Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Strangers on a Train

Recently I was riding the Metro from downtown back across the river. Three ladies tried to get off at the East Riverfront station. but one of them had been sitting down, and couldn't get her walker organized and herself out of the seat in time to get through the door. They were at the back end of the train, so the driver was unaware of their situation. The door closed before they could leave the train, and naturally the ladies were very worried about getting back to their station. That's when the other passengers helped out -- sort of.

The ladies were not from the local area, and not used to riding the train. So, while the other passengers reassured them they could change directions at the 5th & Missouri station (the boarding area is conveniently in between the two directions there), they weren't sure how easily this could be done. I volunteered to escort the the ladies, and saw them safely back to East Riverfront. It was not a big deal, I had free time that day.

The reason I bring this up is to point out that I, and my fellow atheists, perform actions like this every day. We do it out of empathy, a desire to make the community a better place to live, a vision that the best world is run by people who help each other. People have always felt this way, since long before humans separated from the other apes.

One of the regular complaints I read is that atheists don't have some source for absolute morality to fall back on. While I usually engage that discussion by pointing out that there is no true, non-arbitrary source for morality (and there will be more on that in my next post), it's also worthwhile pointing out the opposite: humans don't need to taught morality by learning a set of rules or some arbitrarily imposed principles like natural law, they are taught morality by learning to see other humans as worthwhile and deserving of compassion, respect, and fair treatment. People who have an abundance of those qualities will behave morally, with or without an arbitrary set or rules/principles. People who lack those qualities will abuse and re-interpret any given rules/principles to behave immorally. Religious beliefs offer no advantage for moral behavior.

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Is "necessary" more than just a word?

The Maverick Philosopher blogged some thoughts designed to offer evidence that there are necessary beings. Overall, the argument relies on the common co-mingling of the formal and the real, between the description and an actual existence. We've looked at such arguments before, (for example, in this post) and in my series reviewing The Last Superstition. Proponents of the supernatural go to a great deal of trouble to convince us in the existence of archetypes for the descriptions we use for things, because they wish to use those archetypes to cast some being as the thinker of the archetypes. Here, the archetype is "necessary".

Dr. Vallicella breaks his argument down in 6 parts, which I will address in six paragraphs below the fold.

The first part gives the general idea of the descriptions of "contingent" and "necessary". It provides no reason to think of these descriptions as having any sort of independent existence, just as labels we might apply to various phenomena.

The second part introduces a new description, concrete (defined as objects which are or can be involved in causal chains/lattices) and abstract (things that by their nature make them not causally relevant. Non-physical items, such as emotional states, can still be concrete as long as it is possible for them to influence things. However, the items offered for abstracta seem curious. The claim is that ideas like "7 is a prime number" or the set containing Socrates (i.e., not Socrates himself, but the set containing him) are abstracta. Yet, if "7 is a prime number" is abstract, by definition that idea could not have resulted in Dr. Vallicella, nor me, typing that clause into the keyboard. Under these definitions, there are no abstracta that can be discussed, because to discuss them is to have them participate in causing the discussion.

The third part makes the case that there are necessary truths, offering the example that "7 is a prime number" is a necessary truth. As I have mentioned before, this is like claiming that "the Fool's Mate is the shortest chess game" is a necessary truth. People set up the rules of chess, just like people create the number system. There is nothing necessary about the rules we used to create the number system; we can change them at our convenience. So, I am actually unconvinced that necessary truths exist. Nonetheless, I will grant that for the sake of the rest of the argument.

The fourth part has a discussion of what a truth is (a true truth-bearer), and how such a thing can exist, by pointing out that neither marks on a paper nor a brain inscription can be true in and of themselves. Rather, it is the interpretation that we give to those marks, or that inscription, that is true or false. I think the phrase "true thought-bearer" or even "true proposition-bearer" would have been closer to what Dr. Vallicella is trying to convey. After all, if a bearer could only carry truths, it would not need the redundant description "true truth-bearer". Another point of disagreement is the need for there to be a proposition bearer at all. Propositions don’t need to be born to be true, they merely need to be born to be seen as true by the bearer. Especially if the truth is necessary, it will be true regardless of the existence of a bearer. This is another attempt to take a description, in this case "true", and impose some sort of underpinning or instantiation to it.

The fifth paragraph notes that since the marks/inscriptions are themselves contingent, the truths themselves might not be necessary. Applying modus tollens and the existence of necessary truths, Dr. Vallicella arrives at the conclusion there must be non-contingent proposition-bearers. This is where the underpinning attempted in the prior part bears fruit within Dr. Vallicella’s argument, and why the argument fails to be convincing to people who distinguish between descriptions and instantiations of descriptions.

The sixth arguments attempts a reducito ad absurbum on the possibility that all truth bearers are contingent, by using the notion that all descriptions are instantiated to show that, since a proposition can be conceived in any possible world, there must be something to conceive it within that world. It fails to be convincing for the same reason, namely, that there is no reason to think all descriptions are instantiated, so there does not need to be something to think a proposition in any particular possible world.

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