Plato’s suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Jeremy Stangroom, at The Philosophers’ Magazine Online writes a disturbing essay on Michel Foucault’s Iranian Folly. It’s a cautionary tale for progressive thinkers, concerning just how often they fall for ideas or people that turn out to be tyrannical and radically anti-democratic.

Long piece in the New Republic about the life and career of cultural critic Stanley Fish. The article is broadly sympathetic, though it does mention some of the harsh critics of Fish (my favorite: Terry Eagleton defining Fish as “the Donald Trump of American academia, a brash, noisy entrepreneur of the intellect.”). I’m not too fond of the guy myself, as you can see here and here, for example.

Sean Carroll explains very clearly (well, okay, as clearly as the subject matter allows, really) why claims that the universe expanded faster that the speed of light during periods of inflation is “utterly and hopelessly incorrect.” Apparently, even professional physicists get it wrong, for instance Lawrence Krauss.

It’s possible that scientists have discovered the epigenetic bases of gay male sexual preferences. I do tend to think that sexual preferences are largely (though not exclusively) a matter of biology, but of course “biology” doesn’t mean just genes, it can mean epigenes as well…

A really nice article (again at TPM Online) by Julian Baggini on why the free will debate is pretty much a never ending one. It’s all about “discretionary truth,” a concept referring to  a class of statements which, although it is wrong to say they are false, we can equally well do without asserting their truth.

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Categories: Plato's Suggestions

45 replies

  1. A need for laws, or a lawgiver, that is somehow distinct from the phenomenal reality that it presumes to express.

    Could it be this order is emergent with the larger reality and builds on itself, every bit as much as the processes that give form to order and what we idolize are just our maps and models?

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  2. Massimo,
    it is certainly Stoic to withhold judgment if the facts do not clearly lead in a particular direction.

    Yes, I was thinking along those lines. An absence of dogmatism and being open to the consideration of possibilities would seem to be an intellectual virtue. But then I am using the term in a broader sense than that intended by Eagleman.

    The difference between possibilianism and agnosticism would seem be that agnosticism is a passive position,saying, in effect, I don’t know for sure so I will withhold judgement.

    Possibilianism, by contrast, goes one step further, by generating possibilities and actively considering them. A possibilist would explore the issue while an agnostic would withdraw from the issue.

    I am reminded of the brainstorming that we practised in the corporate world. The first and vital stage would be the generation of ideas. The rules were simple, any idea was valid and no ideas may be excluded or criticised during the brainstorming stage. This liberated the imagination, exposing ideas that might ordinarily have been suppressed. The second stage was the active consideration of each possibility. Here the rule was to look for reasons why it could work. Negativity had to be suppressed. Only later, in the third and final stage was it permissible to start winnowing the possibilities.

    What I learnt from this process is that we naturally tend jump to the third stage, a kind of negativity where we look for reasons why something cannot work. It forecloses the discussion and suppresses worthwhile ideas. This is a deadly tendency in the corporate world because it paralyses initiative.

    I see possibilianism as a close relative of the brainstorming I have just described. It is an active process that recruits the imagination. it is an agile process that enjoys entertaining many possibilities and finds delight in exploring them. Agnosticism, by comparison, is something dead. It is a failure of the imagination and a failure of the intellect.

    Worse still, agnosticism is intellectually dishonest. In almost all of our life we are confronted with choices where the outcomes cannot be known with certainty. The agnostic response would paralyse action. Instead we use a simple rule of thumb. We consider the balance of probabilities and then opt for the most likely outcome. We even do this with very hazardous activities, such as sky diving. On one occasion my ripcord jammed which was a vivid and dramatic reminder of the precarious balance of probabilities that we are prepared to work with. And that was only one of my close calls! If we find it normal to use this approach, the balance of probabilities, for the greater part of our life then why suspend this approach when it comes to religion? That is why I say agnosticism is an intellectually dishonest approach.

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  3. Hi Massimo,

    Well, I don’t recognize his definition of agnosticism, which seems a bit self-serving.

    That’s exactly what is wrong with Eagleman’s position. It’s not that “possibilianism” is a bad position, but Eagleman misrepresents and denigrates both agnostics and atheists in order to try to give the impression that Eagleman is saying something new and interesting and better. Eagleman essentially insults both agnostics and atheists by saying that they are unwilling to consider new ideas. And yet, “possibilian” openness to new ideas is where all thoughtful atheists and agnostics have always been.

    That is what Harris tried to explain to Eagleman (causing Eagleman to go away sucking his thumb and saying that Harris was being mean). Anyhow, the term “possibilianism” has had its 15 mins of fame and will be forgotten before long.

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  4. Brodix,
    A need for laws, or a lawgiver, that is somehow distinct from the phenomenal reality that it presumes to express.

    Let’s put on a possibilian hat. I have come to the conclusion that this is a most fruitful approach and my respect for Eagleman has gone up several notches. Clearly he is a very bright guy.

    So, with our possibilian hat on, there is another way to look at it, from a theist perspective. And that is that the Laws of Nature are properties of God. In this way God is immanent in nature and simultaneously present everywhere. Then we do not have ‘ a lawgiver, that is somehow distinct from the phenomenal reality‘. We can continue this line of thinking by surmising that the inflaton field is also a property of God. Since God is infinitely creative we should expect an infinity of universes. In other words the multiverse is a natural outcome of theological thinking. A really interesting corollary of this line of thought, that the Laws of Nature are properties of God, is that science then becomes the study of God and, quite obviously, there cannot, even in principle, be any kind of contradiction between science and believing in God.

    I love the possibilian approach for the openness it enables, the imagination it fosters and the mental agility that it encourages. It is such a refreshing change from the narrow, closed mind dogmatism of New Atheism.

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  5. labnut,

    Would you consider God to be an absolute, or an ideal?

    If the former, then it is not a particular set of instructions/laws, but a universal state of equilibrium, where everything balances out. From this the first stage would be a positive/negative energy/vacuum fluctuation/heartbeats. The most approximate description of which would be thermal energy.
    Laws are a function of repeatability. That the same cause will yield the same effect every time. So something like 1+1=2 might seem like a timeless property of the universe, but + is a verb. If you don’t complete the dynamic action of actually adding the two sets together, you don’t have the single set of two.
    So in the void, the empty vacuum, there are no laws, because there is no cause or effect or anything else to measure and judge, in order to define and describe.

    Now if you suppose God to be an ideal, then you have the situation that we have now, where everyone is advocating for slightly or significantly different ideals and it is a state of constant conflict between those which are incompatible.

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  6. labnut,

    “The difference between possibilianism and agnosticism would seem be that agnosticism is a passive position,saying, in effect, I don’t know for sure so I will withhold judgement.”

    I don’t know where that comes from. All three standard positions (agnosticism, theism and atheism) are epistemic ones, not psychological. Any individual agnostic, theist or atheist may be open to change his mind or not, actively inquiring or not.

    “agnosticism is intellectually dishonest. In almost all of our life we are confronted with choices where the outcomes cannot be known with certainty”

    Again that’s a caricature. An agnostic could more charitably be described as someone whose priors about God hover in the middle of the distribution. An agnostic is definitely not one who seeks certainty about evidence.

    “Possibilianism, by contrast, goes one step further, by generating possibilities and actively considering them”

    Such as…?

    One more point, this one in favor of Coel. To be fair, even Dawkins clearly states in The God Delusion that he is not certain that God doesn’t exist. He simply thinks that the overwhelming balance of argument and evidence is against that possibility. And on this I completely agree with him, as much as I find him intellectually arrogant and badly informed on both theology and philosophy.

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  7. Hi Massimo,
    I see you have re-opened comments(thanks) and I was going to write a point by point rebuttal. But I don’t think there is any need for that. We have heard each other’s point of view and that is a good process. As always I learn a lot along the way and I thank you for the opportunity.

    It is worth restating what it is I am really trying to do. I come to places like this so that I can understand the atheist mind and atheist arguments, not to win the arguments, though sometimes I can’t help rising to the bait. Partly I do this out of an intense sense of curiosity and partly to retain a sense of openness to surprise and discovery.

    You and I will just have to disagree about Dawkins. I suspect you don’t appreciate the well developed British habit of ironical understatement, something completely foreign to American polemicists such as Harris, Coyne, Myers and Krauss(and sundry scientismists). It is a practice that creates room for maneuver(especially in diplomacy), what the Americans more bluntly call plausible deniability. It is not for nothing that the French call the British ‘perfidious Albion’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfidious_Albion

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  8. Hi Massimo,

    An agnostic could more charitably be described as someone whose priors about God hover in the middle of the distribution.

    I think there is a lot to be said for sticking with Huxley’s original definition of the term “agnostic” (though few do nowadays).

    Huxley was reacting to some who said that they *knew* God existed because they had had a personal revelation of that fact. Huxley’s position was that he had not had any such revelation, and thus had to judge the matter on the evidence he saw in the world around him. “A-gnosticism” is thus an absence of *revealed* knowledge (where “gnosticism” is revealed or intuitive knowledge of God).

    Thus, agnosticism is a *process* whereas theism and atheism are conclusions. One can thus be an agnostic theist (no personal revelation of God and no personal relationship with God but believes in God) or an agnostic atheist (finds the evidence of God unconvincing). Indeed, nearly all atheists that I’ve encountered consider themselves as also being agnostics.

    Seeing agnosticism as some sort of middle position between theism and atheism doesn’t work as well (and that idea can imply, quite falsely, that “atheists” must be making dogmatic non-existence claims).

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  9. Coel,

    “Thus, agnosticism is a *process* whereas theism and atheism are conclusions.”

    “Seeing agnosticism as some sort of middle position between theism and atheism doesn’t work as well (and that idea can imply, quite falsely, that “atheists” must be making dogmatic non-existence claims).”

    If atheism is a conclusion, wouldn’t that amount to a fairly clear position?

    I do think that like many debates, there is much heat and little light, because very few are really unwrapping the concepts being assumed. For example, as per my yet unanswered question to labnut, would you consider your understanding of a basic theological proposition, whether in agreement or not, as an absolute, or an ideal?

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  10. If atheism is a conclusion, wouldn’t that amount to a fairly clear position?

    Yes. And the position is: “I see insufficient evidence to convince me that gods exist, so I lack belief in them”.

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  11. Coel,

    I suppose that’s far enough to the negative side of the spectrum to amount to a conclusion.

    I take it that you see God(s) as an ideal?

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  12. Massimo, agreed totally on possibilism as agnosticism with pig’s lipstick.

    Coel, your “no new atheist,” like other “no true Scotsman” statements you’ve made about Gnus on previous Massimo sites, is of course wrong. Very wrong with the “no.” And, I’m not even going to debate.

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  13. Also, agnosticism is not a “process.” Well, it’s not ONLY/MERELY a process. It’s a conclusion, just as much as atheism and theism. And, as Labnut in one direction, and I in another, illustrate, arguably theism and atheism are processes too.

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  14. brodix,

    I take it that you see God(s) as an ideal?

    I don’t see any gods at all in any way. It’s up to those advancing such notions to explain what they mean by them.

    Socratic,

    Also, agnosticism is not a “process.” Well, it’s not ONLY/MERELY a process. It’s a conclusion, just as much as atheism and theism.

    Not as the term was originally intended by Huxley. But, of course, nowadays there are so many different variants of the concept that the term is fairly useless unless further clarified.

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  15. Coel,

    It is not as though these terms are not in the dictionary.

    An absolute would be an indivisible state. Therefore having no features, deviations, distinctions, conflicts, contradictions, etc. As in absolute zero, where even a temperature of .0000001k would be a deviation.

    While an ideal would be a perfect form. As in a platonic ideal.

    Given that monotheistic religions have largely been claiming what amount to cultural ideals are universal absolutes for several millennia, I just find it interesting that western philosophy, for all its parsing of terms and concepts over the same time frame, hasn’t extensively debated the difference between the two.

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