Monday, April 21, 2008

Two-sentence refutations of profoundly influential ideas

Continuing with Bertrand Russell's chapter on Descartes in The History of Western Philosophy, and also moving on to the other great rationalists Spinoza and Leibniz...

As the heading says, I've been looking for two-sentence refutations of profoundly influential ideas. This little project stems from my visceral revulsion at the debate trick in which people -- not in everyday conversation, but professors or other public experts -- respond to ideas they disagree with by saying, "Well, the problems with that are well-known, but there's no time to explain all that now." No! If you think that some position that's on the table is seriously mistaken, you should want to convince people of this as efficiently as possible. If you can't explain it right now, you can't expect anyone to believe you based on those mysterious arguments behind the curtain.

Russell is really good at avoiding this problem; here are three of his two-sentence refutations:

1. Refutation of Descartes's famous "I think; therefore, I am" argument:
The word 'I' is really illegitimate; he ought to state his ultimate premise in the form 'there are thoughts.' The word 'I' is grammatically convenient but does not describe a datum.
(This is a well-worn objection. Russell may have been cribbing from William James, who wrote that we should say, in the third person, "It's thinking," just as we say, "It's raining," so that we don't make Descartes's mistake!)

2. Refutation of Spinoza's theory* that your misfortunes only seem bad from your self-centered perspective, but cease to be problematic when seen as part of the universe as a whole:
I cannot accept this; I think that particular events are what they are, and do not become different by absorption into a whole. Each act of cruelty is eternally a part of the universe; nothing that happens later can make that act good rather than bad, or can confer perfection on the whole of which it is a part.

Refutation of Leibniz's we-live-in-the-best-of-all-possible-worlds argument based on free will:
A Manichaean might retort that this is the worst of all possible worlds, in which the good things that exist serve only to heighten the evils. The world, he might say, was created by a wicked demiurge, who allowed free will, which is good, in order to make sure of sin, which is bad, and of which the evil outweighs the good of free will.
Since those two sentences give you the gist of the argument, I don't think it'd be breaking my two-sentence limit to add his next sentence as elaboration:
The demiurge, he might continue, created some virtuous men, in order that they might be punished by the wicked; for the punishment of the virtuous is so great an evil that it makes the world worse than if no good men existed.
Back to refutation #2 (cruel acts aren't transformed into good by being absorbed into the whole universe): I absolutely agree with this, and I hope it shapes my worldview. It's probably a big part of why I'm so indifferent to religion.

I do not take the view, which many secularists take, that cruelty and suffering are just there and don't have any larger meaning in the grand scheme of things. I don't have any more interest in an "It's all meaningless" view than in an "It's all for the best" view. What I think is that even if there's some sort of cosmic significance to everything in the world, the suffering is still there, and you can't rationalize it away. The fact that X hurts someone is, on the face of it, a reason to conclude: X is bad.

This explains the overwhelming instinct, cutting across political lines, that torture is just wrong, period. Even those who argue for an exception to society's general "don't torture people" rule tend to rely on scenarios where the suffering caused by torture is far outweighed by preventing others from suffering. This still implies that suffering itself is the basic unit that we're looking at in making moral assessments: we want the least possible of it! So people are quibbling over a very narrow exception -- maybe an important exception, but not one that calls into question the fundamental "torture is bad" consensus.

And so, no one takes the position: "Hey, go ahead and torture as much as you like! What, does that make you queasy? Don't worry! It's sure to be a net plus in the end -- it'll be a learning experience, or it will be a ringing affirmation of our own free will, or something." Well ... no one applies this to human beings. But it's regularly applied to God. The fact that God is held to lower moral standards than humans are is ... interesting.

Turning to #3 from the list: It's a commonplace to ridicule Leibniz's theory that God has ensured that we live in "the best of all possible worlds." I mean, Voltaire made fun of it in his novel Candide, so it must be wrong. I have the sense that people will balk at the "best of all possible worlds" idea when phrased like that, but if you phrase it more gently, e.g. "Everything works out for the best," it's still hugely influential.

OK, so the above Leibniz and Spinoza theories are closely related. You could group both of them under "It's all for the best." That's the basic thrust. Well, there's one oddity about this kind of outlook that I don't understand:

If it is true that suffering is justified in the long run by our ability to learn from it, or because this follows from our having free will (since free will, which is a precondition for virtue, entails the freedom to hurt people) ... and if you don't believe that animals operate at such a sophisticated level ... then doesn't this mean that the uniquely human ability to remember and reflect on pain weighs in favor of treating animal pain as more of a cause for concern than human pain?

Sorry to cram so much into one sentence there. But you see what I'm getting at, right?

In just about any debate over the moral status of animals that I've ever seen, a key point is always: "Well, how about the capacity to feel pain? Isn't that morally significant, and don't we share it with animals?"

The response is then going to be: "Hold on, there's a big distinction between humans and animals. We might all -- humans and animals -- be able to feel the initial stabs of pain. But only humans can intellectually reflect on that experience later on."

Well, that really seems to mitigate the suffering of humans. Meanwhile, animals are left merely having suffered without gaining anything from it.

That's all disingenuous for me to say! Because I don't necessarily accept those premises. As I said, I don't believe in justifying human suffering through cosmic mitigating factors. I'm just saying that if you do, you should follow your view to its logical consequences.

At the risk of loading the issue: if Anne Frank's poignant conviction in the underlying goodness of humanity can somehow mitigate the horror of the Holocaust, then that should decrease our concern for the mass killing of humans relative to the mass killing of animals. Of course, other factors might still support caring more about humans than animals. But to the extent that you rely on Spinoza/Leibniz-style justifications of human suffering, this weighs on the other side of the scale.

As always, please explain in the comments if I've gone horribly wrong in my thinking here.

* In my "modern philosophy" course in college, we enjoyed the part where we got to Spinoza and all of the sudden it became like we were studying a self-help book. [back]


Ann Althouse said...

Excellent. I love the 2 sentence idea, though i think it gives the advantage to writers of long sentences. A preference for semi-colons would give one writer an advantage. But fortunately, Russell's sentences are very solid and not elongated artificially.

"Sorry to cram so much into one sentence there..."


Good points about learning from suffering and animals. It made me think of 3 other examples.

1. Torturing a severely mentally retarded person.

2. Torturing a child.

3. Torturing someone to death.

1 and 3 are missing the opportunity to profit from the experience. 2 offers a greater opportunity.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Yeah, I thought the semicolons in Russell's refutations might raise some eyebrows. For the purposes of the two-sentence rule, one appropriate semicolon per sentence is allowed.

Your examples only lack the opportunity for learning if you're limiting it to the victim, but that's exactly what Spinoza wanted to avoid. There's also the background value of the fact that we have free will (which can justify anything since it's so diffuse).

Stephen J. said...

Here's a two-sentence refutation of the "cruel acts do not become good when seen from a larger perspective" thesis:

"Everyone in existence has, during childhood, suffered at least one punishment from their parents which to them at the time seemed utterly pointless, excessive, nonsensical or even cruel; yet that does not prove the punishment was in fact pointless, nonsensical, excessive or cruel, only that a selfish and subjective viewpoint thought it so.

"Given that children who never get punished for anything tend to turn out to be far worse human beings than their peers, assessing someone's perception of 'cruelty' with regard to their own suffering usually merits at least a few more grains of salt than the sentimentally empathetic among us are inclined to use."

John Althouse Cohen said...

Stephen: You could certainly imagine a world where all misfortunes were parceled out to people in accordance with what they deserved. But that's not quite what the world is really like, is it? (2-sentence refutation)

Yet another case where God is held to a lower standard than human beings.