We are all invited to the conversation, and if you disagree you may be logophobic

“There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse.” (Socrates, in the Phaedo)

You may have noticed that these days it has become really difficult to have a reasonable conversation. With almost anyone. I’m not referring to the obvious culprits: Trumpists, purveyors of alternative facts, or those who dismiss critical journalism as “fake news.” I’m not even talking about the classical examples, from creationists to believers in all sorts of alternative medicine, the paranormal, UFOs, and so forth (I wrote a whole book about those). I’m talking about my own “tribe,” if you will: progressive, left-leaning liberals.

I have been one of those since I was young, convinced that the fascism that had gripped my own country, Italy, for the two decades leading to World War II was the true evil of the world. Yet, even back in high school I experienced the disturbing intolerance of certain quarters of the left, where any thought that did not align exactly with the orthodoxy of the moment was automatically branded as either “fascist” (thus emptying that word of meaning), or, at best, “qualunquista” (literally “one with random opinions”).

I profess cosmopolitanism, the notion — going back to the ancient Cynics and Stoics — that we are all human beings, endowed by that very fact with a degree of dignity that deserves respect and, most importantly, equal rights. I regularly donate to organizations that fight on behalf of civil rights, of immigrants, and of the freedom of the press. I think that women ought to be paid equally to men and ought to be afforded exactly the same educational and working opportunities. I think it monstrous to deny rights to Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ). I am not religious, but I do not believe that religion is the root of all evil, nor do I believe that any particular religion is ethically worse than any other (with the exceptions of some cults like Scientology).

Yet, I have been told to go fuck myself, you transphobic bastard, simply because I tweeted — without comment — an article that explored some interesting, and to me rather puzzling, conflicts among segments of the feminist, lesbian, and transgender communities. According to this otherwise thoughtful and in-depth piece, my sexual aesthetic preference for slender women cannot but be political, which, obviously, makes me “fatphobic.” If I raise the issue of Islamic terrorism, in a reasonable and historically informed fashion, I risk being branded an Islamophobe (though, funny enough, if I mention Christian terrorism linked to abortion clinics or white supremacy, I get plenty of nods of approval, within my tribe). If I voice the opinion that while the Israeli are guilty of unlawful occupation of Palestinian territory and of slaughtering unharmed innocents, it is also true that too many Palestinians are intolerant and have systematically undermined their own case, then I am, of course, a fascist (again) Islamophobe pig. And so on and so forth.

And then there is this rather new, entirely postmodernist malady: the idea that unless someone has actually experienced something (being it colonialism, gender discrimination, racism, and so forth) then one is not entitled to express an opinion about it, especially if one happens to be a “privileged” white male.

Let me be clear about the latter two points. First, yes, I amply recognize my privilege. I just don’t call it that, because it’s not helpful. I happen to think that everyone, regardless of gender or ethnicity, ought to have a somewhat nurturing family, a decent education, job opportunities, and be safe from discrimination and police violence, like I have been throughout my life. It’s not a fucking privilege, it’s the way all human beings should live. Period. And that’s going to happen only if we stand united to fight discrimination and injustice, rather than wasting energy and time shouting down some of our own allies, shaming them for having gotten lucky at the gene-cultural lottery. That sort of shouting — especially anonymously on social media — may make you feel virtuous, but it is positively damaging to the causes you allegedly care about.

Second, yes, it is certainly the case that people who directly experience discrimination are in a unique position to talk about it, and that they should be afforded a primary place in public discourse in virtue of that very fact. But we also know from plenty of research in social psychology (see here and here, for example) that first person experience is extremely unreliable, as people filter such experiences through all sorts of cognitive biases that inevitably distort their perceptions of things. That is why we need the rest of society to also come to the discussion table. Social progress is made possible by the constructive, and yes, even critical, dialogue among many voices, the by now increasingly old fashioned value of pluralism.

At his point, some readers will have already put down this essay and rushed to social media to begin a campaign of shaming, outraged by the few paragraphs above. So I can keep talking to those who have stuck it so far. Those who have left the conversation, I maintain, suffer from a peculiar disease described by philosopher Nicholas Shackel in a delightful paper published back in 2005 (Metaphilosophy 36: 295–320), entitled “The vacuity of postmodernist methodology: logophobia.”

The Greek roots of the term are obvious: “logos” means “thought,” particularly rational thought, and “phobos” means “fear of.” Logophobia is defined by Shackel as, “a skeptical doctrine about rationality … [where] rationality cannot be an objective constraint on us but is just whatever we make it, and what we make it depends on what we value.” He adds, “[opponents] are held to disguise their self‐interested construction of rationality behind a metaphysically inflated view of rationality in which Reason with a capital R is supposed to transcend the merely empirical selves of rational beings.” In other words, logophobics claim that since reason cannot possibly solve every problem, so you can proceed with dismissing reason altogether.

Shackel’s paper is actually a serious, and at times rather technical, critique of the modus operandi of postmodernist (and deconstructionist, and anti‐rationalist feminist) authors such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean‐Francois Lyotard, David Bloor, Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish, to mention just a few of the major offenders (though I personally make distinctions of degree among the named people). At one point I added to the list a number of pseudoscientists, such as the Intelligent Design proponents Bill Dembski and Michael Behe, alternative medicine “gurus” such as Deepak Chopra, or vaccination‐deniers such as Jenny McCarthy. And now, to my deep regret, it is becoming painfully obvious that both the extreme right (which, at the moment, appears to include most of the Republican party in the US), and certain increasingly vocal groups of the left, have been struck by the disease as well.

According to Shackel, logophobics have developed an arsenal of strategies to obfuscate clear thinking, which they deploy whenever pressed by a skeptic. For instance, consider Foucault’s classic thesis that there is no such thing as scientific truth, because truth is a reflection of local socioeconomic and political power: “The essential political problem for the intellectual is not to criticise the ideological contents supposedly linked to science, or to ensure that his own scientific practice is accompanied by a correct ideology, but that of ascertaining the possibility of constituting a new politics of truth.” This is apparently strong stuff, but it becomes a much milder statement when Foucault later tells us what he means by “truth”: “‘Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements.” Really? And here I was thinking that truth means as accurate a description of a subject‐independent reality as possible. Silly me.

Shackel calls this “troll truism,” which he defines as, “a mildly ambiguous statement by which an exciting falsehood may trade on a trivial truth.” It is a particular form of so‐called Humpty‐Dumptying, named after the character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Humpty Dumpty famously tells Alice, after she points out that he is arbitrarily switching word meanings in the course of their discussion: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Now, to be fair, Foucault did have a point: science is a social activity, and scientists are human beings, prone to the same cognitive and cultural biases as everyone else. Also, some science has been in the thralls of either economic or political agendas, or both. Similarly, when Amia Srinivasan, in the article linked above, claims that even our sexual preferences have a political dimension, the thought is neither absurd nor easy to dismiss. But the political, or the economic, are not the beginning and end of everything we do or think. There are (Zeus forbid!) biological instincts and constraints on our behavior, there are matters of taste, and there are simple reasonable disagreements. To reduce everything to the political is to commit the Marxist mistake, only in the latter case everything reduces to economic struggle. No, the human experience is just too varied and complex to be explained away by mono-factorial accounts, no matter how good the intentions of those that push for such accounts.

Logophobia, I maintain, is a broad condition that can strike adult humans of all ages, genders and cultural backgrounds, especially when they have never been exposed to the basics of critical reasoning, or when they have grown up in the thralls of a powerful ideological system. And no, being a scientist, or a philosopher, does not make you immune, unfortunately. The effect of the disease can probably never be eliminated, as we all suffer from it, to an extent. But they can be reduced by means of sound education, although that requires painful effort on the part of educators and subjects alike. Once the subject is past middle school, it becomes increasingly difficult, though not quite impossible, to overcome the malady. But it’s important to try, as huge amounts of financial resources and time are wasted as a result. Occasionally, lives are lost as a direct outcome of logophobia, especially when the logophobic is a politician with the power to start a war, or a celebrity pushing an anti‐medical health practice. And important political agendas may unwittingly be delayed or even undermined when logophobic activists manage to shut down discourse they find threatening, insulting, or “fascistic.”

Needless to say, fighting the spread of logophobia is a primary responsibility of every reasonable thinking person, practicing scientist, and professional philosopher, despite the highly unfavourable odds against defeating it — which is why a thorough knowledge of the disease and of its symptoms is so crucial. Spread the word, and watch out for logophobics near you! (And beware of not becoming one yourself…)

94 thoughts on “We are all invited to the conversation, and if you disagree you may be logophobic

  1. Robin Herbert

    And let me stress that I have nothing whatsoever against Margaret Court, she was a great sportswoman and continues to be admirable in many ways. Just not in one particular way.

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  2. Robin Herbert

    When Margaret Court said she would boycott Qantas because its chairman donated one million of his own money to the marriage equality campaign, a lot of people called her prejudiced. In addition some people suggested that the Margaret Court Arena should have a change of name. John McEnroe suggested that the arena keeps its name, but when same sex marriage becomes legal someone should hold the biggest gayest wedding ever in the arena.

    If this was the modus operandi of Stalin then, boy, have I ever been misled about Stalinism.

    The Margaret Court Arena retains its current name, as it should.

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  3. labnut

    Needless to say, fighting the spread of logophobia is a primary responsibility of every reasonable thinking person, practicing scientist, and professional philosopher,

    Yes, and that starts right here with the way we practice argumentation.

    despite the highly unfavourable odds against defeating it

    When people with aspirations to thoughtful conduct continue to defend the use of pejoratives, as we see in these pages, it is well nigh impossible.

    which is why a thorough knowledge of the disease and of its symptoms is so crucial

    The use of epithets is an early symptom of the disease.

    Spread the word, and watch out for logophobics near you!

    It hasn’t helped. As we have seen, the condition of alogosia is incurable.

    When does a label become an epithet? When its negative emotional force exceeds its rational force. And this is the clue to what is happening. The brandisher of epithets(epithetist?) wishes 1) to cause emotional damage; 2) is too lazy(or unable) to summon rational arguments to make his case. S/he thus resorts to argument by pejorative label.

    The use of epithets is nothing more than the use of thought for disreputable ends. It is not logophobia, the fear of thought. It is closer to alogosia, the absence of thought, since the labels are often hollow pretences at thought. But this label fails to capture the essentially malicious intent of pejoratives. The search continues for a better label 🙂

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  4. labnut

    Another, and very common symptom of logophobia(alogosia) is failure to consider context. New Atheism is especially prone to this. Consider this statement by Nicholas Shackel:

    Either I know Nought Belief or I don’t. From the proof of left-to-right, if I know it then I don’t know it. If I don’t know it then I don’t know it. So by disjunctive syllogism I don’t know it. Since I know the premisses of this argument I know its conclusion by multi-premiss closure. Therefore I know that I don’t know Nought Belief.

    These contradictions don’t directly threaten the Knowledge Norm because of the assumption that I know the Knowledge Norm. So we could take it as a refutation of my knowing the Knowledge Norm, which refutation makes it now unknowable for me. Since you have followed my reasoning the upshot seems to be that because you have read this far, the knowledge norm is now unknowable for you too.

    Huh? Is this a new form of philosophy gobbledegook? What on earth is Nicholas Shackel trying to say? Considered on its own you could be forgiven for reaching this conclusion and you could be forgiven for making derisory comments about Nicholas Shackel’s philosophical work.

    But then look a little deeper and consider the wider context. That was the final paragraph for Shackle’s paper, The Nought Belief Paradox, published in Erkenntnis, Vol 79, Issue 3. Read the entire article and look at the references and a very different picture emerges, one that would be impossible to see without the context.

    Context free thought is an especially pernicious form of logophobia(alogosia).

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  5. brodix

    A useful reminder of the ubiquity of feedback;

    “But it would be unfortunate if Tenner were dismissed as just a cranky man in his 70s who thinks we spend too much time on our phones. What he is asserting is something we all know to be true. It’s bigger than the tyranny of efficiency. What he’s really asking is that we remember that the tools we’ve invented to improve our lives are just that, tools, to be picked up and put down. We wield them.”

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  6. Amanda Parr

    Ejwinner I agree with much of your response to labnut. It’s very dangerous to specify what is natural and ineluctable in human nature, especially since humans are adaptable and since without the culture in which we learn and develop, our minds would never reach anything like their human potential. The framing power of culture is brain deep.

    There is nevertheless the power to keep looking forward and to improve conditions through learning and knowledge, but this generally is triggered by economic upheaval, which in turn is triggered by technological change. Women could make their way into the cultural narrative only once they were liberated from the confines of the home, which the industrial revolution, then electricity and then then pill allowed. The waves of the women’s movement tend to correspond with the history of these changes that brought us more and more into the public sphere.

    The knowledge and culture of any age will inform (and misinform) reason, but not completely determine reason, which is what has allowed us to move forward, as long as we do not shut down thinking by insisting on some fixed ideas of what constitutes human nature.

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  7. Massimo Post author

    labnut,

    The use of epithets is nothing more than the use of thought for disreputable ends. It is not logophobia, the fear of thought. It is closer to alogosia, the absence of thought

    well, I’m going to disagree with Shackel there. No, I don’t think it’s the absence of thought, which is a near-impossible condition for a human being. Not to mention that “alogosia” really really doesn’t roll off my tongue.

    all of that said, please keep in mind that my use of logophobia here is meant in just, as the analog to the various “phobias” that people have invented of late in response to any criticism of their positions, no matter how mild or reasonable.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. SocraticGadfly

    Beyond all of this, classic insults are classically remembered. I first thought of Churchill’s comment about Atlee: “He is a modest man who has much to be modest about.”

    Second is the 1890s US House, under Speaker Tom “Czar” Reed.

    A member said, “I would rather be right than president,” to which Reed, from the Speaker’s dais, said, “The gentleman need not worry; he never will be either.”

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  9. Mark Shulgasser

    Massimo,

    Regarding ‘the correspondence theory of truth’ (indirectly consulting Dan as you suggest) I just came across this in Dan’s current post:

    “Philosophers can’t agree on . . . whether reality exists independently of our minds or is partly constituted by them; . . ”

    It’s perfectly possible to hold that theory in abeyance and still maintain everyday discourse and do science. I don’t think it needs to be treated like the theory of gravity.

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  10. Massimo Post author

    Mark,

    let me put it this way: I don’t see any positive reason to think that there is no mind-independent reality, and I consider the possibility akin to the fanciful notion of panpsychism: interesting, to be discussed over a beer, and then promptly filed away.

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  11. Robin Herbert

    Since there are two sets of threads on similar subjects I will suggest this twice.

    If we are to consider accusations of transphobia, racism etc as not being suitable refutation of arguments, shouldn’t we also consider “SJW” and “politically correct” in the same way?

    But what about “juvenile”, “sophomore” and “dilletante”?

    Is it a valid response to an argument to say that people who talk of such things must be immature or unserious, over privileged and have too much time on their hands, or that it is a topic only suitable for bull sessions in the “dorm” over beer?

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  12. Robin Herbert

    Massimo

    let me put it this way: I don’t see any positive reason to think that there is no mind-independent reality, and I consider the possibility akin to the fanciful notion of panpsychism: interesting, to be discussed over a beer, and then promptly filed away.

    Interestingly I wrote my above post before I read this.

    I agree that, on the current state of play, there is no reason to doubt the reality of that which we perceive.

    However if a certain ontology of physics, which is rapidly gaining popularity, were the case then it would seem to render it vanishingly improbable that the world we perceive is anything but an illusion.

    I refer to the implications of the simulation issue on EQM. If a simulated universe with at least one conscious actor is physically possible and computationally quite simple and if for every ‘real’ me there are infinitely many future branch universes then I don’t see how we can avoid being outnumbered by future simulations.

    Even if every physically possible future does not obtain (and this does not appear to be clear), we would still be outnumbered.

    And yet this will never be considered as even an issue for the plausibility of an EQM ontology because it is ‘juvenile’, ‘dilettante’, the sort of thing unserious people with too much time on their hands think about or that is discussed in “dorms”.

    It seems to me that if I must take the possibility of an EQM ontology seriously then I should be allowed to pose this objection seriously.

    On the other hand if such an objection is juvenile, sophomore, dilettante etc then shouldn’t the suggestion of an EQM ontology also be considered juvenile, sophomore and dilettante?

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  13. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    my point was not that nobody, ever, is, say, Islamophobic, or other kinds of “phobic.” My point(s) were that (i) it seems like those labels are now thrown around a bit too casually, often in a clear effort to intimidate and shut down discourse; and (ii) that labeling someone with a negative epiteth is rarely more than virtue signaling. And yes, I have been guilty of the same, sometimes. Never claimed to be a sage.

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  14. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    I refer to the implications of the simulation issue on EQM. If a simulated universe with at least one conscious actor is physically possible and computationally quite simple and if for every ‘real’ me there are infinitely many future branch universes then I don’t see how we can avoid being outnumbered by future simulations.

    Yeah, I follow a number of serious physicists and mathematicians who are beginnign to fed up with what they rightly see as empirically entirely unfounded metaphysical speculations that pass for cutting edge physics. I’m on their side.

    seems to me that if I must take the possibility of an EQM ontology seriously then I should be allowed to pose this objection seriously.

    But why take such an ontology seriously, considering that there isn’t the faintest empirical evidence in its favor? So far as I can tell, it’s metaphysical speculation, not at all different from the idea that the world isn’t “real.”

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  15. Robin Herbert

    Massimo,

    my point was not that nobody, ever, is, say, Islamophobic, or other kinds of “phobic.” My point(s) were that (i) it seems like those labels are now thrown around a bit too casually, often in a clear effort to intimidate and shut down discourse

    Yes, you will recall that I also said this – that I consider a whole range of people to be homophobic, but I still hate the way the term is used to shut conversation down.

    Nevertheless “juvenile”, “sophomore” and “dilettante” are also sometimes used to shut down conversation, albeit in a more civilised fashion.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Daniel Kaufman

    Robin: The problem, as far as I am concerned, is that “mind independent reality” is exceedingly difficult to actually spell out with any kind of precision and clarity. This is why I take views like Goodman’s and more classically, Kant’s, very seriously.

    It doesn’t bother me at all that Massimo thinks this is “to be discussed over a beer, and then promptly filed away.” It’s good enough for me to be in the company of Kant, Davidson, and Goodman.

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  17. Robin Herbert

    Who am I to say that something physicist say should be taken seriously should not be taken seriously?

    Here is Deutch:

    Horgan: Do you really, truly, believe in existence of other universes, as implied by the many-worlds hypothesis?

    Deutsch: It’s my opinion that the state of the arguments, and evidence, about other universes closely parallels that about dinosaurs. Namely: they’re real – get over it.

    So if Deutch considers not taking this seriously is akin to not taking seriously the reality of dinosaurs …?

    Interestingly the very next question goes:

    Horgan: Do you ever wonder whether our universe is a simulation created by super-intelligent aliens?

    Deutsch: I reject all explanations involving the supernatural, including that one.

    So in all those infinitely many universes branching out in the future and there won’t be any where they can build a machine that can produce a copy of the moment he is experiencing right now or that this kind of thing will be rare enough not to outnumber him at least 100 to 1? Indeed, in the next question he says that consciousness won’t always remain a mystery.

    I sometimes wonder if physicists quite understand the concept of infinity.

    It is always a little frustrating that the people who interview scientists like Deutsch never ask them this kind of question. But maybe Deutsch has agreed the questions in advance.

    In any case a base model, proof of concept universe simulator with at least one conscious actor is both physically possible and computationally reasonably simple. My wife has built three of these but for some reason I am unable to do so.

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  18. Robin Herbert

    If every physically possible future state of an observable state obtains then it seems like it is game over for EQM.

    That would imply that for every moment of experience produced by a real brain it must be infinitely outnumbered by future spurious copies of that exact moment, since they will all be physically possible.

    I could be wrong on this, although I don’t see why.

    But my point is that it should be regarded as a serious question to any person who regards MWI as a serious position.

    To be clear I do regard it as unserious, because I regard EQM as an unserious candidate for an ontology.

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  19. Massimo Post author

    Dan,

    What’s the difficulty in spelling it out? Saturn, the planet, has a kid independent reality just in case it existed before any kind could think of it, and would continue to exist if there were no minds capable of thinking of it. I’m aware that sometimes the scientist in me tears its ugly head, but…

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  20. brodix

    Robin,

    On your second point, if I may make a distinction between math and physics, using history; Epicycles were completely legitimate math, given we are the center of our view of the cosmos and it is ordered on large scales. We still refer to the sun and moon as “rising” and “setting.” The crystalline spheres and cosmic clockworks used to explain it were flawed physics, because certain factors were overlooked. I suspect certain sectors in academia are currently ignoring this distinction and assuming reality must have a one to one correspondence with their models, because the evident order is there and what isn’t being measured must not exist.

    On your first point, we are bundles of emotion, perception and imagination, with logic running a very distant fourth. Given there enormous numbers of people interacting, categories arise as necessary tools of communication, for good and bad.
    Life is a constant sorting process, as generations bloom and then are winnowed down to the progenitors of the next, so it is consequently painfully disturbing and if a particular argument appears detrimental to our view, the immediate response is to dismiss it and then build counterarguments as necessary. We might be on the losing side of history otherwise. Those able to build the broadest and most powerful coalitions tend to succeed and pass on their genes and social beliefs. Thus morality is prescriptive of successful societies.

    The problem is that often factors are in genuine conflict. Overlooking the social issues being discussed here, possibly less emotive ones to discuss would be economic and environmental ones, where arguments for economic growth conflict with environmental sustainability. In this situation, both sides tend project their views as political arguments designed to attract the most influence and power, rather than getting into the messy business of sorting through how we will terraform the planet and it will respond.

    We understand nature and nurture and how feedback builds the world we live in, but it doesn’t make a efficient political and clear moral point. So we muddle through.

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  21. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    Deutsch: It’s my opinion that the state of the arguments, and evidence, about other universes closely parallels that about dinosaurs. Namely: they’re real – get over it.

    Deutsch should take a course in paleontology. Or philosophy of science. Or both.

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  22. Mark Shulgasser

    I think I throw my hat in with Kaufman, Kant, Davidson, and Goodman. Not that ‘there is no mind-independent reality’ but rather that you can’t think about it. Of course Saturn is there when no one is looking at it. But how long has it been there? How can you answer that without years, which are products of thought and human experience?

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  23. Massimo Post author

    Mark,

    Of course Saturn is there when no one is looking at it. But how long has it been there? How can you answer that without years, which are products of thought and human experience?

    Forgive me, but that’s not at all a convincing argument. “Year” certainly is a human construct, but spans of time can be measured by instruments, and quite accurately. Saturn has been around for about 5 billion years, give or take. Regardless of what Kant, Davidson, or Goodman may say about it.

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  24. brodix

    Years are units derived from the earth circling the planet.

    Our imagination is very fertile. Witness unicorns and Santa Claus. Trying to peel away the layers is complicated and dismissing everything as illusionary is lazy.

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  25. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo: That we carve up the universe into discrete objects such as planets, stars, etc., is a function of our perceptual apparatus and conceptual schemes. Putnam makes the very same point in “The Many Faces of Realism,” which is why he considers himself a “quasi Realist.”

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  26. Robin Herbert

    There is a position that Shackel doesn’t cover – the “Black Knight” position.

    The Black Knight does not retreat from his Bailey to his Motte, but rather stands bravely and fights without retreating, all the time shouting “it’s just a flesh wound!” as each limb is cut off.

    This would be, say Intelligent Design, or perhaps the zombie argument and (may I impudently suggest) EQM.

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  27. Massimo Post author

    Dan,

    The more or less arbitrary cutting up of reality is an entirely different issue from whether there is a reality or not, which is what we were talking about.

    That said, to a very very good approximation, the planet Saturn is very clearly distinct from other such planets, the intermediate space being filled with mostly void. I really don’t see what the point is in splitting logical hairs here. It is the sort of thing Epictetus had little patience for, and the more I see it done by some of my colleagues the more I think he was right.

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