Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Dialogue with Carrier Part I

Last November, I sent the version of my response to Carrier that appears on this blog to him, and he was kind enough to send a set of responses back. I am going to put some of his discussions here and give my response to him, not so much with the intent of just blowing them out of the water, but in the hopes of getting behind the arguments to get a feel for the source of our differences, and also with the intention of clearing aside whatever misunderstanding there might be so that the real intellectual clash between the two of us can be made clear.

The first area that I want to call attention to is his discussion of Pyrrhonian skepticism. In his review he argued that even if I succeed in showing that naturalism cannot be true because it conflicts with the possibility of rational inference, but that on a theistic world view rational inference is accounted for, this is still not a complete case because after all it is possible to reject theism and naturalism in favor of Pyrrhonian skepticism. And later on in the review he wonders why I attempt to refute naturalism and not Taoism. The simple and direct answer is that my book is designed to argue that theism is preferable to naturalism on the grounds that theism provides a better account of rational inference, and that it is it. The book is not designed to be a complete case for theism; it defends an argument that was not a complete case for theism in the mind of its primary founding father, C. S. Lewis, who was persuaded to accept Idealism as opposed to (naturalistic) realism by the argument when it was presented to him by Owen Barfield, but did not become a theist until later, and did not become a Christian until still after that. Once we fumigate that naturalist's house, those in it may go to various places. Some may go to the house of theism. At least I hope! But the it's not the burden of the book to make the case for theism vis-a-vis other non-naturalistic world views.

However, some further remarks by Carrier are interesting, which show what is behind the fact that he is complaining about my procedure.

RC: The only reason an AfR proponent needs to do more than that is that he purports to find empirical evidence against the existence of rational inferences. That creates the presumption that there are none. You can't just "assume" that there are if the evidence implies that they are not. Do you see the problem here? Once you get yourself in that position (and only you do--I do not accept that there is evidence against rational inferences, so I never end up in the position of presuming that there are none), the only logically valid way to dig yourself out of it again is to present evidence for the existence of rational inferences, evidence that is not compatible with naturalism (because if the only evidence you have is naturalistic, then you are arguing that naturalism explains rational inferences). And that is the only formally valid way to get from the AFR to any worldview, be it theism or any other. That is not my opinion. It is a fact of formal logic. Don't you agree?

VR: I must confess to a certain amount of puzzlement in understanding this passage. Why in the world does he think that I present an argument against the existence of rational inferences. Indeed, it's the point of my distinction between Skpetical Threat Arguments and Best Explanation Arguments that the AFR should not be in the business of presenting skeptical arguments against rational inference and then arguing that the theist, but not the naturalist, can refute those arguments. Carrier seems to acknowledge this in his Infidels critique when he says

RC: To be fair, Reppert does declare that he will not advance the AfR as a Skeptical Threat argument, based on a brief discussion of the problems such a form of argument presents, and this could count as an attempt to argue "against" PS, though indirectly and incompletely. At any rate, Reppert declares that his AfR will not call "into question the validity of human reasoning" but rather "assum[es] that validity as an established fact" (70), although the argument he presents does not formally vindicate this assertion. We can thus only assume that Reppert rejects PS as an alternative based on some vaguely defined or defended "established facts" that remove it from reasonable consideration. In that I think he is correct, but he has not done the work that would be needed to secure such a position for someone who actually trusts the AfR as he has defined it.

VR: But can't I say that belief in rational inferences is "properly basic?" Can't I just point out the disastrous epistemic consequences of not believing in rational inferences? Let's just take mathematical inferences as a proper subset of rational inferences. If there are no rational inferences, then there are no mathematical inferences. And if there are no mathematical inferences, then no one ever does science, at least as I understand science. All sorts of overpaid people think they are scientists, but there is really no such thing.

All of this points to what I think is a critical area of disagreement between Carrier and myself; Carrier seems to subscribe to a very strong form of epistemological foundationalism that I reject. For his there is a fact of the matter as to whether some claim or other rests upon a foundation, and this does not vary from person to person. If something is properly basic, or properly grounded, for one person, it must be properly basic or properly grounded for everyone. There is a set of propositions that are properly basic, and other beliefs are justified just in case they are supported by those beliefs. This is the thrust of Descartes' project, why he developed those conjectures about Satan controlling his mind, so that he could find those properly basic beliefs and build his system up from there. The traditional empiricist counter-move is disallow Descartes' doubts about experience but employ the same project, but I think this project also fails, as can be seen in the philosophy of Hume. I think people should reason, but they should reason from within their own belief systems and abandon the beliefs against which there is good evidence. So different people start from different places, but we can all think together toward the common goal of consensus, even though that "Omega point" seems pretty far in the distance on a lot of issues. If Carrier thinks he has an epistemological theory that will solve the problems that Descartes and his rationalist and empiricist successors failed to solve, I would like to see what it is.

Carrier does make a couple of further interesting (though puzzling) points when he says

RC: On a different level (and don't confuse this with what I have already said), it does not follow that if therre are no rational inferences, then there is no point in arguing. This presumes that the only effective argument is a rational one, which of course anyone ought to know is clearly not true even if there is such a think as rational argument. Any witness of recent American politics can see that people are routinely persauded by irrational arguments (on both sides). Rather, if there is no such think as rational arguments, then the issue becomes one of cataloguing the arguments that actually do exist by their effectiveness in persuading. But there will be such a list, and thus a point to arguing, even if "rational arguments" is not on that list. Needless to say, you and I both agree that it is on that list. But my previous point has been that only you have offered evidence that it is not. So you have to plug it up if you want that water to stop draining out. That's all I'm saying here.

VR: Again, I don't see how anything I have written raises doubts about the existence of rational inferences, whose existence I take to be properly basic, and justified by arguments concerning the epistemic consequences of denying that there are rational inferences. I am at some pains to construct my arguments in such a way as not to raise doubts about the existence of rational inferences; that's one of the most important trademarks of my versions of the AFR. But if there are no rational inferences, then the whole process of evaluating arguments, which is what Carrier and I are both doing, makes no sense. Without the use of rational inference, we would have no way of using critieria to determine which arguments are persuasive and which are not.


Jason Pratt said...

I still think part of the problem (as I've written extensively on in years past {wry g}) is multiple meaning to 'rational'.

Now, speaking as someone who has himself criticized Victor's AfRs (and not always in agreement with what he does), including the text of CSLDI in various drafts, I can say this: I am quite sure that the notion of 'rational' he is using (by and large) in his AfRs, is not about an argument's validity or the correctness of its premises. It's about a quality or characteristic of an entity, specifically (though not restricted to) a human entity such as himself (and me and Richard and President Bush, etc.) Nor, strictly speaking, is it about the ability of an entity to produce something that could be called 'a conclusion validly grounded by legitimate form and factual premises.' Nor is it about a moral quality concerning that entity. Nor is it about whether the entity makes mistakes or not. Nor is it about the effects generated by this entity on other entities.

Consequently, I wouldn't bring up Bush as a counterfactual example to whatever Victor is claiming, unless I was making a specific claim about Bush himself, as himself--not about Bush's arguments, nor his use of his arguments, nor what he specifically intended (assuming I can even know and demonstrate that) to accomplish with his arguments.

I said "by and large" above, because it isn't impossible that Victor is occasionally slurring his use of "rational" over into other categories. If he is, and is doing this unannounced, and (most importantly) is treating those meanings as being equivalent when it seems convenient (and perhaps also not when not) -- then I would not consider this to be proper procedure.

So what meaning is Victor using for 'rational', in his arguments? Is he being consistent with his meaning? Is there perhaps a clearer meaning that he ought to be using instead? Is Richard perhaps giving a superior use of 'rational' (and if so, then how)? Into which category/ies does Richard's meaning of 'irrational argument' fit? Is Richard's Bush example congruent with the meaning Victor is using, without slurring over into false equivalence? (Even if Victor is equivocating for convenience between uses of 'rational', that wouldn't mean Richard is justified in following suit.)

Unknown said...

A modest proposal: Publish another book (or, perhaps, an updated edition of "Dangerous Idea"), responding in point-by-point fashion to the objections raised by your detractors (Carrier, etc.).

If you ever do, consider me first in line to get it.

Keep the faith!

Kevin D. Taylor

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