Tuesday, February 09, 2016

More Silly Philosopher Tricks

Here's a review of four books about science in the New York Times. You already know the review is going to be shallow and uninformed because it is written not by a scientist or even a science writer, but by James Ryerson. Ryerson is more interested in philosophy and law than science; he has an undergraduate degree from Amherst, and apparently no advanced scientific training.

In the review he discusses a new book by James W. Jones entitled Can Science Explain Religion? and says,

"If presented with this argument, Jones imagines, we would surely make several objections: that the origin of a belief entails nothing about its truth or falsity (if you learn that the earth is round from your drunk uncle, that doesn’t mean it’s not)..."

Now I can't tell if this is Jones or Ryerson speaking, but either way it illustrates the difference between the way philosophers think and the way everyone else thinks. For normal people who live in a physical world, where conclusions are nearly always based on partial information, the origin of a belief does and should impact your evaluation of its truth.

For example, I am being perfectly reasonable when I have a priori doubts about anything that Ted Cruz says, because of his established record for lying: only 20% of his statements were evaluated as "true" or "mostly true". Is it logically possible that Cruz could tell the truth? Sure. It's also logically possible that monkeys could fly out of James Ryerson's ass, but I wouldn't be required to believe it if he said they did.

For non-philosophers, when we evaluate statements, things like a reputation for veracity of the speaker are important, as are evidence, the Dunning-Kruger effect, the funding of the person making the statement, and so forth. Logic alone does not rule in an uncertain world; in the real world these things matter. So when a religion professor and Episcopal priest like Jones writes a book about science, I am not particularly optimistic he will have anything interesting to say. And I can be pretty confident I know his biases ahead of time. The same goes for staff editors of the New York Times without scientific training.


Steve Watson said...

It seems to me that a lot of the standard logical fallacies stem from over-application of what at base are reasonable common-sense heuristics for making fast credibility judgements. Thus: "Ted Cruz said P, therefore P is false" is fallacious, but assigning a lower-than-default prior credibility to anything Cruz says is rational (pending further investigation, and using prior credibility as one criterion for determining which claims are worth investigating further).

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I agree entirely. One can be aware that such judgments are not logical consequences of the available data, but still hold them with some confidents.

lukebarnes said...

There's a distinction to be made here.

* "the origin of a belief entails nothing about its truth or falsity" is true.
* "the origin of a belief entails nothing about the reliability of the speaker" is false.

If I claim that I can see a tree outside my window, what makes that statement true is the tree itself. My belief has nothing to do with it. Even if the belief was formed in unreliable circumstances - perhaps my hallucinogenic drugs are kicking in - it doesn't affect the *truth* of the belief. Either the tree is there or it isn't. It *does* effect whether you should believe that there is a tree outside my window based on my testimony, including whether I should trust my own memory.

So, actually, Ryerson/Jones is misusing the genetic fallacy. The issue is our "misfiring faculties", so it is precisely the reliability of our faculties that is at issue. The concern is about evidence, not about truth.

A philosopher wouldn't agree with Ryerson/Jones. It's a misuse of philosophy, not a philosophical trick.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Well, that's the "correspondence theory of truth". I happen to find it a pretty good one, but not every philosopher seems to agree.

I could also quibble about "Either the tree is there or it isn't." What if the tree is really small, like a bush? What if you call it a tree and I call it a shrub? What if the tree was hit by lightning and is now just a dead husk rotting away? When does it cease being a tree? What if it's just the stump of a tree? Is it still a tree?

My point is that you can say things like "Either the tree is there or it isn't" in mathematics and make sense, but in the real world, even a claim like that is more like a fuzzy cover of meaning.