Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Flying Spaghetti Monster Steals Meatballs (What's the Purpose of Philosophy?)

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is all-powerful and all-knowing and she loves meatballs. She is also very sneaky and doesn't want to leave any evidence of her existence. That's why she's very careful to only steal meatballs that won't be missed. (How often do you count the meatballs in your spaghetti?).

As far as I know this is a perfectly valid philosophical argument. If you accept the premises then it's quite possible that meatballs are disappearing from kitchens and restaurants without us ever being aware of the problem.

I'm not a philosopher but I strongly suspect that there aren't any papers on the possible existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in the philosophical literature. I doubt that there are any Ph.D. theses on the topic.

Why is that? I suspect it's because philosophers understand that an argument may correspond to the rules of logic but still be totally useless and irrelevant. One might imagine that this point was recognized in philosophy several hundred years ago—perhaps even several thousand years ago. That's why we don't see endless philosophical papers justifying the personalities and characteristics of leprechauns, tooth fairies, bigfoot, and aliens. We don't see papers defending homeopathy, astrology, and various conspiracy theorists.

After all, the same sort of valid philosophical argument can be made for all these things. Imagine, for example, that homeopathy is effective but only in a small number of cases that can't be distinguished from the placebo effect or spontaneous cures. You could even imagine that homeopathy is extremely effective but it's designed never to show it's effectiveness in any scientific tests.

As long as you establish your premises—no matter how outlandish—you can make a philosophically sound case.

Let me restate my hypothesis. I suspect that philosophers recognize the uselessness of these kind of arguments and that's why they don't employ them to justify silly nonsense.

With one exception. The hypothesis breaks down, when it comes to the standard supernatural beings of the extant religions. That's why we see supposedly eminent philosophers like Elliott Sober using the Flying Spaghetti Monster argument [The Problem with Philosophy: Elliott Sober]. Sober is a non-believer but he published papers, and gives talks, that make the following case.
1. Imagine that there's a supernatural being who is ..
         (a) omnipotent, omniscient, etc.
         (b) sneaky
2. Can this being guide evolution in a manner that's undectable?
3. Yes.
Apparently, this passes for scholarship in philosophy whereas if you made a similar argument about the Flying Spaghetti Monster you could never get it published.

Here's another example. The argument from evil begins with at least two premises; namely, that there is a god(s), and that he/she/it is good. Once you accept those premises, you can have a deep and sophisticated argument about why there's evil in the world. This often ends up by adding a few more characteristics to the assumed supernatural being (e.g. he/she/it wants us to have free will).

We've seen (I think) that philosophers don't bother with some forms of this argument because the premises are silly. That's probably why they don't worry about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and it's probably why they don't discuss whether there are clever aliens living among us. (I just watched Men in Black 3.)

What criteria do philosophers use to decide whether some premises are reasonable or not? Why does Elliott Sober think it's important to consider the existence of a clever deceitful god who he doesn't believe in? Why would any decent philosopher discuss the problem of evil when the premises are nothing more than superstition?

Science is a way of knowing that solves these problems. One of the most important criteria of the scientific way of knowing is that you don't believe in something without evidence. Scientists don't bother worrying about whether the Flying Spaghetti Monster steals meatballs because there's no reason whatsoever to accept the premise. Similarly, since there's no evidence of god(s), there's no reason to debate whether such imaginary beings could be omnipotent or deceitful or whatever other character flaw you might imagine.

Here's my questions for philosophers. Is philosophy a valid way of knowing? What kind of knowledge can philosophy discover that can't be discovered by a scientific way of thinking? How do philosophers decide whether some premises are reasonable and worth debating? What is the role of pragmatism in modern philosophy?

I ask these questions because I'm in the middle of reading a book by Alvin Plantinga called Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Plantinga seems to be a highly respected philosopher but most of his defense of religion seems quite silly to this non-philosopher. They are arguments of the type ...

  1. Assume that there is a powerful god(s).
  2. Assume that he/she/it has designed life in a way that's undectable,
  3. Science can't disprove this speculation.
  4. Therfefore there's no conflict between science and religion.
According to this form of philosophical logic, there's no conflict between science and the sneaky Flying Spaghetti Monster. Does that make sense?

Not to me, it doesn't.


[Photo Credit: Gourmet: Spaghetti and Meatballs]

17 comments :

  1. In the case of Alvin Plantinga a Templeton grant for the amount $203,845 helped him decide that some premises are more reasonable than others.

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  2. This is why you have to be a good scientist in order to be a good philosopher. An argument can be valid but still be unsound if the premises are not unequivocally, factually true. How do we establish that? Why, with science!

    I did the same thing on my blog recently as a parody of sorts of the Kalam Cosmological Argument. I called it the Kalam Gravitational Argument:

    1. Everything that exists must obey the law of gravity
    2. The universe exists
    3. The universe must obey the law of gravity

    Obviously this is mired in categorical fallacies, which is why the actual KCA is unsound (just substitute 'causality' for 'gravity'). Just shows you have to get your facts straight before you can philosophize about anything.

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    1. That is the point of philosophy -- identifying clearly the error in an argument.

      Now, is anybody going to try to submitting a paper to a philosophy journal, after replacing all mentions of deity with FSM (and creation with meatball-stealing)? Actually, maybe Larry should run the find-and-replace on one of Sober's articles to try to prompt a response?

      Although, I suspect Sober may have already expressed the mundane response: that his choice of subject is motivated by his interaction with peers and neighbours who do subscribe to those specific premises.

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  3. To clarify, do you also disagree with Gould's idea of "non-overlapping magisteria"?

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    1. To clarify, which magisteria gets to settle historical facts?

      Also, in the non-scientific magisteria, how would you have me decide which religion I should trust?

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  4. Several issues there:

    1) Commonly believed superstitions _are_ worth discussing. Relevant questions include "why are they commonly believed?" and "how do people who are otherwise seemingly rational avoid cognitive dissonance while holding these beliefs?". These questions are of interest to the general public, but also in (scientific) disciplines such as sociology and psychology.

    2) The problem of evil is relevant because it causes severe cognitive dissonance in the minds of many believers, yet does not lead them to abandon their belief (or at least not as often as one might expect). This is an interesting sociological and/or psychological phenomenon worthy of study.

    3) Philosophy is a valid way of knowing to the extent that it uses rational argument, which is most of the time. Philosophy does use a scientific way of thinking to discover knowledge; you are making a false distinction.

    4) The sneakiness premise is not generally accepted by theists - this makes Plantinga's argument largely irrelevant. It's not clear if there is a real distinction between deists and theists who accept sneakiness. That Plantinga's argument is true for deists is already well known.

    5) The whole _point_ of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is that it does not conflict with science - it was deliberately invented that way. So pointing this out is uninteresting but not nonsensical.

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    1. konrad, I think rational argument is insufficient to produce knowledge. For any philosophy to be of any use it has to value empiricism. Larry's example with the FSM above is a valid philosophical argument, though a nearly useless one. Perhaps I am misinterpreting your statements but it sounds to me like you are suggesting arguments that take the form of the FSM example are valid when defending things like mainstream religion but obviously ridiculous when the argument is used to justify the existence of the FSM. The point of the FSM is to highlight more clearly the ludicrous nature of the arguments in favour of religion, which I think it does brilliantly.

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    2. "For any philosophy to be of any use it has to value empiricism" - I agree, and so did Hume.
      But for _mathematical_ truth, rational argument is sufficient. Philosophy addresses what it takes for an argument to be sound and what it takes for an argument to be valid. The answers to these questions do not depend on empiricism.

      Arguments that take the form of the FSM example are (structurally) valid but unsound (because they are based on unsupported premises, even though those premises have not been falsified). I agree that the point of the FSM example is to show that such arguments do _not_ succeed in defending religion. My point above was that, in order to achieve this, the FSM example had to be constructed in a way that does not contradict science.

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  5. "According to this form of philosophical logic, there's no conflict between science and the sneaky Flying Spaghetti Monster. Does that make sense?

    Not to me, it doesn't."

    I am not sure why you think it doesn't make sense since you convincingly argue that there is no conflict. There is no conflict between science and a sneaky deity, be it the FSM or leprechauns or Thor. Because there is by definition no evidence for such a deity, there is no scientific way to decide which if any such deity exists. But on the other hand, there is no conflict between the existence of this deity and anything discoverable by science. You can't prove or disprove the deity, hence the frequent use of the word "faith".

    But there is a valid scientific question related to this: What can this deity do and remain undetectable? Can the FSM really steal meatballs? What does it mean that they won't be missed? What is measurable about meatball number? What historical records can we imagine obtaining that could prove or disprove meatball stealing? For example, you could deduce that the FSM cannot have a favorite restaurant for meatball stealing, since those customers would get fewer meatballs for their money and would on average be less happy with their dining experience and the restaurant would go out of business. One could look at the profit statistics of meatball serving restaurants and look for evidence of the FSM.

    In short, this is an amusing way of asking the valid question: what can science measure, what data is theoretically available, and what are the predictable and testable properties of physical system?

    Now I gather that many here think this is all nonsense, but If so I think they are wrong. I am not coming from a religious background, but rather from from weather and climate science where questions about what we can predict and what we can measure are central. And one of the biggest questions is how do we detect unnatural influence on the climate system? In our case, the influence is anthropogenic CO2, or perhaps solar variability, or maybe Thor raining down a few extra lighting bolts. The science buzzwords are detection and attribution. Is it pointless to apply ideas about detection and attribution to the biosphere?

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  6. "According to this form of philosophical logic, there's no conflict between science and the sneaky Flying Spaghetti Monster. Does that make sense?

    Not to me, it doesn't."

    I am not sure why you think it doesn't make sense since you convincingly argue that there is no conflict. There is no conflict between science and a sneaky deity, be it the FSM or leprechauns or Thor. Because there is by definition no evidence for such a deity, there is no scientific way to decide which if any such deity exists. But on the other hand, there is no conflict between the existence of this deity and anything discoverable by science. You can't prove or disprove the deity, hence the frequent use of the word "faith".

    But there is a valid scientific question related to this: What can this deity do and remain undetectable? Can the FSM really steal meatballs? What does it mean that they won't be missed? What is measurable about meatball number? What historical records can we imagine obtaining that could prove or disprove meatball stealing? For example, you could deduce that the FSM cannot have a favorite restaurant for meatball stealing, since those customers would get fewer meatballs for their money and would on average be less happy with their dining experience and the restaurant would go out of business. One could look at the profit statistics of meatball serving restaurants and look for evidence of the FSM.

    In short, this is an amusing way of asking the valid question: what can science measure, what data is theoretically available, and what are the predictable and testable properties of physical system?

    Now I gather that many here think this is all nonsense, but If so I think they are wrong. I am not coming from a religious background, but rather from from weather and climate science where questions about what we can predict and what we can measure are central. And one of the biggest questions is how do we detect unnatural influence on the climate system? In our case, the influence is anthropogenic CO2, or perhaps solar variability, or maybe Thor raining down a few extra lighting bolts. The science buzzwords are detection and attribution. Is it profitable to apply ideas about detection and attribution to the biosphere?

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  7. Here, from a scientist:

    "The reason seems clear. The first argument leads to a conclusion Dawkins despises, while the second leads to one he loves. Dawkins, so far as I can tell, is unconcerned that the central argument of his book bears more than a passing resemblance to those clever philosophical proofs for the existence of God that he dismisses. This is unfortunate. He could have used a healthy dose of his usual skepticism when deciding how much to invest in his own Ultimate Boeing 747 argument. Indeed, one needn’t be a creationist to note that Dawkins’s argument suffers at least two potential problems. First, as others have pointed out, if he is right, the design hypothesis essentially must be wrong and the alternative naturalistic hypothesis essentially must be right. But since when is a scientific hypothesis confirmed by philosophical gymnastics, not data? Second, the fact that we as scientists find a hypothesis question-begging—as when Dawkins asks “who designed the designer?”—cannot, in itself, settle its truth value. It could, after all, be a brute fact of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind, however question-begging this may seem. What explanations we find satisfying might say more about us than about the explanations. Why, for example, is Dawkins so untroubled by his own (large) assumption that both matter and the laws of nature can be viewed as given? Why isn’t that question-begging?"

    H. Allen Orr

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2007/jan/11/a-mission-to-convert/?pagination=false

    It could, after all, be a BRUTE FACT of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind, however question-begging this may seem.

    Orr's last question is applicable to so many assertions by the fashionable atheist-scientists. Where does gravity (as asserted the year before last by Hawking) come from?

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  8. "What kind of knowledge can philosophy discover that can't be discovered by a scientific way of thinking?"

    This isn't a well constructed question given that it isn't clear what the distinction between "scientific way of thinking" is and "philosophy". Many (most actually) philosophers are empiricists and thus completely accept a scientific way of thinking when it comes to empirical matters.

    However, things get tricky when you start asking questions that are not answerable by the scientific method, here are a few:

    What mathematical axioms are true?
    Why ought I be moral?
    How do we have knowledge of counter-factuals?
    Is conceivability a guide to what is logically possible?
    What is knowledge?

    You see, some of these are purely conceptual questions, while others are perfectly sensible questions worth asking but that are not able to be answered through the scientific method because they are metaphysical questions. It is simply not the case that just because you can't run some kind of experiment to answer a question that therefore the question is either not worth asking or unanswerable.

    Take the rules of logic. They are not empirically known or discovered. The validity of a process of inference like Modus Ponens:

    If A then B
    A
    ---
    Therefore B

    is self-evidently true. We know this through a form of intellectual intuition. We need not consult a scientific experiment to "verify" that modus ponens is a valid chain of reasoning since science itself *presupposes its truth*.

    There are plenty of philosohpical questions that science can't answer. And that's fine, because Science isn't the only way of knowing things. It's the best way of knowing things in regards to empirical matters. But there are a variety of other questions which are not empirical in nature that are worth asking, and Philosophy usually deals with those.

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    1. Thank-you for replying.

      I think you misunderstood my question. I wasn't asking about questions, I was asking about answers.

      Take the question of why you ought to be moral. It's a meaningless question to me so I will change it to, "Why should you obey the standard ethical rules of the society in which you live?"

      The scientific way of thinking employs logic and healthy skepticism but so does philosophy. The scientific way of knowing applies evidence. I think it's quite possible to think scientifically and come up with an answer to the question. You could begin by asking what happens to people who don't obey the standard rules of society and what happens to those who do.

      What is the philosophical way of thinking and what answer has it come up with to this question? Philosophers have been asking it for several hundred years. You'd think they must be close to an answer.

      The question of what is knowledge is important. I'm not sure there's a short answer that will satisfy everyone but scientific thinking will illuminate the question by bringing evidence to bear. Some clearly accepted examples of knowledge are that evolution happens and the universe began almost 14 billion years ago with a singularity.

      There may be other kinds of knowledge that philosophy has discovered that couldn't also have been discovered by thinking scientifically. All I'm asking is that you give me an example.

      I don't want examples of questions, I want examples of answers.

      I understand that philosophy and mathematics have developed internally consistent rules to help us think logically. This is a very important contribution but it doesn't produce any meaningful knowledge, in my opinion. In order to get knowledge you have to apply rational thinking in combination with evidence.

      Do philosophers have another definition of knowledge?

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    2. "Take the question of why you ought to be moral. It's a meaningless question to me so I will change it to, "Why should you obey the standard ethical rules of the society in which you live?""

      But here's the thing, you say it's a meaningless question to you because, presumably, you're some form of error-theorist or some form of anti-realist when it comes to ethics. But science can't establish whether or not ethical realism or anti-realism is true. The question "are there moral facts that are true independent of our cultural norms?" is a perfectly sensible question with different possible answers. Your own question "why should you obey the standard ethical rules of the society in which you live?" is also a perfectly good philosophical question.

      Notice here though that there's not much that science can do to help answer this question given that it is a *normative* question. "Why ought I do what society tells me is right or wrong?" Science here can't get you very far. So what are you left with? You can either give up on the question completely, or you can attempt to answer it given the tools analytic philosophers have devised to tackle such questions.

      Here's an example of a way in which an eminent philosopher has sought out to answer this question:
      (https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http%3A%2F%2Ftannerlectures.utah.edu%2Flectures%2Fdocuments%2Fkorsgaard94.pdf)

      "
      The question of what is knowledge is important. I'm not sure there's a short answer that will satisfy everyone but scientific thinking will illuminate the question by bringing evidence to bear. Some clearly accepted examples of knowledge are that evolution happens and the universe began almost 14 billion years ago with a singularity. "

      But notice here you're not telling me what knowledge *is*. You're only giving me *examples* of apparent knowledge. I'd say that we don't *know* those examples are true, we have *very very good reason to believe they're true*. A better example of a clear case of knowledge is this: It seems to me that I am typing right now. That is a case of indubitable knowledge. But still, I haven't answered the question "What is knowledge?" because I've merely appealed to an *example* of it, but I haven't given you a list of necessary and sufficient conditions for it.

      "There may be other kinds of knowledge that philosophy has discovered that couldn't also have been discovered by thinking scientifically. All I'm asking is that you give me an example. "

      Here is one example: Descartes' Cogito.

      For a book length list of examples of philosophical knowledge I'd recommend this book:
      (http://www.amazon.com/What-Philosophers-Know-Analytic-Philosophy/dp/0521672228)


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  9. "I understand that philosophy and mathematics have developed internally consistent rules to help us think logically. This is a very important contribution but it doesn't produce any meaningful knowledge, in my opinion. In order to get knowledge you have to apply rational thinking in combination with evidence."

    I think here you might be mistaken. Mathematics does give you meaningful knowledge. Physics relies on mathematics; in fact, it is almost impossible to really understand quantum mechanics unless you know the relevant mathematics. And all of this mathematics is known a priori. Logicians, mathematicians, and Philosophers all deal with areas of human knowledge that unfortunately cannot lend themselves to the scientific method given the fact that, well, they're about topics which themselves aren't physical. It'd be nice if we could solve these problems with science, but it just so happens that it's very bloody hard to know just how science could help regarding questions of counter-factuals, modal knowledge, ethics, etc.

    It isn't a competition. Philosophers don't have to be pitted against scientists. We're all working together to solve problems. The best work done in Philosophy is work that is done when it is informed by the relevant science. The best work in Philosophy of Mind for example involves thorough knowledge of what's going on in Neuroscience. Neuroscientists also benefit from the work done in Phil. of Mind.



    Here's another good post worth reading on this:

    (http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=12409)

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