Saturday, October 17, 2009

Arguing on the Internet: A public response to a public challenge.

cl over at the warfare is mental recently issued a public challenge. I, uh, replied, and then he replied back, and then it got a little long so I figured I'd at least put the big main part on my own soapbox. For some rather more immediate background, I said, "If the King of the Universe decided to try to trick me into thinking he doesn't exist, then I quit." cl replied, "I don't believe that our lack of God's manifest presence entails God trying to trick us." But... that doesn't quite address my issue. It's not just that there's no super-obvious manifest presence of God, it's that there seems to be no way at all we can check for God's existence that doesn't amount to us merely deciding to believe it anyway. And wouldn't you know it, but the same would seem to be true of unicorns and Mother Goose.

cl, I'm not at all interested in suspending my disbelief doubt, just as you're obviously not interested in suspending your own central tenet of whatever holds your own worldview together. For me, it's doubt: doubt is how I understand the universe, doubt is how I come to science, doubt is how I go about forming my beliefs. I echo Descartes, "de omnibus dubitandum." I'm just saying, any scientific idea I believe, I would relish the opportunity to prove to your satisfaction that I am right, should you call bullshit. I should hope that you, too, would enjoy demonstrating in some manner why I ought to believe this or that thing you propose to me? I mean, in the marketplace of ideas at large, this is why I'm not interested in stuff I can't check out: I can't think of a way to tell it from total nonsense. If you think you have a good idea, then please show me why it's a good idea, because I very much want to collect good ideas! (While at the same time keeping nonsense out of my collection.) What exactly is just plain awesome, either epistemologically, or morally, or metaphysically, or even scientifically, that you can show me about your belief system? I want you to teach me something new.

Oh, wait a second. I'm not switching gears here, this is live argumentative progress. cl, you've been accused of being a sophist; what I've just now realized is that you are a rhetorician. You want to find the best arguments so that you can tear them apart, honing your skills in the process (and if your opponent du jour doesn't "get that," well, it's their loss! There's plenty of opponents about!). You just happen to also believe in some supernatural critters, and so in the sense that you don't buy what you see as our own version of dogma ("Yay metaphysical naturalism! Boo supernaturalism of all kinds!"), you call yourself a freethinking theist. You don't even appear to have much of a creed at all, at least not that you've laid out in non-platitudinal language. Have I got it so far?

OK, so with that in mind, I understand the rhetorical move you're making in the OP. You offered to convince me why I shouldn't believe God exists, despite my own hypothetical best evidence. This can be done for any such evidence besides second-order knowledge (which I believe is impossible, and so I cannot honestly employ it in my defense). What this would accomplish rhetorically would be to show me that my own position is silly since you would be showing how a principled application of it will lead me to a contradiction. What this involves, though, whether by chance or design, is the promise to tell me why I should not trust the results of an empirical test of my own design, should it be performed. Yet you just asked me what results of an empirical test would I in fact trust? You'll set the very best of my very own argumentation against itself, hoisting me by my own petard as soon as I've done the hard work of putting my actual belief on the line for you. And you know what? You'll always win that rhetorical game against people like me, because every individual experience is subject to doubt, so we maintain. No empirical test proves anything once and for all, and God is no exception - there is always some argument or thing that could happen to undermine my God test. What makes me vulnerable to this attack is not a flaw in my position, however, but rather the simple fact that I deny myself the pseudo-justification, "just 'cuz." Every belief system that doesn't rely at some level on "just 'cuz" must perforce be subject to this kind of rhetorical maneuver, including yours, whether you admit it or not (unless you actually believe that saying "just 'cuz" is a legitimate justification). So... do I explain what would convince me, only to watch as my own argument disembowels itself? Or do I try to patiently explain that of course I can never "really" prove God with science, because science is fundamentally provisional?

Oh, double-wait. You asked me what would "prove God" to me, and that's a subjective question. Now you're going to explain why you think I shouldn't be convinced by it, and the only way you can do that is to show some way that I might be wrong. Which, yeah, simply is correct: at any given moment, I might be wrong. This is what honest skepticism is all about, buddy. But can you show me that I'm actually wrong on this or that thing I believe? If I got evidence for God and you didn't buy it, how would you convince me that your decision not to accept it is a legitimate one and not mere stubborn obstinacy? Is there something that makes it stand out as more worthy of further scrutiny than ideas upon which we might agree? After all, I'm not saying that this or that evidence should convince everyone of God, I'm simply saying what I think would probably convince me, which is itself a testable claim because I can be presented with such evidence and thus can in principle determine whether I put my ontological money where my epistemological mouth is. Any counterargument changes the situation, so the old prediction no longer properly applies and I need to come up with a new one. And so, I hope you see, I try to believe only things which I can check, so that we can sort out which is right and which is wrong. And so, if we disagreed on an interpretation of this or that evidence, we can also devise a test as I briefly outlined back in your sandbox.

But we already agree that I, personally, might be wrong in any given case. I know that already. This doesn't advance our discussion in any way, ever, because it's always true. It's true of you, too, for that matter, which is why I haven't bothered pointing it out before now; I thought we were taking this bit for granted. What I'm interested in is working from where we agree, to things on which we disagree, and you showing me where things I believe are actually wrong, and not just the status quo of possibly wrong.

That's a truly slick move, though: you just about got it past me, you almost baited me into choking on my own argumentative tail. Bravo! One problem. Unlike others, I'm not just going to call you a sophist and bug out; I want to run with this rhetoric deal, and so I say, "Now what," and the ball's in your court. You can either start poking your fingers into holes of doubt which already exist in everything that I believe I know, which will get us right the Hell back here every time; or you could effectively ask me to start poking holes in something you believe by proposing to convince me of it. Eventually, you're going to tell me that I as a skeptic ought to be skeptic even of my own positions. I'm just saying, "You're preaching to the choir, buddy; now let's cut to the chase."

So now you've got me intrigued. I want to know what's "double next," now that I've conceded your rhetorical point and, for good measure, all legitimate permutations of it. Now spill: what is that all for? I know all about the flaws and shortcomings I've got, and learning to live with them has been a wonderful journey so far, so what more have you got for me? What more can your brand of freethought do for me, which I cannot do for myself with my own brand of freethought? I'm honestly asking you what you have to teach me, because I'm expecting an opportunity to learn here. Hit me with your best shot.

Full Disclosure: Ultimately, the question I'm getting at is, "What does theism do for you that you cannot get from your freethought sans theism, and how can I get that, too?" Or, "Why do you believe things that I don't, and is there any reason at all why I should believe them, too?" Or, "Can I have freethinking theism, too? And how?" And if you can't explain why I should believe what you believe, then I'm awfully curious as to why you do in fact believe what you now believe, and not something else - or are there beliefs of yours to which you do not apply the beautiful freethinking rhetoric which you just now so clearly displayed? I just gotta know, now that you've convinced me that you truly understand why I can't protect my idea of God from an all-pervasive doubt, how you do that thing. Or is your own medicine not for you here? And if not, then how come?

Or, more plainly: What's the lesson you ultimately want me to learn from that rhetorical game of yours? How does this play help us in our work as freethinkers? What's the point of this if we already assume you win that first part?

7 comments:

cl said...

Ha! Little did I know you pack a switchblade.

I read to about the third paragraph, where the focus became your ascription of motive to my modus, which relates nothing to the arguments. If you really want to learn, ascription of motive to those you've never met certainly suggests otherwise. I simply refuse to waste any more time on those who want to ascribe motive to others, because that's where learning so often stops.

I will say one last thing here, D, and depending how much ascription of motive accompanies your next response, I might just consider the previous offense as water under the bridge and return to this discussion:

"..it's that there seems to be no way at all we can check for God's existence that doesn't amount to us merely deciding to believe it anyway. And wouldn't you know it, but the same would seem to be true of unicorns and Mother Goose."

The same also goes for atheism, and the claim that consciousness ceases upon death, to never be regained. Yet, you seemingly don't have a problem with those "uncheckable" propositions. Why is that? And mind you, God is most certainly checkable; every one of will check in time. By very definition, cessation of consciousness is not checkable.

Well fine. I read most of your fourth paragraph anyways. You seem to think I'm playing a rhetorical game. Remember, my post was a post mocking the "rhetorical game" that I charge the average internet atheist with playing. I know it's a game; that's the entire point of the post. You seem to want to charge me with taking seriously the very inanity I seek to expose.

D said...

No, in my third paragraph, I was just trying to say, "I think I understand you as a person, not just a name on the internet." Like, I think the disparaging quotes you post on your site are, for you, like the woman who "accused" James Randi of being "obsessed with reality" is for us. My apologies if you thought I was saying any variant at all of, "Your motive is this, therefore your words do not count." Such statements are categorically awful rhetorical moves, and I wasn't trying to make one.

I want to know what makes you tick. And I know the only way I can know that is for you to honestly tell me.

As for that bit on checking: that's what I'm really trying to get at, that's the part that's important to me. I really, honestly think that I can convince you to doubt and discard your own theism, and if I can't at all ever - not because you childishly refuse to have your mind changed on this or that cherished belief, but because we've both laid our arguments on the line and fully understood each other's positions - then that will do almost the entirety of the work of convincing me that your particular brand of theism is true.

So let's just skip all the rhetorical slop and get right down to it: if you think I can check for God, then tell me how! Please! I'm very, very curious to know - but know that when I check, I'm not going to take your word for it, so if you tell me to check with something silly, I'm going to call you on it and ask for a better test. Just being honest up front.

cl said...

Fine. Just allow me to excise some cancerous thinking that resulted from the previous exchange: I don't know who the hell you are, or who the hell you think you are, but I know intelligent and articulate writers are more prone to arrogance and condescension than the rest of the bunch, and when you start calling people names like "rhetorician," and their writing "platitudinal", damn right you better expect some grief for it - especially in light of all your lofty appeals to rationalism here, ma'am.

I'm honestly asking you what you have to teach me, because I'm expecting an opportunity to learn here.

I honestly don't know what I have to teach you, or vice-versa - yet - but I know if we can at least stick around without using words like "rhetorician" and "platitudinal" to describe one another, we've got a far better chance of mutual edification. But, I'm over that now, and I'll have to at least proceed under the assumption that there's some sort of intellectual respect here. Now, with that off my chest...

The thing you seem to have missed - or, if you didn't miss it, the thing I don't see any evidence indicating you're aware of - was that the whole point of my post was to mock exactly the rhetorical game you criticized. It's an rhetorical game the atheist wages, mind you, and perhaps unwittingly, you've written a most cogent and eloquent response that completely dashes it to shreds. So your attacks and criticisms are actually in my favor. For examples,

What this would accomplish rhetorically would be to show me that my own position is silly since you would be showing how a principled application of it will lead me to a contradiction.

Correct.

You'll set the very best of my very own argumentation against itself, hoisting me by my own petard as soon as I've done the hard work of putting my actual belief on the line for you.

Correct. Welcome to the theist's world. I've spent six weeks in an argument before, only to have the atheist simply retreat to, "That doesn't convince me, so it's not good evidence." Yet, we both know such dismissals can be purely arbitrary; you ask a good question, as to how can we know the difference between honest and reasoned rejection of a claim, vs. stubborn obstinacy.

You'll always win that rhetorical game against people like me, because every individual experience is subject to doubt, so we maintain. No empirical test proves anything once and for all, and God is no exception - there is always some argument or thing that could happen to undermine my God test.

Correct, hence the rationalist's requests to substantiate God-claims with evidence are superfluous, QED. Even a direct manifestation could be written off as neurological misfire.

If I got evidence for God and you didn't buy it, how would you convince me that your decision not to accept it is a legitimate one and not mere stubborn obstinacy?

That's exactly what I want to know from these stubborn atheists. I say via cogency, but the problem is, since anything is open to doubt, anything is open to dismissal, and stubborn obstinacy is always possible as a motivating factor for said dismissal. I think it's safe to say stubborn obstinacy is at least an option when an interlocutor refuses to offer a valid explanation for their rejection of the premise in question.

[I guess I'll have to post multiple comments to get around the silly character constraints]

cl said...

And so, I hope you see, I try to believe only things which I can check, so that we can sort out which is right and which is wrong.

Then why are you a metaphysical naturalist atheist? You can't "check" to see if consciousness ceases upon death. By your own reasoning, you should at least believe that consciousness continues after physical death, because you can - and will - check. We're all going to.

So now you've got me intrigued. I want to know what's "double next," now that I've conceded your rhetorical point and, for good measure, all legitimate permutations of it. Now spill: what is that all for?

It was to demonstrate the absurd special pleading inherent in the position of those who demand proof of God from those who believe, but I don't need to demonstrate that to you, as you now seem fully aware of it.

What I'm interested in is working from where we agree, to things on which we disagree,

Hey, I'm all for that. I believe that is the path to reasonable resolution. We seem to agree that checkable claims are preferable to non-checkable ones, so tell me why you believe in a non-checkable claim.

Ultimately, the question I'm getting at is, "What does theism do for you that you cannot get from your freethought sans theism,

Reconnection with God. Mercy.

...and how can I get that, too?"

If what I believe is true, you can't - at least not as an atheist.

Why do you believe things that I don't, and is there any reason at all why I should believe them, too?

We'll get to the "why's" in time. As for whether there is any reason at all why you should believe things I believe, that's not for me to decide. You need to find the reason to believe, just as I'd need to find a reason to disbelieve. I simply cannot assert that my reason to believe must also compel you.

Can I have freethinking theism, too? And how?

Of course you can. As for how, well... by "freethinking theism," I mean to say that I'm not bound to pastor so-and-so's interpretation of anything. I read the Bible, and apply my own reasoning, constantly checking against what the pastors (and skeptics) are saying. In my view, Satan's in the sanctuary far more than the laboratory, and I'm ever-weary.

cl said...

And if you can't explain why I should believe what you believe, then I'm awfully curious as to why you do in fact believe what you now believe, and not something else

Should entails shared value systems and you yourself argue for the flimsy basis of all moral claims. The reason I can't explain what you should believe is because such presumes you share my values. For example, I believe in a world with far more "positive potency" that this one. You clearly don't, so if I were to say, "D, you should believe because I believe in a world with far more "positive potency" that this one," of course I'll get a raised eyebrow. And rightly so. Who am I to say what you should do? On the other hand, let's say you have some desire that you can share with me. Fair enough. Then, based on that desire, I could offer what I think would be the best means of attaining it, and you could reason it out and make a decision. For another example, however, you've shared your preference for checkable claims as a value we share. By that regard, I can tell you that you should reject uncheckable claims - or modify your epistemological base.

What's the lesson you ultimately want me to learn from that rhetorical game of yours?

First, that it's not my rhetorical game, and you already learned the main point: "No empirical test proves anything once and for all, and God is no exception - there is always some argument or thing that could happen to undermine my God test."

How does this play help us in our work as freethinkers?

It can't help you and I, because we both already know and accept that, "No empirical test proves anything once and for all, and God is no exception - there is always some argument or thing that could happen to undermine my God test." My original post was for that subset of atheists who seem to conveniently forget these points in all their boisterous hankering for proof.

I think the disparaging quotes you post on your site are, for you, like the woman who "accused" James Randi of being "obsessed with reality" is for us.

What, like badges of honor something? A confirmation of the superiority of my position? Not at all; the disparaging quotes are there to show that when the ontological shit really hits the epistemological fan - whether it's somebody highly respected like Ebonmuse, or just your average online atheist - most who espouse these principles of freethought and rationalism descend into personal accusation and censorship as defense. Resorting to denigration is pathetic; censorship and moderation even worse.

I really, honestly think that I can convince you to doubt and discard your own theism, and if I can't at all ever - not because you childishly refuse to have your mind changed on this or that cherished belief, but because we've both laid our arguments on the line and fully understood each other's positions - then that will do almost the entirety of the work of convincing me that your particular brand of theism is true.

I really, honestly believe that I can't shake you of your doubt, but I'm all for it, and in for the long haul. Where do you suggest we go from here? On my end, I'm particularly interested in understanding how your preference for checkable claims sits with your belief that consciousness ceases upon death. You've asked me quite a few (good) questions; of them, which would you like me to elaborate on?

So let's just skip all the rhetorical slop and get right down to it: if you think I can check for God, then tell me how!

I think you'll think I'm toying, but death is the ultimate test. Of course, that only works for you, and not those of us still living. But if what I'm saying is true, you'll know the second that flicker of consciousness returns.

Zach L said...

Forgive me for being intrusive -- this is a really interesting argument -- but the one example that a lot of this seems predicated on is that of "consciousness after death." Which you're right, CL, isn't something that can realistically be 'confirmed' except on a personal basis after death (or not confirmed, if there is no consciousness).

But what about a materialistic, rather than metaphysical, standpoint? if the consciousness arrives out of the machinery of our neurons, of the electrical impulses firing in our brains, then that is in and of itself an implicit vote for no-consciousness-after-death, as death is itself the cessation of brain function.

I'm not making any accusations or anything, and I'd honestly rather not be dragged into an argument even on friendly terms, but it's just something that I thought of when it was brought up. Although we can't conclusively say "no consciousness after death," our Best Guess is that this is the case, and that seems related to D's "of course there will be doubt, we're human beings capable of wrong" claim -- if, given the circumstances, there's overwhelming evidence for something, even if it's not 100%, it makes more sense to believe that thing than its contrariwise position.

This is, of course, all predicated on a belief in materialism, which may not necessarily apply to the argument at hand. If it doesn't, well, never mind me :P

D said...

No intrusion at all, Z! Welcome to the party!

You hit the nail on the head with the point that the possibilities are legion. Not only do we have the two propositions, verifiable by different methods though currently epistemologically indistinguishable:

1. Consciousness persists after death in some way which we have not yet found but can in principle discover.
2. Consciousness depends on the physical brain as computer files depend on magnetic domain registers; when your hard drive melts into slag, the files don't "go" anywhere, they simply cease to exist.

But in addition to those two, we also have an infinitude of other possible explanations that fit the data. This is the TL;DR version of the Duhem-Quine thesis, which pretty much proceeds from the interesting fact that between any two points of data, there may be any number of other available points, arrayed in any number of ways. Empirically speaking, reality is intrinsically ambiguous, since we will always have a finite data set and thus shall we always have "gaps" in our data.

So in addition to the two above, we have:

3. Consciousness sometimes does and sometimes doesn't persist after death, depending on the actions of a group of gremlins on the dark side of Pluto (or whatever, wherever).
4. Consciousness usually but not always persists after death for monocorns (such as the rhinoceros, which is like a unicorn, except it doesn't take a virgin to ride it).
5. Consciousness actually doesn't occur in anyone or anything else, except your very own brain, thus solipsism is true for you and you alone.

...and so on, and so forth. The problem is that though the possibilities are literally endless, they can't all be true.

But a whole Helluva lot of 'em are gonna wind up being false.