Discussion by: Zeuglodon
It is said by Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, and others that science versus religion is an offshoot of the broader conflict between reason and superstition, but maybe reason and superstition are themselves offshoots of a philosophical issue that brings the philosophies of epistemology, reason, religion, and science to bear; namely rationalism and fideism (faith-based thinking). Most of us will be aware of this by the repetition of arguments that reason is based on faith, and so on, which also raises questions about the induction problem and the concept of causality. However, I think it also can be thrown into sharper relief by speculative fiction.
Let me explain that last one before getting around to the title, as it needs some elaborating. I have noticed in recent years that ideas I would once have not remarked upon now leave me asking questions and feeling suspicious. If I read in a fantasy book, for instance, that "X is the apotheosis/god/manifestation of Y" (say, a god of chaos or something), or if I notice a film described as depicting a clash between order and chaos, I start wondering things like, "Does that statement even really make sense if you actually think about it," and, "Is there even really a clash to be had here?" A god of chaos to me seems to differ only in degree from any old kind of wizard, and in practice arguments between order and chaos seem no more substantial or profound than the difference between basic geometry and complex mathematics. It gets me speculating whether the distinction between "Order so complex it looks like the everyday idea of chaos" and "Genuine chaos" have any real world meaning beyond those words, akin to saying that "green stinky ideas sleep furiously in Detriot" or "wurzle purzle splunkenginger".
In addition, I wonder if some concepts are black boxes: that is, treated as though they were irreducibly complex, which can be discerned by the fact that an advocate goes back to base concepts and then – seemingly arbitrarily – stops there as though that settled the matter. I notice this in particular when reading stories that allegedly tackle the debate about determinism, libertarianism, fatalism, compatibilism, and pessimistic incompatibilism; they seem prepared to stop at "we can choose" this, that, and the other, but never seem to question the "we", the "choosing", or how either one comes about.
Moreover, I also wonder if some concepts are based more on how the speaker feels (or is supposed to feel) while saying them than on any real difference in meaning, and I don't mean that in the banal sense that "I'm slender, you're scrawny". I mean that in the sense that concepts like the "soul" are less truth statements than narcissistic "holier-than-thou" feelings masquerading as a legitimate concept.
Lastly, I wonder to what degree fiction can be dismissed and to what degree its outlandish elements can be taken seriously. More broadly, I wonder how this applies to whatever the imagination can churn out: if, for instance, I can dismiss the concepts of "yellow Sundays", "sleeping capitalism-ness", and "triangles with four sides", then can I also dismiss the idea of life force or essence of mind?
(Since I've been increasingly more interested in philosophy and science over the last few years, helped along tremendously by what I've discovered since becoming explicitly atheistic – as opposed to being "apatheistic" or implicitly atheistic – I'm wondering if this is a general side effect of becoming more thoroughly sceptical. Anyone else had thoughts like these?)
To get back on track, I suppose the philosophical term for it would be something like "cognitive" non-cognitivism. Non-cognitivism comes from the field of ethics, and in that field it states that ethics isn't about truth statements and so ethical statements, despite being structured like non-ethical ones, don't really describe anything about the world. In the field of ideas, which I'll tentatively label the "cognitive realm", it is effectively saying that some ideas are just flat-out meaningless, either because they don't/can't describe anything in reality or because they might as well not be describing anything. An igtheist or ignostic, for instance, would regard at least some concepts of a god or gods to be meaningless, or at least so perversely unproveable as to be practically meaningless, making questions like "Does God exist?" moot.
For instance, suppose two people come to you. One says that God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, etc. being, and the other disagrees and says that God is goodness, or some such thing. A "cognitive" non-cognitivist might point out that, since we could never devise a test that could exhaustively show that a being knew everything, the descriptor is meaningless in practice, and the best you can say is that this being is very smart, assuming for the moment that the being exists. He or she might also point out that making goodness identical with God is meaningless if you don't unpackage the meanings of both words, and at the very least raises the point that you can keep the concept of goodness and not bother with simply giving the concept a new word, especially one loaded with other meanings that would pointlessly muddy the waters.
Next, this raises a more general point: How do we determine whether a concept is intelligible enough to tackle, and when it's just a meaningless word? More broadly, how do we determine the possible from the impossible? To what extent can we trust human intuition and imagination here? Surprisingly enough, despite the previous criticisms, I found that some part of me did feel like such words and concepts as I have described here "make sense". Somehow, it doesn't bat an eyelid at a phrase like "yellow Sunday", perhaps because it subconsciously assumes the phrase means something figurative, like "green ideas" are really about environmental proposals. Or maybe instinct just uses some mental framework that slots into place, regardless of content: "a manifestation of chaos" might invoke the physics of liquids condensing into a solid, the solid being a man, and the notion of a pool of all-pervading medium – as, say, a liquid – standing in for "chaos", regardless of the abstract part of my mind insisting that ideas like chaos aren't themselves physical things, much less constitute a liquid medium. This last one both bothers and intrigues me most, as it debunks the old argument that merely being able to think of (and make sense of) something thereby makes it realistically possible.
This has obvious relevance to discussions about religion and gods, since the word God has so many definitions attached to it that you practically have to ask what people mean when they start using the word. It also serves as a useful way to clear waters that have become muddy, usually because people with ulterior motives deliberately muddy it and try to sneak ideas through the confusion. For instance, the old canard that, say, reason relies on faith because it relies on, say, inductive reasoning that isn't certain, depends on a confusion of the notion of tentative extrapolation based on evidence and hedged reasoning with the notion of claiming knowledge based on anything from authority and tradition to revelation and wishful thinking.
However, I think it can be used to tackle a more general question or set of questions relevant to the progress of science and philosophy. At the hypothesis stage, is there such a thing as a hypothesis that is utterly useless and can be dismissed without testing? At the empirical stage, is there any outcome we can conceive of that, by dint of being conceivable, should be taken seriously? For instance, if I imagine running an experiment to find out what patterns plates make when they shatter, am I obliged to heed the induction problem's criticisms and remain open to the chance that the plates will sprout wings and fly, and if not, why not? Are the induction problem, the "brain in a jar" hypothesis, the "unreasonableness of reason" argument, the philosophical zombie argument, and the notion of dualistic free will all serious ideas or meaningless babble?
Now, over to you. What is possible?