Thursday, July 28, 2022

Stovetop Realizations

I’ve had yet another very busy month and in fact I had intended to post a couple entries this month, but life’s responsibilities have robbed me of the time needed to focus and work on them, so those drafts will have to continue incubating for some time.

But I did want to share some thoughts in response to a comment which was made on my previous blog. Before getting to that, I just want to express my gratitude to everyone who reads anything I post here and even more so to those who take the time to post such thoughtful comments. I started this blog back in 2005 and I didn’t know how long I’d be able to keep in running. It’s become something of a compendium at this point. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do intend to keep it going. Let’s see if I can make it to 20 years! That would be quite a milestone, no? In the meantime, please know that I do read all comments, and I almost always have something to say in response, if nothing more than “Thank you!” If I do not reply, it is not because I missed your comment (it’s possible, but probably not the case), but instead because I’m just a very busy workhorse. Writing is a love of mine, but sometimes it takes a lot of energy to get into the proper frame of mind to say something intelligent, and even then I can wildly miss the mark. 

Anyway, on to today’s post. 

Here I wanted to repost a statement that Jason mc left in a recent comment. Jason mc wrote:
I imagine presuppositionalists and hyper-sceptics alike would dispute the claim that touching hot stoves is painful, as an item of certain knowledge possible to learn from instances of touching them. Touching stoves isn't enough to get a full understanding of the way the physiology of the human nervous system interprets intense heat as pain. Whether a full understanding of this will ever be within grasp is unknown. The presupper says God has this full understanding, and this somehow justifies the human claim, or maybe just for theists?
There is much to consider right here, so I’m very grateful that Jason mc took the time to post his comment. This paragraph stuck with me since I first read it. 

For one, I think Jason mc is correct here: it may in fact be likely that apologists and other induction-deniers (can we call them that?) would object to my example of touching a hot stove, feeling pain, and consequently internalizing the incident as an item of quasi-general knowledge. I would expect this; conceding my point would yield too much vital ground for the apologist, who probably has strong ideological motivation to object to the association of such mundane experience with drawing a generalized understanding. So to those who do object to my example, they are invited to touch their hands to hot stoves as many times as it takes to draw any other general conclusion. If they’re not going with Anderson’s one thousand, maybe they haven’t reached a point of certainty. Or maybe they have no hands left. 

I see it first as a matter of discovery and then as an opportunity to conceptualize what is discovered though the experience. Since I was young I’ve always highly valued discovery, and I observed that the know-it-alls whom I personally knew growing up had a very hard time with making discoveries. Usually they came at a heavy cost. One boy I knew claimed that he would not be harmed when holding a lit firecracker in his clenched fist. I urged him not to do it, but he needed to prove something. He proved something alright – something I already knew. (I'm guessing he has recovered by now.)

Conceptualizing what we discover is essentially a rudimentary learning process. I draw from my memory of my own experience here, when I was a child, and I don’t think I’m some unique specimen; from what I’ve observed throughout my life, other human beings make discoveries through their own firsthand experiences and learn from what they discover. Learning from what we discover is the true beginning of wisdom. 

I recall – I must have been maybe four years old, maybe even younger – my mother was heating milk for me in a saucepan on the gas stovetop. I remember hearing the milk hissing as she sloshed the saucepan from side to side to make sure it warmed up evenly. As I would tend to do at that age, I was getting myself involved where I shouldn’t have, being the nuisance that I still am to this day, and reached my hand up to the stovetop. I was tall enough at the time to reach up and touch the stovetop, but not tall enough to see everything going on, arms being what they are, able to reach high above one’s head and beyond the field of vision. Before my mother could stop me, I touched my fingertips to the hot element on the stovetop and it delivered a sudden jolt of lasting pain. I’m sure I burst out in a bawling fit. But I definitely discovered something - seared into my consciousness, to be quite literal. What did I discover? I certainly discovered that I could feel pain – probably something I had discovered well before this, but if so, this discovery certainly reinforced earlier ones; it certainly did not pose as a counter-example overturning previous experiences of pain. I also discovered that touching certain things in my environment could result in such pain. And, I think implicitly I discovered that I had at least some control on the matter: maybe next time, I should choose to be a little more careful around certain things in my environment. (If I were truly precocious, maybe I would have learned not to meddle in my mother’s affairs when she was busy in the kitchen, but this learning wouldn’t come for quite some time.) The point is that I definitely learned something from the experience, and while it may not have been an instance of drawing a generalization that I could explicitly verbalize as “touching hot things can cause pain” (I didn’t have the verbal tools for that yet), it was as close to this as possible given the current stage of my development. The scope of what I learned was not confined to just that stovetop on that one occasion. There’s no doubt in my mind that I was already formulating primitive inductive inferences here, for from that point on I was much more careful around the stove. In fact, I don’t think I ever got close to it again until I was seven or eight. That one instance was enough.

Now of course it’s true that this experience was not sufficient to elucidate the physiology involved in my body’s reaction to the stimulus of the hot stove element. If I could verbalize the discovery I had made in the experience, it would not have been something to the effect of “there are nerves in my fingertips connected to other nerves running from my hand to my brain, and the sensations which those nerves registered sent waves of pain to my brain… [etc.].” And as Jason mc’s statement rightly predicts, even today, far more capable of drawing inductive inferences than I was at the time in question, I still cannot detail all of the physiology involved. But in spite of my deep ignorance of physiology (I was a humanities major), I have no hint of a doubt that touching a hot stove is not a good idea if I want to remain pain-free. Hierarchically, the realization “touching hot stove tops can result in the experience of pain” is not dependent on a detailed understanding of the physiology involved here. Rather, I’d say the opposite is closer to the point: the desire to understand how the stimulus results in such an experience is more likely to be dependent on the grasp that there is a causal connection involved here to begin. Understanding that chain of causality requires systematic investigation.

As to the claim that “God has this full understanding,” it is of course epistemologically vacuous. Even if one were to believe this, it would provide no illumination on how the human mind functions. It is essentially a claim to vicarious knowledge and borrowed understanding, which could only mean: it’s not firsthand knowledge, but something accepted on faith, on the hope that it is true, but without the labor involved in discovering and confirming true discoveries. That’s a pose, not understanding.

As for how apologists think their theistic appeals in such areas address the questions they claim such appeals answer, that has never been clear to me. But I don’t think it’s meant to be clear. Apologists muddy the waters to create a philosophical crisis and then point to their inflatable deity as the supposed solution as if to say, “See! My God is indeed relevant!” What exactly this solves and how it supposedly solves it remains a mystery, which is really where religion needs everything ultimately to reside (as we saw in the Van Til quote I cited in my previous blog entry). They treat their god’s supposed “understanding” as a surrogate for their own, which is no path to understanding for man.

by Dawson Bethrick


Robert Kidd said...

Thank you, Dawson, for another post. I enjoyed your stories from your childhood. I had a similar learning experience, although it didn't involve pain.

When I was six, I was driving with my Grandmother on a several hours trip to North Carolina. In those days I used to stand on the seat and lean on the top of the front seat so I could see out the front window. I noticed that the road looked wet with puddles ahead of the car. I had seen thin bevore and just like the other times, the puddles disappeared before the car reached them. I figured that the hot sun was just drying them up but after hours of this happening and not a cloud in sight, I eventually came to the conclusion that something else was happening. So, I asked my grandmother and she told me about mirages. I still remember how proud I was that I figured something out on my own and in the process learned about something I hadn't known about.

I also learned on another occasion that it's not a good idea to stick a fork in an electrical outlet. That did involve pain!

Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

You wrote: "I don’t know what the future holds, but I do intend to keep it going. Let’s see if I can make it to 20 years!"

Great to hear! Of course, I'm hoping you'll keep going well beyond 2025.

Thanks as always for another entry!


Jason mc said...

Thanks for the new entry and for addressing my comment!

The epistemological emptiness of the presuppositionalist stance is quite apparent, to me anyway. It may be more interesting to look at the psychological and sociological sides of it. It's not really meant to guide productive conversations between believers and atheists, rather, I reckon, to apply to the internal debate with the atheist within the believer. And the social function could be that of making discussions with nonbelievers so unpleasant, repetitive, and pointless that they avoid them.

I write this as someone who went to church and prayed yesterday! What I've come to believe isn't (yet) Christianity, but that I should give Christianity "a chance", as one of few live candidates for effectively pushing back against the advancement of various social ills (e.g. Islam and transgenderism) and addressing various personal ills on my part. To an extent, once logical objections have been dealt with (and perhaps even if they haven't) religious belief is a choice, not like a direct on/off decision, but the choice to put yourself in particular life situations that make believing more or less probable.

Jason mc said...

Hey guys, I found something cool, possibly of interest, in John Lange's Philosophy of Historiography:

"The most persuasive justification of induction, which is a closely related issue, in my view, is that of Hans Reichenbach, which is neither question-begging nor sunk in someone's notion of the dictates of a transitory semantics.

Reichenbach acknowledges that Hume is correct, happily, as Hume is correct, but shifts attention from what one can know or prove to questions of rational strategy. Reichenbach's substantial recommendation, which I am revising somewhat, is that there is either pattern in the world or not. It is an open question both as to whether this exists, or whether or not it will continue to exist beyond, say, the next minute. One now has the option of either acting on the basis of induction or not acting on that basis. If there is no pattern now, or later, it doesn't matter much what you do. You are in a bad way, even if you are a quantum physicist. On the other hand, if there is pattern, then one can either repudiate induction and make a mistake, or bet on induction, and profit. If there is pattern, induction is the key to its discovery. Thus the rational bet is on induction. We live this way anyway, of course, including Hume, but now one can do so with a philosophically clear conscience. One gives Hume his due, salutes him, rejoices, and moves on."

Bahnsen Burner said...

Thanks for everyone’s comments!

We’ve got guests today, and everyone wanted to take a walk after a late breakfast. However, my knee isn’t cooperating and consequently I didn’t join them. So I’m taking this opportunity to share some comments of my own!

Robert’s story about his trip to North Carolina and learning about mirages resulting from heat radiating from a road baking in the sun, reminded me of similar experiences I had when our family drove through the Mojave Desert in summertime. If you’ve never been, well, it’s not the most hospitable place! Yes, there were mirages like the kind Robert describes. But what I remember most was how we had to be careful to drive our car very slowly, otherwise it could overheat. We saw several vehicles on the side of the road in flames. I was quite young – maybe five or six – but I remember this distinctly. I remember being told that the fires probably started from overheated tires, though I wonder if that’s even possible.

As to the psychological motivations of apologetics, I think there’s a lot of truth to Jason mc’s point about the believer’s inner dialogue with his closeted atheism, if we can put it that way. It’s an internal struggle – one I have considered before in this blog entry among others. I think there’s a strong undercurrent within apologetics that is really about the believer trying to convince himself, to assuage his own doubts, in particular an unquenchable nagging doubt in his own salvation. It seems that the more seriously a believer tries to embrace the entirety of his faith, the more his doubts will haunt his conscience. It may be that the believer is afraid that his religious beliefs may in fact be true and yet he doesn’t fully believe them, so apologetics is undertaken ultimately to solve this deficiency. A truth like 2+2=4 does not require continual explicit reinforcement, but believers need to sit quietly in their pews every Sunday for another reaffirming sermon. In my experience, apologists often seem quite insatiable, hence their never-ending search for some surefire argument that will finally close the deal. In his paper If Knowledge The God, Anderson explores seven different theistic arguments, four of them attributed to Van Til. And many more have been put forth over the millennia. Why would so many arguments be needed if theism were in fact so fundamental to all existence and knowledge? Outwardly, on the social dimension, demonstrating one’s apologetic prowess can function as a form of virtue signaling before others in the same predicament. Apparently everyone’s supposed to be impressed with their pontification and rhetorical expertise.

I’m reminded of the young would-be gunslinger in Unforgiven, out to make a name for himself, but in fact he’s really just bluffing. What he was really seeking was some kind of validation, and he made the mistake of assuming that it needed to come in the form of approval from others. Here’s a young punk with a loaded gun, and here’s a young punk who’s learned the names of a few logical fallacies. It’s all very hollow indeed!


Bahnsen Burner said...

Thanks for sharing the excerpt about Reichenbach, Jason mc. Some food for thought there!

James Anderson considers Reichenbach’s approach to the problem of induction in his paper Secular Responses to the Problem of Induction, referring to Reichenbach’s treatment as a “pragmatic” solution, the obvious analogy being Pascal’s wager with respect to theism. Michael Martin, in this paper, mentions it as well. Both agree that Reichenbach is not offering a justification of induction; Anderson’s judgment is quite to the point: “A true solution to the problem of induction requires an epistemic justification — a reason for believing that induction is reliable — yet Reichenbach’s solution, for all its ingenuity, offers no such thing.” (And yet, Anderson apparently wants his readers to accept theism as “an epistemic justification.”)

With respect to his statements about Reichenbach’s position, I think Anderson is correct: treating induction as a betting option does not provide an epistemic justification of induction. Whether or not induction actually requires such a justification is a different matter, and what constitutes such a justification is yet a different matter. Of course, I don’t think a viable solution to any genuine philosophical problem is to be found in imagining a realm contrary to the world we observe and inhabit.

When a thinker announces that “Hume is correct” – at least on the topic of induction, I grow suspicious that he doesn’t have a strong epistemological understanding of induction. Again, how do you draw a conclusion about induction as such - as an entire category of reasoning – without enlisting a methodology which allows you to draw general conclusions in the first place – i.e., without induction? Unqualified pronouncements about inductive reasoning imply their applicability to all instances of inductive reasoning, and thus would be general in scope. But how is that possible without using induction? If one says that induction can only provide probable rather than certain conclusions, does such a statement exclude itself from such an assessment in order to be taken as a general certainty? On what basis would such an exception prevail against a universal pronouncement?

Hume made a number of errors, some more explicit than others, in drawing his conclusions about human reason, including his granting of validity to an event-based notion of causality (as opposed to entity-based causation), treating perception as a volitionally integrated faculty (it’s not – it’s autonomic), assuming a nominalist understanding of concepts (thus precluding an objective understanding), an emphasis on “custom” and imagination practically as ultimate standards, the view that we have direct awareness only of “appearances” and that awareness of external objects can only be drawn by means of inference, etc. These premises will steer any thinker towards mind-negating skepticism, and each play their own part in Hume’s view of induction, so to say that “Hume is correct” on induction, can only suggest to me an uncritical assessment of Hume’s argument.

As for the reference to patterns, this in my view is really just an expression of the recognition that identity is concurrent with existence, a fact which obtains independent of conscious activity. Whether you have perceived ten entities or ten thousand entities, a fundamental commonality persists without exception: each entity has its own distinct identity, whatever that happens to be. If that doesn’t qualify as a fundamental pattern of sorts (in the sense of a consistently recurring quality), what would?


Jason mc said...

Interesting to see Anderson's answer to Reichenbach, that he balks at a merely pragmatic solution. I thought theistic solutions were supposed to be pragmatic. Shows what I know!

I still don't see why pragmatic answer isn't good enough to meet the presuppers challenge of providing an "account" of induction, i.e. an explanation. It explains why it's a wise choice to use induction as a policy. (I've been thinking of this, by the way, in light of the loose framework that Lange sketches out in his "Cognitivity Paradox", which is a peculiar pragmatic, rationalistic sort of thing, that considers basic philosophical statements to be proposals... and no, I haven't sworn allegiance to this new religion either :))

I appreciate the reminder of why Hume's dubious premises shouldn't be uncritically and implicitly accepted.