains in a vat' also believe in rational inferences?
And aren't there some theists who basically deny rational inferences? (I'm thinking of those theists with a very strong mystical and anti-intellectual outlook.)

Victor Reppert said...

Of course some theists (not all!) believe that there are powerful beings whose goal it is to deceive us but presumably the most powerful being of all, by and large, wants us to know the truth. And Satan's deceptions seem primarily to be concerned with spiritual deceptions rather than deceptions about, say, whether there is a pen in my hand. Descartes presented proofs of the existence of God and then argued that since God is the greatest conceivable being he is not a deceiver, and therefore would not allow Satan to deceive him about the existence of the physical world.

A person might believe that we are brains in vats and also believe that we make rational inferences, but on the BIV view, we will perform exactly and only those inferences that the vatkeepers want for us to perform.

Some Christians may be fideists about how we come to belief in God, but I don't think even Kierkegaard (as popularly portrayed; I think the real Kierkegaard is not the fideist he's cracked up to be) would say that no one makes rational inferences about, say, whether to cross the street on green or on red.

HV said...

The demons of one's own ego are highly motivated to delude one's reason, but perhaps naturalists don't have egos. Not having egos would perhaps explain why some naturalists seem not to believe in sin, so that would be another burden they don't have to overcome. Perhaps these folks would make excellent psychoanalysts for such benighted mystical souls such as Parmenides, Plato, Plotinus, Aquinas, Rumi, St. Francis, Juan de la Cruz and their ilk. Then again, wasn't it the mystical Parmenides who invented rational inferences?

Henry Verheggen

Ahab said...

Well, Henry, I do agree with one of your points: as an atheistic naturalist I don't believe in sin. But I'm taking the esssential meaning of that term to be an offense against god. Wouldn't it be irrational of me to believe in sin (in that sense) if I don't believe in god?

Steven Carr said...

Does God want us to know the truth?

2 Thess. 2 '11For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.'

And somebody appears to be deceiving us about things like neutrinos, which our senses cannot detect.

There are lots of apsects of physical reality that our senses do not detect. How can this be compatible with a God who has designed our senses to detect physical reality?

Do naturalists have egos? Are egos , as posited by the naturalist Freud, material things?

And aren't we controlling the vat keepers and not the other way around?

If Victor wants to write something with the pen he thinks in his hand, then the vat keeper is forced to manufacture all the effects that Victor expects from his knowledge of the physical 'laws' of the vat.

The vat keeper creates and sustains the laws of reality that the brain in the vat sees, so that the brain in the vat concludes that he is living in a rational universe, rather than one where manufactured laws are sustained second by second by a being rather than created by the physical nature of his surroundings.

Perhaps a bit like the way God creates and sustains the laws of reality that Victor's soul in a world sees, so that his soul concludes that he is living in a rational universe , rather than one where manufactured laws are sustained second by second by a being rather than created by the physical nature of his surroundings.

Victor Reppert said...

In the world of the vatkeepers, there is the truth about what the vatkeepers perceive and understand which is completely distinct from what the brains think are going on. (The vatkeepers are in a laboratory, etc.) You don't have that in a universe controlled by God.

I think the delusions in 2 Thess. have to do with spiritual confusion rather false beliefs about tables and chairs.

Ahab said...

And how do you know that the truth about what God perceives and understands isn't completely distinct from what 'the brains in the skulls' here on earth think are going on?

The relationship of the brains-in-vats to the vatkeepers is quite analogous to the brains-in-skulls to God.

Steven Carr said...

Ahab has a point.

The 'brains in a vat' do not know they are brains in a vat (Of course, they think they have brains, as they are supposedly us), and the 'souls in a world' are unaware that they are souls (even if some suspect it).

And the souls in the world are unable to sense huge amounts of reality , such as the angels and demons which exist.


Let alone large amounts of physical reality, such as dark matter, hidden dimensions, charm, flavour etc, which we are unable to sense.

More to the point of the analogy, both the brains in the vat, and the souis in a world, are unware that the laws that they see are being manufacured second by second by a being.

Ahab said...

If our natural laws are being maintained by this supernatural being, how can we be sure that he won't change them on a whim? There is no way to ascertain that he wouldn't be capable of such whimsical behavior, is there?
How can we be confident that knowledge or reason is reliable in a universe maintained by a being who is in principle free from empirical examination?

Edward T. Babinski said...

Not having discovered all that can be known about every last brain-related manifestation of nature, I am not prepared to say with any degree of confidence what nature can or can't do, or be, when it comes to the bain/mind question.

Can you look at a single atom (or a single atomic or sub-atomic signature of energy), and tell me whether that single atom (or single energy signature) was found inside the sun, or inside a rock, or in a river, or in a plant, or in a human brain?

By looking at merely a single atom (or a single atomic, or sub-atomic, energy signature)can you guess the full range of functions that mixtures of different atoms could accomplish? No? Then read on.

Unless you study more than just a single atom, like the molecules and the whole organism and its environment, you cannot even begin to guess what individual atoms or atomic energy signatures are capable of.

If you only studied a single ant, could you predict how entire colonies of ants interacted together as a communal mind functioning to protect and harvest and build and feed and reproduce and keep the whole community alive?

If you studied only the Broca region of the early primate brain (whose presence was verified in chimps our closest common ancestor), and you were an alien from another dimension looking at early primates evolving on earth over periods of millions of years, what could prepare you for the later development that the Broca region of the early primate brain (that formerly controlled facial and neck muscles and some communication signals), would change via biological evolution (and via a history of growing shared human knowledge) into the speech region of the brain of homo sapiens, nay of a Shakespeare?

If you rubbed two wooden sticks together in a low oxygen atmosphere, until the sticks each were glowing splints, and then you slowly increased the amount of oxygen until the glowing splints suddenly burst into flame (the oxygen catalyzing a wholly new form of far quicker reaction), you could not predict that such a reaction might take place, not from simply studying glowing splints in the absence of oxygen.

Hence, we don't know nature in all of its forms and unique conjunctions, there are surprises yet to be uncovered, discovered. We only recently discovered a new form of matter, plasma. And yet, philosophers are going to tell us exactly what nature is in relation to the brain/mind question, and what nature in that case can and cannot do?

You keep dragging up rational inference, as if being able to tell whether or not to "stop or go" at a red light is something supernaturally and dualistically inferred. If so, then what tells an amoeba that edible prey is near and to advance toward it and capture it? Rational inference? A tiny neuron-less little amoeba can detect, chase and corner prey. Not take the amazing abilities of such a single celled critter and consider that the human brain consists of about a trillion neuronal cells with a variety of super fast electro-chemical neuro-transmitter chemicals, and over a hundred trillion different individual connecting fibers making an inconceivable number of possible neuronal pathways. Knowng what a single amoeba (that doesn't even have the specializes properties of neuronal cells) is capable of, and the amoeba's ability to "infer," then what might three whole pounds of neurons be capable of? Can you really tell me you know that the functioning and inference-drawing abilities of three pounds of such neurons can't be "natural?"

It seems to me like C. S. Lewis's and your argument rests on what one might call a fallacy of definition. You have simply assumed that "atoms and energies" in ALL of their forms (including those form related most to the brain/mind question), must ADD UP to whatever you say they must add up to--in your case, something "insufficient" to be able to make "rational inferences" without the aid of "supernatural substance dualism."

I say with the Churchward's, let science continue to study the nature of brains/minds in all of the varieties of species including man, before concluding that nature somehow "contradicts" itself. Your definition of "nature" suits only your argument at present, rather than you having proved that it suits "nature" itself in ALL of its forms.

It appears to be your assumption that the nature of individual atoms MUST in every arrangement ONLY colorless, odorless, identical or extremely near identical objects. Starting with THAT premise, the entire colorful and diverse world of suns, planets, water, nature, color, sights, sounds, shouldn't exist. But it does. There's the surprise that your argument does not take into account.

For your argument to be consistent, atoms in fact shouldn't be affected by higher configurations. But they are. A single atom is moved about by the configuration of the molecule of which that atom is a part, and that molecule is moved around by reactive patterns of molecules, and those molecules fit into increasingly wider systems like whole organ systems. Finally, the organism's needs as a whole lead it to seek food and or shelter.

Likewise, in the brain, atomic and electro-chemical forces are outclassed by higher configurational properties, and the brain is itself a tiny mirror-sized universe with its own regularities patterns and interactions of thought at its highest levels, incorporating things like memories, feelings, learned knowledge. Apparently one thought leads to another in the brain, just as one feeling may also flow into another. Come to think of it, one organism leads to another in the realm of reproduction, and both reproduction and tails of thoughts, require more than just a single atom to accomplish.

As for any argument from reason being the basis of proving a divine reasoner, that is equally as incapable of being proved as the argument that the existence of atoms proves a divine pantheistic atom.

Such arguments appear futile when it comes to one philosopher convincing another. The existence of art proves a divine artist? The existence of poo proves a divine pooer. One does not clear up mysteries by enjoining other more extensive mysteries and taking "divine" onto the end of them. (C. S. Lewis spoke of "Divine illumination/reason.")

Let me put it this way, instead of arguing over whether one must become a theist or skeptic, try simply becoming a thinker and learn to live with the questions, mystery and wonder.

Ahab said...

Say, Edward, that was a great post. Thanks for expressing many of my own thoughts, but in a much clearer and concise manner than I am capable of.

Victor Reppert said...

I think there is some confusion here. I was not talking about how to respond to religious skeptics; that is, people who doubt God's existence. I was talking about how you answer people who deny the reality of knowledge, who would say that we do not know anything about God, and do not know anything about neuroscience either. Carrier uses the term Pyrrhonian skeptics to describe these people. What Carrier had argued was that my book did not provide a way to refute this kind of skepticism, and that as a naturalist he might be better placed to respond to this kind of skepticism than I am as a theist committed to the AFR. I argued that this was not correct, on the grounds that the really effective responses to Pyrrhonian skepticism, either the dismissive response or the self-refutation response, were responses that a theist could use just as well as a naturalist. I am presenting a version of the argument from reason in any form in this response to Carrier; and I make it as clear as I could make it in my book that I do not defend the any version of the AFR by claiming that we theists have a better response to skepticism than naturalists do. In fact, I have expressed some reservations about the formulation of Plantinga's arguments against naturalism for precisely this reason.

So I think these comments may have some merit as a response to the AFR in general, but they do not have much to do with the argument of this post.

Victor Reppert said...

Ahab, how do you know that the laws of nature won't change naturally for no reason? I say it is against the character of God to do that (or at least not on a whim), since God in my understanding is not whimsical. You have confidence in the nature of the universe that the laws of nature will not change. What is the difference?

Ahab said...

We can use empirical methods to learn about the laws of nature. As far as I am aware, there is no observational data to indicate that 'natural laws change for no reason.' Of course that is not absolute proof that they couldn't change for no reason. Nonetheless, I think my confidence is reasonable given the testable observations we have been able to make so far.

Again, God is in principle free from empirical examination. What have you to base your understanding on that He is not whimsical or couldn't become so in the future?

Victor Reppert said...

But Ahab, you are presupposing that the future will resemble the past. And Hume demonstrated that that principle can't be proved by empirical evidence without assuming its truth. So am I; on the assumption that God rules the universe, we can tell that God hasn't messed with the laws of the universe whimsically in the past. We also have our beliefs concerning the character of God. So I don't think the naturalist is any better off than the theist in responding to this kind of skepticism, which might well be dismissed anyway. (See the dismissive response above.)

Ahab said...

And how can you tell that God hasn't messed with the laws of the universe whimsically in the past?

P.S. I am well aware of Hume's demonstration. He has much to teach us about induction and free will and many other things. I rate him pretty highly among philosophers I admire.

Steven Carr said...

If we are brains in a vat, then the vatkeepers have not been whimsical in the past.

And , to indulge in ad hominems, surely Christian eschatology means that the future will not be like the past. There will be a new creation, with new laws.

And many Christians say that we can know nothing of God's purposes. He allows evil for some mysterious purpose of his own.

It may be an evil if the laws of nature changed tomorrow, but God allows evils.

Victor Reppert said...

God's character, as I understand God, is not such as to mess with the laws of the universe with out a good reason. I take it the Second Coming and the creation of a New Jerusalem is a good reason.

The idea that we can know nothing about God's purposes is to effectively be an atheist, or at least an agnostic. As wrote in my first published paper, "Miracles and the Case for Theism," seeing through a glass darkly is not the same as being totally blind.

How do you know the universe hasn't changed its laws at some time in the past? You have no reason to believe that is has changed. Neither do I.

Ahab said...

Victor wrote:
God's character, as I understand God, is not such as to mess with the laws of the universe with out a good reason. I take it the Second Coming and the creation of a New Jerusalem is a good reason.


Such understanding is based on faith. As your reliance on specific Christian doctrines indicates.

The idea that we can know nothing about God's purposes is to effectively be an atheist, or at least an agnostic. As wrote in my first published paper, "Miracles and the Case for Theism," seeing through a glass darkly is not the same as being totally blind.

Isn't that the reason for faith, Victor? That is the only way you can have any 'knowledge' of God's purposes: through faith.
God is incapable of empirical investigation. How could I or you possibly have any claim to knowledge about Him except through faith?

How do you know the universe hasn't changed its laws at some time in the past? You have no reason to believe that is has changed. Neither do I.

Through empirical observations. I know, I still have that same old problem with induction. But you not only have that problem, but also the one of how to demonstrate that there is any connection between those observations and the nature of God. Do disasters in this world mean that God has an evil nature? Do good deeds done by humans mean that God's nature is good? How do you correlate the happenings in this universe with the nature of God?

And I'll rephrase my original question: how do you know that God is not capable of creating a world such as ours in order to conceal the fact that He is in reality a whimsical being?

Victor Reppert said...

Because the term "God," as I use it, is a term that identifies an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being. If "God" were massively deceiving us for fun, it would follow that God in the classical sense does not exist.

Steven Carr said...

And what is the evidence that your god does exist? (the one who withholds from us empirical evidence of our true nature as souls-in-brains)

Surely such a being is little different from a vat-keeper who withholds empirical evidence from us of our true nature as brains-in-vats?

Ahab said...

I don't see an answer to may question, Victor.
I've told you how one can know about the nature of the world we live in: through the accumulation and testing of observed data. That form of emiprical knowledge is not available to you when it comes to supernatural entities like God.
So how do you know that the God who actually exists is the classical God or a whimsical God who for the time being simply wishes to fool people into thinking He is not whimsical?

Victor Reppert said...

You guys are barking up the wrong tree. The proper response to a skeptic is to throw the burden of proof back in the skeptic's face. If you take on the burden of proving that skepticism is false, then you will invariably lose, because the skeptic can always ask one more question than you can answer. That can be done by an atheist or a theist. That's why I specifically unrecommend using versions of the AFR that attempt to show that the theist can refute the skeptic but the atheist cannot. I don't think the skeptic can be refuted, except by pointing out that if skepticism is true, then the very process of asserting and defending skepticism is not what the skeptic has to presume that it is. (Hilary Putnam-Reason, Truth and History).

As a theist, all I need to do is show that it is consistent with theism that I have true beliefs, or rather, rebut attempts to show that it is inconcistent with theism. No one has proved to me that knowledge is inconsistent with theism, so this is not a real problem.

Carrier mentions Pyrrhonian skepticism, but he really de-emphasizes it in his discussion; or most fundamental disagreements concern other matters.

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