Thought for the Evening: The Landscape of Possible Arguments
Scott Aikin and Nicholaos Jones had a paper a few years back called "An Atheistic Argument from Ugliness". In that paper they put forward a few claims of interest: (1) teleological arguments for God's existence have 'evil twins'; (2) that there is a specific teleological argument for God's existence based on beauty; (3) that (from the prior two points) there is an atheistic argument from ugliness, combining the evil twin of the argument from beauty with the premise that God must be good; (4) that there is a generally exportable way to reverse 'theodicies' addressing the 'problem of ugliness'; and (5) that this suffices for at least an 'agnostic tie'. I find the paper interesting in part because I have an interest in 'abstract history of philosophy', one element of which is looking at the landscape of possible argument that is traveled in the development of actual arguments, and I think the paper exemplifies a very common failure in metaphysics and philosophy of religion to understand how the possible-argument landscape relates to real argument, and it does so in several ways.
Is there an 'evil twins' problem for theistic teleological arguments? We have to be somewhat careful here; 'teleological argument' is a very broad and loose category. Aikin and Jones mean a very specific kind of teleological argument, which they characterize as having a particular structure:
[a] a premise assigning a property X to the universe or parts of it;
[b] a premise attributing X at least usually to purposive action creating something to be X;
[c] a premise ruling out that the purposive action for X attributed to the universe or parts of it can be human;
[d] a conclusion that the universe is due to purposive action creating to be X.
At least this is what they start out purporting to discuss; they immediately then explain further what they mean by giving a brief historical survey that jumbles it together with arguments that do not have this structure. But their argument is stronger if we stick with this structure, so let's ask about this structure whether it allows 'evil twins'.
The answer is obviously yes; this is trivially true, given that you can plug in anything into X and get a new argument. 'Twins' underplays the combinatorial possibilities. For instance,
(1) The universe is cool.
(2) Coolness usually requires purposive action creating something to be cool.
(3) Human action can't be what makes the universe cool.
(4) Therefore the universe is likely the product of a purposive agent creating it to be cool, namely, God.
(1) The universe is uncool.
(2) Uncoolness usually requires purposive action creating something to be uncool.
(3) Human action can't be what makes the universe uncool.
(4) Therefore the universe is likely the product of a purposive agent creating it to be uncool, namely, God.
We can get infinitely many possible arguments this way, using whatever property you want for X: big, orange, wicked, round, up someone's nostril, whatever. So obviously, you can have arguments from beauty and ugliness both. You can have arguments from anything.
But we don't, and this is because human beings don't reason with the bare landscape of possible argument. And the reason we don't is that truth distorts the landscape. For instance, if we plug 'up my nose' for X, then 'The universe is up my nose' is obviously false given the understanding of noses and the universe had by virtually everyone outside the madhouse; you have but to look up my nose to see that the universe is not up it. What's more, 'The universe is up my nose' is probably necessarily false: that is to say, my nose is probably necessarily a finite part of the universe, and therefore cannot have the universe as a part bounded by it. Add any truth at all, and like a star warping space and time, it makes the landscape of possible arguments non-flat. Once truth is in the mix, not all possible arguments are equal. Shift in terms yields an argument with the same structure but not an argument by parity.
The same point arises again for their theodicy reversals. Can you turn every beauty-based theodicy into an ugliness-based theodicy? Yes, and again trivially: it follows directly from the fact that theodicies have a logical structure detachable from the content of their terms. But this too does not establish parity of argument.
This is of significance to their argument because you can only get an 'agnostic tie' on grounds of parity, not on grounds of the multiple realizability of logical structure. It is irrational to treat arguments equally merely because they have the same logical structure. I mean, literally irrational; one would have to be insane to do it.
When they actually make their 'atheistic argument', Aikin and Jones come close to recognizing that replacing terms is not the only thing that must be considered. The 'evil twin' of the theistic argument from beauty is, of course, a theistic argument itself. The atheistic argument is a very different argument that treats the theistic argument from ugliness as a reductio when added to the premise, assumed true, that God could not possibly love ugliness nor be ugly nor torture us with ugliness. It's analogous to atheistic arguments from 'bad design'; these are not 'twins' of theistic arguments from design, because they can't possibly have the same logical structure. Whether something is (really, as opposed to merely apparently) designed badly or well brings one to the same conclusion: there is a designer. To get an atheistic argument, you have to treat 'There is a designer who designed this badly' as conflicting with a more fundamental assumption about what's true, either your own (if you are putting it forward categorically) or that of the person with whom you are arguing (if you are arguing ad hominem in the Lockean sense). To get the atheistic argument, you have to know something about God that the original argument does not require you to know. And so here. But the point is that treating something as a reductio already requires recognizing that the landscape of possible arguments twists around truths, so that assuming something to be true changes the acceptability or cogency of arguments. What really does their work in the 'agnostic tie' conclusion is the assumption, which they never establish for any of the evil twins or reverse theodicies, that the premises are equally supportable given the way the world is. This is where the real action is.
And there are reasons why people do not in general treat arguments and their 'evil twins' as on a level: they usually aren't. The Pyrrhonists used to draw agnostic conclusions from the isosthenia of arguments, the sameness of strength on opposing sides; but sameness of strength is actually very difficult to get -- you can usually only get it if you are assuming an even larger-scale agnosticism to begin with, one concerning everything else that's relevant to the arguments and thus could possibly change their supportability. Start assuming things and the symmetries begin to be broken. This is a major reason, arguably, why Pyrrhonist skepticiam is not a popular position, why it is, in fact, easier to be a dogmatist than a Pyrrhonist: equilibrium requires that all the forces balance, and that requires a very specific set-up.
In the actual history of philosophy, a lot of the dynamics of arguments comes about through this sort of symmetry-breaking -- something is taken as true, and the possible arguments are no longer equally possible; something else is taken as true, and the possible arguments that can be made shift again. What historians of philosophy often are doing is looking at (1) the factors introducing assumptions and (2) the effects that these introductions have on the salience and viability of possible arguments. But it is in fact essential to understanding and comparing arguments to recognize that the landscape of possible arguments for us is never flat, and that the bare fact of using arguments, rather than merely contemplating them, requires that more than logical structure be considered.
Various Links of Interest
* Why is the sky green before a tornado? at "Science Notes"
How to subsitute baking powder and baking soda
Make hot ice from baking soda and vinegar
* Lydia Moland, The Philosophical Activism of Lydia Maria Child
* J. D. Vance, How I Joined the Resistance
* Lucie Levine, Was Modern Art Really a CIA Psy-Op? The evidence that a significant portion of modern art's success was funded by intelligence agencies is quite undeniable. How much the intelligence agencies pushing an anti-Soviet (and thus in part anti-Soviet-propaganda) propaganda campaign were the engine of modern art movements, as opposed to simply taking advantage of what was already working on its own, is a more tricky question.
* A.-S. Barwich, It's hard to fool a nose
* Mark Csikszentmihalyi, Confucius, at the SEP
Thomas Szanto and Dermot Moran, Edith Stein
* Udo Schuklenk, Health Care Professionals Are Under No Ethical Obligation to Treat COVID-19 Patients. A very rare instance of my agreeing with Schuklenk on an ethical matter (although he ruins it by detouring into a rant on political policy that at most optimistic assessment has only indirect bearing on the immediate ethical question of personal medical obligations). It's of course undeniably good for health care professionals to do so if they can genuinely help (but this is not the same as an obligation); there are particular situations in which particular health care professionals might be obligated to care for particular COVID-19 patients (but this is not the same as a general obligation); it is in principle possible to draft health care professionals for a medical emergency in the same way we draft soldiers for war (but we have not done so, and healthcare professionals are not organized as a soldiery under command). One sometimes finds people arguing about a duty to care; but the duty to care that healthcare professionals have is just the same duty to care that we all have, allowing for the fact that their skills give them an expanded range of action. Doctors and other practitioners in the medical tradition have rights; and just as there is a legitimate space for both technical objection and conscientious objection, so there is legitimate space for personal safety objection. And it is very important to recognize the degree to which doctors risking themselves for others is voluntary and not something simply to be expected, as well as to recognize that if you want them to take such risks as a consistent thing, you need to support them properly for it.
People are always trying to rig ethics to get the results they want; you have to be careful about assuming that because a result is tragic that the actions to avoid it are obligatory rather than just good, and even more so that they are obligatory on particular people rather than being the responsibility of all of us. There is such a thing as obligation creep, in which things that are not obligations are treated as such because people like the results, or in which responsibilities that are really shared are fobbed off on particular people as 'their' obligations. I think people especially tend to conflate these matters when talking about 'healthcare', and it is a very dangerous moral habit.
* Christiaan Kappes, Transubstantiation: Maybe Dositheos Got It Right
* Ben Zion Katz, The Breadth of Rabbinic Opinion Regarding Mosaic Authorship of the Torah in the Middle Ages
* Loebolus. All the public domain Loeb editions, available for download.
* Dan Solomon and Paula Forbes, The Inside Story of How H-E-B. Planned for the Pandemic. For those who don't know, H-E-B is the major local grocery chain here in Texas. There is no question that its handling of recent events has been exemplary.
* The mathematician John Conway, most famous for his Game of Life and surreal numbers, has recently died due to COVID-19.
Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers
Stephen Jarvis, Death and Mr. Pickwick
Ed Peters, tr., The 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law
John C. Wright, Count to a Trillion
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