Monday, December 31, 2007

TMP 5: Arguments and Universality

[Part of The Molyneux Project; read the main critique here]

This section is going to kill me.

I don't want to address the question of whether operating in an epistemological context qualifies as a presupposition, but I think I have to, because it'll frame the way I deal with the rest of the section separately from the other sorts of objections I have. The first three "premises" which Stefan discusses deal with our capacities to debate with other people. The problem I have with Stefan's handling of this issue is that the word "premise" implies that every time we engage in argumentation, we are consciously thinking, "It makes sense for me to be engaging in argumentation."

Given that Stefan needs to "unpack" these ideas and explain them to us, it seems that this is not the case. We do not actually presuppose any of these things when we engage in a debate. David Hume illustrated this point well when he said that when he stopped thinking about philosophy and started living socially, he forgot about all of the epistemological problems with which he was struggling. He wasn't presupposing that the problems didn't exist; he was neglecting to keep them in mind. So it's not fair to say that we presuppose all of these things when we argue.

But we can say that we would only know that it would make sense for us to be arguing if these things were true. We don't know that there are other people, or that our senses are accurate, or that language has meaning. We also don't know that these things are false. And it would only fully make sense to argue if they weren't false. So instead of saying that we "presuppose" certain "premises" about existence when we argue, which is not true, Stefan could legitimately claim that our arguing would only make sense if certain things are true.

So that takes care of the first three "premises," which I agree would have to be true in order for the concept of an argument to make sense (within Stefan's framework, we might say that it would be preferable for a person to avoid all arguments if any of these were false). The fourth "premise" is where Stefan starts to get into trouble. First of all, it isn't true that the only reason why someone would want to get into an argument is to establish the truth. Someone might get into an argument in order to convince someone into believing something false, for the purpose of some other gain, or she might argue for the sake of practicing her skills at debating.

Secondly, it might be the case that some people wouldn't want to know the truth if the truth were something different than the thing they believe. For example, a religious person might enter an argument in order to establish God's existence, but his doing so would not demonstrate that he preferred to know the truth about God. His preference ranking could be:

1. God exists and I enter an argument about God's existence
2. God exists and I do not enter an argument about God's existence
3. God does not exist and I do not enter an argument about God's existence, and therefore never become aware of God's nonexistence
4. God does not exist and I enter an argument about God's existence, and thereby become aware of God's nonexistence

Given his belief in God, he might enter the argument. But if God didn't exist, then Stefan would want to say that it would be preferable for him not to enter into the argument. In this case, entering the argument would stem from faulty premises. But it wouldn't establish a preference for the truth. It would only illustrate the effect of a faulty assumption in the religious man's decision making.

Going even further, Stefan has already claimed that what is preferable is not necessarily what is preferred. Perhaps an individual does prefer to know the truth, but it would be much more helpful for satisfying the ends she found most important to not know the truth. The classic South Park rendition of "You just couldn't leave it alone, could you? You just had to keep digging..." immediately comes to mind. Perhaps for some individuals, it is more conducive to a better life to not know the truth. If living a good life were more important to these individuals than knowing the truth, then it could be preferable for them to not know it. In such a case, entering an argument might demonstrate a preference for the truth, while simultaneously contradicting the behavior which would in fact be preferable for them.

So in summary, people don't always enter arguments for the sake of establishing truth, people who do enter arguments for the sake of establishing truth might be doing so as a result of a faulty belief of what the truth is, and therefore wouldn't necessarily be expressing a true preference for the truth, and further, it might be preferable for some people who do prefer the truth to avoid entering arguments anyway. So when, on page 36, Stefan writes, "...the truth is not just "better" than error - it is infinitely preferable, or required," I can only say that I'm not at all convinced; none of the evidence he's provided so far gives me any reason to believe that to be true.

Premise 5 seems relatively uncontroversial. This could actually even be a legitimate presupposition, or at least a slightly revised version of it could be: By arguing from evidence, I presuppose that disagreements can be settled with reference to some sort of data which could conceivably be interpreted the same way by all parties to the argument, and which would entail the conclusion which I have drawn, or at least provide enough proof to satisfy my opponents.

I think I may have jumped the gun on 6 with my response to 4, but I think I've dealt with this enough. Arguing doesn't demonstrate that I believe that truth is better than falsehood, and even if I did believe it and entered an argument on the basis of that belief, it might be preferable for me not to have entered the argument.

Premise 7 is probably the most bewildering thing Stefan's said so far. If someone shot anyone he disagreed with in order to avoid engaging in argumentation, then it seems like we would have no basis for believing that he preferred to know the truth (even aside from all the things discussed above). I certainly agree that shooting people who disagree with you is a bad way to get to the truth, but Stefan hasn't shown convincingly that the truth is preferable; in fact, I think I've established why we wouldn't have any reason to believe it to be.

It's true that if you want to get to the truth, it's almost certainly preferable for you to avoid shooting people who you disagree with. But in an earlier post, I attempted to outline the reasons why the fact that bad methods of doing something should be avoided does not imply anything about what should be done. Violence likely should be avoided in the search for truth, but perhaps debate isn't the best available means either. A philosophy professor once told a story which might be helpful here. He said he once had a student who came to him and said that every time he read a philosopher's work, he completely agreed with the writer, but then when he came to class, the professor would explain the flaws in the philosopher's reasoning, and the student would agree with the professor. It seems like for a person like that, debate might not be the best possible means for obtaining knowledge, though I'm not sure about what would be better. It's just like I said before: different means might be best for different people.

Premise 8 is only slightly less bewildering than 7, and just as questionable. Stefan writes, "If I argue that human beings are not responsible for their actions, I am caught in a paradox, which is the question of whether or not I am responsible for my argument, and also whether or not you are responsible for your response." First of all, I'm not sure what Stefan means by "responsible;" does he mean ethically responsible or causally responsible? Does he mean accountable? That is, it might be possible that we can be the cause of our actions without being ethically responsible for having acted in the way we did. Similarly, we can be accountable for things that we do without being ethically responsible for having done them.

For example, I might hand you a remote control and tell you that by pressing the power button, you'll turn on a nearby television set. But perhaps I sneakily wired the button to set off a bomb in a nearby car. Having no reason to disbelieve me, you press the power button and the car explodes. Did you cause the explosion? Yes. Are you morally at fault for the damage? It doesn't seem so, at least not to me. Let's say that I was a suspicious looking person, and the remote control I gave you looked nothing like a television remote. And let's say someone near you was shouting, "Hey, look! A remote control bomb! Does anyone know where the remote is?" Perhaps you never made the connection, and so were still not morally to blame for your action. But we might say that you were negligent, and that you should have known not to press the button. Accordingly, a judge might find you to be somehow accountable for the damage, even though you didn't do anything evil or blameworthy. The point is, it's important that we know what we mean by "responsible."

But no matter how we take the word, Stefan's argument seems shaky, immediately suggesting the possibility of another hasty generalization. Engaging in an argument certainly wouldn't make sense if we didn't have any sort of responsibility for any of our actions, or at least the ones involved in the argument itself. But that doesn't demonstrate anything about our responsibility for all of our actions. Perhaps we're only responsible for some of our actions, including those involved in the argument. Stefan doesn't explicitly say why this is not a possibility, but judging by the fact that he titled Premise 8, "Individuals are responsible for their actions," it does seem like he is denying it.

I noticed that Stefan plans on writing a book on the relationship between free will and determinism, but I can only hope that he doesn't attempt such a task for a long, long time. As it stands, he's nowhere near qualified to write such a book, given his performance in the metaphysical portions of this book. As a political thinker, Stefan has some interesting ideas, but as a metaphysician, he's not working from a position of strength. I'd just as soon see him focus on revising this book.

I'm not entirely sure what to think about the course of my project from this point forward. If Stefan is going to take the same kind of approach that Hoppe took in The Economics and Ethics of Private Property and attempt to derive an ethical system from the premises of argumentation, I'm not sure how much he'll be able to accomplish. Only four of his eight premises seem to have survived, and of these, only one of them (Premise 5) seems to have any potential for justifying anything. Nevertheless, I've pledged to critique his argument, and not just the premises of his argument, and so I'll move on next to the section on "Universally Preferable Behaviour."

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

It would be really helpful if you provided more quotations of the text you are referring to. For someone reading this who doesn't have the book it is really tough to follow your comments without reference to the premises being discussed.

Otherwise thanks for the detailed analysis.

Danny Shahar said...

I'll try to keep that in mind as I work on future posts. I would recommend getting a copy of the book, though, so you can see for yourself how Stefan is arguing his position. I wouldn't want you to accept my critiques as sound without seeing how they work in the context of Stefan's book.

Smack said...

"For example, I might hand you a remote control and tell you that by pressing the power button, you'll turn on a nearby television set. But perhaps I sneakily wired the button to set off a bomb in a nearby car. Having no reason to disbelieve me, you press the power button and the car explodes. Did you cause the explosion? Yes. Am I morally at fault for the damage? It doesn't seem so, at least not to me."
I think you switched "I" and "You" at the end there, which may be a mistake and confuse readers. Or I could just be dense!

Danny Shahar said...

Haha you're quite right, Smack. I've edited the post, and it should be correct now. Thanks for pointing that out!

mcmikemn said...

"So when, on page 36, Stefan writes, '...the truth is not just "better" than error - it is infinitely preferable, or required,' I can only say that I'm not at all convinced; none of the evidence he's provided so far gives me any reason to believe that to be true."

It seems ironic that a statement explaining the universality of truth is not necessarily true. You prefer to know the truth about whether truth is universally preferable, but that does not make preferring to know the truth universally preferable. :)


"...people who do enter arguments for the sake of establishing truth might be doing so as a result of a faulty belief of what the truth is, and therefore wouldn't necessarily be expressing a true preference for the truth...Arguing doesn't demonstrate that I believe that truth is better than falsehood..."

I agree with your other statements, but this one I'm not so sure about. If I have a faulty belief of what the truth is and I enter arguments for the sake of establishing truth, I *do* prefer truth, but I am mistaken on what truth is. This book is about the universality of the *preferability* of truth, not whether truth has been correctly ascertained.

Danny Shahar said...

Well there's no question that if I enter an argument for the sake of establishing truth, then I demonstrate a preference for the truth. My point is that there might be other reasons for entering an argument besides establishing truth.

Perhaps I hate when people disagree with me, but I hate being proven wrong even more. If I knew that I would be proven wrong, perhaps I wouldn't want to enter a debate with a certain person. But because I don't know that I'm going to be proven wrong, I enter the debate. In doing so, I don't demonstrate any preference for the truth, because I only want the truth to be established if it matches my beliefs. If it doesn't, then I would prefer that the truth not be established. Does that make any sense?

mcmikemn said...

Yes, that makes sense. And, again, I completely agree with your other examples, proving that there are reasons to debate other than the search for truth or the preference of truth.

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