Relativist: A Pseudo Intellectual with the Tendency to Produce Horsecrap

Note: I am writing this post since after a long time I had an argument with a housemate of mine. He is a PhD student in sociology, and a relativist. The reason I am writing this is that I am hoping he reads this, since he has closed the means of conversation on the subject. In the spirit of being “the truthful heretic”, this post as always has a sting to it and I shall not hold back in attacking what I think is wrong and extremely damaging to human understanding and the quality of life.

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If I am asked who I dislike the most in the intellectual realm, surprisingly the first in my list will not be an apologist for a religion, but in fact a relativist. Pseudo intellectuals who can only add to the force of ignorance and stupidity in the world by sugar coated nonsense and not giving a damn to what is true, or other people’s pain and suffering.

I argued extensively in an essay in my new book on the subject of ethics, but in here I wish to talk about some of the usual claims that may be given as a defence. Let’s see:

“We construct our own truths, and this makes truth a subjective matter.” Really? Is this statement true or not? If it is as such that one constructs truth in one’s own mind, then the truth value of the claim “We construct our own truths” is also subjective. Therefore when I say “We do NOT construct our own truths”, I am as correct as the one that said above statement. Surely one may not take positions that refute themselves this pathetically. The only acceptable case here is the things that ONLY happen in one’s mind.

Besides, why relativists don’t construct anything that they wish in their heads? Relativist homework: Construct a pink elephant in your fridge. You should be able to do it only by thinking about it.

Of course, logically this does not make any sense. But the good relativist will immediately question logic: “Logic is also culturally relative! It is political, because it was used by the white westerns countries to colonize others!”.

Utter load of horsecrap. Logic is the foundation of our understanding, our science, our progress towards any relevant evaluation of the truth value of different claims. If racists in Nazi Germany did horrible experiments on other people, would that make science any less true? I beg to differ. Only a mind divorced of reality can make such a claim. The truth value of ethical issues here is irrelevant to the truth value of logical or scientific claim. We may condemn colonizers as much as we condemn the so called burning of witches that to this day happens in Africa, also true about AIDS denialism, genital mutilation of girls, murder of gay men and women etc. 

In fact, I shall now turn the tables on the relativists: Do they at all care about the murder of innocents? Pain and suffering caused by superstition and stupidity? 

The true meaning of delusional hypocrite happens in relativist’s, after all, is it not so that they construct their own truth in their heads? 

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Serendipity, the Little Creature of Accidental Discovery

I have a bad feeling about growing up. Or, rather that image of growing up that translates into putting aside games, animations and movies. That image that means no sense of wonder and imagination. I already had made a post about how games could be useful as technologies some time ago, but something happened that made me come up with another argument in defence of imagination.

There are numerous videos about games, Sci-fi movies and animations, and comic books and anime on YouTube, and I follow some of them. Sometimes however, when a particular video about, say, a certain Sci-fi subject (game, movie or animation) is published, some commenters keep saying “This is pointless, you people should grow up” or simply “get a life”.

Aside from the fact that even games have proven to be useful, there is one notion that should make us reject this mindset of growing up, and that is scientific “serendipity”: the sweet little creature of accidental discovery…

The discovery of Penicillin for example is one of those happy accidents in science, the discovery of X-rays was also a serendipity. But my favourite example of these accidental discoveries is the discovery of chemical structure of Benzene: Friedrich Kekule found the structure in a dream, in which he saw Carbon atoms going in a circle and forming a ring.

Benzene (Source: Wikipedia)

The most important thing that gives serendipity wings is our own imagination. If we keep rejecting dreams, we may never find out new things. This I believe is what gives credit to this statement from Einstein: “Imagination … is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Science and the Problems of Falsifiability

Regarding my previous post about falsifiability, here are some logical and philosophical problems with falsifiability as a criterion of knowledge (science).

1) Historical problems: The first problem with falsifiability is with what scientists actually do: Falsifiability does not explain what scientists have done, or do, when they are presented with tests that falsify their theories. Scientists have shown a strong tendency to keep their theories intact (in short term that is). They do not tend to, rightfully, throw away a theory because of one test.

This happens to be true about Newton and Einstein, that decided to keep their theories even when a test showed the theory appeared to be false. And obviously, it was the test that was false, not the theory. We can clearly see that this was the right thing: Imagine if Newton had thrown away his theory just because some tests about the moon had shown unpredicted results.

The answer of an advocate of falsifiability to this historical problem is fairly simple, and I think acceptable to some extent. Firstly, the test must be repeatable, which means it’s not just one test, but one test that repeatingly keeps showing abnormal results. It’s still the same test, but here we could be fairly sure that we are not doing anything rush. Also, another answer is falsifiability is not a historical method, but an imperative methodology: It’s saying what scientists should be doing, not what they have done.

2) The practical problem of Duhem – Quine thesis: The thesis itself is simple, we cannot test any theories without testing assumptions and other theories that have made them in the first place. Take for example theory T which is made of other assumptions and theories t1, t2 and t3. When we test T, we are also testing t1, t2 and t3. This is not so much of a problem for other methodologies as it is for falsification. The question is, what has been falsified? T itself, or any of t1, t2 or t3?

Let’s logically formulate this:

T=(t1 ∧ t2 ∧ t3)

We should remember that in order to falsify T, we either need to have falsified T itself, or any other one of t1, t2 or t3. The problem here is more likely practical: How do we know which is actually falsified? Assuming that we can know all of t1, t2 and t3.

The advocate of falsifiability here will have an answer, which seems logically plausible, but in practice turns out very hard or even impossible (if we take Quine seriously): As long as the theory is not falsified, we continue testing it. When it does falsify, well there is no other way and we have to test our other sub theory-assumptions as well.

So, falsifiability as a methodology is not likely to be practical. But then rises a logical problem from Duhem-Quine thesis, which is very problematic for falsifiability as a criterion of knowledge.

3) The logical problem of Duhem-Quine thesis: The formulated theory T above still works here, let’s look at it again:

T=(t1 ∧ t2 ∧ t3)

What will happen if t1 is non-falsifiable? As we can see above, T is still falsifiable. It will be falsified if T or t2 or t3 are falsified. So, what happens to the idea of falsifiability being a criterion of knowledge (science)?  If “any” of the pre-assumptions that we had in order to reach to T turn out to be non-falsifiable, it will show that science is not all falsifiable.

The most fundamentals of science turn out to be non-falsifiable: “The world is real” or maybe better “We can know objective things about the world”. If we can know that we cannot know, then we can know, therefore this statement is not falsifiable. It always has to be true, since if it is not true, it is true.

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In the end, falsifiability by itself will not be enough. It has been suggested that we add things to it, or abandon it and take a whole other rout. In any case, although it may be a good way to show what is “not” scientific, it is not a good way of showing what is. And although it can work about some areas of knowledge which are somehow obviously not scientific, about those grey areas is not as useful.

Sam Harris’ “Free Will” Book Review: A Kantian Critique of the Scientific Notion of “No Free Will”

In his recent book, Sam Harris (neuroscientist and the author of “The End of Faith”) has officially declared the notion of free will to be an illusion (Harris, 2012). He mentions studies that have shown one’s action can be determined some seconds before one is actually aware of them, and this goes against our notion of free will.

Needless to say, this has severe implications for judging people’s actions: If there is no free will, how can we hold people morally responsible for their actions? After all, if they have not freely chosen to do wrong (or right) holding them responsible will become meaningless. (This is not the basis of my argument in rejection of what Harris puts forward against free will)

Harris of course tries to justify why we do hold criminals (and people) responsible for their actions, but still, this can only mean that even we have no free will, and what we are doing is only a projection of our own illusion.

We could make two types of objection to this notion: One is the responsibility associated with each person is indeed different from morality of an action. Thinking about “how” a person has come to do a wrong doing does not change or reduce the wrongness of that action; it can only change the amount of responsibility of that person (Whyte, 2004). But of course Harris does not completely abandon this, as he argues that “Some criminals need to be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people” (Harris, 2012). If harming people is wrong, then regardless of responsibility we incarcerate criminals.

The other objection, the more important one in my opinion, is purely from philosophical ground, particularly from a Kantian perspective. Kant argues that we understand ourselves from not just one physical standpoint, but also from “an “intelligible” realm of free human agency”, the realm of ideas and beliefs (Sandel, 2009). Just the fact that we are the only creatures that apparently is capable of having abstract thoughts is evidence for that. Ironically, Sam Harris’ thinking about free will is by itself evidence for his autonomous existence, not his heteronomy (i.e. being a slave to the nature). Mere object are incapable of abstract thoughts, and therefore there is no decision making for them, no argument, no responsibility and no morality.

To understand this better, we can have one good example based on one of the most famous philosophical statements of (probably) all times: Rene Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)”.

By reading the simplest introductions to logic (for example “42 Fallacies” by Michael LeBossiere, 2011) we immediately seem to recognise there is an obvious case of begging the question here: If we want to prove that “I” exist, we should not have assumed the existence of “I” in our assumptions. If there exists an “I” to think, then we are going in circles trying to prove that the same “I” exists.*

But here we can have a defence of Descartes from that Kantian point of view: If the first “I” is the “I” that thinks and the second “I” is the autonomous I with freedom (of the will), then there is no begging the question. The second “I” is the one with both aspects of being: Both physical and rational. It is only obvious that only the rational I is capable of thinking about the physical I, however they may be inseparable.

Back to our subject, let’s consider the case of two murderers: One abused 12 year old boy that has been abused his entire life kills someone that has ridiculed him. And the case of a 40 year old man who murders his wife in order to marry his mistress. The difference between these two cases is the second “I”, capable of rational thought. The boy is almost without an autonomous “I”, acting only what was dictated to his mind based on his lifelong torture. But the man had developed that “autonomous” I, and that is the reason why he is held morally responsible for his actions, not the boy.

In the end, the argument becomes something like “Comprehendo, igitur liber sum (I understand, therefore I am free).” **

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* It has been said (Warburton, 1998) that Descartes was completely aware that “I think therefore I am” is in form of begging the question. The argument in fact is not supposed to be a logical argument, but a psychological fact: It is hard to think that there is no I that thinks. This criticism therefore is a straw man.

** Translation by a dear commenter (Karl) below.

 

References:

Harris, S. 2012. Free Will. Kindle ed. Free Press (A division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.). New York.

LaBossiere, M. 2011. 42 Fallacies. eBook. Amazon Digital Services. [Accessed on 14th March 2012].

Sandel, M. J. 2009. Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do?. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. USA.

Warburton, N. 1998. Thinking from A-Z. 2nd ed. Routledge. USA.

Whyte, J. 2004. Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders. McGraw Hill Professional.

Introductory Logic (Example Reasoning)

“There is no such thing as innocence, only degrees of guilt”. No, this is not a quote from the Bible, nor it is from anything relevant to Christianity or Islam (at least not in a historical way), although it is quite close to what they believe. Fans of computer gaming know that this is a quote from Space Marine campaign of Warhammer 40000. Another example of such quotes is: “Hope is the first step on the road to disappointment.”

Wise, right? Not right: I was just wondering how useless these statements are. Of course, in text they seem quite nice, and actually quite wise. But just look at them from a different angle: “Disappointment is the first step on the road to hope.” or “There is no such thing as guilt, only degrees of innocence.”

Well, which one is it? “There is no such thing as innocence” or “there is no such thing as guilt”?

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This brings me to the second part of my post. There was this story (a false one nonetheless) about Einstein and his “atheist” professor circulating the internet, and it contains something similar. It has many different versions, the following is one of them (source):

The professor of a university challenged his students with this question. “Did God create everything that exists?” A student answered bravely, “Yes, he did”.

The professor then asked, “If God created everything, then he created evil. Since evil exists (as noticed by our own actions), so God is evil. The student couldn’t respond to that statement causing the professor to conclude that he had “proved” that “belief in God” was a fairy tale, and therefore worthless.

Another student raised his hand and asked the professor, “May I pose a question? ” “Of course” answered the professor.

The young student stood up and asked : “Professor does Cold exists?”

The professor answered, “What kind of question is that? …Of course the cold exists… haven’t you ever been cold?”

The young student answered, “In fact sir, Cold does not exist. According to the laws of Physics, what we consider cold, in fact is the absence of heat. Anything is able to be studied as long as it transmits energy (heat). Absolute Zero is the total absence of heat, but cold does not exist. What we have done is create a term to describe how we feel if we don’t have body heat or we are not hot.”

“And, does Dark exist?”, he continued. The professor answered “Of course”. This time the student responded, “Again you’re wrong, Sir. Darkness does not exist either. Darkness is in fact simply the absence of light. Light can be studied, darkness can not. Darkness cannot be broken down. A simple ray of light tears the darkness and illuminates the surface where the light beam finishes. Dark is a term that we humans have created to describe what happens when there’s lack of light.”

Finally, the student asked the professor, “Sir, does evil exist?” The professor replied, “Of course it exists, as I mentioned at the beginning, we see violations, crimes and violence anywhere in the world, and those things are evil.”

The student responded, “Sir, Evil does not exist. Just as in the previous cases, Evil is a term which man has created to describe the result of the absence of God’s presence in the hearts of man.”

After this, the professor bowed down his head, and didn’t answer back.

The young man’s name was ALBERT EINSTEIN.

In the source link you can find some things that are wrong with this kind of reasoning, including the fact that “God” is equivocated with “good” which creates a “begging the question” fallacy, but I will not linger on that.

There is a bigger fallacy here, and that’s what we can call “Unhealthy parables”* or “Example reasoning” (the red line). In the text above, Einstein (NOT!) gives examples of the physical world, and then suddenly jumps into the conclusion about God (good) and bad (evil). Why? How is it any relevant to the examples given?

It is not, and you see why as soon as you start thinking about good things and bad (evil) things. Why bad things are bad? Why molesting a child or killing someone in a dark alley to steal his/her wallet is wrong? The “reason” is that it goes against their basic rights as human beings. So, there “is” evil, and there “is” good, separate from each other, and one is not the absence of the other.

Examples are never reasons, one should provide good reasons for what one believes.

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* I think the term “Unhealthy parable” is a more relevant term, especially in this case that the examples are completely irrelevant to the conclusion.

Introductory Logic (Appealing to Consequences)

I believe watching “Expelled: No intelligence allowed” could probably be fun, although I’ve never watched it! As far as the trailer shows, and as far as what can be read in reviews (such as in Scientific America) it shows such a disgraceful dishonesty in presenting science and evolution that we should call it a fun fictional movie instead of a documentary!

But aside  from such sack of lies and propaganda, there is a huge flaw in the argument presented by the movie: “Evolution is wrong (and cannot be accepted), because it leads to Fascism.”

Of course it does not, but for the sake of this post, let’s assume that it does. Fascism is obviously very wrong, but interestingly enough, even if evolution “does” lead to Fascism, no one can possibly suggest that it is wrong based on that assumption. This is what is called “Appealing to consequences” or “argumentum ad consequentiam”, and in this case comes from the fact that scientists did not derive the theory of evolution from Fascism, nor did Darwin himself, but they conducted probably thousands of scientific experiments in order to verify (or falsify) evolution.

If anyone wants to challenge evolution, he/she should either conduct a scientific experiment that can falsify evolution, or reject the scientific method entirely. This movie does neither, therefore it’s attack on evolution is the perfect textbook case of appealing to consequences, and can be used as a good example in teaching of fallacies.

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But no. There is actually another perfect example of such fallacy done by the infamous “Bananaman” (Ray Comfort), when he published a “modified” version of Darwin’s “The Origin Of Species”. He wrote an introduction on the book, full of his usual stupidity and ignorance, and our example is from there:

“In promoting the idea that humans were merely animals and accidents of nature, the natural consequence of Darwinism was to overturn the traditional Judeo-Christian values on the sacredness of human life. The legacy of Darwin’s theory can be seen in the rise of eugenics, euthanasia, racism, infanticide, and abortion.”

Well, even better: This guy goes exactly by the textbook case of the fallacy, trying to discredit the first statement (which is an ad hominem by the way) by asserting what he thinks are its undesirable immediate consequences.

The only people able to present this kind of childish sheer ignorance, even on the most basic level of thinking, are fundamentalist zealots like Ray Comfort or Ben Stein.

Scientific Faith? You are Surely Joking! (1)

The main issue of talking to “some” believers is their utter dishonesty and ignorance. Of course, this comes in many different ways and shapes: Sometimes they try to abuse a professional language, sometimes they lie, and sometimes they try to confiscate irrelevant things for their own position, including science and scientific method.

Recently I keep hearing the old claim that “we all accept things based on faith, including scientists”. You ask where? Let’s take the case of this audio-video, in which “Dr.” John Warwick Montgomery apparently tries to criticize Sam Harris’s comment on faith.*

Of course, there are numerous reasons why this is flawed. In fact, it is so flawed that one wonders where to begin?!

Let’s start with the very first sentence: “No evidence for factual things reaches a hundred percent.” And then he goes on giving an example about “crossing the street”. It is interesting that “He” should dare calling Harris a bad epistemologist, while he is attacking Harris exactly based on bad epistemology.

Assuming that we ignore we don’t know what this guy means by “factual things”, and assuming he means “factual belief”, if theories of natural science are “factual things”, then the evidence for them based on methodology of science “should” be 100%. If not, then they are falsified theories and should be put aside.**

There are other domains of knowledge, like social sciences, art, history, philosophy etc, which contain these “factual things”. None of them are as robust as natural science, but some of them are close, like social sciences, or our ordinary lives for that matter. If we have reasons, beyond reasonable doubt, that something has happened or is going to happen, it would be moronic to say we have “faith” in it. The only thing we have is reasonable acceptance, which is a fancy name for common sense.

This brings us to the second glorious (gloriously stupid of course) statement of Dr. Montgomery: “Faith is jumping the gap from evidence to certainty”. Well, then we have “faith”, which means trusting your common sense when crossing the street, and we have “faith”, which means believing in Pixies, Fairies, Santa, Loch Ness monster, Genie of the lamp, All the God(s) and Russel’s teapot (theists nightmare). You’re telling me there is no difference here?!

We have common sense that tells us we should ignore unreasonable doubts. After all, we cannot live if we do not do so: Imagine someone that never passes the street because despite all the precautions, there “might” be an accident.

If that does not show the difference, there are two other things that will: First, is the mere existence of religious pluralism should be a clue to its fraudulent nature. The evidential truth in religion as a knowledge does not pass beyond individual subjectivism. But science is almost completely different: There is no sign of pluralism within scientific community, which shows its objective nature.

Second, the history of science and history of religion clearly show that as time passed by, religion branches into many different denominations, while science remains mostly as one “paradigm”. Even if there are two rival theories (or paradigms) at a time, one would eventually die away, as scientific experiments go on.

from WikipediaSource: Wikipedia

And one final thing, until now, there has been no justified evidence for the truth of any major religious claim. Which means religion keeps pending outside the known knowledge of reality, along with pixies, fairies and leprechauns.

Is there no end to hypocrasy of religious apologists?

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* It’s interesting that he does not dare debating Harris, or others whom he supposably criticizes without them being there.

** There have been a lot of relatvie discussions in philosophy of science about this that I do not mention here, none of them have recognized religious belief to be factual and evidentially accurate though. But I will talk about one related question later in another post: “Is there anything that scientists believe, without it being evidentially justified?”