Anatomy of a frustrating conversation

Bates equationAs readers of this blog, of my books, and of pretty much everything else I’ve written so far know, I value rational discourse and (still) believe it to be the only way forward open to humanity. But boy it can get frustrating, sometimes! One such example occurred recently, during an increasingly surreal discussion I had with one of my relatives — about politics, pseudoscience (specifically, the non-existent connection between vaccines and autism), conspiracy theories (9/11), and much, much more.

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My friend Julia and the rationalistically relativist crowd

[Note: all excerpts from Julia’s Facebook page are reprinted here with permission from my friend. I invited Julia to comment on this essay, if she so wishes.]

As I have mentioned lately, I’m a bit concerned about certain people and attitudes within the broader skeptic movement, a concern that led to a fruitful recent exchange with my friend Steve Novella. Before that, I had expressed a worry about some over-interpreting of results from neuroscience and social psychology, seemingly suggesting that we are not as much Aristotle’s “rational animal,” as a rationalizing one, always busy confabulating in order to justify our own points of view no matter what. The two worries came together in the immediate aftermath of the US Presidential election, when I read with utmost interest a series of exchanges between my friend Julia Galef (with whom I used to co-host the Rationally Speaking podcast) and some of her followers on Facebook. The evidence is, of course, anecdotal, but it fits with the above worries I’ve been harboring for some time, based on my broader experience with self-professed skeptics.

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Munchausen’s trilemma and the impossibility of certain truth

Munchausen'S bootstrapOne day the Baron Munchausen found himself stuck in a mire together with his horse. The situation was dire, but he managed to save himself (and his horse!) by pulling his hair up until he was lifted out of the mud.

Obviously, Munchausen’s feat is impossible, as it violates the law of gravity. So it is fitting that it gives the name to the most compelling demonstration of the impossibility of another impossibility that human beings have been after for quite some time: certain knowledge.

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Ought, is, and logic

young Immanuel Kant

Last month I published an essay on alleged empirical evidence that Kant’s idea that ought implies can (OIC) is false. To refresh your mind, the paper I discussed was published by Vladimir Chituc and co-workers, who claimed that — because a good number of random folks say that someone ought to do X when it is plain impossible for X to actually be carried out — then Kant’s famous dictum from the Critique of Pure Reason: “The action to which the ‘ought’ applies must indeed be possible under natural conditions,” must be wrong. I suggested instead that the folks used as subjects by Chituc and colleagues simply didn’t understand basic logic. An epic Twitter battle ensued.

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Two favorite philosophers: Bertrand Russell and Gilbert Ryle

Bertrand RussellHere comes another of my occasional conversations with my colleague Dan Kaufman of Missouri State University. (Incidentally, he and two other former collaborators to my now archived Scientia Salon webzine have just started an excellent new project, The Electric Agora.)

This time we simply each picked one philosopher that was highly influential in our careers, or who has somehow shaped our way of thinking about philosophy, and chatted about it for a bit. I think the episode is worth checking out, it came out much better than the above somewhat lame description may suggest.

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The Fake, the Flimsy, and the Fallacious: Demarcating Arguments in Real Life

logical fallaciesI recently co-authored a paper — together with Maarten Boudry and Fabio Paglieri — on the topic of so-called “informal” fallacies. These are instances of bad inductive reasoning (as opposed to formal fallacies, which are far fewer in number, and concerning strictly deductive reasoning).

The problem that Maarten, Fabio and I write about is that accusations of informally fallacious reasoning (“ad hominem!”, “red herring!”) are actually too easily hurled around during debates, when in fact many times the alleged fallacy is a pretty reasonable heuristic, or a first approximation at tackling a problem.

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Nonexistent objects

PegasusFrom time to time I like to bring to people’s attention pieces of technical writing in philosophy that I think deserve a wider audience than the academic one. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on nonexistent objects, by Maria Reicher, is one of these.

It’s fairly long (28 pages in the pdf version), which is standard for SEP entries, and parts of it are difficult to follow for people without the necessary background. Still, it’s worth taking a look at as a general entryway into the issues raised by objects that don’t exist, and yet about which we talk as if they had attributes.

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