The Münchhausen Trilemma

Posted by Anti Citizen One on July 15th, 2010

An interesting problem that arises from logic is the Münchhausen Trilemma. This applies in most situations when we are arguing to support a particular proposition (justificationism). A problem arises when we ask where do the axioms of a logical argument come from? This is expressed in the three “horns” of the Münchhausen Trilemma:

  • The circular argument, in which theory and proof support each other. A because B. B because A. e.g. “The Bible is true because the Bible says so.” Since anything can be justified by a circular argument, it is considered absurd to use this as a valid logical argument. It is also can involve tautology.
  • The regressive argument, in which each proof requires a further proof. A because of B, B because C, C because D, to infinity. If every proposition is supported by other propositions, there is no “foundational axiom”. Since there is no foundational axiom, we cannot even try to assess if our basic assumptions are true. Therefore we cannot know if our conclusion is true or false. This is classically seen in some versions of the cosmological argument.
  • The axiomatic argument, which rests on accepted precepts. This is problematic for the philosopher, as how can we know our axioms are true? Hume, among others, have pointed out the impossibility of a priori knowledge of a posteriori experience. We also can use the argument from obviousness, but this can be countered by claiming “nothing is obvious”, Descartes evil dæmon, Plato’s cave, etc. Also, if there is a disagreement on the truth value of an axiom, there is no way to verify it – this allows possibly any axiom to be claimed as “obvious” and we are back to absurdity. Mathematics rests on axiomatic assumptions but this is acceptable for an abstract field of knowledge. But outside a-priori knowledge, certainty of axioms seems impossible.

    “I shall begin with observing, that there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. […] I propose this argument as entirely decisive, and am willing to rest the whole controversy upon it.” Cleanthes in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

Given the objections and doubts of all possible logical justification, we are forced to conclude that no certainty in a-posteriori knowledge is possible! This leads us to fallibilism, the belief that all knowledge could, in principle, be mistaken. I do not go as far as claiming knowledge is impossible (for one thing, that statement might be considered “knowledge”).

Another way of analysing justification of logical argument is Fries’s trilemma. This ignores circular arguments (since they are worthless) and splits Münchhausen’s “axiomatic argument” into two futher divisions.

  • Dogmatism – we can just assume the truth value of axioms. This is usually unacceptable to philosophers. It also opens the door to possibly false statements.
  • Infinite regress – again, a problem.
  • Psychologism – defined by Popper as “the doctrine that statements can be justified not only by other statements but also by perceptional experience.” Remember that this too abandons certainty in knowledge, due to the variability in interpretation of perceptions. This highlights the need for philosophy to be aware of psychology.

Given the apparently inescapably of fallibilism, anyone who claims to be certain of something is “a question mark concerning his wisdom”. We need modesty in what we know. But I don’t think most people would be comfortable with the idea that everything they know could be false…

Anti Citizen One

PS Simpsons Quote: Moe: “It’s po-mo! [blank stares from all] Post-modern! [more staring] Yeah, all right — weird for the sake of weird.”

PPS Looks like the UK government was in on the US’s torture and rendition antics the whole time.

Museums, McCausland, Creationism, Truth and All That

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 14th, 2010

I certain news item prompted me to think about the role of institutions with respect to knowledge. The Northen-Irish Culture minister privately wrote to the Ulster Museum, calling for minority opinions to be represented in exhibits. This letter was leaked. The letter’s intent is fairly questionable: what does the minister know about running a museum? On the other hand, the minister claims it is a “human rights” issue. I am not sure that representation of public opinion, even of minority groups, in museums is a human right. Human rights protect individuals, not groups. However, cultural rights protect groups, but this concept is half baked IMHO. The minister included creationism as one of the minority views that should be represented. For many people, this makes his intellectual credibility self destruct. He has called for “reasonable discussion” of the issue, but refused to personally enter into further debate on creationism – which seems contradictory to me. But this raises an interesting question, who determines what is called “truth” at museums and institutions?

We might choose institutional gatekeeper based on our intended outcome of the institution’s functioning. This raises a new problem: who determines what role institutions have? But the choices include: experts (meritocracy), central institutions (propaganda), tradition, the institution’s members (democratic) or public opinion (widely democratic). I guess that history, being written “by the winners”, has a measure of political influence, this is probably unavoidable. But when taken too far, reality is rejected in an Orwellian fashion to suite the ruling party. This occurs in many places in the world, from Texas removing inconvenient topics in text books to North Korea in cloud cuckoo land and Turkey brushing genocide under the carpet. For museums, we also don’t particularly want democratic or public opinion deciding what is historical knowledge; a history based on public opinion would be similar to mythology. I hope that experts would do better. That last statement is a bit of a tautology: I am defining “expert” as someone who can arrive at correct historical knowledge. An obvious objection is “who decides who is an expert?”. This is particularly a problem since non-experts generally don’t have the capability to evaluate who is in expert.

This question is slightly easier in science. Although the peer review system generally works, it is not the fundamental consideration in determining what is scientific knowledge, rather it is falsificationism (if we allow Popper’s view). But other domains of knowledge of networks of peer review. But just because a school of knowledge has peer review, does not necessarily imply it is not quackery. (Of course, post-modernists might claim it is all just different points of view – well they should know all about “hot air”.) What is historical knowledge? Anyway, there is probably no point in getting as pedantic as Popper can be on the answer here. I don’t think there is a philosophically satisfactory answer, beyond existentially deciding it should be X, Y or Z. Anyway, moving on from these abstract considerations…

In my view, expert historians should determine what appears in museums – not politicians or public opinion! One necessary (but not sufficient) requirement for expects is intellectual integrity. “…and what is that?” No definitive answer again. But it might include: critical thinking and not over estimating what is currently known (personally and collectively, see also “Socratic ignorance”), as well as the limitations on what is knowable. Creationism fails spectacularly on these criteria. I guess my crude definition of intellectual integrity is scepticism (remember this is just my view). Of course, believers have their own criteria – but they fail my criteria. I have less objections to fideism compared to flawed arguments from evidence. Evidence based creationists and people with intellectual integrity are two non-overlapping groups. (Sorry to friends who might be offended, but it’s my sincere view). For more information, see Hume’s good ol’ Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Finally, if we admit creationism into museums, any interpretation however ridiculous could be included in museums. To put it another way, if we include the Christian creation, why exclude the Norse creation myth? or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? If we do allow public opinion to determine historical knowledge, absurdity results. What the minister is tacitly calling for is only “serious” myths to be called history – the ones deemed “worthy” are decided by an outside force, religion and politics in this case. In other words, it is a call for propaganda to replace history.

Anti Citizen One

PS. A quote that I like, with debatable relevance:

And can you blame me, CLEANTHES, if I here imitate the prudent reserve of SIMONIDES, who, according to the noted story, being asked by HIERO, What God was? desired a day to think of it, and then two days more; and after that manner continually prolonged the term, without ever bringing in his definition or description? Could you even blame me, if I had answered at first, that I did not know, and was sensible that this subject lay vastly beyond the reach of my faculties?


Review: The Real God (part 2)

Posted by on October 13th, 2008

In his apologetic for Christian and Theistic Realism Richard Harries deals with the tricky field of arguments for the existence of God. This is rather important as he is after all trying to argue for the existence of God as a real being, and furthermore propose that it can be posited using realist language.

Perhaps suprisingly he is not altogether convinced by the standard or classic arguments/proofs of the existence of God and even goes so far as to describe them as “regulative ideas” inasmuch as it lends comforting support to “those who would like to see the world as the product of a rational intelligence”. Yet, he argues, such regulative ideas are nothing more than “nice” – they have little logical foundation (they cannot stand alone). His concession to the traditional arguments is thus: “the so-called proof therefore must always leave the matter open”. In other words it is not so much a logical formula that may be presented to the sceptic or unbeliever in the hope that they would somehow be convinced of the necessity of belief, as it is a grounding in rational thought that satisfies the already believing.

I would like now to focus on his treatment of the argument from design, as it is an argument that still has great currency amongst theists and which causes the most consternation for materialist atheists – not least because of the seemingly pseudo-scientific nature of the language game that some modern proponents of the design argument seem to adhere to.

Harries argues that the argument from design fails from the outset. The notion that as a computer may infer a human designer so too the world implies a divine designer is an illogical inference by progression. The inference demands a standard of comparison and by its definition the universe (i.e. all ‘created’ matter) is beyond complete or categorical perception and thus will not yeild to comparison.

When it comes to the universe, I do not have a category of designed universes to compare with another category that have somehow sprung up of themselves. There is only one universe. (There may very well be many worlds in addition to this one but by definition the God with whom we are concerned is the Creator of all possible worlds, i.e. the universe.) So we are simpy not in a position, on the basis of logic, to say whether the universe is designed or not. The matter is open.

I would add that the God-hypothesis Harries is proposing (i.e. the Judaeo-Christian creator God) similarly by necessity is the creator of all possible universes, and if we wish to talk of parallel universes then a new terminology such as meta-universe is needed.

Harries continues by praising as an example the evolutionary account of the creatures of the world such as those posited by Dawkins. He has no problem with the theory that says that “through a process of natural selection and random mutation… the most complex and beautiful forms can evolve from simple ones over a long period of time.” This is a thoroughly reasonable scientific account and as the evidence to support it grows we have little or no reason to doubt its retitude.

However this does not negate the idea of a designer – as he has already argued the classical proof as it is, is beyond resolution and the argument must remain open. Consequently he advocates a theory of theistic evolution (without going into details).

He also accepts – to the point of sympathy anyway – the position of scepticism about God’s goodness as evinced through the waste and violence that is resplendent throughout nature. But he suggests this does not negate the idea of design and is concerned with altogether a different matter entirely. He neatly wraps up the theistic evolutionary worldview with a quote from Frederick Temple in the 19th century “God makes the world make itself”. In short he argues arguments from design do not prove the existence of God or design, but neither does a scientific description of how the ‘process’ works resolve the God-hypothesis either.

A final brief comment on the classic arguments for the existence of God as found in the philosophy of religion and their alienation from religious belief as practised and lived goes as follows: “A person could come to the end of a logical train of argument with the conclusion that God must logically, exist: and it could leave him stone cold.”

The classic arguments focusing as they do on various aspects or properties of the proposed divinity always diminish the meta-concept of the divinity that the Judeao-Christian traditions believe in and worship.

Later on in his consideration of rational arguments or proofs of the existence of God he touches on a postmodern or holistic psychology of belief and disbelief. “It is always possible to give a psychological explanation of both belief and disbelief.”

Of course such explanations do not prove/disprove the beliefs but they may shed further understanding on the processes involved. He uses monotheism and its attachment to the argument from causality as an example. A monetheist

“looking at the argument from causality will always tend to have some sympathy with it and want to go along with it, because he or she already believes there is a Creator. Because their heart already moves in gratitude from Creation to Creator, it is natural for their mind to move in that direction as well. Cardinal Newman once wrote that: ‘The whole man moves, paper logic is but the record of it.’ I believe this is too extreme and that logic can act as the helmsman of the ship, not simply a log book of where we have been. Nevertheless, Newman’s remark does bring out the important truth, that our great shifts of belief or disbelief are never purely intellectual, they involve the whole person. So, because we know God in our own life, we will naturally believe him to be present in the life of the world of which we are a part.”

I am reminded of two Wittgenstein quotes here that I feel are relevent (though I shall paraphrase). Firstly that the sum of belief dawns on the believer in the same way that as the sun rises we can better see to the horizon (in other words belief may be enhanced by logical or rational argument but rarely if ever can it be prompted by it). Secondly the world of the happy man is very different to that of the unhappy man – thus reinforcing Harries psychological point I think that a person who is inclined to theism will see and feel the strength of arguments that support his belief even though independent of this a priori belief those same arguments are incapable of logically resolving the questions.

I am moved to remember that St Anselm talked of “Faith seeking Understanding” and not of understanding or knowledge in order to find Faith.

Harries concludes the chapter concerning belief with a brief discussion on the various types of disbelief. “I suspect that most of those who disbelieve do so because they have had a bad experience of religion. Some do so because their understanding of religion is full of misconceptions. Some may be unwilling to make the necessary changes in lifestyle which the Christian faith asks of us. Others see no way of reconciling the tragic quality of so much existence with the claim that there is a loving Creator. There is a variety of reasons, all of which have to be looked at seperately.”

I find this brief paragraph unsatisfactory. On the one hand I appreciate his nuanced commentary that “atheism” is not one single monolothic entity. That there are various types of disbelief and reasons for disbelief and that each needs be considered seperately. I think that this kind of pluralism is a healthy alternative to the ‘them and us’ mentality often exhibited by the loudest tub-thumpers for either side. Yet I feel that he has missed out on the category of disbelievers who genuinely have concluded – indeed one might say believe – that there is no God. He would probably classify these as ‘misconceptions’ and this would betray the chauvenistic attitude of someone who maintains that in the end belief is good and disbelief (at the least) harmful to the self.

I would add though that such a category is difficult to discuss – atheists don’t like to be called ‘believers’ – even if they object to a narrow or naive definition of faith/belief. I would propose that it may even be difficult to isolate these different types of disbelief – for a person who through a solely materialist epistemology has decided that there is no God may very well have also had a bad experience of religion, hold different views on morality, and even be responding negatively to a radically different God-hypothesis than that held by believers.

Also he tends to bypass agnostics here, although one may say that his stance that the “proofs” of the existence of God are not “proofs” and that philosophically the matter remains open is a nod in their direction. All in all though despite these criticisms I think he displays a fairmindedness and openness to plurality of belief all too rare in this arena of debate.

The real and the simulated

Posted by on June 2nd, 2008

This weekend saw an enormous fire break out at the Universal Film Studios in Los Angeles. Now apart from the ecological impact, and the possibility of losing some valuable film material this really isnt a story liable to interest me. They are sufficiently rich to be able to rebuild.

News Article here.

However in amongst the details of the story came my quote of the week, from Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge who offered these words of wisdom:

“It looked like a disaster film”

Ok, I could comment on how ironic this would be, but I realised this has a more serious side to it (intentionally or not). Jean Baudrillard postmodernist philosopher who spent years writing about the real and the hyperreal, signs and signifiers, simulacra and simulation, once had something interesting to say on this matter. I had always found it interesting but had found practical examples elusive.

In arguably his most famous work Simulacra and Simulation he proposes that modern technological man has slowly but thoroughly replaced reality and meaning with symbols and signs. And that mans experience of the real, is more often than not these days an artifical experience of a simulated reality. The signs of culture and media create our percieved reality. Baudrillard goes so far as to suggest that we have got to a stage where we have lost contact with the real, so reliant are we upon these simulacra.

A pop-culture reference to this work could be found in sci-fi film The Matrix (though Baudrillard thought it was a distortion of his ideas).

Anyway it seemed worthy of comment that not only is it ironic that one should describe a devestating fire at a film studio as being like watching a disaster movie – but perhaps this is an example of the linguistic shift away from the real that Baudrillard was on about. The fire wasnt described as being a disaster (which it was), but as being like a disaster movie, which is only a simulation of the real thing. The “real” thing, was so “realistic”, it was just like the “realistic simulation” of the “real” thing we are so used to seeing on our movie screens!!!

Perhaps I am doing a terrible injustice to the poor politician who was hired as a rent-a-quote, but it does all remind me of another Baudrillard quip once made concerning America.

“Disneyland helps us to forget that the rest of America is essentially a theme park.”