Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Critique of Absolutism

From guest blogger, William C. 

It would seem that after many inconclusive debates in Phi 501 the Absolutist position is unshaken; we cannot refute via logical arguments a position which intrinsically abhors logic.  The absolutist may conveniently reply to any perceived discrepancy that all is still well and good and that God will somehow sort out these problems which our puny human minds cannot comprehend.

Now, if one really accepts this idea then the floor is all of a sudden opening beneath us.  What can we really know at all?  Can I use logic sometimes and not others?  Are all contradictions simultaneously true?  Why does it “seem” like there are any consistent rules at all?  Is there any hope for a sound epistemology?  Shall we just give up any hope of having coherent thoughts at all…

Not so fast!

A little thought will show that the debates were not so inconclusive after all.  If a statement is contradictory or illogical it is simply “wrong” by any normal meaning of the word.  Thus, we can safely conclude that Absolutism is “wrong” with any reasonable interpretation of what this word means in the English language.  Done deal, there is no more debate to be had on this point.

The question is, why is there a debate on this issue at all? 

First, it seems that people tend to believe that discussing philosophy gives one the liberty to stretch the meaning of any word to any extent, often only for the brief joy of seeming profound.  While this exercise can sometimes be thought provoking, it really becomes meaningless and frustrating when some of the most essential concepts such as “right” and “wrong” or “exist” and “not exist” tend to lose their usual meaning.  Thus, when an absolutist says, for instance, that, “This banana simultaneously exist and does not exist”, all I can say is that following the usual interpretation of these words this statement is patently false.  If an absolutist insist that it is true I can only conclude that:
1.      The absolutist means something different by ‘exist’
2.      The absolutist means something different by ‘true’
3.      The absolutist is mentally insane.
Being generous, I would assume that it is one of the first two options.  However, while the notions of ‘existence’ and ‘truth’ have many debatable features, the absolutist usage seems to stray far outside of what any normal English speaker would consider to be appropriate.  Thus, the question I pose to the absolutist is:  What is meant by “truth” to begin with?  The common man on the street has an intuitive answer to this question which the absolutist seems to be at odds with.  Moreover, scientist have a very sophisticated answer to this question which the absolutist are diametrically opposed to.  Even if the absolutist were able to answer this question in a way which still allowed for some common sense statements to be true, some ‘obviously wrong’ statements to be false, and God’s omnipotence to somehow fall in the category of ‘true’, it seems very unlikely that such a definition would mesh very well with either the dominant scientific or popular meanings of the word.  Thus, I can only conclude that the absolutist do not speak English properly.

Secondly, another driving force of this debate is the notion that somehow the burden of proof is on the non-absolutist.  Indeed, many people seem to jump to the defense of Absolutism by saying, “Oh yeah, but an absolutist would just say that (insert something non-sensical).”  This is not an argument for anything; the fact that a madman can “say” he is being pursued by aliens is not a good reason to believe that this is true.  Moreover, we repeatedly see the claim that we “have” to play the absolutist game, or we “have” to concede some key point to the Absolutist for the sake of discussion.  We really don’t have to do anything of the sort.

Again, we’ve established that this philosophy is patently wrong.  (Excuse me for not tacking on “within the normal sense of the English language”.)  However, it seems that the tendency is to strain very hard to give this viewpoint some credence while we have been given no good reason to do so.  By way of comparison, the dominant scientific worldview has been subjected to centuries of grueling, painstaking tests.  This worldview and the notion of ‘truth’ that comes with it has consistently passed test after test with no reliable documentation of any discrepancies.  (Here I’m referring to the worldview which says that the universe is described precisely by mathematics and is essentially ‘knowable’.  Specific theories will, of course, change with time.)  However, despite the enormous success of the scientific notion of ‘truth’, it somehow seems that people take this to be on equal footing with not-so-well established notions.  Thus, in all fairness, it seems that in order to even merit consideration for a serious debate, the absolutist should first precisely define what they mean by ‘true’ at the same level of rigor as has been done by modern science, and then offer some convincing evidence as to why their notion would be more useful than the definition that essentially everyone else uses.  Only then does the burden begin to switch over to the rationalist. 

I conclude with an analogy.  If I were I psychiatrist working in a mental hospital, I would naturally want to treat my patients and free them from their delusions.  I would try my best with different means to convince the patient that the aliens were not actually pursuing him.  However, the mentally ill are often skilled at concocting ever more elaborate conspiracy theories to support their delusions and, in the end, there might simply be no way to cure the patient.  Now, having completely and utterly failed, should I now myself conclude that their must be aliens pursuing this poor man?  Am I myself now bound to go insane as well?  It seems that the discussion of absolutism can easily head in this direction.


Andrea Manthei said...

I could not agree more with this post. And i really like the line “First, it seems that people tend to believe that discussing philosophy gives one the liberty to stretch the meaning of any word to any extent, often only for the brief joy of seeming profound.” Not every definition needs to be abstract and stretched to something completely unrecognizable.

The absolutist really does need to lay out their definition of "truth" first. I wouldn't find it hard to believe that a lot of time, energy, debate and frustration are wasted on these arguments with absolutists because both sides are talking past each other.

Its one thing to define truth, but for the absolutist, if they are not going to accept "truth" defined within logic, their most common roadblock, then they need to come up with some definition that can stand up to, like you said, the rigor of modern science. Throughout time logic and math have gone uncontested, even though science has changed. But it still relied upon those principles. If they want people to accept their different definition of logic, then they will need to find solid evidence that convinces the rationalist against their own definition of truth.
If the absolutist cannot find another, more applicable, useful and better definition of "truth", then they're going to have to accept the logical notion that the rationalist uses. And if then, they accept "truth" containing logic, logic must be used as the foundation of their definition. Then, one cannot accept the statement "God can exist and not exist at the same time." God would have to be limited to the laws of logic.

Logic laws have held throughout time, so the burden really is on the absolutist to define truth that can stand up like logic has.

Stoehr said...

Your main point is definitely something with which I agree, namely that not having a shared definition of terms makes it impossible to argue with the absolutist. This summer, I worked as a social work intern in a nursing home and experienced a very interesting case. A woman, lets call her Jess, whole-heartedly believed that people were out to essentially ruin her life by slowly inflicting various pains upon her, all of which could be described by legitimate medical issues. She was convinced that her physical ailments were being caused by these strangers, for whom she had delusionally created names and elaborate histories. As the social worker, it was my job to give her peace of mind, but her conviction was so strong, that all I could do was empathize and tell her how difficult I'm sure the whole experience was for her.
It is similar with the absolutist; their conviction is so strong that it is futile to argue with them. You are forced to just grant them their beliefs, with the knowledge in mind that they are, essentially, "insane". I find that letting them think they're right is the easiest way to handle an encounter with the absolutist, rather than trying to walk them through the logical line of reasoning for their misbelief.

Joshua Adams said...

I think in the end the absolutist argument simply comes down to faith and there is nothing anyone can do to change that. The absolutist simply concludes God can do anything and when you ask him why they will simply say because he is God. There is no real way to argue with this, personally I think the only reason people aren't seen as insane for having considerations like this is because religion is something which is a huge part of society, and since enough people believe in a religion of some sort, it is seen as normal to our society to hold beliefs like this. If you took someone who had these beliefs and put them in a society that had no conception of religion I think they might seem a little insane preaching these things about the absolute powers of God.

isaac scott said...

I agree with some of the points you make about the absolutist position. Even in the face of a direct contradiction in their beliefs, the absolutist will just respond with saying God is not bound by the rules of logic. This is a hard answer to swallow but I do think that it is a position that should be taken seriously.

To me it seems that you are suggesting that because the beliefs of an absolutist are illogical, their beliefs should be valued the same as mentally ill. Should we then treat all people who are absolutists as mad/crazy/delusional? Many people have illogical beliefs, that are not absolutists, but we don't treat all these people as mentally ill. For instance, some people have an item that they keep with them that they consider to be "lucky", such as socks or a stuffed animal. Should we give up these peoples ability to speak english or know truth? I don't think so.

Also the example of the banana existing and not existing is misleading. The absolutist position is saying that god could bring about a possible world in which the banana can exist and not exist. This is fundamentally different because it is pointing to a belief about how the world could be, not how the world is. The absolutist belief can only be proven through empirical evidence. If you think that it would be impossible to witness such a state of the world because it is illogical, great! If an absolutist thinks that such a possible world can be brought to exist, fine. However, it is not clear if one would be able to recognize such a thing if it is somehow possible. It is not necessary for either belief of possible worlds to lead to giving up on any rational thinking or the ability to speak english.

Adam Bontje said...

I agree with you that the burden of proof is on the absolutist. Their arguments tend to rest on the idea that we have extremely limited knowledge compared to an omnipotent being. In my opinion this sort of argument is analogous to a conspiracy theorist claiming we lack knowledge about a government cover-up for example. Here the proof definitely lies with the conspiracy theorist, as should it with the absolutist. However, both the absolutist and conspiracy theorist will still be illogical in their arguments, so it may not be worth the debate in the first place.

Enrique Franco said...

I think the first point I’d like to make is that I agree with your conclusion that various words in philosophical debates tend to lose there “normal” or “everyday” meaning. The implication that seems to be drawn is that in losing their “everyday” meaning and clarifying a definition the definition drawn can’t hold any water in an argument. I would be pretty damn skeptical to fall in line with that train of thought too quickly. Don’t get me wrong the moment we begin working with definitions that stop having any connection to the word, I’m on the band wagon. That being said, words in many languages tend to have various definitions. Furthermore, “normal” usages of words change over time to mean quite a wide variety of things.
I’ll give you that most people often have some intuitive sense of right and wrong. Murder, rape, causing unjustified pain all seem to be things that are intuitively wrong. But I think a burden will lie on both the rationalist and absolutist to draw some lines as to what stops becoming wrong or right. I thought Isaac was wise to critique the banana argument but my objection is somewhat different. A further part of the argument is that the absolutist would tend to go straight to the defense that suggesting that our lack of ability to conceive of something illogical would not entail a fault in God. In this sense I’m using “fault” as a lacking of some power.
Ok those were really the only questions I had in regards to the structure of your argument. The question raised near the end of your argument I actually found the most prevalent, but concerning a slightly different matter; “What is meant by ‘truth’ to begin with?” This seems to be a larger issue concerning the possibility of an omniscient God while the existence/nonexistence argument seemed to deal with the question of an omnipotent God. If I might offer one final suggestion, I will admit that a large portion of this was written as a critique. That being said I wouldn’t consider myself an absolutist. I have an intuitive sense to question absolutists’ arguments, but when an argument is weighted with more sarcasm than structured argument I’m prone to be more skeptical. If you work on something like this with a paper later in the semester I’d love a chance to read it!

Anonymous said...

Great discussion.

Why do absolutists feel compelled to deny logic? Is it because they think that God's inability to do the impossible would represent a limitation on God's power? Are they holding this outlandish view in order to preserve God's omnipotence?

If so, then why not point out that they don't really need to jump off of this bridge? Why not allow that a description involving a logical contradiction does not correspond to any MEANINGFUL STATE OF AFFAIRS, and that, as such, not being able to bring about logical contradictions does not represent ANYTHING that God cannot do? In short, there would then be no motivation for the absolutist to propound that God can do the impossible.

Aviva said...

I have two major comments in response to the original posting.
One definition of mental illness provided by the DSM is "a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom." While some theists manifest their belief in self-harming or increased risk to self, many do not, and it is wrong to classify belief in G-d as a mental illness when for so many it does not fit the definition. I know this may seem tangental to the philosophical argument at hand, but I think if we are to value words for their true definitions as so many people here have commented they wish we did, then it must be noted that theism is not simply synonymous with mental illness (however, I do recognize specifically the "loss of freedom" in the definition as compatible with many if not most theists, particularly in the eyes of an atheist).
My other problem with this post is the uniform assumption made of all theists in this argument. I, for instance, follow a movement of Judaism that believes in people as the only actors, and therefore necessarily the limited power of G-d. Many progressive forms of institutionalized religion have also noted logical fallacies, and have worked spiritually to function within the confines of logic. It seems that in this argument we have fallen into the same trap we so often do in class, of imagining only one version of G-d and only one version of theist, when in fact belief manifests itself in innumerable forms. One cannot make a truly intelligent philosophical argument by glossing over every belief system that is incompatible with the condemnation of insanity. I suggest you refine your target before risking another glib and potentially offensive argument.

Annalee Galston said...

The argument, in my opinion, has been played out for so long because it causes the same sort of emotional response that one feels when arguing with a two year-old. You tell a two year-old that they shouldn't run out into a street. And their response, "No daddy the car will stop." Of course, you can acknowledge that your argument is more intelligible and the claim more logically coherent that just because a car has not hit you in the past is not enough to anticipate that it will stop in the future. I am not to say that an absolutist has the intelligence of a two year-old but that the disparity in reasoning is similar in the way that we may not necessarily agree on what kinds of knowledge to be true; namely numbers. We may all agree that quantity can be deduced and that the concept of number in and of itself contains truth. But the disparity is in how this is applied. If you are someone who has been trained in mathematics and scientifically literate, you may be more apt to believing in explanations about phenomenon based on quantitative reasoning. But for one who lacks these skills, these explanations for such phenomenon may be incommensurable. Not insomuch as they are not measurable but that one is likely to perceive things as such as they are not positioned to judged differently. If judgments of innate ideas do vary, then it is at this distinction that we fail to establish a foundation for talking about such things as God. If God and numbers are incommensurable in the view of an absolutist, then they are so inclined to think that any reason otherwise does not prove any such things to be less so.

David Harms said...

In the end, it ultimately seems that the absolutist, in their choice to swing hard to one side of the God spectrum, abolishes any opportunity to compromise on anything less than Anselm's version of God and his entitled powers. As Isaac and Adam pointed out, the burden of proof lies with the Absolutist because they are limited by their own argument. Although they are limited, it is irrelevant because their argument is sufficient enough on its own. I would claim that absolutism is not delusional, however it is close-minded. Yes, an absolutist's argument may allow for logical impossibilities, but that is the nature of the argument, it just comes with the territory.

Caitlin C said...

One thing that I like that you point out here and as we have pointed out in class is that it's incredibly frustrating when people start claiming that we all define words differently. Yes, it’s one hundred percent true that what I may believe is good isn’t everyone else’s exact idea of good but in general when someone says, “Fred is a good guy” we all have a general understanding of what that means. We know that pushing your grandmother into the street (for no reason, not to save the world like I’m sure someone would create some thought experiment where it seems like the right thing would be to push your grandmother) is bad and washing her dishes for her is good.
I think it’s a cop out when people start to say that we don’t have shared definitions of words, although it’s true it lacks substance (to me) because our language may not simply be able to define the ideas and actions we want to portray. We all just need to get past that and deal with the fact that someone is always going to claim otherwise and when they do it honestly just seems like they can’t think of a better argument.

Andrea Manthei said...

I don’t think that absolutists feel compelled to deny logic, but they necessarily have to in order to have an omnipotent god. Absolutists still rely on logic for the rest of their arguments, but until the issue of omnipotence comes up. The only response, if they want to hold on to logic when faced with this hurdle is to bite the bullet. Holding to “God is outside of logic” maintains the omnipotent view of god, even though those who are antitheists find this response unfulfilling. Some of it, I guess, would rely on faith that god is omnipotent and with full faith say that (s)he doesn’t need to submit itself to these laws.
Then the burden of truth lies on the theists again to prove that god has done the impossible. How can they then be motivated to provide acceptance of omnipotence, if there is no proof. Blind faith again? I would guess so.
Does god HAVE to be omnipotent to still be a deity, by definition? Is god allowed to have shortcomings? Can god be limited by laws of nature and logic, but just fulfill them completely?

Natalie N said...

I think you brush off the idea of inadequate knowledge all too fast, which I think this is something that the rational philosopher is desperate to do because the issue is hard to address, not to mention seemingly impossible to refute. That's probably the reason Jesse wrote the "sui generous" on the board when someone asked about this possibility and then never talked about it again. I think it’s more interesting to attempt to defend God (either the omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent Anselmian God, or whatever other conception is being presented). Honestly, it’s the much harder side to defend while attempting to avoid absolutism. In this class in particular, we may reach a near consensus if no one played devil’s advocate in this class, and the few outliers would be quiet or quickly quashed. I draw here on the logic from the class readings from early September: It is possible that any omnipotent being could sin if “a sin” was something determined by some force outside of them. Rather, I view the ability to sin as a parallel situation to the stone paradox (create a stone that cannot be lifted and then lift it). It may be like saying, “create a rule, and then break it.” The rule would cease to exist if God were to violate it. You could say that people sin and therefore the rule can be violated. Here, the argument may be broken if you accept this at face value. You may respond to this by saying that people have free will, so God cannot control what they do, but he can punish them after the fact. You can also take the view of Spinoza’s “inadequate idea of God” to say that there actually is no good or bad, and that the only reason that we may believe that a sin, or act against God, is being committed is because we are perceiving it while possessing an inadequate knowledge of God, or in other words, we’re wrong. For example, in the bible, God appears to do illogical and non-benevolent things such as hardening Pharoah’s heart so that he wouldn’t let the Jews free from slavery, destroy Sodom & Gomorrah despite the fact that there were some innocents because the city as a whole was evil, and allow the satan to inflict hardship and ills upon Job in an seemingly unwarranted and unfair test of his devotion to God. It can either be concluded that he is not benevolent or that it is perceived as non-benevolent because of the perceiver’s inadequate knowledge. I think it's important to know that though we try our best to find truths, a small amount of doubt is good to have, no matter which side of the argument you approach it from. Even scientists used to think that the Earth was the center of the universe, that the white race was somehow biologically superior to others, and up until a few years ago, we all thought that Pluto was a planet. (It makes a lot of us sad and confused that it isn't anymore, and by "a lot of us" I mean me and maybe some other people.) My point is, don't be so quick to wholeheartedly refute it like that. One of the best ways to strengthen your argument is to question yourself, find your flaws, attempt to refute your beliefs in an effort to refine them. If you have no doubt or think your belief is irrefutable, although you may have more empirical, reviewable evidence and more probability of being correct, you appear similarly stubborn and unreasonable as the absolutist.