Monday, December 07, 2015

Another Philosophy Fail

This article by Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting is interesting, but not in the way that Prof. Gutting seems to think. It's interesting because it demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy and uselessness of the kind of philosophy that a lot of academics do.

Gutting presents the cosmological argument for the existence of a god, and seems to think it deserves to be taken seriously.

I say, it doesn't. Not only that, the fact that a well-respected philosopher thinks it does, and gets it published by a well-respected publisher like W. W. Norton, demonstrates that something is terribly, terribly wrong with much of academic philosophy.

Here, briefly, are just a few things that I think are wrong.

1. Gutting never defines "cause" or "caused". The words are very difficult to make rigorous, which is one reason why if you pick up a textbook on physics (say, Halliday and Resnick, the book I learned physics from), you won't even find them in the index (although of course the words themselves occur in the text). We sort-of-understand the colloquial and loose meaning of "cause" when it is associated with the events that are common in our lives, such as car accidents and elections and hot plates and Thanksgiving turkeys, but what guarantee is there that this understanding can be extrapolated to events on the micro or macro scales that physics deals with? Gutting seems to think that our folk understanding of these words is enough. I say it isn't.

2. After having acknowledged the looseness of the words, it nevertheless does seem that in nature there are genuinely uncaused physical events (like the radioactive decay of a particular uranium atom). Gutting doesn't even mention this possibility, except when it comes to his magical "first cause". So if events like the decay of this particular uranium atom has no explanation, why should we be so confident that all other kinds of physical events actually have explanations? This exemplifies another feature of much of academic philosophy, which is that it seems almost entirely divorced from what we have actually learned about the physical world. He is basically arguing to a Middle Ages audience (or even earlier).

3. There is no really good reason to always dismiss an infinite regress of causes, nor is there a good reason to dismiss a circular chain of causes (e.g., A causes B, which causes A). Of course, these don't seem to happen much in our daily lives, but again, we are talking about events (the creation of the universe) which are wildly different in scale from our ordinary experience. We don't experience cosmic inflation in our daily life, either, but that's not a good reason to dismiss that physical theory.

4. Gutting's description of "contingent" and "contingency" suffers from the same defects as "cause" and "caused". What does it mean to say "Germany might not have won the 2014 World Cup"? After all, possibly the universe was created by a supreme being who has an inexplicable love for German soccer. Perhaps everything was created and set in motion deterministically by a supreme being just so Germany won the 2014 World Cup and no other outcome was possible, even in principle. And just because I can imagine a different outcome doesn't mean a different outcome is possible; if I try very, very hard I can just barely imagine a square circle or a good philosopher, but that doesn't necessarily mean those things are possible.

5. Finally, I think what's wrong with this reasoning like Gutting's is that it is a kind of pseudomathematics: applying precise logical rules to vague concepts like "explanation" and "contingency" and "cause" without providing a rigorous mathematical or physical basis for those concepts, and then expecting the results to be meaningful. When you do that, it's kind of like doing a physics experiment and reporting the results to 20 significant figures when your measuring devices only provide 3 significant figures. You run the risk of thinking you're being precise and logical, when in fact you've only extrapolated your vague and inchoate understanding of what's really going on.

I realize in making these complaints I'm in a tiny minority. Nevertheless, I think my objections have at least some validity. What do you think?


Unknown said...

At it's very best cosmological arguments (like the Kalam) get you to "the universe has a cause", and not much else. It doesn't actually tell you anything about the cause, and it certainly doesn't get you to "God did it" without a vast amount of arguing from ignorance.

I know guys like WLC love to use this argument, but it's pretty facile attempt at explaining the origins of the universe.

smurph said...

I think you nailed it as usual, Jeff. You and I have both seen these arguments using the same tropes at the Pascal thingie here at UWaterloo. The whole Salon article's argument seems to come down to one of argument from incredulity and certainly ignorance of the whole 'infinite regresses' at non human scales. Being an ecologist, we don't generally deal in the type of mathematical or statistical proofs you would (we deal some neat applications) but we're still expected to understand how we understand what the numbers are telling us. I am rather dismayed when some members of other disciplines seem to think they can Gish Gallop their way through this and claim it is rigourous. I certainly would not claim to be an expert in Information Theory even though my discipline uses Shannon Information to represent ecological diversity (lots of arguments even there and well there should be). So too should self-styled experts in one area expound upon their cartoonish understanding of other areas.

smurph said...

(short version) I think you nailed it Jeff. We've seen these sorts of tropes before at the Pascal series and elsewhere even here at U Waterloo. The argument from incredulity and from ignorance is inexcusable from anyone, much less one who claims expertise. One would think a philosopher would know better.

Unknown said...

This discussion is as old as Aristotle's "unmoved mover". Carl Sagan ones said that extraordinary claims need extraordinary proof, but the only thing I see here is some juggling with words, not unlike the following:
1) God is the creator of heaven and earth.
2) Nothing existed prior to God.
3) Jesus is God.
4) Hence: Mother Mary gave birth to her own creator!

MNb said...

If anything you're too friendly. Let's neglect atomic decay. Let's grant causality. Let's grant that chains of cause and effect are not circular and are finite.
Why would there be only one such chain? The fine-tuning argument is closely related to the cosmological argument. Well, there are about 30 physical constants to be fine-tuned. Ie there are about 30 physical constants to be caused. That rather suggests that there are 30 first causes.
Gutting has made a case for polytheism, no matter how poor. But somehow I don't think he will reconvert. And that shows how intellectually dishonest the whole enterprise of apologetics is.

Steve Gerrard said...

Gutting did a fine job showing that it is possible that the universe was created 14 billion years ago by a team of 12 deities, who shepherded it through it's first million years, initiated all the contingencies, and then faded away, leaving nothing behind but a teapot, which eventually wound up orbiting Jupiter.

Nobody argues that such things are not possible. They argue that such speculations are silly and useless, because we learn nothing from them. If it makes someone happy to have an argument like that to cling to, they can have it, along with their blanket.

JimV said...

I know there are good philosophers out there somewhere who are doing useful work on the foundations of science and interpretations of quantum mechanics. I only ever seem to read about the ones who are doing apologetics. They are like amateur mathematics who think they can disprove famous theorems. They accuse me of 'scientism', I accuse them of philosophism. I think that's what they should be called: philosophismists. Another vague term, I know, but if its fallback argument is "You can't prove my god doesn't exist," it's a philosophismist.

aljones909 said...

I'm not sure why a philosopher wouldn't critique atheist philosophers (the majority) rather than Dawkins. In any case, even if the possibility of a deity was granted, christians still have to connect that deity to the deity of the Bible. That's a preposterous leap. The same deity that fine tuned dozens of physical constants, watched stars ignite, also requires the sacrifice of unblemished lambs and isolation of menstruating females.