A rebuttal of the epistemology of The End of Faith

 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
 
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TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
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29 September 2017 00:48
 

This (https://analyticphilosophy.net/precis-of-unnecessary-and-naive-epistemology/) is far too long to post here, but if anyone wants to discuss these issues, we can do it here.  I welcome any comments.  The actual essay is under the heading “Essays” off the main page, right under this ‘Precis’ on the same menu.  Be forewarned: it is long, but it doesn’t just argue against Chapter 2. It purports to develop an entirely different point of view that accounts for both the truth and errors of Harris’ “epistemology” in The End of Faith.  If you have the patience to get through it, you should understand the classical American pragmatism that Harris misses because of his reliance on his former teacher, Richard Rorty.  In short, this essay could be construed as Dewey’s reply that would refute both Rorty’s understanding of “belief” and “knowledge” and the contrary epistemology Harris deploys to support his arguments against religion.  In any case, nothing substantial about Harris’ views on supernatural religion is challenged, just this “epistemology,” and it is even hoped that Harris’ points are made stronger, not weaker, from the more robust ‘epistemology’ of a more faithful American pragmatism.

Happy reading!

The Anus

[ Edited: 29 September 2017 01:21 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
Kalessin
 
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Kalessin
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29 September 2017 16:23
 

... as an epistemology, claiming that “true beliefs” are “representations of reality,” representations themselves composed of “beliefs” or “propositions” generated by the brain through sensory contact with the ambiently real ... this formulation ... obscures—and even undermines—its best intentions.  Specifically, it embroils one in the pseudo-philosophical question of: if beliefs and representations are beliefs and representations of the world as antecedent to them, how is it that this antecedently real is truly known, if our only access to it is though the beliefs and representations generated by the senses and the brain ...?
... instead of basing the usefulness or validity of belief on a correspondence with the antecedently real it allegedly mirrors or represents (a correspondence that is always ultimately presumed in advance), the utility of belief is determined through the assessment of its consequences, both explicit and implied, irrespective of the question of an apriori ‘conformity’ to what antecedes it.

... factual, inherently epistemic propositions of the kind Harris describes—the kind that must logically cohere and not contradict one another, the kind that are tested and corroborated through independent evidence obtained from independent grounds—are in fact largely derivative of beliefs of another kind, beliefs equally based in language and its representative function, but beliefs that are nevertheless more basic than factual propositions about the world ...
practical beliefs take on the form, ‘if I do this with x, then certain consequences entail’—or concomitant with that formulation, they state the action and its consequences into a subject-predicate form, as in “x is for…”  These beliefs are clearly propositional, and they remain about existent things, but they prescribe actions to be performed on or through objects more than they reflect factual properties about those object or states of the world related to them.

... practical beliefs carry within their very formulation both a principle of action and an intrinsic criterion for the ‘truth claims’ contained within them, a criterion based on evidence disclosed directly in the operations prescribed.  This can be contrasted with beliefs formed with an epistemic interest, for those require independent operations of inquiry in order to seek out and evaluate evidence related to the truth claims implied in the proposition.  The significance of this difference will be elaborated upon shortly.  For the time being it is important to make the distinction between practical and epistemic beliefs more concrete by returning to the chosen example.

... when approaching a door to leave the house, one does so with something like the following proposition in mind: “if I turn the handle and pull, then the door will open.”  That proposition is, as it were, the belief about the door.  ... one does not need to have, a set of propositional statements of the kind “the house is infested with termites” or “tofu is not a dessert,” etc.—in this case, perhaps, factually determinate propositions such as “the door has a handle”, “the door has hinges on which it swings”, “the door is light enough to be moved,” “the handle is within arm’s reach,” “handles open the latches on doors,” etc.  ... But to work the door, one need only have one belief about how the door functions, not many beliefs about its properties from which to infer its function and formulate an action.  In this respect, then a practical belief differs from Harris’ epistemic belief: it’s usually one belief about how to do something to or with an implement, not several propositions about the implement upon which one then bases knowledge of how to use it.

I have got this far to date and it’s a pretty dense read.  I would guess it is aimed only at readers who have studied a particular range of philosophical approaches and proponents in significant academic detail, in order to “take as read” so many of the assumptions.  I was reminded at my joy in discovering Neitzche, or the brilliant summations of Brian Magee (and more recently Peter Adamson) in giving an overview of particular positions.

In attempting to get to the heart of your argument, as I understand it, I think you are saying that the way Sam Harris wishes to describe and explain the relationship between belief (the way we think about x) and reality (x as perceived) is philosophically flawed, although you are sympathetic to his wish to remove or devalue faith (in the normative religious sense) as an element of this relationship.  Among these flaws is that by framing belief as representation rather than axiomatic, the relative “truth” is undermined by a circular reasoning chain.  Another is that you think actually beliefs ARE more generally axiomatic or consequential, and don’t necessarily depend on representation.  In your view simply changing the framing of belief away from representation to consequence allows you maintain a pragmatic interaction with the world and build evidential models of truth without recourse to faith.

I’m sure this is a reductionist simplification, but presumably with your pragmatic or naive hat on that’s something you approve of smile

While i was reading something actually reminded me about the first podcast between Sam harris and Jordan Peterson.  The discussion there became somewhat mired in an epistemic struggle that sounds a bit familiar to some of your points.  They were stuck on Peterson’s approach to truth (as a basis for the validity of beliefs about the world) as being a kind of Darwinian construct that arises from its utility and robustness; whereas Harris was trying to anchor truth in a more contained empirical sense that would not be altered or externally validated by it’s efficacy. 

Underlying this clash, it seemed to me, was JP’s attempt to argue for a meaningful ‘truth’ (perhaps in the moral or psychological sense) in some aspects of the bible and other ancient spiritual/deistic traditions.  By contrast SH, as we know, is opposed to what he would see as non-evidential propositions about the world that open the door to theology or mysticism.

I’m slightly sympathetic to both speakers but it does involve wearing different hats (I do have a few hats) for each of them, and I was also reminded of my pluralist sentiments when wading through your essay.  I am not yet sure that there is an absolute dichotomy as you describe it, or that if there is - in a purely epistemic sense - there is only one way out of it.  Without recourse to reduction ad absurdam it seems to me that consequence and representation are quite difficult to truly separate with any of the tools or instruments of perception that we have; I don’t see that one is a necessary (or not) precursor to the other, or that most human experience isn’t in fact a sort of blurry but efficient blend. 

Hume (another very nice writer) gets to the heart of this by finding the flaws in our conceptions of causality.  A mode of thinking or belief that is based on “if I do x, then y” is just as subject to scrutiny as one that starts with “my knowledge about x is based on my examination of x”, which I agree does not escape hard solipsism and other challenges.

I do agree with you that theists might use philosophical approaches to undermine such positions as a way to defend faith or the supernatural.  In fact I heard a theist caller to Matt Dillahunty make a reasonably coherent use of hard solipsism to deflect a number of challenges by positing a sort of ‘parity’ of the unreliability of all modes of inquiry, in order to leave faith and revelation as viable competitors to empiricism.  The problem for theists with this is that it is ultimately nihilistic, and they have to rebuild (as per Descartes and Avicenna) a cosmology that somehow justifies faith, whereas atheists can make do with tentative, transient or hypothetical frameworks and the relative validity of the scientific method to operate within those constraints.

So, interesting - but hard work for a tired mind smile.  If you feel inclined to offer a “dummies guide” to the rest of your essay I promise to give it some more attention.
Kalessin

 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
 
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05 October 2017 01:47
 

Thank you for your thoughtful reply.  I will reply as thoughts from it come to mind instead of recasting the whole into a specific form.

I agree that consequence and representation (and by “representation” I take it you mean mirroring or a copy theory of representation) are not polar opposites, and that “most human experience is a sort of blurry but efficient blend” of the two.  I vaguely recall thinking exactly that as I wrote, and I probably should have stated it explicitly, if I didn’t somewhere; I honesty forget now whether I did.  Once such way in which they blend is when testing or divining consequences of a representation or belief, as when I say “if I do x, y will happen”, then I do X and something happens, so I form the belief that it’s either y or not.  That belief representing the consequence of holding the prior belief could still be said to be “representative” in a metaophically ‘mirroring’ sense, in that it ‘reflects’ reality as it is (say, for instance, the proposition “the door is open,” if in fact the door is open, etc.).  But note: that representative fact serves only an evidentiary role, i.e. the basic perceptual evidence is presumed to be the evidence that it is for or against the original belief, and its function in knowledge is solely in testing the original belief.  Only trivially is it knowledge itself.  So yes, in this dual sense “consequence” and “representation” do work in conjunction the process of verification of the kinds of beliefs we generally hold (beliefs about function, not propositions epidemically representing states of the world), and thank you for probably making that more explicit than I did. 

Where you say for me Harris’ position is flawed, and that “among these flaws” I think Harris frames “belief as representation rather than axiomatic”, thus “the relative ‘truth’ is undermined by a circular reasoning chain”, I would clarify with: yes, Harris’ epistemological position commits him to a position on a circle of reasoning that is in principle undecidable without certain entirely discredited auxiliary assumptions (foundational atomistic propositions or perceptions, for instance, and some kind of special intuition for their givenness), but his reasoning per se is not quite circular; instead it is arbitrary and unable to account for the truth of the position he refutes, even as the position he refutes is unable to account for the truth of the position he holds.  This is what I mean by the epistemological merry-go-round that Harris seems to ride on and naively gets off on an arbitrary place, though one true enough in its relative lights.  Thus when you say that another criticism I have is that I think “beliefs ARE more generally axiomatic or consequential, and don’t necessarily depend on representation,”  I would agree in so far as ‘representation’ is taken for a stand in for “resemblance” or “mirror” and ‘consequential’ is taken as a feature of representations and beliefs we have absent any stipulation that they mirror more basic perceptual events, i.e. that their ‘truth,’ as it were, is both stipulated to some degree (for instance, that doors are for opening or closing) and functionally tested by performing the action prescribed within the belief itself (I do the prescribed action and see what happens). 

In short, I think Harris falls into the age old trap of the empiricist and positivists of trying to grounding the truth of a proposition in some kind of mirroring, or picturing, or causal relationship with an antecedently perceived real, when in fact nothing of the sort occurs except by sort of an optical illusion in basic cases of perceptual awareness framed into propositional language.  But even that awareness of conformity to an antecedent reality is a function of testing the consequences of holding a belief, not of apprehending through some alternative cognitive agency the belief’s “resemblance” or “mirroring” of this antecedent reality, a mirroring that occurs in some kind of apriori relationship that is always presumed somewhere.  Where Harris tacitly puts “resemblance” or “mirroring” as an antecedent state of things, I put it as an accomplishment of verification, an accomplishment that says nothing about apriori conformity.

This point leads to the ‘for dummies’ summary you ask for.  The main thrust of the essay is to effect an epistemological shift a) away from the project of claiming either that beliefs are true because they mirror the states of the world or that their truth is known by checking if they so mirror it b) toward one of testing a belief’s truth by the verifiable consequences of holding it, thus making it ‘true’ or ‘false’ only through these verified consequences, and in that way the always presumed antecedently existing real is through these verified consequences then KNOWN.  In a nutshell, any so called “mirroring” or “correspondence” is an accomplishment of verification, and only an accomplishment; it is not something presumed or presumable in advance as a guarantor of the truth of a proposition.  Harris seems to be groping for this pragmatic understanding of truth and belief without quite bringing it to philosophical clarity.  Instead he seems to tacitly endorse some kind of “truth is guaranteed by an apriori mirroring correspondence”.  As I try to point out, that attempt is intrinsically flawed by an enormous amount of philosophical baggage.

As for the rest of the essay, it attempts to tease out the truth of Harris’ naïve position, even as it shows why his is an incomplete account by offering one that accounts for both that truth and the truth of the position he rejects.  It does this by suggesting that science accomplishes truth only through a process of verification where ‘correspondence’ with reality is constructed or conjected as the terminus of inquiry, not presumed as appreciable in advance in some kind of apriori mirroring relation where the veracity of beliefs is grounded in an antecedent conformity (this is the mistake empiricism makes).  In a sense, the position developed may seem so obvious that one might think that Harris must hold it, but as near as I can tell, if he does he still uses the language of a defunct philosophy to defend it.

Like I say at both the beginning and the end of the essay, however, this appearance may simply be cosmetic and ultimately of no consequence. 

Thank you again for reading.  I hope this contributes to clarity more than not.

[ Edited: 06 October 2017 02:49 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
jdrnd
 
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26 October 2017 18:19
 

Its almost like you guys are speaking a different language.

 
rustyosgood
 
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rustyosgood
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26 October 2017 21:31
 

One of Sam’s strengths is that he summarizes well. As an Engineer who writes technical reports frequently, I try to mentor my staff and endeavor myself, to summarize succinctly. Summarizing things is difficult because it requires an elegant understanding and an ability to elucidate the same without having to rely on a circuitous train of subjective definitions. When you attempt to tackle too many points and meander about what means what, you tend to lose the reader (and frequently the point).

I do not study philosophy because I prefer the “pragmatic” realism of material science. You can measure things directly, make observations, test things etc… At the end of the day, we all boil down to our physical selves and so does everything around us, even the abstract. That’s it.  From what we currently know (science and logic informs everything) we are subject to the rules of nature. We have only the illusion of free will and no matter how you frame it, we are all subject to the same ultimate physical reality. Everything else, all of the words, terminology and definitions must settle on these cold facts. How one arrives at these facts is not even interesting to me. It seems a waste of time and brain power. Discussions about what is real and degrees of certainty are nothing more than an exercise in mental masturbation, they have never led to anything more meaningful than science.

 
jdrnd
 
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27 October 2017 05:11
 
rustyosgood - 26 October 2017 09:31 PM

...Summarizing things is difficult because it requires an elegant understanding and an ability to elucidate the same without having to rely on a circuitous train of subjective definitions. When you attempt to tackle too many points and meander about what means what, you tend to lose the reader (and frequently the point)...

I’m not even sure that their banter isn’t just a show.  It appears to elegantly say nothing.


Its so,

for lack of a better word,

“erudite”.

 
ubique13
 
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ubique13
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27 October 2017 06:44
 
rustyosgood - 26 October 2017 09:31 PM

One of Sam’s strengths is that he summarizes well. As an Engineer who writes technical reports frequently, I try to mentor my staff and endeavor myself, to summarize succinctly. Summarizing things is difficult because it requires an elegant understanding and an ability to elucidate the same without having to rely on a circuitous train of subjective definitions. When you attempt to tackle too many points and meander about what means what, you tend to lose the reader (and frequently the point).

I do not study philosophy because I prefer the “pragmatic” realism of material science. You can measure things directly, make observations, test things etc… At the end of the day, we all boil down to our physical selves and so does everything around us, even the abstract. That’s it.  From what we currently know (science and logic informs everything) we are subject to the rules of nature. We have only the illusion of free will and no matter how you frame it, we are all subject to the same ultimate physical reality. Everything else, all of the words, terminology and definitions must settle on these cold facts. How one arrives at these facts is not even interesting to me. It seems a waste of time and brain power. Discussions about what is real and degrees of certainty are nothing more than an exercise in mental masturbation, they have never led to anything more meaningful than science.

Well put. Less is more in the context of trying to convey an idea or message over a limited span of time. Taxonomic nomenclature doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. That said, it is troubling to see just how high our Tower of Babel has become in the battle between “American English” and “American” (personally, I abandoned my own formal studies in philosophy when I happened upon the concept of Absurdism). Language absent a logical framework is meaningless.