Too Sucky To Be True

Too Sucky To Be True December 3, 2011
Too awesome to be false

It looks like my use of slang has gotten us all into philosophical trouble. When I was responding to Ross Douthat’s difficult thought experiment, I summarized the logic of Jennifer Fulwiler (and several other Christian converts I know) as follows:

  1. God is not real
  2. Atheism logically requires nihilism
  3. Nihilism sucks so bad it can’t be true

You can’t believe all three at once, and Ms. Fulwiler jettisoned proposition one. I meant to have a fight about the second principle, but a lot of commenters took issue with three, so it merits further discussion. One commenter helpfully split the third idea into two propositions:

3a: There is a certain critical value of suckiness that means a certain idea is intellectually unsupportable

3b: Nihilism clears this threshhold of suck

And it was 3a that drew a lot of flack. So let me say up front, I wasn’t endorsing the idea that we can reject empirical realities because they are painful to acknowledge. That way lies severe congnitive dissonance. In nearly all cases, willful blindness and self-deception won’t help us live and act in the world. We need to have a clear eyed picture of the atrocity we’re up against in order to have a hope of ameliorating it. I wholeheartedly endorse the Litany of Gendlin.

When I talked about a critical value of suck, I didn’t mean to think about physical realities, but about metaphysical hypotheses. And, when I used the highly precise technical word ‘suck’ I didn’t mean it as a measure of how a given proposition would affect human suffering and flourishing, but as a measure of whether accepting the idea as true made it impossible to live and act (happily or unhappily) in our lives. Let me give an example:

What if everything we experience is an illusion? Maybe it’s a computer simulation, maybe you’re beset by Descartes’s demon, or maybe you’re a lonely Boltzmann brain.  Don’t worry too much about how this happened; with no valid empirical inputs, you haven’t a prayer of figuring it out anyway. But if you came to believe that your world was not real, what on earth would you do about it?

Imagine walking around denying the physical reality of matter. I expect it would be an endless series of concussions and traffic accidents. And even if you remained committed to your counterfactual in the face of your injuries, you’d still be bound by the world you refused to acknowledge. After all, every step you took into danger would still involve placing your feet solidly on the ‘ground’ that you regard as an arbitrary fancy.

Your hypothesis has exploded the working model of the world and how to live in it and hasn’t provided any new framework as substitute. That’s not an improvement in accuracy. It’s fine to kick around hypotheticals for fun or to see if you can get them to generate any predictions or prescriptions, so they can be assessed, but trying to live by these kinds of philosophy is dangerous and incoherent.

P.S. This is why I’m extremely suspicious of religions and philosophies that undermine what you already know without offering anything stable as substitute. The idea that this world is of little importance compared to the next, a god that might command apparent moral horrors for his own ineffable purposes, the idea of enlightenment as total disregard for the world you live in… all of these perspectives give me the heebie-jeebies.

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  • Patrick

    To the extent that you’re talking about unfalsifiable beliefs about the physical world, the fact that they’re unfalsifiable is what makes them fail to “explode the working model of the world and how to live in it.” So for example, I’d expect someone who believes that he’s a brain in a jar to behave exactly the same way I do when faced with questions like how to drive a car. After all, we both expect exactly the same subjective experience to result from crashing our car.

    Its possible that some moral matters could be different. If you believe that other people are philosophical zombies, that could have an effect on your actions towards others. Or if you believe that heaven exists, that could affect your actions towards others as well, but most religions generally spend a lot of time and energy coming up with reasons why it shouldn’t have anything more than a minimal effect, and regard those who disagree as moral monsters.

    And in general, as an empirical matter, we actually have loads of people around who are in exactly the situations you outline, and they don’t react the way you seem to predict. Instead, they spend a lot of brain power coming up with ways to synchronize their beliefs with the real world so that they never encounter a moment where their beliefs might have to pay rent.

  • Aristarchus

    As the commenter who made the distinction, I just wanted to say that I didn’t think you were endorsing 3a – I was just surprised that given how obviously wrong it is, you didn’t pick that place to attack the syllogism.

    That said, I think this distinction you make doesn’t make much sense:

    When I talked about a critical value of suck, I didn’t mean to think about physical realities, but about metaphysical hypotheses.

    Why does it make more sense when talking about big metaphysical things? Take your example, where it’s possible everything we experience is an illusion. Ignore for the moment the fact that there are plenty of good, rational reasons to think reality existing is the most likely explanation of the world around us, and imagine that logic actually supported the belief that everything was an illusion. Why should we then not believe it? You say it makes life hard to lead, but why is that true? You could decide that because the rest of the world doesn’t exist, you will value only your own happiness, for example. That seems like a perfectly reasonable response to me, and it would actually be sad if you sacrificed a lot of your own happiness to help others when they didn’t actually exist.

    But even if you can’t live with it at all, if all your logic flowing from that premise gets you no where. It still seems to me that at best you could argue for something like “I just give up trying to work out what is really best, and will just live as if the world really exists, because that’s the best my mind is capable of dealing with.” That’s reasonable. But it’s not the same thing as actually believing the world exists. You’re still not actually rejecting the truth of the claim.

    When I read this post, all the reasons you give for rejecting things that destroy you working model of the world come down to “it would cause practical harm” (traffic accidents, etc.). But if those traffic accidents are illusions, that’s not true. Even something like “I will lack a model of reality by which to live my life” seems to me like a magnified version of “It will make me sad”. How is that a reason to believe something is actually true? It’s greater in magnitude, but not logically different.

    • DavidM

      I was happy to see Leah make this clarification. She nailed it, I think. The issue is not about how ‘big’ the sucky thing in question is, it’s about how fundamental it is. When you are talking about a fundamental metaphysical hypothesis, you are talking about a starting point for coherence. If your starting point for coherence turns out to be incoherent vis-a-vis your most general experience, then that starting point is ‘sucky’ in a way that most certainly should have implications for your belief in it. You should, if you are reasonable, reject the truth of such a ‘sucky’ starting point because it causes ‘thought-traffic accidents,’ not because it might cause real ones.

    • DavidM

      …so, yes: that is logically different.

  • Steve Pinkham

    I highly recommend The Atheists Guide to Reality as one of my favorite books ever.

    It covers apparent teleology, why we must embrace at least moral and existential nihilism, and why that isn’t as sucky as you might think.

    To get the most out of it, at least a passing understanding of the cognitive science of religion, perhaps best explained by either the video or book version of Why We Believe in Gods, is quite helpful.

  • I think we are all missing the most important question, which is this: If someone can have a windmill in his beard, why on earth would he not also have Don Quixote in his beard? I am perplexed.

  • Will

    Because that would leave no room for four owls and a wren, two larks and a hen.

  • Leah, you did notice, did you not, that human sacrifice was every bit as prevalent for Abraham as fornication is for us? Like the story of Job (there are bunches of similar stories, with the main differences from the Jewish version being that Job got what he deserved because he sinned, and his neighbors called his attention to this fact), it seems to me that part of the reason for the binding of Isaac was so that God could demonstrate how He differed from the typical Canaanite deity.

    In no way does Catholicism presume that this world is unimportant. God made it, Jesus incarnated into it and became part of it, and how we behave while we’re here is the basis for our relationship with God in the next.

  • Patrick

    Arkanabar- The interpretation of the binding of Isaac that claims that it was written to demonstrate a distinction between Yahweh and the Canaanite religions is probably wrong. The binding of Isaac is clearly a retelling of the story of Jepthah, in which a young girl is sacrificed to the Christian God. And the Jepthah story is just one in a long line of “sacrifice the first thing I see when I get home” fairy tales. Some historians believe that Jepthah is an earlier story than Isaac, and that the fact that the sacrifice in Isaac isn’t carried out indicates something about the polemical message of the story in comparison to the older tale, but that’s about as much mileage as you can get from it.

    Meanwhile, the idea that the Canaanite’s sacrificed their children, and that’s why God had to expunge their children from the earth in a bloody holocaust, is obviously blood libel. If there’s one lesson history has taught us, its that when one group of people engage in ethnic cleansing, we should be very, very skeptical of the claims they make when they blame their victims.

    I guess as a post script I should probably add that the Canaanite genocide probably never happened, according to historians. But to the extent that we’re drawing conclusions from an ancient story, we should still try to avoid the forms of reasoning errors that led to the Holocaust. When someone finishes slitting the throats of civilian women and infants and dumping them in a mass grave, and then turns around to you to explain why they all had it coming, exercise a little skepticism, please.

  • deiseach

    “the idea of enlightenment as total disregard for the world you live in”

    May I ask, how does this apply to your support for transhumanism (as I think you said you support it)?

    Pardon me if my notion is the clichéd notion that you do not hold, but how is your hypothetical computer simulation world all that greatly different from the idea of uploading one’s consciousness into some form of computer storage, unmoored from a physical body, and then being able to manipulate and create one’s own reality? The dangers of the simulated world are separate from the actual dangers, that is, you can decide to either play by the rules of the simulation or ignore those rules as to whether or not fire burns or water drowns, but that has nothing to do with actual threats to your existence such as if the storage is corrupted or someone in meatspace pulls the power cord out of the socket.

    Or if – as some religions posit – this is a dream world and we are living in a dream, and enlightenment means becoming aware that one is dreaming, then perhaps death is not real death, but rather a sudden end to the dream (like having a dream of falling and waking up with a start).

    I’ve had dreams where I’ve become aware that I was dreaming, and I’ve had dreams that seemed real and convincing while I was dreaming (to the point that when I woke up, it took me a couple of minutes to convince myself that the events hadn’t really happened) and I suppose other people have also had those experiences; how do we argue from within the dream that it’s real versus it’s only a dream? (I don’t believe that this is a dream world, but if I did believe that it was a dream, then I might well choose to endanger myself even to risking death, on the grounds that I would just wake up and not be really hurt or killed).

  • I think there is room to think about the binding of Isaac as a pedagogical story in which God teaches Abraham that he doesn’t want human sacrifices, against what he might had been drawn to believe given that it was common within Cannanites.
    I’ve written a little about this in

    • DavidM

      …and Rene Girard has written a lot about it.

  • Charles

    Have you seen ? I tend to think the big key that Penn is talking about at the end, and that perhaps causes issues for you and me, and most of the ‘atheists’ I have encountered is this: The vast majority of religious people simply don’t take their religion all that seriously. The ones that do live in small conclaves separated from everyone else, the ‘everyone else’ just attribute things you and I attribute to nature to ‘god’ and sort of ignore/white wash the rest.

  • I could have said this on the previous post as well, but a distinction between motivation and justification might be helpful here. The 1, 2, 3 progression, if all steps are granted, is a strong motivation to avoid atheism, but it is not a justification in itself. It is a motivation to look in to the issue further and determine whether, in fact, all three premises are valid. Which is, of course, what you are doing here.

    Choosing which premise to attack is another interesting question: the one you choose to attack will reveal a bias and “motivated reasoning” (which can tend towards error). Now, it is an open question as to whether reasoning can ever NOT be of the motivated variety. Many atheists like to think they are not motivated reasoners, but this is simply not true; ethics and politics pollute metaphysics all the time. We all have the same cognitive biases towards doing this. Something to do with the weird fact that metaphysics and group loyalty are related…

    In any case, distinguishing motivation and justification might help. They certainly ought not be confused.

  • Jennifer Fulwiler just addressed this subject again over at NC Register: