Monday, July 11, 2011

The difference between horizontal and vertical thinking

There they go again. I've blogged numerous times here about penchant of the adherents of the Religion of Science to step into the little philosophical wading pools they build for themselves, splash around in them with their intellectual floaties thinking they're the philosophical version of Michael Phelps, and then hop out, critiquing the pool setup and declaring how easy it all was.

Jerry Coyne is particularly good at this and has been splashing around a lot recently in posts at his blog Why Evolution is True. He's been doing the same thing with theology too. He gets some books, can't understand much of what they say, turns them upside down to see if they make more sense that way, and then declares that it's all a bunch of hooey.

What would New Atheist types say if a critic of science devoid of any expertise whatsoever in any scientific discipline say if he got a hold of, say a chemistry book, didn't understand any of the terminology, had no clue about the periodic table and didn't know mathematics, but felt qualified to offer learned opinions on the subject?

I've critiqued several of Coyne's past attempts at philosophy here, here, and here. But unfortunately for Coyne and his atheist brethren, philosopher Ed Feser has penned another great take-down at his blog. He's also got some good links to the other articles he's done on the subject.

I think the problem with these people who like to play amateur philosopher every few weeks but don't have the slightest idea what they're doing is that they are exclusively extensional thinkers. In the old system of traditional logic, there was a distinction between what was called "extension" and what was called "comprehension." The philosopher Francis Beckwith has made the same observation in the comments section of this blog.

The extension of a term is its real world referents. If I ask what the extension of the term "man" is, the answer is all the men who ever were, are, or will be. If I ask what the comprehension of the term "man" is, the answer is a rational, sentient, living, material substance. The former doesn't tell me the meaning of the term, but only its application. The latter tells me the intellectual content of the term. It's the difference between defining man as a featherless biped and as a rational animal.

Coyne and his ilk are so used to going around measuring and weighing everything that when they are called upon (or call upon themselves) to address a thing's meaning or significance, they automatically grab for the nearest measuring instruments. And when they don't get a proper reading, they start shaking their heads in confusion, thinking the problem is with what they've read rather than in their own ability to understand it.

I have somethings termed scientific (or, more properly, scientistic) thinking horizontal thinking, and philosophical thinking vertical thinking. This comes out starkly when the cosmological argument for the existence of God comes up. The first thing out of their mouths is a purported refutation of the Kalam version of the argument, which involves the attempt to prove that the universe had a first cause in time. It is a horizontal argument.

But just try to explain to them St. Thomas' version of the argument which has nothing to do with a horizontal chain of causation in time, but rather with the vertical or ontological order of causation that does not assume a beginning of the universe. Plan on spending some time on it.

You will hear this kind of thing voiced here on this blog by several of the commentators who, as much as your Humble Host loves them, can be counted upon to ask me what scientific evidence I have for some philosophical belief I have voiced, wondering what the readings were on my scientific instruments. These are people who think there must be a how answer to every what and why question.

Now, watch them ask me what scientific evidence I have for this opinion.

21 comments:

Singring said...
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Singring said...

'You will hear this kind of thing voiced here on this blog by several of the commentators who, as much as your Humble Host loves them, can be counted upon to ask me what scientific evidence I have for some philosophical belief I have voiced, wondering what the readings were on my scientific instruments. These are people who think there must be a how answer to every what and why question.'

It is ironic how you bemoan the supposed ignorance of scientists toward philosophy and then make a statement like this.

I (and others, I presume) don't ask you to give evidence for your philosophical beliefs because we believe that there must be a 'how' answer to the question - but because we want to know if the question makes sense in the first place and if it does - how we can tell that your philosophical answer is any better than anyone else's philosophical answer.

You have made this mistake time and time again and every time you are challenged on it, you avoid the issue or resort to absurd justification like 'its self-evident!'.

For example:

You say that Aquinas 'ontological' chain of causes is a valid philosophical answer to the question of our existence.

I ask you: How do you know that there even are 'ontological causes'?

Here's my thesis: 'There are no ontological causes - that's self-evident!'

How do you demonstrate I am wrong?

Art said...

Martin, you're not very good at geometry, are you?

What you call "horizontal" is better thought of as linear. What you call "vertical" is quite plainly circular.

It's an debate for the ages as to which geometric form carries more philosophical weight. But in the reality-based community, there is no argument.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

I (and others, I presume) don't ask you to give evidence for your philosophical beliefs because we believe that there must be a 'how' answer to the question - but because we want to know if the question makes sense in the first place and if it does - how we can tell that your philosophical answer is any better than anyone else's philosophical answer.

Fine. But your method for determining whether something makes philosophical sense is applying quantitative scientific criteria.

Doesn't work that way.

Martin Cothran said...

You say that Aquinas 'ontological' chain of causes is a valid philosophical answer to the question of our existence.

I ask you: How do you know that there even are 'ontological causes'


I am unclear what you mean by "valid answer." If you mean the argument is technically valid, that is easy to demonstrate and I don't think is terribly controversial. If you mean, on the other hand, that one or more of the premises are false, that is not a matter of validity.

The only premise that is really arguable is the one concerning the principle of sufficient condition (that things must have an explanation). You can fall on your sword and say that things don't have an explanation, but that would undermine your belief in science.

But go ahead. Make my day.

Martin Cothran said...

Art,

What you call "horizontal" is better thought of as linear. What you call "vertical" is quite plainly circular.

That's cute. But maybe you would care to explain how a philosophical explanation for something is "circular"--without being circular yourself.

Singring said...

'But your method for determining whether something makes philosophical sense is applying quantitative scientific criteria.'

What is wrong with that? Things that explain empirical evidence sufficiently I assume to be true. I see no need to accept any hypotheses that do nothing to explain the data. They are superfluous until demonsztrated otherwise. Why are you so fundamentally opposed to this (in my opinion) very reasonable basic assumption? Why is it reasonable to open the door to all manner of fanciful, flamboyant and completely unnecessary additional assumptions? Why is it that you call out for us to 'turn to God' when we simply don't require any such entity to explain the data?

If you like the idea of positing such am entity, if it gives you comfort, if it entertains you, if it makes you feel happy - then more power to you. But for goodness sake stop telling everyone else that if they don't accept your creative notions in this regard as true that they are being unreasonable or somehow wrong in their entire world view.

More importantly: Don't tell them how to live their lives for no other reason than that your fanciful ideas demand it.

'I am unclear what you mean by "valid answer."'

I mean that it is a true answer - or at least probably true as far as we can tell.

In other words - what reasons can you provide that Aquinas' idea that ontological causes exist (e.g. that these causes have effects etc.) is true and explains the data better than my idea that they don't exist?

'If you mean, on the other hand, that one or more of the premises are false, that is not a matter of validity.'

But it does very much impinge on whether the conclusion is true, don't you agree?

'The only premise that is really arguable is the one concerning the principle of sufficient condition (that things must have an explanation)'

What is the explanation for God?

(I'm not getting into the whole causality argument again, the above suffices as an invalidation of the premise).

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Things that explain empirical evidence sufficiently I assume to be true. I see no need to accept any hypotheses that do nothing to explain the data.

This was my whole point: the only way to reject the cosmological argument is to say that there are things that have no explanation.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

If you like the idea of positing such am entity, if it gives you comfort, if it entertains you, if it makes you feel happy - then more power to you.

Uh, how is saying that the universe as a whole must have an explanation entertaining? It seems completely consonant with a scientific mindset to me.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

You seem to be completely missing the force of the cosmological argument. When you say, "What explains God," you completely ignore that, in order for the world to have an explanation (that the cosmological argument refers to as "God"), that explanation has be self-explanatory.

You can say that you do not believe in such a being, but, again, in order to do that you have to give up the idea that the universe has an explanation.

I know of existentialists that say that, but it goes against any scientific way of looking at things that I have ever heard of.

Singring said...

'This was my whole point: the only way to reject the cosmological argument is to say that there are things that have no explanation.'

So then you have an explanation for God?

What is it?

This is the third time I'm asking you.

'Uh, how is saying that the universe as a whole must have an explanation entertaining? It seems completely consonant with a scientific mindset to me.'

Of course it is. But neither Aquinas nor you stop there, do you?

Ahhh...I see you adress the 'explanation for God' in your final post.

'When you say, "What explains God," you completely ignore that, in order for the world to have an explanation (that the cosmological argument refers to as "God"), that explanation has be self-explanatory.'

Is that so?

Then how come I can't posit the quantum field as self-explanatory?

How come there can't be an infinite number of regressive explanations?

What you are doing, Martin, is exclusively exempting your 'ultimate explanation' God from the very rule you set up to demonstrate it exists.

According to your argument, nothing is uncaused but God. This is called question begging and it is rather odd that I have to explain this to someone who has written books on logic.

'You can say that you do not believe in such a being, but, again, in order to do that you have to give up the idea that the universe has an explanation. '

Even if I accepted that the universe has an explanation (and I actually do - its called the quantum field, or - more commonly - 'nothing'), how does it follow in any way, shape or form that this explanation has to be

a) a 'being'?
b) the ultimate explanation (i.e. not just one in a series of other, more fundamental explanations)
c) the only explanation?

or

d) the Christian God with all his bells and whistles?

You so often criticize shoddy logical reasoning on this blog, but then make these completely unfounded assertions that don't follow in any way, shape or form from even your own set of premises.

Oh: and before you ask - do I know if the quantum field has an explanation? No. Do I believe it has one? I see no strong evidence for that at this time, with the varying permutations of string and M theory etc., so I really don't know that either. I believe its possible, but that's about it.

One Brow said...

But just try to explain to them St. Thomas' version of the argument which has nothing to do with a horizontal chain of causation in time, but rather with the vertical or ontological order of causation that does not assume a beginning of the universe. Plan on spending some time on it.

Before you explain it, you really to improve it. Because the ontological order of causation is still based (at least, as explained by Feser) on the counter-to-reality notion of chains of causes, rather than causal lattices, and on the conter-to-reality notion that there is an end to such a chain.

Martin Cothran said...

OneBrow:

The "counter-to-reality notion of chains of causes"? So there is now no chain of causation? It's amazing the bedrock assumptions about reality people are willing to give up in order to reject the existence of God.

Next thing you know, people will be positing..., oh, I don't know, multiple universes or some other fantasy idea in order to maintain their atheism.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Then how come I can't posit the quantum field as self-explanatory?

Because you claim to be a scientist and a scientist--unless he believes in miracles--has to believe that everything is caused.

Do you believe in miracles?

Why don't you tell me the specific premise of the cosmological argument you disagree with and we'll discuss that rather than play your usual game of ring-around-the-rosie?

Singring said...

'Because you claim to be a scientist and a scientist--unless he believes in miracles--has to believe that everything is caused.'

What?!?

Wow...Martin, my hat is off to you. This now ranks as the most absurd thing you have stated on this blog so far. What a feat.

Could you please tell me what rule or logical principle states that a scientist must believe that everything is caused, rather than beleiveing that only things he has good evidence are caused are actually caused?

What about things like virtual particles where the evidence so far indicates they have no cause? What about some of the most respected scientists in the world - nobel laureates included, who accept this? Are they all not scientists? Is Martin Cothran now going to lecture the world on who is and who isn't a scientist according to his philosophical fancies?

Your little nugget of wisdom automatically disqualifies every scientist on the planet from believing in God, as it does me.

So according to you, science runs fundamentally counter to God - and you choose to stick with the God branch of thinking rather than science. And then you wonder why people think religion is not such a good influence on mankind?

Singring said...
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Singring said...

'Why don't you tell me the specific premise of the cosmological argument you disagree with and we'll discuss that rather than play your usual game of ring-around-the-rosie?'

I just did - explicitly. You are the one who is playing dodgeball.

The first premise states (and let's use your words so as not to cause confusion):

'The only premise that is really arguable is the one concerning the principle of sufficient condition (that things must have an explanation)'

My objection:

What is the explanation for God? If things must have an explanation - then so must God.

Your response?

'When you say, "What explains God," you completely ignore that, in order for the world to have an explanation (that the cosmological argument refers to as "God"), that explanation has be self-explanatory.'

This is begging the question. You start with the premise that things must have an explanation external to themselves and end up with the conclusion that one special thing - this 'God' - has no explanation external to itself.

It is embarassing for anyone to insist that this argument makes any sense at all - and Martin, you must know this, the same objection has been made ever since Aquinas cooked up his little circuitous idea.

1.) If you were strict about the argument, your conclusion would ahve to be that there is an infinite series of explanations - as I mentioned before. On what grounds do you reject this hypothesis?

2.) Why can the quantum field not be self-explanatory? I'm not talking about scientists here, I'm talking about you - why do you say 'NO' to scientists who tell you that the universe originated from the quantum field, when you could just simply think of the quantum field as self-explained and thus use it as the conclusion to Aquinas' argument (if that is so important to you). Why is 'God' the only conclusion that is allowed - the only 'thing' that can be self-explained?

3.) Even if we accept Aquinas' caricature of logic for a moment, we can think of other conclusions that follow from his premises - for example multiple self-explanation. What is your reason for rejecting that there were a hundred Gods, maybe a thousand, who are all self-explanatory?

4.) Still accepring Aquinas' line of 'logic', we have yet another option - that there were (for example) ten gazillion explanations intermediate between us and 'God' - the self-explained one. Maybe the Gnostics are right and there's a 'demi-urge' that explains our universe who is himself explained by God. On what grounds do you reject this option that follows from Aquinas' argument just as much as the conclusion that God immediately preceeds our universe as an explanation?

All of these problems before we even get into the incoherency of speaking of 'beings' and Yahweh when thinking of this 'self-explained explanation'.

One Brow said...

Martin Cothran said...
The "counter-to-reality notion of chains of causes"? So there is now no chain of causation?

the counter-to-reality notion of chains of causes, rather than causal lattices ...

The notion of chains is misguided and inappropirates. Causal formations are lattices. If you feel you have a good reason to reject lattices as a superior conception, lay it out.

For now, I'm operating under the assumption that you overlooked the references to lattices, rather than deliberately disregarded it.

It's amazing the bedrock assumptions about reality people are willing to give up in order to reject the existence of God.

I find it to be more amazing the stubbornness that clearly wrong notions are held to in order to attempt to prop up theism.

Martin Cothran said...

One Brow,

Your welcome to explain how "lattices" work. You might also want to address the prevalence of this belief among scientists and how it upends the fundamental concept of cause and effect.

One Brow said...

Martin Cothran said...
One Brow,

Your welcome to explain how "lattices" work. You might also want to address the prevalence of this belief among scientists and how it upends the fundamental concept of cause and effect.

Thank you for the invitation. First, I don't see latices as upends the concept of cause and effect, it is a necessary part of the concept (in that cause-and-effect can not be properly considered without using lattices). It only upends arguments based on the notion of chains of cause and effect.

I don't know of any actual polls, but I have trouble seeing any scientist as insisting that cause-and-effect can only happen in chain form.

A lattice, as opposed to a chain, can have a plurality of initiating points and a plurality of consequences from each action. In the classic arm-stick-stone illustration, what you seem to be referring to as ontological causation is occuring along muliple points. For example, in addition to being moved by muscles, the arm is being moved by gravity and by air molecules, ot name a couple. The movement of the arm at any given moment is the sum of the efects of these combined causes at that moment. Similarly, The arm itself pushes all kinds of air molecules, affects the local gravitational fields slightly as it moves, etc.

Even after the arm has stopped pushing the stick, these other ontological cause-and-effect combinations continue to spread.

As Dr. Feser presented it, the notion that ontological chains must have a beginning come from the notion they have an end. However, while the latices may have terminal elements, the lattices themselves never end, and have no real beginning in spacetime. Since the actuality of the situation is lattices, not chains, the argument from chains is rendered moot.

Anonymous said...

I love watching people argue about something so stupid as this. This is the problem with philosophy based subjects, it's just a bunch of people who think they're some kind of prodigy and start voicing opinions but try to pass them as solid facts that everyone else has to agree with (which in most cases they don't for the same reason), and in the end you have people fighting over a field of study that is so poorly established that nothing ever has a direct standard answer. It's essentially a matter of "everyone has an opinion but everyone is wrong". Seriously, anyone who studies this kind of nonsense is a complete idiot, because all you can do with the qualification is teach the future generations of idiots who want to study the same thing.