Friday, December 27, 2013

More Philosophical Silliness

While reading this moral argument against Darwinism by Doug Groothuis, keep in mind that the author reminds us, whenever possible, that he holds a Ph. D. degree.

Arguments like these convince me that a lot of philosophy is a kind of cargo cult mathematics. Practitioners don't do actual reasoning; they construct assemblages of words that mimic mathematical arguments, but fall far short of what a mathematician would consider acceptable.

Let's look at some of the techniques Groothuis employs:

1. Reliance on vague terms that one cannot possibly measure, test, or verify, such as "essential nature", "intrinsically valuable", and "human dignity". (If you have no argument at all, then you can always decry some practice you don't like by claiming it offends "human dignity"; it's a favorite ploy of Robert George.)

2. Quotation fabrication: Darwin never spoke of "less favored races", as Groothuis claims, and the term "favored races" that appears as a subtitle in On the Origin of Species actually refers to what biologists now call "varieties". If you google the phrase "less favored races", you find that it appears largely in creationist websites and a Republican congressional candidate.

3. An incoherent argument that concludes "But (4) is false, because of (5)" and "Therefore (6) is false because of (5)" But the terms (5) and (6) refer to nothing at all!

4. Rewriting history to claim that "our moral intuitions and the history of Western law" provides support for believing that "every human being, irrespective of race" possesses "intrinsic human dignity". Really? Whatever happened to slavery in the history of the US? How about all the Christian Southerners who claimed that slavery was ordained by God? How were black people treated in the US Constitution? In what year were women allowed to vote? If the history of Western law shows us anything, it shows us that our "moral intuitions" are not precisely fixed and are subject to change.

5. Pretending rigor by explaining grade-7 concepts like "modus tollens" and "reduction ad absurdum". Bad arguments don't get better when you use Latin.

But the silliest thing of all is the attempt to defeat a scientific theory, the theory of evolution, using moral reasoning. This makes no sense at all; it's like trying to justify a claim about chemistry by appealing to political theory.

I feel sorry for Groothuis's students.


colnago80 said...

Richard Feynman: Philosophy is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. Nuff said.

John Pieret said...

a lot of philosophy is a kind of cargo cult mathematics

I don't think that is quite fair to philosophy or philosophers. After all, Groothuis lists his own "essential nature" as "Christian, philosopher, teacher [at a seminary], writer, and preacher." It is clear that he is, at best, 1/5 of a philosopher ... and it shows.

His attempt here is a merely convoluted "argument from consequences" and I bet he never advanced it during his academic career (before the seminary) because it would be savaged by any philosopher I've known or read.

It is not only logically unsupported but factually untrue: "the history of Western law treat every human being, irrespective of race, as possessing intrinsic human dignity and must be treated as such ... as does The United States Declaration of Independence: "All men are created equal." Written by a man who owned slaves to the day he died and didn't even free them all in his will.

This was not philosophy but apologetics (and not very good apologetics, at that).

Now, as to Feynman, he was fiercely intelligent and a great scientist. But even such people can have blind spots (or fall in love with a "good line" that doesn't really express the truth). Birds and scientists are not trying to do the same thing. Birds aren't trying to understand the truth about what it is to be a bird, why they are birds or how they came to be birds. They are trying to eat and f**k.

If all scientists were trying to do was eat and f**k (in which case, science was probably not the best choice compared to being an MBA), then philosophy would be useless to them too. But scientists are trying to understand and thinking clearly and logically and how they have to go about it is important to that aim. I suggest you read David Hull's Science as a Process. He was a philosopher deeply involved in the development of cladistics, not just a bystander.

Piotr GÄ…siorowski said...

I'm surprised he doesn't use the following argument: (1) The Declaration of Independence states that "All men [well, maybe women too] are CREATED equal." If creationism is wrong, the Declaration of Independence is wrong too, and we wouldn't like it to be wrong, would we?

Douglas Groothuis's has a long, awfully written and immensely flattering Wikipedia entry. It offers, among a number of other irrelevances, a list of authors he regards as "influential". There is no list of his favourite songs, but I'm sure it will be added as the entry grows.

Jeff said...

Douglas' blog post is really just a rehash of a post from April (which you pointed out). I blogged about it too. It seems that Groothius hasn't learned anything in the intervening time. He still usest he same ridiculous and incoherent "logic". I can't believe he thinks it makes sense. His poor students, indeed.

MNb said...

"Birds and scientists are not trying to do the same thing."
First of all it's not clear, at least not to me, if Feynman actually said this about birds and scientists. In the second place, if he did, he was smart enough to recognize this problem. So this part is not the key. The key is "as useful".
That raises indeed the question: what use has philosophy (of science; not entirely honest that Colnago omits this) for the work of scientists? When Michelson and Morley designed their famous experiment back in 1887, on which concrete book on philosophy of science did they rely?
It's not that I think philosophy (and of science in particular) useless and/or superfluous. Still these questions are relevant when exploring the exact relation of science and philosophy. The outcome might very well be that philosophy is less relevant for scientists than some philosophers would like to admit. If that's the case the quote is appropriate after all. Because I am very sure that the vast majority of evolutionary biologists don't give crap about the musings of Groothuis, correct or not.

John Pieret said...


If that's the case the quote is appropriate after all. Because I am very sure that the vast majority of evolutionary biologists don't give crap about the musings of Groothuis, correct or not.

But Groothuis wasn't (IMNSHO) doing philosophy at all, but apologetics, which biologists have every reason to ignore.

While I won't claim that scientists have to consult philosophers in order to do science, they are, in fact, doing philosophy of science everytime they design an experiment to answer some question because they have to think clearly and logically as to how they have to go about it in order to get a valid answer. Most (but not all) works of the philosophy of science come along afterwards and explain how the scientists went about it and, in some cases, failed. That kind of history should be useful to scientists but it may not be necessary to their work.

My attitude toward the relationship between science and philosophy is pretty well sumarized here.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

I feel a bad taste in my mouth when I see people append all their 3 or 4 letter acronyms next to their names. I knew someone who signed as , , BSc, PhD, FFA, FRSE. I think that the more the acronyms, the lesser the substance. (This was the case with this person.)

So, if Groothuis feels the need to sign remind people he has a PhD, that probably means he feels that some people may be doubting it.

colnago80 said...

Re John Pieret

In defense of Jefferson, he couldn't have freed his slaves even if he wanted to. At the time of his death, he was essentially bankrupt and they had to be sold to pay off his debts.