Friday, July 8, 2011

"You Assume the Outside World Exists" Part 2

After someone pointing out that his version of "divine revelation to multiple authors" is unfalsifiable, ModernOrthoprax commenter Moshe writes:
You mean like your strange idea that the world that you perceive actually exists, and that your consciousness is not, say, merely embedded in a memory chip?
I thought I would expand on my prior post on why this is a bad argument. Admittedly, this probably shouldn't be responded to that seriously, but I think it's interesting and I think his argument actually backfires on him.

1) Any time you see someone making an argument of this form, it is just about bound to fail. Moshe's argument here is not of the form, "God exists because [...]" or "The Torah is divine because [...]." Instead, it is of the form, "even though I don't have justification for believing the Torah is divine, I have the epistemic right to believe it is because [...]." The problem with this form of argument is that it can be applied indiscriminately to anything, from belief in the Koran to belief in Last Thursdayism. If you have the "right" to believe in things without justification, than so does everyone. And if everything is justified by your argument, nothing has been justified.

2) I think Moshe's argument backfires on him. The existence of the outside world is not, in fact, a strange idea. It's the simplest inference from and explanation of what we experience every time we open our eyes. Moshe's alternate interpretations of the data, in comparison, are extravagant, and so we reject them (beyond philosophical musings).

You can always make more and more complex interpretations of the same data:
-"The existence of dinosaurs is an unfalsifiable question, since God could have planted dinosaur bones and it would look the same."
-"The theory of gravity is unfalsifiable, since I propose a 'Gravity Demon,' whose tricky actions always make things look like they behave according to the theory of gravity."

This would be silly. A) Relative to the null hypothesis that dinosaurs never existed, dinosaur bones provide evidence that they did. B) Relative to different interpretations of the same data, we accept the simplest inference--that dinosaurs existed--and reject extravagant explanations that are interchangeable with the current evidence (e.g., God planted the bones). This point is the canon of parsimony, aka Occam's Razor. Same for a "gravity demon"--we cut down explanatory dead weight.

I don't see how our everyday experience is much different. A) Relative to the null hypothesis that the world does not exist, we have plenty of evidence and experience to suggest it does (i.e. open your eyes). B) Relative to alternate interpretations of the same data, we settle on the simplest one--that the world exists as we experience it. Proposing evil demons tricking us or brains in vats would be an extravagant interpretation.

This is where I think Moshe's argument backfires: the same reason that we accept that the the outside world exists is the same reason I reject divine revelation to the multiple authors of the Torah. Instead of the explanation "humans wrote this work," Moshe proposes, "humans wrote this work AND it was 'divinely inspired' AND it looks exactly the same as if humans wrote it." Obviously, the canon of simplicity dictates that we accept the first interpretation of the exact same data.

Thus, the same logic dictates that I accept the existence of the external world (the simplest interpretation) and reject divine inspiration of the Torah (an extravagant interpretation), rather than Moshe's claim to the contrary.

CAN one still doubt anything and everything? Sure; induction can always be mistaken, a complex explanation could end up correct, etc. But is it reasonable, consistent, and common-sensical to disbelieve in divine inspiration of the Torah in light of basic beliefs about the external world? I believe it is.


MKR said...

Moshe's strategy the one is identified by philosopher Stephen Law in his book Believing Bullshit as "going nuclear." A draft of the pertinent chapter can be found on his blog here. Law's choice of term is inept, as "going nuclear" means "acquiring nuclear weapons," not "using nuclear weapons," for which the idiomatic phrase is "the nuclear option." But his analysis is insightful.

JewishGadfly said...

Thanks for the link!

MKR said...

You're welcome.

Editing error: my first sentence was supposed to read: "Moshe's strategy is the one identified," etc.