Modern Rhetoric

I was going to write a post about this type of thing anyway and got a further intellectual push from reading a post at cosmic variance on the a televised debate for Republican party candidates in the US.

I think that the main problems scientists have with Intelligent Design, as opposed to alternative scientific theories are:

  • Lack of respect for Occam’s razor – there are certainly many fields in science where there is legitimate debate as to which of a set of competing theories are more simple but once you try to explain complexity by positing the existence of an unobservable being with more complexity than the observed universe you go off the scale.
  • Starting off with assumptions that prejudge the question. Scientists in any field will start off assuming that existing theories are mainly correct. Contrary to some anti-scientific propaganda this is not due to some conservative conspiracy – merely that existing theories have been extensively tested and peer reviewed. Any honest scientist would abandon a belief in evolution if it was shown to be incompatible with the observed evidence. However the big problem with Intelligent Design is that it starts off from a non-scientifice (theological) asumption and proceeds from there.

Personally, I always have difficulty understanding how some scientists maintain theist beliefs while having a strong evidence-based rational view of their chosen field – but it is undoubtedly true that many do and pull off the mental gymnastics necessary. So I do not agree with the view expressed by some prominent atheists that one cannot be a theist and a good scientist. Indeed one of the principal tenets of rational discourse is that the truth of a statement is independent of who is making it.

A classic example is Newton. He was undoubtedly was a great scientist, whose theories are used on a daily basis by rocket scientists and engineers. He also held a large number of ridiculous cranky beliefs on matters such as alchemy which have been dismissed by modern scientists. Then to show the middle ground, his development of the calculus included many theorems which are now accepted to be true but were derived from mathematically non-rigourous methods. Cauchy and other nineteenth-century mathematicians later filled in these gaps. So legitimacy is gained not by authority, but by logical consistency and agreement with the observed facts.

Which leads nicely onto my main point- the need for the development of modern rhetoric.

Classically rhetoric was an art (viewed as disreputable by thinkers such as Plato) for constructing real-world as opposed to philosophical arguments. The battle between some the proponents of rhetoric (the sophists) and the followers of Plato is given an interesting spin in Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. However in a modern society, arguments are often made with an appeal to official statistics and so on and thus a correct deployment of elementary probability and sampling theory is essential for the modern practitioner of rhetoric.

Questions like evolution and gravity are scientific and can only be answered by theories which are compared with experiment. The calculus example relates to mathematical reasoning which involves careful deduction from axioms which are taken as givens.

However, there are many questions which are not scientific or mathematical/logical.Questions like “what is the best way of funding health-care provision?” or “what is the best level of taxation for the UK?” are in this class. Often one hears politicians, pressure groups or members of the public putting forward views on such questions using blatant logical or mathematical fallacies. This suggests to me that there should be more study of what I term ‘modern rhetoric’ – that is the use of correct reasoning from personal convictions.

The ‘axioms’ in these type of debates are not arbitrary as in maths – but they cannot be judged against reality in a straightforward way like science either. Statements like “an equal society is a just society” or “the state should not create a culture of dependency on it” are matters of personal and political principle. However – once one starts from such a point, intellectual honesty means you should proceed rationally.

This means in my opinion:

  • Any use of statistics or other maths to back up your views must be mathematically meaningful. This would stop moronic statements such as “we should try to make sure our poverty levels are below the EU average” (if you are part of the population from which the average is drawn reducing your poverty level will reduce the average too if everything else stays the same).
  • You must only make logical, consistent and universal deductions from your starting position. A classic example of how not to do this is the ‘NIMBY fallacy’ (where a whole society believe in, say, more house construction but everyone thinks the growth should occur somewhere else).
  • You should stick to objective statements. As I argued in my piece on secularism, subjective faith-based beliefs belong in the private emotional world and not in reasoned debate. A religious believer may oppose abortion because of his faith but when he uses his faith explicitly in a debate on the subject he is begging the question in the same way as a ‘scientist’ propounding Intelligent Design. He may start off with the ‘axiom’ that “all human life must be protected” but then he must rationally go on to demonstrate that a foetus is indeed human life and so on and arguments like “because the pope/bible says…” are automatically invalid.
  • When appealing to scientific studies and the like, there is no such thing as ‘anecdotal evidence’. The most anecdotes can be is a spur to the starting of proper scientific research into an area and even a well-written properly conducted study published in a peer-reviewed journal is only the start. The only legitimate use of scientific theories in political debate involves theories which confirmed by several such experimental studies and any anomalies etc. accounted for to the satisfaction of most of those working in the field.

I do not claim that all my arguments are perfect in this way or that anybody else’s should be. However, logical or mathematical gaps in one’s arguments should be seen as flaws which must be addressed by those who have made them, rather than the debater reverting back to the ‘axioms’ and indulging in ad hominem attacks as is the norm in political debates.

Interestingly most teaching of maths at school level is justified by appeal to applications such as adding up prices and doing budgets. However, to be a competent citizen of a democracy, I would contend that an ability to analyze and create ‘modern rhetorical’ arguments is at least as important.

If the logical and mathematical level of debate could be improved we would be more free, our politicians less mendacious and our societies more democratic.


~ by theexaminedlife on June 6 2007.

One Response to “Modern Rhetoric”

  1. I don’t think you or most other science philosophers really understand the deeper issues about whether our (or other) universes) are independently existent, or need existential support (aside from “creation in time” issues.) First, some underlying ground of being responsible for existential necessity is not necessarily more “complex” in any specific way, involving parts or differentiations in a sort of space. It has been imagined as a sort of meta-plenum, “the opposite of nothingness” etc. You should read up on higher philosophical theology and quit obsessing over the lower-grade religious thinking. The idea of something more fundamental than this (or any collection) of “universes” being real, and somehow being “behind” or generating the universe/s, is not based on philosophical or scientific mistakes. At best, higher philosophical theology of the sort done well by Paul Davies (for example in The Mind of God) makes a compelling argument based on foundational first principles and conceptual “reverse engineering” of the sort of world we find ourselves to be in. Of course, such reasoning accepts what science says happened throughout the universe’s history, and begs to differ only with minimalist interpretations of what that all comes from and is “all about.” I don’t even see how scientific mistakes could be defined at the highest level of interpretative deduction and speculation, so let’s take a look at the best philosophical arguments (of the sort that indeed, Aristotle could appreciate, since based on pure reason rather than traditions of teachings and revelations.)

    The anthropic character of the universe is a good starting point. First, a well-put anthropic principle is not the pointless tautology, that of course outcomes must be consistent with starting conditions (i.e., our being here must accord with the original laws.) That doesn’t explain why there wasn’t any number of possible lifeless universes, without observers existing (whether anyone would be there to say so being rather irrelevant to most astute thinkers.) Hence, the real point is, the “horizontal” question: why a universe like this (favorable laws AND outcome regarding life) or not, rather than the phony “vertical” question, of the outcome (life) being consistent with the starting conditions/laws, which of course it would be.
    The interesting thing is, as any reader of the Tippler and Barrow classic The Anthropic Cosmological Principle knows, that the range of suitable laws is very narrow indeed (like the required value of the fine structure constant.) Hence, why is “the universe” like that, if not “designed” for life? There are lots of avenues there, like multiple universes with different laws such that we find ourselves in one of the few that are suitable etc. However, once one can believe in multiple universes with “different laws”, then where does it end? The modal realists have made the cogent argument that “all logically possible” universes should “exist”, since no clear logical reason can be given for selection and reification of some and not others. Indeed, they make a cogent case that the idea of “existing” as some special material state other than the platonic mathematical world description is circular, indefinable, and not logically coherent – can you define it clearly? (I know Tippler got a bit tipsy, but that problem does not make the point false – no ad hominem!
    If so, then the problem is actually even worse, because then all possible worlds really means all possible descriptions. Here’s my own (AFAIK) two cents: In that case, one has a vanishing Bayesian probability of finding oneself in a world that continues to be lawful instead of one of the infinitely more that were like this up to this point and then begin to diverge. Why? Because of all the changes from then on to different laws and variations and distortions of laws that can be described, and indeed the entirety of what behavior can be described after that point which certainly includes a gigantic set of chaotic futures, etc.
    Hence, I think there really needs to be a manager of some sort, to ensure placement in effect of observers like us in a world that really has laws, since logical possibility is just too inclusive. Think of that as you wish. (Not to mention, our having experiences etc., but that gets into consciousness issues and I am just making the argument relating to physical conditions and our being here.)

    A thinker can’t really pretend to engage this issue unless basically conversant in issues like modal realism and Bayesian back-engineering of the chances of being in such and such straits now versus the conditions of the future, etc. Finally, for those who complain that we should have some proof or provability of ideas like God etc:
    (1.) The ideas, like logical positivism, you would use to make that point are themselves metaphysical presumptions (I have fun asking, if the statement of LP itself or other logical axioms are “analytical” or “synthetic.”)
    (2.) Self-contradiction and neglect of inconvenient applications. What is the operational definition of, “Things continue to exist while not being observed.”? No matter what “self-evident” basis you try to evade that with, it is going to involve some presumption about the universe, not the ability to observe what isn’t being observed. Then there is the Russell problem of the reality of the past (since all we ever have is something existing now, even the light that hits us now from distant things etc.) and so on.

    I won’t claim to prove God’s existence, but the question isn’t a little sandbox exercise that “rationality” or “science” can just blow off.

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