Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Thoughts on mental masturbation

So says the mysterious Jason (profile not public) in a post on DC:

It's not that I'm trying to talk past you. It's just that I find that philosophical arguments only take you so far. It gets to a point when it becomes an exercise in mental masturbation. At some point were going to have to cease convincing ourselves, and each other, as to how we can out wit one another with clever arguments and deal with hard core data.

I'm a little concerned that he described his data as "hard core" here, but let's leave that aside for now.

Jason seems to disparage philosophy here because it is a type of sleight of hand that waves away real evidence for formulated arguments. This is typical, to me, of the neo-positivist atheist crowd, this constant call for evidence. The problem is that evidence in a vacuum is meaningless. Let me give an example:

Penzias and Wilson discovered a weird phenomenon in the universe in 1964. They observed a lot of radiation in the universe that shouldn't really be there. It came famously to be called "cosmic background radiation." That is all they found. They didn't find the Big Bang, a singularity, quantum cosmology, or the cosmological argument. Everything else is an extrapolation from the evidence. That is what we do, otherwise all of this "learning" would be meaningless. We have to make connections and find patterns in the data.

And the way we do that is with philosophy. So it bothers me to hear sketptics claim "evidence" as if there were no need to put it together. They put together arguments against Christianity using philosophy. It is unavoidable.

But I have a theory here. Dawkins, the original high priest of the "Brights" isn't a very good philosopher. TGD has a lot of rhetoric but not a lot of well-reasoned arguments (eg. his centerpiece: Who designed the designer?). This movement is heavy on scientism, but ignorant of the move from postivism that occurred 50 YEARS AGO. Ayers himself rejected it. Relativism is probably one of the most dominant views today, and it is philosophically grounded (even though I'm not a relativist). So calling an existentialist or subjectivist "schizo" or "irrational" just shows a lack of either decorum or (gasp) knowledge of how we actually think.

The truth is that we all stroke our worldviews, and our egos as well in these forums. But if you don't like the implications of an argument, then attack one of it's premises. It's just not becoming of a wannabe to ignore a "hard core" argument.


  1. 'TGD has a lot of rhetoric but not a lot of well-reasoned arguments (eg. his centerpiece: Who designed the designer?). '

    It is a bit like refuting the stork theory of childbirth by asking 'Who delivered the stork?'

    The stork delivers itself, of course.

  2. Steven, I'm so glad you're my first commenter.

    I'd explain how God is different from a stork, but that might be more mental "massaging".

  3. Damn son, you really are dumber than a box of rocks. I'm not going to be participating on a long term basis: I already have a brick wall to bang my head against.

  4. Wow! I don't ever think I've inspired anyone to write a blog post before. Thanks, Brad! I'm flattered!

    Perhaps you were right when you said that you and I were talking past each other. It seems that you misunderstood the point I was trying to make. I did not say that ALL philosophy is nothing but mental masturbation. What I said is that philosophy has limits. You and I can sit in our living rooms and debate through the night about the nature of the world we live in. At some point, however, were going to have to get out of our armchairs to see if there's any correspondence between what we have speculated and what we encounter in the real world.

    To illustrate: Aristotle speculated that the natural state of all objects is rest. It seems, on the surface, like a common sense argument. It wasn't until Galileo came along and tested this hypothesis that it was discovered that Aristotle was wrong. The natural state of objects is motion. Galileo didn't come to this conclusion by sitting at home thinking about the nature of objects. He got of of his chair and conducted experiments that would have either confirmed Aristotle's hypothesis or falsified it.

    I believe you are right to say that science is nothing without philosophy, if you mean to say that scientific experimentation is nothing without a hypothesis. Science isn't simply a matter of collecting data. It takes a creative mind to come up with the concepts that fuel scientific analysis and experimentation. My issue is that, without the data to confirm the philosophy, all you have is an hypothesis. One hypothesis among many.

    You say that the force that created this universe must be a personal force. No one has ever seen a universe in the process of creation, so I feel that we must be careful when we speculate as to what is and what is not necessary for one to come into existence. I am not saying that advocates of the "multi-verse" should be accepted without criticism. Indeed we should. But this still would not make anything you have speculated the default position.

  5. Yup, you inspired me, Jason. I've been itching to start a blog for some time. I think we actually agree on most of this, so there's not much to say in response.

    From a purely data perspective we have to stay agnostic about anything before Planck time, but that seems a little restricted to me, and I think that we can use our reason to go a little beyond the data that we have. Well, we all do it, because the strict agnostic position seems a little unlivable. So I guess I put a little more stock in philosophy than you do, and I'm a little less enamored with science.

    Anyways, thanks for reading and hopefully this will continue the conversation.