Thursday, 29 December 2011

Hume on Scepticism Part II

Greetings to my fellow readers and bloggers. I hope you all had a good Christmas, I managed to watch Lohengrin an intriguing mix of styles between the Ring cycle and Parsifal. Indeed Lohengrin is in fact Parsifal's son. Which may raise a few eyebrows as Parsifal in the opera devoted to him has commited himself to celibacy. Still consistency was never a strong point of mythology. Those who don't know Lohengrin should get to know it.  Act II is the best, the music looking forward to the Ring Cycle. Anyway this is not the main point of the post, which is to finish off my examination of Hume's scepticism.

Recall that Hume is arguing for a mitigated scepticism which recognises the limits of Human Knowledge, we saw in the first post on this that one of the benefits of Hume's scepticism is that it would avoid dogmatism. The other benefit Hume sees is that it will act as a brake on speculative philosophy by acknowledging that there are limits to what philosophy or any branch of human knowledge can achieve and we should take care to recognise speculation for what it is and concentrate on problems which we can actually solve.

It seems to me that Hume's lesson needs to be taken on board in a number of areas not least in some developments of physics. There is an interesting tension, on the one hand given Heisenberg's uncertainty principle  and Godel's theorem. we seem to be acknowledging that even our most rigorous methods of obtaining knowledge about the world have severe limitations, something which Hume would be delighted to

On the other hand some aspects of modern physics do seem to border on the realms of speculation to which
there can be no testable consequences. I refer of course to the speculation that seems rife in quantum physics such as  Many Worlds theories and also that attempts to quantise gravity seem to be inherently untestable.

Readers of earlier posts will know that I tend to view claims that the wavefunction in quantum physics as a real field with a healthy degree of scepticism. The simplest explanation of it's role is as a mathematical device for generating the probabilites of quantum effects to occur. Thus when a measurement occurs the wave function does not physically collapse, all that happens is that one of the possibilities is realised. This pragmatic and slightly unromantic view of the situation cuts out all the speculation associated with what for want of a better word is the mystical or science fiction interpretation of quantum mechanics. The Many worlders would agree with me that the wavefunction does not physically collapse, but they would argue (if I understand it correctly) that because the wavefunction is a real field every time a measurement is made the wavefunction splits creating another universe, but of course we have no means of communication with that other universe.
(How convenient),   If that is one of the prices one has to pay for seeing the wavefunction as a real field then I'm afraid it's not worth it. By definition such a hypothesis is untestable and therefore cannot be good science as it is 'Not even wrong'.

A similar criticism could be made of the current attempts to quantise gravity. Indeed such a criticism has been made of superstring theory by Peter Woit.

I first read this book about 6 years ago. In it he argues that superstring theory is inherently untestable as the methodology used there does not lead to anything which can be tested in the lab. For example it's not clear that it does contain the standard model of particle physics as a lower limit. In this it is quite different from say quantum physics or relativty which do reduce to Newtonian physics in the limit. Woit rightly in my opinion criticises the amount of money that has been spent on such research.
Woit has devoted a blog which challenges the claims of those who would over exaggerate the importance
of areas of research such as superstrings.

And I recommend it to my readers as an antidote to all the hype about modern physics one consistently gets in the media.

Part of the problem, it would seem is that superstrings and the mystical/science fiction interpretation of quantum mechancis seem to tap into some part of the human pschye for a modern form of mysticism. Well fine, but don't claim that this is real science and certainly don't expect the taxpayer to fund your lifestyle.

Why not admit that superstrings or many worlds theories are speculations, that quantum physics far from being a mystery is in fact a well developed tool for predicting the behaviour of atomic, molecular and nuclear systems with applications to astrophysics, particle physics, chemistry and other fields. There is more than enough awe and wonder to be found in the day to day applications of science to solve currently intractable problems and given that one can go out and test such applications I would have thought more rewarding.     

I'll let Hume have the last word, here he is referring to the typical 'proofs' current in his time, that the Supreme Being is actively causing everything (even my finger movements over the keyboard as I type this post).

"Though the chain of arguments, which conduct to it, were ever so logical, there must arise a strong suspicion, if not absolute assurance, that it has carried us quite beyond the reach of our faculties, when it leads to conclusions so extraordinary, and so remote from common life and experience. We are got into fairy land."

It seems to me that talk of many worlds or us living in a world of 10,11 or 26 dimensions is just as likely to have led us into fairy land as anything else.


Saturday, 24 December 2011

A Defence of Liberal Secularism for Xmas

Ok well as promised here is my defence of liberal secularism, call it Chris's Christmas Sermon if you wish. Today is Christmas Eve, and no doubt this evening and tomorrow, there will be many churches and other religious instittuions, denouncing liberal secularism, as it has led to a decline in moral standards as exemplified by the toleration of behaviour of the rioters last Summer. The true meaning of Christmas being obscured by the rampant consumerism of the past months. Moral relativism, leading to a disrespect for authorities and tolerating any form of behaviour, even that which casues harm to other people. There will no doubt be an attack on multiculturalism and the usual guff that councils up and down the land are banning the word Christmas for fear of causing offence to other religions. Finally, the claim, that without a belief in God there can be no basis for morality. We should remember, so the argument goes,  as the Prime Minister has recently stated that the foundations for our morality lie in Christianity and we as a nation should return to it.

In what follows I want to challenge 4  basic premises that form the basis of such beliefs these are

1) A belief in God is necessary for morality.
2) The basis for western morality lies with Christianity.
3) Liberal secularism is the same as moral relativism hence liberal secularists can have no values.
4) Non believers in God must be living impoverished lives as they are 'spiritually dead'.

In doing so I will draw on an Early dialogue by Plato called the Euthyphro dialogue and Mill's Essay on Liberty.

To take the first premise, that a belief in God is necessary for morality. This was shown to be fallacious by Plato in an Early dialogue which he attributes to Socrates on his way to his trial for impeiety. He gets talking to a young man Eutyhphro (hence the name of the dialogue) who is also on his way to prosecute his father for murder. This leads to a general discussion on the nature of piety which for the Greeks was considered synomonous with morality or Ethics. Socrates poses the dillema, Is morality or ethics, good initself  or is it  only good because God (or the Gods) have ordained them. If the former, then obviously one does not need God, or a belief in God, as a  foundation for  our ethical principles. If the latter, then what guarantee do we have that the commandments of God are in fact good. To say that God, defines goodness is to beg the question, especially as in some of the texts God is seen ordering the Israelites to smite other nations, or more pertinately in todays climate, it is the duty of Islamists to wage violent Jihad on the decadent West. Given the tendency of religious institutions to want to impose a theocracy on non believers, then they must presumably think that Ethical principles are good in themselves, but then you don't need a belief in God to justify them. It is quite remarkable that a dialogue written 2,400 years ago asks such a pertinent question. There is no justification for the view that ethical or moral principles require a belief in God.

I come to the second argument that our ethical views are based in Christianity. I would argue that 400 years before Christianity, the foundations of our ethical perspective was given by the Greek philosophers especially Plato and Aristotle. The difference between the Greeks and Faith based views of ethics is that whereas for the most part faith based ethics says simply these principles were ordained by God and are enshrined in the texts. (As if one could simply write down a system of ethics, valid for eternity 2000 years ago and simply apply it to another age, without regard to context or the changes in society) Philosophers would say that you must provide a good argument for your case.  Instead of basing our ethics on religious texts I would suggest that a study of the main philosophical ethical texts is a far better way to learn ethical principles. The benefits will be  learnng how to argue for your case, rather just 'It's in the Bible, Koran or whatever religious text therefore it must be correct'. Also a certain modesty (cf Yesterdays post) and an ability to revise ones position, when confronted with something that doesn't quite fit the usual ethical percepts. To give a trivial example, whilst we can probably agree, that in general lying is a bad thing, it would be a brave man  who when asked 'Does my bum look big in this?' by his girlfriend said yes. Obviously there are more serious cases does one want to reveal where ones friends are to an enemy who wants to kill them for example.  Anyway the point is that it was the Greeks who invented philosophical ethics 400 years before Christianity was even heard of and it is those principles which forms the basis of our society not Christianity.

This brings me to my third point the claim that  liberal secularists have no values. Anyone who claims this has obviously not read Mill's essay on liberty. There Mill introduces a very simple principle namely that any lifestyle belief or cultural practice is fine provided it does not harm any other person. This is a two edged sword, on the one hand diversity in life is to be encouraged and welcomed. On the other hand if cultural practices do cause harm to other people then those practices are to be condemned. Thus for example liberal secularists who follow Mill in the harm principle would have no problem in, attacking for example genital mutilation and it is not cultural imperialism to do so.  A further pertinent point that Mill makes is that offence is no harm. Religious people who are often vociferous in banning plays which criticise religion or make fun of it often claim that they are offended by this. Well fair enough you have a right to express your view but it is not your right to close down plays by threat of violence, neither is it your right to seek to kill those who write books criticising your religion. You want to attack liberals for having no morals or values, well then learn to accept criticism yourself. 

Far from liberals having no values I would argue that liberals possess a set of core values, firstly the harm principle as enunciated above, but furthermore we believe that a diversity of lifestyles is good for society we also believe that discrimination against people on the basis of ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation is also a bad thing. If your religious institution or way of life maintains discrimination against women or gay people then it's about time you changed your position. Furthermore if you are a public servant and you discriminate against ethnic minorities, women or gay people then you deserve to lose your job. The nub of the battle between liberals and the Pope for example isn't that liberals don't have ethical values whereas instituitionalised religion does. It is that there is a real clash of values and in the case of institutions which refuse to let women or gay people rise to the top based on their merits such behaviour is essentially racist, misoygnistic and bigoted. The more you denounce certain ways of life which you don't approve of, then the more you will be justly criticised and the more you just show your institutionalised bigotry. I leave it to you to ponder, whether or not such attitudes are consistent with the teachings of a Galilean peasant, who says you should love your neighbour as yourself.  

To my final point the alleged lack of fullfilment of non religious people as they are spiritually dead. I would argue that this is clearly not the case. The secular world has much to offer in terms of fulfillment, I prefer to use the word aesthetic rather than spiritual. Here it is abundantly obvious that the Arts have much to offer here. I would say from personal experience that for exampel the symphonies of Mahler, the operas of Wagner, the novels of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and the paintings of Picasso have far more to offer than a few hymns or carols and the  continual regurgitation of the same old text week in week out. For other people it may simply be enjoying a good walk in the country or just cultivating friendships and family. Also one must not forget the joy that the study of the sciences and mathematics can give.

So, I long for the day when this world tolerates other lifestyles, when people can rise to the peak of their abilities, without being discriminated against, because of their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. I long for the day when people don't harm anyone else. I also long for the day when religious institutions live up to their founders principles instead of indulging in institutional bigotry as most of them seem to, 

Have a good Christmas Winter Solstice, excuse to get drunk whatever way you want to call it

Best wishes Chris 

Friday, 23 December 2011

Hume on Scepticism

First of all apologies for not posting for a while, my main concern has been with finishing off my Hume studies (although informally I will continue to read him as he is definitely one of the greatest philosophers of all time).
After a delay caused by gale force winds. I sat the exam which consisted of three questions of which we had to answer one in 3/4 hour. There was a question on induction and it's importance in the rest of the Enquiry. I think I answered the first part quite well, but did not spend much time on the second one. In answering the first part I essentially rehashed the post below. I wonder if you can be charged with plagiarism if you quote yourself ? I then spent last weekend writing an essay on Hume's scepticism, the question was is there a good Humean case for Scepticism ? The relevant section of the Enquiry is section 12.

Hume distinguishes three types of scepticism, the first due primarily to Descartes is called antecedent scepticism. In the first part of the meditations Descartes attempts to purge his mind of anything that is possible to doubt so that he can found a sure foundation from which he then move forward. As is well known
Descartes thought he could find an indubitable principle in the proposition 'I think therefore I am' (the cogito) but this does nothing really to help Descartes. His notorious dilemma that we may be deceived by an evil demon isn't really addressed, but left hanging. Invoking a benevolent God as Descartes does just begs the question. On the other hand even if we have such an indubitable principle such as the cogito, and development of this principle to some of Descarte's notorious conclusions such as the existence of God or the separation of mind and body can only be achieved by use of the faculties which Descartes has already condemned as faulty.

On the other hand Hume says that some form of scepticism is necessary to any good philosophy that we should always subject our initial premsises to scrutiny and careful check of our reasoning is a vital process. Indeed we may be so convinced of the rightness of our conclusion that we may have overlooked some faulty step in our reasoning. Hence the need to subject our ideas to external criticism.

The second form of scepticism is consequential scepticism, this starts from the premise that our experience of the external world is essentially through images present to the mind. But whereas the image we see varies from which angle or distance we see it, The object itself remains the same. Thus there is a difference between the world as we perceive it and the world as it is initself. The problem is that if all we have our images in the mind how can we be said to have real knowledge of the objects or even worse  how do we have any guarantee that there is a world independent of our experience of it. Hume admits that this problem so contrary to common sense seems insoluble, but Hume makes an important distinction between the philosopher in his study who is interested in the limits of Human reason to find out what the justification of our every day assumptions are and every day life. No one could live their lives as the Pyhrronean sceptics would have us do taking this seriously. The problem has to be acknowledged as a real one which may or may not be resolved one day but should not affect our every day lives.

Hume argues for a mitigated scepticism which acknowledges the limits of Human reasoning both deductive and inductive to provide a justification for many of our commonly held ones. The main argument is essentially the one he gives against our ability to justify  induction and in the essay I essentially reiterated this argument (plagiarising myself again ;).   There is a second less formal argument namely the benefits that would accrue to society if an acknowledgement of the limits of Human reasoning were to be taken on board.

Hume claims there are at least two, the first would be as a check against all forms of Dogmatism, which Hume sadly acknowledges affects a lot of human beings. The claim to have access to absolute truth quite often leads to seeing those who disagree with a particular viewpoint as enemies who should be destroyed.

As is well known this seems to have infected institutional religion which currently seems to brand anyone not religious as immoral and destroying the fabric of our society. Indeed our prime minister despite having a degree in philosophy, politics and economics seems to have jumped on this band wagon. I'll try and write another post in detail why I think this is totally wrong. But one of the main reasons why it is wrong to accuse liberal secularists of tolerating anything is given by Mill in his wonderful book An Essay on Liberty where he introduces a simple principle the so called Harm principle, namely any life style or belief can be tolerated provided it does not cause harm to other people. Thus liberals would not tolerate the behavior of the rioters in London as they definitely caused harm to other people. Thats not to say that liberals would not try to understand some of the underlying causes or condemn some of the punishments currently being meted out for example two years for stealing a bottle of water as unduly harsh. Or even condemn a society which tolerates Bullingdon bullies such as Boris Johnson or David Cameron himself in their undergraduate years smashing windows in a restaurant and then being let off with a caution and a small fine. As a final ad hominem point, the behavior of some of the Catholic Churches priests and even more worrying the attempted cover up in the child abuse scandal would show at the least that there is no strong link between belief in God and personal morality.
(I can see a secular Christmas sermon coming on watch this space !!)

I digress, Hume argues that instead of seeing those who disagree with us as enemies if we acknowledge the limits of Human reason we will have a certain modesty about our claims and see those who differ from us as fellow seekers after truth. Thus by dialogue rather than confrontation we may learn from each other and that way advance the search for truth in an open manner. Of course the realisation that there are limits to Human Knowledge may be troubling to some but we have to learn to live with it. Indeed as Locke says in his own Essay concerning Human understanding

"It will be an unpardonable, as well as childish peevishness (what wonderful language !!) if we undervalue the advantages of our knowledge, and neglect to improve it to the ends for which it was given us, because there are somethings set out of the reach of it. .... The candle, that is set up in us, shines bright enough for all our purposes. The discoveries we can make with this, ought to satisfy us... If we will disbelieve everything, because we cannot certainly know all things; we shall do muchwhat as wisely as he, who would not use his legs, but sit still and perish, because he had no wings to fly"

I'll talk a bit more about the second benefit that Hume thinks that will accrue by acknowledging the limits of Human reason and it's surprising relevance to current debates in modern physics in another post.
Hope you all have a good Christmas, Winter  Solstice, excuse to pig out, whatever and look out for my Christmas secular sermon

Thanks to all my followers over the past year.

Best wishes Chris