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Monday, September 26, 2005

Datrina and the Liche Lord explained (finally)

Some were a bit mystified as to the point of the "Datrina and the Liche Lord" story experiment (see link). After giving a more than adequate amount of time for everyone to puzzle over it and then lose interest, I now offer an explanation.

Here's the point. Many people think that the case for intellegent design is inconclusive. The reason is that there are evolutionary stories that explain the phenonema picked out for design as well as the design inference and since that is true there is no basis for prefering one view over the other.

More specificly, the necessary conditions for any kind of life on any planet in the universe are extremely narrow; life contains vastly more information in it than is constained in the universe itself. Accordingly, it seems that life is a significant outcome and thus the best explanation is that it came about by intelligent design. However, it may be that this universe is but one of an infinite many universes expressing all the possible original conditions. Consequently most of them have no life in them and we happen to be in the one that does. Of course by hypothesis we have no contact with other such universes experimentally but we cannot rule out the possibility that such is the case.

Or can we? Can we at least come up with some reason or another that gives us a rational basis for prefering the intelligent design scenario to the multiple universe scenario?

Some philosophers think that we can based on the following analogy. Suppose an all powerful god exists. This god calls into his presence two angels, call them Gabe and Mike. To both angels he says the following: "I'm going to flip a coin. If it lands on heads, I will create one world. Then I will roll a ten-sided die and if it lands on a '1', then I will create life on that world. However, if the coin lands on tails, I will create ten worlds. Then I will roll a ten-sided die once for each world until I roll a '1' and for that world and no other of the ten I will create life." Then he sends Gabe and Mike away to go about their business telling them nothing more. The two go their seperate ways.

Later, a reliable messenger comes to Gabe and tells him, "There is a world with life on it." Suppose Gabe asks himself whether the coin toss came out heads or tails. He will reasonably conclude that it is more likely that it came out to be tails since the tails procedure was more likely to produce a world with life on it then the heads procedure.

However, instead of being told anything, Mike is put to sleep. When Mike comes to, he wakes up on the surface of a world with life on it. Suppose Mike asks himself whether the coin landed heads or tails. He will reasonably conclude that it is more likely that it came out to be heads since if it were tails, it is more likely that Mike would have come to on a planet without life on it.

Of course, the heads result is analogous to the intelligent design hypothesis and the tails result is analogous to the multiple universe hypothesis. The a priori plausibility of both hypotheses is analogous to the condition of being informed of two possibilities equally likely (that is, having no other evidence besides conceivability for their plausibility). The critic assumes that all we have to work with is the mere fact of life and thus thinks that our situation is most similar to Gabe's in the story and thus concludes that the the multiple worlds hypothesis is more reasonable to hold. But the intelligent design theorist responds that it is just as important how we come to the fact that life exists as the fact itself. And the fact is something we discover by being there to discover it. So our situation is more analogous to Mike's situation in the story than it is to Gabe's. Consequently, we ought to think that the intelligent design hypothesis is more reasonable. So in spite of belief otherwise, we do have a reason to prefer intelligent design to the multiple worlds hypothesis.

What the story does is it gives us an analogy like the Mike and Gabe analogy and seeks to pump people's intuitions about this. If there are several fights going on, its no suprise if one of them has a fighter with a bad ticker and thus no reason to think that there was any design behind it. But if there is only one contest and the fighter collapses from a heart attack, it is more reasonable to think there had been some design in bringing that about. But the dwarf's only evidence was that she was there when it happened. If you thank then that this is a reason for thinking that there was to be only one contest and that thus the Liche Lord assisted in the escape, you would also think that this is a reason to think that the sword had been taken in payment by the Liche Lord and further that the sword that appeared in the grotto was not really the Sword of Shanana but most likely the Liche Lord himself up to his old polymorhing tricks. Thus, Datrina shouldn't take the sword.

(Of course, one could not mistake the reference to the "Invisible Gardner", a classic case in the literature on intelligent design and verifiability.)

I don't have an original bone in my body. Thanks to Dr. Dean Zimmerman for introducing and explaining this to me though the errors in presentation are mine.

What is lacking in Presuppositionalism

Philosophaster, a sincerely inquiring non-Christian, asked me (the Gnu) why I didn't accept the Protestant form of apologetics known as Van Tillianism or presuppositionalism. Since I amaze myself so easily I thought that others might be interested in this response. One can find the full context and a presuppositonalists reply at the link in the title.

Here are some things I find lacking in presuppositional apologetics. I have some historical objections such as that I don't think presuppositionalist expositions of either the Bible or the history of theology in general of of the Reformation era in particular avoids special pleading. But setting those sorts of objections aside, I think that I can defer to your post for some of the main ones.

Presuppositionalism is meant to be understood as a substantive ideology of how to argue, rather than just an introduction of perhaps new or underconsidered types of arguments. You are not merely logically or evidentially mistaken if you neglect the presuppositionalist argument (also known as the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God, or TAG for short), you are morally wrong (you are starting a tleast tacitly with an affirmation of your self-sufficiency without God) and it is not clear why this is so. Presuppostionalists claim that previous approaches to theistic proofs (such as Aquinas, Descartes, or Paley) reflect this moral error and the TAG does not, but is seems clear that TAG is not really different from arguments like the cosmological argument. (E.g A frequent illustration that Van Til uses to illustrate the difference between TAGs and traditonal arguments is this: The presuppositonalist does not argue for the existence of floorboards under the floor by compiling facts about furniture in the room. The presupposionalist notes that the very existence of furniture in the room presupposes the existence of floorboards in the floor. But this exactly illustrates a causal argument as one finds in traditional proofs.) If it were just about identifying another type of argument such as TAG, there would be no in principle debate between presuppositonalists and evidentialists. Any good argument is a good argument.

Another set of problems are the claims that there is no nuetrality between the believer and the unbeliever and that all reasoning is circular reasoning. This thesis is typically understood in terms of a strong holism about the meanings of concepts in propositions, a kind of uber-Quineanism. Another example from Van Til's writing is his claim that the non-believer takes the evidences offered by the theist and throws them on top of his own presupposition of the ultimacy of chance and concludes that evidence for the ressurection only shows that wierd things happen from time to time. If this claim is to be sufficiently weighty and merely trivially obvious, there must be some strong basis for asserting that itr leads to the claim that there is no nuetrality. Since claims are thrown back upon different presupposed worldviews, their interpretation in one worldview is incomensurable with the interpretation of the same clain in another worldview and so the appearance of identical claims being made is false. This incomensuarbility extends even to claims about the canons of logic and evidence so that what counts as logical and evident to one does not count as such to another. Consequently, there is no common ground whatsoever between the believer and the unbeliever.

This creates a problem for presentations of TAG which assume a common agreement about the premises and the validity of the conclusion that comes from them. The sincere offering of TAG as an argument is just as problematic as offering a deductive cosmological or Baysean argument. So it seems that the approach itself contradicts its supposed foundations.

It turns out then that the real approach of presuppostionalism is to push each divergent system of thought to its fullest logical implication, and then ask each reasoner to adopt all of them as holistic webs of belief for the sake of argument, and argue that only the Christian web of belief does not run into self-defeat. Now this proposal seems to assume that there is a higher order neutrality; we cannot be neutral about beliefs within webs but we can be neutral about the webs. But this seems arbirary to me, why is there not a higher order web about webs of belief and if so does not that mean that the nuetrality problem reiterate itself? Secondly, the approach is not in principle unavailable to traditional ways of understanding Christian argument. The impossibility of the contrary argument, if sound, is yet another available candidate to the traditional theist, so the approach does not add to the case for presuppositionalism as an argumentative ideology. This is bolstered by the many instances of non-presuppositonalists employing this kind of reasoning, like CS Lewis in his book on miracles. Thirdly, the task seems infinite, since besides looking at the the concretely available worldviews, we need also to look at all the logically possible worldviews and that seems to be an unfinishable task for people who need to argue today for the Christian worldview claim. Christians will have to be happy for a "Christianity is true as far as we can tell but the inquiry remains open" result, which may not be such a bad thing (e.g. Nuerath's ship). But finally, I think we already know enough to realize that the argument is not sound. The main rival that this argument attacks is philosophical naturalism but as Elizibeth Anscombe demonstrated in her debate with CS Lewis about the afore mentioned book, the claim that naturalism is self-defeating is false, and therefore the impossibility of the contrary argument is unsound (in spite of whatever existential difficulties naturalists might run into in ordinary life, such us worries that they might be making love to a zombie).

Finally, the final metaphysical view of presuppositonalism is a version of objective Idealism, which in itself I am not too uncomfortable with. But it seems to me that the presuppositionalist position is logically unstable between the metaphysical objective idealism that Van Til really wants and a kind of ontological relativism that some of his followers have drifted into. My theory is that the development of presuppositonalism from Van Til on parallels the development of 19th century German Idealism from Hegel into both right wing uber-reichtists and left wing relativists in history, which may point to a concrete expression of that instability. This also raises the question of whether or not Van Til qua ontological relativist who insists on his own version of ontology isn't just a fideist after all.

Perhaps a more charitiable way of thinking of the claim that all reasoning is circular reasoning is to say that this is drawing attention to commonly observed philosophical problem, namely it seems that in questioning about the issues that seem most important to us, the best we have been able to do is come up with deductive arguments that are valid and may be sound but which remain unconvincing since eventhough they are not explicitly circular they still beg the question by posing a premise which is just as controverted by the opponant as the conclusion is, or with inductive arguments where one of the canons of "best explanation" or "relevant analogy" or "prior probability" is just as controverted by the opponant as the conclusion is. In fact, this seems to be the actual reason qua philosophy that some people give for being attracted to Van Til as offering a way to negotiate this deadlock. Unfortunately, Van Til explains this deadlock as being due to sin, but none of the features described seem to have much to do with morality and seem to have more to do with the common features of thought whether of the believer or of the unbeliever. One possible way of relating the two is to say that it is precisely our morally qualified dispositions that make us reject the premises or canons because we refuse to accept the conclusion and reasoning permits this. For example, Thomas Nagel suggests in his book "The Last Word" that one reason philosophers generally reason as the do is that they succumb to much to a fear of religion and he admits that he too is afraid and even troubled by his brilliant colleagues who remian faithful to some religious tradition or another. He says its not just that he thinks that theistic proofs are unconvincing, the thought that there exists an absolute being that may legitimately dictate to him what he must and must not do is postively abhorent to him. So moral dispositions may explain utlimately why some people embrace some pictures or the world and not others and why it remains true that some are wrong and some are right. So rather than being a gateway to metaphysical relativism it might be the only alternative to it. But this suggestion works for unbeliever as well as the believer since it could well be the willful ignorance and self-imposed blindness of the beliver or his fear that life is ultimately meaningless without God that makes him resist the truth. As a Christian, I may accept such a radical view as consistent with my account of depravity and to preserve the metaphysical realism my view needs, but I admit that it is not philosophically satisfying. So I keep looking for more.

So my conclusion is that presuppostionalism claims way too much for itself and may in fact prove too much for itself. I tend to think of it in the same way as the comment a professor might make on a student's paper; "What you have written is both good and original, but what is good is not original and what is original is not good."