Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Chris Port Blog #263. Winning the Narrative: Empiricism, Rationalism and Metaphysics

© Chris Port, 25th May 2011

Atheism is an empirical viewpoint. Agnosticism is a rational viewpoint. Theism is a metaphysical viewpoint. The latter may or may not be absurd depending on what specific assertions are being made or refuted.

Debate between these three viewpoints is desirable, if only to define their respective claims on ‘truth’. Dispute is also desirable to identify logical fallacies or inconsistencies and clarify misconceptions.

Unfortunately, many disputes merely add to the confusion because they are often not playing the same ‘language games’ as each other.

For example, suppose a theist asserted a belief that ‘God’ is a generic label rather than a physical entity, encompassing various metaphysical phenomena such as ethics, aesthetics and meanings. If an atheist challenged this assertion on the grounds that such phenomena have natural explanations, and need no supernatural referent, what (if anything) would they be arguing about? Is the argument about the supernatural, or about meanings?

Alternatively, suppose an atheist asserted a belief that ‘the soul’ is synonymous with the mind, that the mind is synonymous with the brain, and that the soul is therefore destroyed when the brain stops working. If a theist challenged this assertion on the grounds that, according to the laws of conservation of matter and energy, the material of the soul is not destroyed but transformed, what (if anything) would they be arguing about? Is the argument about identity, or about thermo-dynamics?

Some find esoteric beauty in mathematics. An ‘elegant’ proof, to the uninitiated, looks like meaningless arcane squiggles. Alternatively, for some mathematicians, it is the equivalent of poetry in numbers. Beauty has a mathematical aspect - patterns, proportions, symmetries. It also has a metaphysical aspect - that which is expressed may allude to something profoundly inexpressible. It is this feeling of inexpressibility that I would call ‘supernatural’ rather than some undefined ‘entity’. To ask whether this feeling is ‘true’ would be as absurd as asking whether a mathematical equation is ‘beautiful’. It is if you feel it that way.

Empiricism delights in reductionist definitions. Metaphysics delights in expansionist feelings. Whether you delight in definitions or feelings, reductionism or expansionism, is a purely subjective experience. It is a personal response rather than an empirical ‘fact’ and has nothing to do with being ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’. It is either well argued or poorly argued.

When an empiricist tries to refute a metaphysical assertion by restricting a debate’s terms of reference to empirical data, this is as absurd as an artist telling a scientist that E = mc2 is not art because it is not paint.

For me, the sensible ‘default’ position in any debate between empiricism and metaphysics is therefore agnosticism, at least until the direction of the debate becomes clear.

For example, evolutionists have clearly won the debate over creationists. Empirical data has rightly won out over doctrinal texts. While I might quibble with Richard Dawkins’ emphatic assertion that evolution is a ‘fact’ (yes it is, but in a world of many ‘facts’ I would lay the emphasis on selectivity) agnosticism here is no longer a sensible default position. The craven politician’s evasion of a straight answer to a straight question, “Do you believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old?” completely destroys their credibility and fitness to hold public office.

Richard Dawkins versus Young Earth Creationist Politician

(In repeated polls over the last 30 years, 40 to 45% of Americans have consistently stated that they believe the age of the earth is less than 10,000 years old…)

“It’s even worse than that because they actually believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, and because the true age of the earth is 4.6 billion years old, that’s a non-trivial error... I’ve previously compared it to the width of North America is 8 yards…” (Richard Dawkins)

The direction of a debate often depends on the rhetorical skills of the interlocutors. A more wily politician could have played to their electorate by believing in the accuracy of the data then shifting the focus of the debate into asking what narrative should be told here?  Perhaps the ultimate use of philosophy is simply to win control of the narrative and win power?

“Traditionally, the way people thought about power was primarily in terms of military power. For example, the great Oxford historian who taught here at this university, A.J.P. Taylor, defined a great power as a country able to prevail in war. But we need a new narrative if we're to understand power in the 21st century. It's not just prevailing at war, though war still persists. It's not whose army wins; it's also whose story wins. And we have to think much more in terms of narratives and whose narrative is going to be effective.” (Joseph S. Nye - speech on ‘Global Power Shifts’ at


  1. From the The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Official) Facebook page. A classic example of how empiricists can get themselves into trouble without metaphysical perspective...

    [Original post]: "I have just had a thought that may bear some examination and may be a problem for theists, though they will have a facile way out. It has just occurred to me that Mathematics is something that exists in effect outside of the universe and simply is. Completely immutable, absolute, existent before time or the big bang, defining everything there after, and built upon rock solid axioms. Like “god” Mathematics is eternal and self existent though sadly has offered no opinion as to how Noah should have built the ark."

    [My reply]: The word ‘exist’ may be leading you astray here. Mathematics is the study of quantity, structure, space, and change. It is overwhelmingly probable that these phenomena exist independently of our minds. However, mathematics is the study of the phenomena, not the phenomena themselves. Mathematics is the attribution of consistency in the mind. The universe itself is as indifferent to mathematics as it is to beauty. Without consciousness, mathematics would not exist.

  2. [My response to a subsequent post that "the universe is mathematics made function"...]

    I think that you may be falling into a classic teleological trap (getting things back to front).

    Teleology is the supposition that there is purpose or direction in natural processes. To say that “the universe is mathematics made function” is to infer that mathematics preceded the universe, and that the ‘purpose’ of the universe is to give mathematics physical form.

    I would argue that in reality it is completely the other way around. The universe came first. Mathematics is our expression of patterns that we observe in it. These patterns are relationships attributed by our minds, not inherent properties. The only inherent properties of the universe are the four basic force charges and the ways in which they interact with each other. Everything else in the universe is an ‘emergent property’ rather than an expression of function.

  3. "... as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." ~ Albert Einstein.

  4. [Subsequent post: “… how do you solve the problem of unity out of the diversities when it comes to logic/math? If we are contriving these realities [individually] how do they work as a unity?”]

    [My response]: It’s a fascinating area of study. Does the recurrence of similar patterns in different systems suggest a metaphysical role for mathematics? The problem then would be an inference that physical forms are an expression of mathematical functions…

    My initial solution to this ‘problem’ is simply to suggest that there is no problem!

    Starting from the four fundamental forces, why shouldn’t localized systems arrive at similar ‘solutions’, even at different scales? The diversity of emergent properties is the result of slight inhomogeneities in the quantum state of the early universe. Time, expansion and chaotic (complex) interactions have provided a wide variety of phenomena for us to study. We use mathematics to model their forms and behaviour. Some physicists have even speculated that chaos theory may give rise to new ‘emergent’ laws of physics, but the gist of String/’M’ Theory seems to be that all matter and energy is just variations on a fundamental theme.

    Unity in diversity only seems to be a problem if you think that this is an underlying ‘design’ feature. I would cite the Weak Anthropic principle and say “That’s just the way it is, otherwise we wouldn’t be here to see it”.

    As a very simple example, many different types of forces tend to be transmitted equally in all spatial directions. One consequence of this ubiquitous behaviour is that the pattern of a circle or sphere is likely to recur throughout nature at different scales. If mathematics starts to develop self-consistent variations on the component relationships of circles and spheres, it shouldn’t really surprise us if we start to discover more and more apparent similarities in different phenomena. Basically, the more complex mathematics becomes, the more opportunities it creates to find patterns. That’s what maths is designed to do.

    Whether this recurrence of patterns suggests anything deeper actually leads us away from numbers towards language and metaphysical discussions (which I suspect you wish to avoid!). For example, if I was to claim that the ubiquitous recurrence of ‘God’ in different localized cultures inferred that there must be something like ‘God’ in nature, I suspect you would retort that all it actually reveals is people’s general urge to invent explanations. A diversity of religions does not make a unity in a deity.

    Once the concept of ‘God’ is invented, this can lead us into all sorts of teleological traps. I would say that ‘unity in diversity’ is actually just another variation on this theme. We invent a notation designed to find patterns. We then map that notation on to the physical universe. We are then surprised to find recurring patterns in the notation. I don’t think that’s a problem. I think that’s what we were looking for, so we found it.


    Mathematics - Unity in Diversity

    The Significance of Unity and Diversity for the Disciplines of Mathematics and Physics

    Functions and Mathematics

  5. [Subsequent post: “Nice Google. Now, please explain how, if we are [individually] [making] mathematical truths, subjectively, how they are united into a coherent [objective] system."]

    [My response]: Because that's what we've designed the system to do. If it's not consistent, its not maths. You're starting to slip into Wittgenstein's 'category errors'.

    Mathematics (unlike language) is specifically designed to be consistent and coherent. The universe, by existing, is coherent. The ‘laws’ of physics are consistent and (quantum theory of gravity aside) mostly coherent down to the Planck scale. To map a coherent system onto a coherent universe, then claim that the universe is somehow a manifestation of the system, is to confuse two different categories of coherence. They are physically unrelated. They just look similar. Fortunately, the consistency and coherence of our mathematical system enables us to make testable predictions about the consistency and coherence of physical systems. There is a ‘family resemblance’ concept at work here. But they are not the same thing at all.

  6. [Subsequent post: “You didn't answer the question, my friend;)"]

    [My response]: I have answered it. I've just not answered it on the terms you've suggested ;)

    Coherence gets more ‘fuzzy’ at the quantum scale. Quantum mechanics is the most consistently accurate scientific theory ever devised. Heisenberg was dismissive of attempts to understand what was ‘physically’ going on. As far as he was concerned, all that could be claimed about quantum mechanics was that the maths worked. The uncertainty principle, and the strange interference of measurement and even consciousness on quantum level 'events'/probability waveforms, are still profoundly incomprehensible to us. As a lyricist physicist, I derive a wry satisfaction from this. Maths is designed to be ‘perfect’, yet the universe (so far) eludes perfect notation. There is, of course, no such thing as an objective system.

  7. [Subsequent post: “Great! Can't answer, so you pull the old QM card....gotta love it!"]

    [My response]: All roads lead to foam...

    Although (strictly speaking) non-sequiturs, you may find the following 'family resemblance' posts amusing when pondering some of the discrepancies between numbers and 'reality'...

    Marty Gull - Targets

    Monkey Dust - Government School Targets

  8. 'The best non-fiction, the best documentary, is presented as a narrative with all the conventions of fiction.'

    'Different kinds of truth: religion, science and fiction'
    Occam's Corner, The Guardian, Friday 31 August 2012

  9. On the 'redefinition' of God...


    Sam Harris (world famous neuroscientist philosopher) is offering his critics a chance to put up or shut up. He's offered a cash prize of $20,000 (about £12,800) to anyone who can convincingly refute his central argument for a scientific morality.

    Assuming no-one can refute him, there's a consolation prize of $2,000 (about £1,280) for the most interesting response.

    See FAQs in link for further details. Closing date for entries is 9 February 2014, so you've got time to buy his book and boost his royalties.


    Hmmm… Traditionally, science has been regarded as descriptive and morality as prescriptive. But science is also predictive. So, in Sam’s moral landscape, do good* predictions = good** prescriptions?

    * Falsifiable
    ** Beneficial

    Possibly. But if they’re truly equivalent, does it work vice versa? This leads out onto some very thin ice…

    The real question is always “Cui bono” (to whose benefit?). So I suspect that Sam’s thesis could only be refuted by reference to de facto cynicism rather than de jure principle (i.e. selectivity and performativity)


    I don’t actually want to refute Sam’s thesis (fortunately for me). I just want to qualify it (modesty is my only flaw). But, in order to qualify it, I’ll have to fail to refute it in a way that grabs his interest. So, all I’m really looking for is a fascinating aesthetic conundrum at the heart of his argument…

    See also:

    Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

    First Draft PhD Proposal

    Woolwich Threads

    A Crash Course in Aesthetics

    Metamodernist Case Notes on a Think Tank Thread: Why Us and Why Now?

    Notes on Metamodernism: The Pit and the Pendulum...

    The Name of the Ghost

    Teachers Talking Rot (1 of 2)

    Teachers Talking Rot (2 of 2)

    See also: "Perhaps description is the key?"

    Marty Solves One of the Problems of the Universe

  11. WG: If morality evolved for the purpose of fostering community, can we deduce anything about what is moral/immoral without committing the naturalistic fallacy? If so, what?

    Naturalistic fallacy

    CP: Assuming evolution (and discounting intelligent design) we would be committing a teleological fallacy if we claimed that morality evolved for any purpose.

    See Teleological Argument

    It would be less erroneous if we simply claimed that community evolved as a successful survival strategy. From this we can deduce that morality evolved from a natural hierarchical pecking order into etiquette.

    See Etiquette

    The problem of the 'Naturalistic Fallacy' arises because of a manmade distinction between natural and manmade.

    This distinction seems to be an inverted form of the anthropomorphic/pathetic fallacy.

    See Pathetic Fallacy

    Man (i.e. homo sapiens) evolved IN the natural world. However, our intelligence evolved as another successful survival strategy. Eventually, this sapient differential resulted in misrecognition. We began to see ourselves as SEPARATE from the natural world.

    However, this separation is a fallacy. In (physical) reality, sentience is an emergent phenomenon. The artificial is still part of the natural world.

    From our initial premises, we can deduce that morality (i.e. evolved etiquette) can only exist in higher level consciousness. Therefore, we can deduce that morality is a complex emergent property.

    After that, we can only deduce that we are playing Wittgensteinian language games.

    See Language-game (philosophy)

    In 'The Moral Landscape', Sam Harris proposes we should discard cultural relativism and quantify these language games in terms of 'the well-being of conscious creatures'. It's a logical deduction and a valid premise.

    See 'The Moral Landscape'

    Whether his arguments are sound is still up for grabs though.


    CP: If morality is ‘the well-being of conscious creatures’, then consciousness must precede well-being.

    This is a one-way logic gate. We can talk of consciousness without well-being, but it makes no sense to talk of well-being without consciousness.

    Ergo, existence must precede essence (sans Sartrean Free Will).

    Ergo, survival must precede morality.

    But survival of what? Individuals, communities, genes, or memes?

    These qualities are entangled and interdependent. But which is most important?

    Ironically, we cannot be equitable from first principle here. Unfortunately, we do not live in a deathless paradise. Therefore, in the physical universe, we can only talk of survival and morality in terms of priorities (e.g. dilemmas or conflicts of interest).

    The scientific method can quantify well-being. But can it qualify existential priorities? If not, then a scientific morality without aesthetic qualification has no system of prioritization.

    Ergo, does ‘scientific morality’ encounter similar inconsistencies to those identified in Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems?

    Raatikainen, Panu, "Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)