God would be just another mind

One of the things that annoys me about the study of philosophy is how frequently philosophers equate "God" with "Absolutes."  Even atheistic philosophers generally concede to the claim that, if God* exists, it naturally follows that there is an objective morality, truths about experience, right and wrong aesthetic judgement, etc. This really bothers me.  I can't see any sense in which, if God existed, it would be anything other than just another mind, thinking and acting within the universe.  Its conclusions would, therefore, be just as subject to the criticisms raised by nihilism and relativism than anyone else's.  Its positions would be better informed, but if there's no moral law in the universe outside God, its positions are just as subjective as everyone else's.  On the other hand, if there were universal moral laws built into the physical law of the universe, then there's no need for God to vouchsafe them.

You could argue that God has access to the moral laws that humans don't, but then God is just an intermediary -- a glorified Priest, officiating the will of the real Deity, the uncaring universe.  In that case, the only advantage God gives us is as a tool of increased perception.  From there, all the traditional problems of the existence of God are still present, but if you argue that, you would have to concede that even if there was a God, there's still objective right and wrong.

I'll be posting my Pulp Fiction post later tonight, but this was bugging me so I wanted to get it down.

And, for the record, I think meaning and morality are inherently subjective premises, and the most valid way to sort out which elements can be extended beyond the individual is pragmatism.

*I'm capitalizing it because I'm using the term to refer to a single, omnipotent, universal entity, rather than the broader sense of god which would include more limited, personal gods like Zeus or Jesus.

Quantum stuff

So, I don't get quantum physics. I mean, I'm cool with that.  I don't think I'm supposed to.  As I understand it, quantum physicists don't get quantum physics.

But the thing about an electron being both a particle and a wave throws me off.

There was a video of Richard Feynman, wherein he explained that it's not that it's a particle or a wave or both, but that we can't comprehend what it is, and both the 'particle' and 'wave' models are useful metaphors for grasping their behaviors in certain contexts.   Unfortunately, I couldn't find that video.

This interpretation is appealing to me, because I like the idea that it's actually quite simple, there's nothing particularly weird or metaphysical going on, that the fundamental constituents of matter aren't behaving in ways that contradict comprehension, just ways that defy it.

But I'm nervous to accept that explanation, I think for the same reasons I hesitate to accept any explanation of quantum physics:  If I can understand it, I doubt it can be right.

Do any quantum physicists read my blog?  Can you help?

Text, Context, Subtext

I stayed up far to late last night, and spent a little bit of time re-watching old Vlogbrothers videos, and this one got me thinking:

If you didn't watch it, the key quote to my point (which I quote here unironically) is:  "It's impossible to pull a line or a sentence or even a chapter from a book and understand the meaning of that section. Because as much as it pains us in this soundbitey twittery world, text means nothing without its context."

Now, I generally agree with that claim.  I don't think you can really understand the meaning of any given line from a book or poem unless you've read that book or poem, and know at least a little bit about the context within which it was written.  Of course, recontextualizing it can allow it to take on new meanings, that the original author might never have intended.  But in a larger work, authors can work pretty hard to develop a sense of context and subtext that inform the interpretation of every subsequent sentence.  For example:

"Oh yes. Richard and Anthem 2.00. Susan, that thing has got to be in beta testing in two weeks.  He tells me it's fine.  But every time I see him he's got a picture of a sofa spinning on his computer screen.

That's from the book I'm currently reading, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and won't make proper sense if you haven't read much of the preceding page and at least one chapter that turns up later in the book.  In fact, that sentence might turn out to have significance I can't even begin to appreciate now, before I've finished reading the entire novel.


So, obviously we can't take a single sentence and assume we've got the whole context.  But on the alternative end of things, do you have to understand everything, know everything, have an intimate appreciation for the whole of the history of the universe, before you can claim to appreciate anything within its proper context?

That belief cracks under even the slightest pressure of pragmatism -- if there has to be a level of context we can deem 'close enough to live by,' that's certainly not it, because you can't live by it.


My question, then, is:  is there any way to design a sort of criteria test for figuring out how much context one should provide?  Does such a test or standard already exist?  Ideally, it would be clear enough that anyone with a reasonable interest in whether they're miscontextualizing would be able to apply it, and transparent enough that in cases of obvious exceptions, one should be able to explain why the rules are different in that case.

When science doesn't cut it

I wrote recently about degrees of doubt, suggesting that the reality of radical doubt more defended than opposed the preferrability of science as a method for sorting out reality.  As I pointed out in a footnote:

I hope to elaborate, in future, on my views about levels of doubt.  I think the issue is more complicated than the points I’ve laid out here, although I don’t think any of the complications are particularly relevant to this argument.

So, I wanted to start doing that.

The way I see it, there are six rough categories into which one can break up levels of credulity.  Moving from the most doubt to the least:

  1. Radical doubt The belief that nothing at all can be proven if it can't be proven to 100% certainty.  Any doubt is absolute doubt.  This level is useful mostly as a placeholder.
  2. Rational acceptance The belief that what rationally makes sense can be accepted as true.  So, 2+2=4, cogito ergo sum, but not 'water exists'.
  3. Empirical acceptance The belief that our sensory experience bears a relationship to reality, and that if, after significant effort, an idea hasn't been disproven, it can be accepted as true.
  4. Good faith The belief that current experience can be accepted as true by default, unless past experience or obvious logical flaw contradict it.
  5. Suspension of disbelief The belief that current experience can be accepted as true by default, with precedence over past experience or obvious logical flaws.
  6. Radical acceptance The belief that all things are true, real, and cogent.  Any evidence is absolute evidence.  This level is useful mostly as a placeholder.

Level 4 is the one I want to talk about right now.

I think any skeptic is familiar with the refrain, "Science doesn't know everything," as though that wipes out everything science does know.  And it's frustrating, because as a conversational tactic it attempts to force the skeptic, defending his worldview, into a more extreme position of claiming everything she does is scientifically sound.

And that's obviously not true.  It's an easy straw man to knock down, and, to be honest, it's easy to pressure most skeptics off of their solid home ground and into this rhetorical trap.  (That's an issue of culture and our common language for these topics, and I don't want to get into it here.)

The truth is that no one can be fully aware of the science, and many of the things most essential to our daily interactions are still beyond science's grasp.

In my experience, the answer to this that skepticism brings to the table is twofold.  First, accepting that  'I don't know' is a good enough answer to the overwhelming majority of questions.  A good skeptic gets used to saying 'I don't know' a lot.

And second, when the situation demands an answer better than 'I don't know' but scientific answers are out of reach (like, when deciding whether to pursue a relationship, or figuring out whether you can trust your friends) the good, skeptical thing to do is to assume the information you have is good, and to remain open to new information as it arises.

Human life is complicated and tricky, and most of the experiences we have aren't going to be clear-cut enough to be at all useful in an empirical sense.  Trying to draw scientific conclusions from personal experiences is insane, and unscientific. Nobody lives long enough to gather enough data to tease out good information, and nobody's memory is good enough to provide that data in a useful way.

But that doesn't mean that we don't use science when we have it.  An individual may not be able to gather enough experience with cancer treatments to determine which ones work best, but the scientific institution can.  And just because we don't have that wealth of information for questions like what shoes to wear in every circumstance doesn't mean the information about the cancer treatment isn't good.

And, of course, in any case you don't absolutely need to make an immediate decision, "I don't know" is generally good enough to hold you over.

Why Radical Doubt doesn't really support supernatural or anti-scientific beliefs

There's an argument for non-mainstream, non-scientific beliefs* that goes something like this:  "You can't know anything.  You can't really ever know what other people are experiencing, what things happen to them, and what's true for them.  So to claim that there's a right answer to questions about reality is just always wrong." It sounds like a stupid argument, doesn't it?  But I've had conversations -- I've had many conversations -- where people actually try to defend their supernatural or anti-scientific** beliefs with that argument.  Not a more sophisticated version, or a subtle take on that argument, but that argument itself.

So, for a moment, I'm going to take it seriously.

After all, it's a valid proposition.  It's true that we can't ever know anything to 100% certainty.  It's also true that science frequently 'changes its mind' about things, if only in the sense that new information often subtly and sometimes radically changes our best understanding of the probable reality.  For example, apparently in the last two decades, the consensus changed from the belief that dogs were more closely related to cats than bears, to the opposite.

But that doesn't mean everyone's completely off the hook for deciding what to believe in.

Once we've agreed that we can't know anything with perfect certainty, we have to decide upon a method for deciding what we will believe, and what we won't.

I'm going to assume, for the sake of argument, that being able to function in life is among your goals.  We've already agreed that rational argument is a valid route to truth, because if we don't concede that things rationally make sense, then concepts like "100%" and "absolute certainty" don't belong in the argument.

The next step to take is to agree that our experience of the world outside ourselves, our sensory experiences, have at least some connection to reality, however vague.  Without this belief, we are so deeply without information that we can't take any sort of action that could conceivably have meaning.

As far as I can tell, the earliest point of functional acceptance travelling from radical doubt to absolute credulity is an acceptance of science where it's available, less-than-scientific evidence where it's not available and a conclusion is absolutely necessary, and a whole lot of "I don't know."†

Alternately, we could go with any other level of doubt -- levels which range from crippling solipsism to self-endangerment.  But I think the most damning argument against more credulity than I've proposed is that not much farther past the position I've proposed, you're faced with the reality that there are several, if not hundreds or thousands, of roughly equally valid positions.

There are a great many reasons why this is philosophically unsound, but my biggest objection to it is that it makes a person ethically suspect.  Because their behavior is based on essentially unknowable variables, what they believe is 'ethical' becomes both inarguable and, usually, nonsensical.  Greta Christina has argued, and I agree, that this is the greatest danger of religion.

One of the great benefits of science is that it narrows down to a very small number of potentially right answers.  Even if you don't believe that science is always right, or that it's the only valid window into the truth, it certainly offers the best odds.

*I'm not saying that all mainstream, scientific beliefs are true -- they're often proven wrong, mainstream beliefs especially, and one should be duly credulous of all claims not clearly supported.  But there are arguments that make sense for deconstructing beliefs in that category.  This one doesn't. **For the purposes of this blog post, I'm defining "Anti-scientific" as "explicitly contradicted by accepted science, and not supported by any cutting-edge science."  Examples:  Homeopathy, vaccines as a cause of autism, '9/11 truth' conspiracy theories. †I hope to elaborate, in future, on my views about levels of doubt.  I think the issue is more complicated than the points I've laid out here, although I don't think any of the complications are particularly relevant to this argument.