Letter to Vox Day VIII

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 11, 2010 in Letters

Vox Day is a Christian blogger and author of The Irrational Atheist. We have agreed to a friendly dialogue about the reasons for our beliefs, though we’ll try to avoid regurgitating all the usual arguments for and against the existence of God. See our previous letters.

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Vox,

I’m glad you’re working with me to establish some criteria for “good explanations” before we start proposing good explanations for S:

(S) Humans often take pleasure in the involuntary and undeserved suffering of others.

It amuses me that even though we are now discussing philosophical technicalities for a bit, our readers still manage to find a way to hurl insults at whichever one of us they see as the “opponent.”

I suspect your training in philosophy or economics helps you to see the importance of our “philosophical spade work.” For example, to determine whether or not the United States is in a recession, it matters very much how we define the term “recession.” Likewise, to determine what is a good explanation of S, it matters very much how we define the term “good explanation.”

I said that one model of explanation says that x is a good explanation of y if x is a potential explanation of y, and if:

x possesses the following explanatory virtues to a greater degree than any other known potential explanations of y: testability, consistency with background knowledge, past explanatory success, simplicity, ontological economy, informativeness, predictive novelty, explanatory scope, and explanatory power.

You replied that “some of the virtues cause you to artificially limit the investigation of the unknown.” In particular, you think that testability, consistency with background knowledge, fitting within a tradition of past success, simplicity, and ontological economy are not useful criteria for finding a good explanation.

You do, however, see value in explanatory power, informativeness, predictive novelty, and explanatory scope. Like me, you would give explanatory power less priority than the other three.

I don’t need to keep all of my proposed explanatory virtues. Nobody has an ‘authoritative list’ of explanatory virtues. But allow me explain why I think the explanatory virtues you reject are more valuable than you seem to think. Then perhaps you can either come to agree with me or explain why you think I am wrong.

Explanatory virtues

I wrote earlier that philosophers themselves are divided over how to give a good account of explanation, and many are pessimistic that a good account can be given. Neither of us has the time to offer a thorough defense of explanationism or any other account of explanation. Even those who take an explanationist approach will argue over which explanatory virtues to use – or as philosophers say, they will argue over the desiderata. But hopefully we can settle on something that will work well enough for our purposes here, since the main reason you are a Christian is that you think Christianity offers a good explanation of evil, and one of the main reasons I am an atheist is that I think Christianity offers a terrible explanation of evil. (We have chosen to focus our debate over which worldview offers the best explanation of a particular kind of evil: the fact that “Humans often take pleasure in the involuntary and undeserved suffering of others.”)

My list of explanatory virtues was not meant to be a list of necessary or sufficient conditions, but rather a list of highly desirable conditions. What I mean is that a good explanation need not possess all the explanatory virtues, but the more virtues it has in greater degree, the more likely it is to be the best explanation.

Your rejections

Here, then, are your rejected criteria:

The problem with [your] definition by explanatory virtue is that some of the virtues cause you to artificially limit the investigation of the unknown by handcuffing it to the parameters of that which is presumed to be known. This all but guarantees systematic errors based on incorrect assumptions of the past. While it would certainly be ideal for a good explanatory hypothesis to be testable, but that is simply not possible in all cases. It therefore sets an artificial and incorrect technological limit on the process; for example, the x-ray hypothesis was correct regardless of whether it was possible to test for them.

Consistency with background knowledge is irrelevant. Fitting within a tradition of past success is similarly irrelevant. Simplicity is irrelevant too. This is philosophy, not interior design. Ontological economy begs the question of what is “necessary”; Occam’s Razor is a shortcut, not a reliable rule. On the other hand, informativeness is correct, predictive novelty is both applicable and useful, and explanatory scope and power are reasonable. I would give priority to informativeness, explanatory scope, and predictive novelty.

You say that a criterion like testability can “artifically limit” our ability to offer certain explanations. But of course. This is the entire point of having criteria. Without criteria, any old theory could be a ‘best explanation.’ Without criteria, we might as well explain gravitation with reference to “invisible gremlins living in every quark and lepton, and their affection for each other.”

The problem with the Gremlin Theory of gravity illustrates our need for the criteria I suggested – criteria that have been extremely successful in producing probable explanations that genuinely increase our knowledge in ways that allow us to create airplanes and vaccines and atom bombs.

Now, I must confess I’m puzzled by your choice of criteria to accept or reject. For example, you accept informativeness and reject testability. But to most philosophers, the whole point of informativeness is to allow for testability! As I defined it earlier, informativeness refers to a theory’s capacity to allow us to deduce the precise details of its effects. But what use are specific predictions if we cannot test them against reality?

Another puzzler is your acceptance of predictive novelty, given your rejection of testability. Predictive novelty refers to a theory’s capacity to predict not just known facts, but previously unknown facts. But again: what good is predictive novelty if we cannot test these novel predictions against reality?

You also say consistency with background knowledge is irrelevant, but I don’t see why. Surely we want a theory that generally fits with what we already know. One problem with the Gremlin Theory of gravity is that it doesn’t fit with many things we do know – for example that thought and attraction seem to depend on complex neuronal processes. Or, another example: One problem with a theory that mammals evolved before fish is that it doesn’t fit with millions and millions of pieces of evidence in the fossil and genetic records.

I also think that fitting within a tradition of past success is a useful criterion, but since I think it is one of the least useful, I will simply drop it for the sake of space in our conversation.

Almost as shocking as your rejection of testability as a criterion for explanation selection is your rejection of both simplicity and ontological economy as useful criteria. For most theistic philosophers engaged in offering “God did it” as the best explanation for certain features of this world, simplicity and ontological economy are considered preeminent among criteria for explanation selection. See, for example, Richard Swinburne’s Simplicity as Evidence of Truth.

Because you shockingly reject what most explanationist philosophers would consider to be the most important explanatory virtues, I suspect I may be misunderstanding you. I look forward to your clarifications. I am hoping we can find enough common ground to move forward, though perhaps here is where we diverge. If we diverge on this more fundamental point, it will do us little use to argue over points for which our divergence can be explained by this higher-order disagreement.

Cheers,

Luke

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Ryan March 11, 2010 at 7:38 am

I’ll be honest: I think Vox is an arrogant wannabe rebel who does not understand any of the proper tools fro reasoning about metaphysics, ethics, politics, or anything else, for that matter.

He thrives off of being obscure towards you in such a way that will leave you confused but will have his biggest fans thinking that he has raised significant points that you can’t refute.

He believes that he is some kind of genius. In reality, he is nothing. He can’t even write about atheism without straw-manning his intellectual betters like Dawkins and Dennett.

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Hermes March 11, 2010 at 7:55 am

I doubt that there will be an agreement on basic terms. The subject matter involves literature (and literary criticism) as a means of spreading social ideas from an ancient culture. It is not an impartial investigation of reality in an effort to reach a mutual understanding of reality, but instead to change how people think and act based on the literature.

The discussion may be happening using philosophical terms, but philosophy doesn’t function very well to investigate literature unless the literature is a highly philosophical work, and even then there are liberties that are allowed in literature but not in philosophy. Deus ex machina, anyone?

Reality isn’t a benchmark appropriate to the subject. The elephant in the room is that this is not the case and that the subject has something to do with reality.

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Erika March 11, 2010 at 9:18 am

Luke, I agree with your assessment that given Vox’s acceptance of informativeness and predictive novelty seems odd given his rejection if testability. It made me wonder if he means something different by testability than you meant. Which made me realize that I do not actually understand what you mean by testability that is not already covered by informativeness and predictive novelty.

For example, testability could mean comparing the informativeness and predictive novelty of an explanation against reality, in which case it seems difficult to reject for one who accepts the first two attributes. Or it could mean that we are able to test the theory now, which I would also consider artificially limiting. Or it could mean something else completely.

Could you clarify what you mean by the term? (And I apologize if an earlier letter did cover this.)

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Rhys Wilkins March 11, 2010 at 1:42 pm

One dimly suspects Vox may have rejected several of the desiderata for the sole purpose of rescuing his theory from the murky depths of philosophical annihilation.

Vox is a smart guy, he knows that his explanation crumbles under the traditional set of desiderata, hence he has no choice but to jettison most of them outright to save face.

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Rhys Wilkins March 11, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Ryan,

I think Vox is a genius, it says on Wikipedia that he is a member of MENSA.

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Silver Bullet March 11, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Luke,

You are a gentleman and a scholar.

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lukeprog March 11, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Silver Bullet,

Heh. Thanks.

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lukeprog March 11, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Erika,

By ‘testability’ I roughly mean falsifiability. Good question.

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Tony Hoffman March 11, 2010 at 5:19 pm

A very successful businessman told me once that after years of trying to pull it off he had to finally conclude that “you can’t do a good deal with bad people.” No matter how attractive the outcome would be, no matter how well constructed your contract, if the other party doesn’t share your basic interests, then all your efforts and protection will be for naught. At some point, I think this conversation will be exposed as having the same inherent flaws; it appears that Vox does not want his epistemology investigated and exposed, he wants his authority recognized. Best of luck to you both, but I just dont’ see this one working out.

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Hermes March 11, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Tony, exactly. The phrase I’ve used is something like ‘A good contract will not save you from unreasonable people with bad intentions.’

I’ve found some of the bad players actually relish screwing up a project just so that they can come in and ‘save it’. Those people deserve unending disdain.

The contracts are still critical as they keep expectations in check if the crazy people start screwing with things by showing up or forcing good people out of the picture.

Oh, yeah, and don’t be that bad actor!

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Timothy Mills March 12, 2010 at 2:35 am

It is easy to despair in the face of Vox’s tone and lack of clarity. I have to say, though, having listened to several episodes of the podcast, that you (Luke) are the best person to engage in such a dialogue. You are excellent at maintaining a civil tone, and responding in a calm, intelligent, and balanced manner to a range of arguments, from the reasonable to the bizarre.

Keep it up. I look forward to seeing how this discussion develops.

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Beelzebub March 12, 2010 at 4:03 am

The reason to accept informativeness and predictive ability and reject testability is simple: Christianity as a real-world paradigm excels at informativeness and prediction and fails utterly as a testable belief system. People are bad–rotten in fact–punctuated by periods and instances of charity and goodness. A fallen world, filled with conflicting good and evil forces engaged in relentless theomachy in the skies above, here on earth and hell below is a compelling ad hoc story honed by theological refinement and centuries of scrutiny (script doctoring). It is a superficially convincing, utterly fantastic fiction that will never be exposed unless the whole litany of bogosity is put to real tests. This the theist is loath to do. You can’t blame Vox for wanting to avoid it; even Superman had Kryptonite.

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Beelzebub March 12, 2010 at 4:15 am

In other words, if you can’t actually test shit out, scientific naturalism is toast — almost by definition. And don’t be misled by the X-ray thing. Science routinely poses placeholders in lieu of confirmation. BUT ONLY IF THEY’RE CONFIRMED EVENTUALLY. This is one thing science ignoramuses don’t get. If dark matter or dark energy are never confirmed, the theory will be scrapped. If Vox want the same allowance, fine — as him for a timeline tho.

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Ryan March 12, 2010 at 7:02 am

I wish little Theodore (Vox’s real name) realized that explanatory scope is derivable from simplicity, and vice versa. If the number of facts that a theory explains counts as marks in its favor (so to speak), then it follows that a few theories which each explain many facts is preferable to many theories that explain only a few facts each. It follows us that the minimal number of assumptions (or theories, or hypotheses, or explanatory entities) is to be preferred.

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lukeprog March 12, 2010 at 8:14 am

Tony Hoffman,

Why do you assume Vox has nefarious reasons for his choices of explanationist desiderata? It’s not like explanationism is a well-defined science…

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Hermes March 12, 2010 at 8:19 am

Beelzebub: In other words, if you can’t actually test shit out, scientific naturalism is toast — almost by definition.

That’s why I don’t defend science or naturalism when I talk to Christians.

* First off, neither category needs a defense. If either are correct — if they align with reality — then they will show that they have merit without me lifting a finger. As that has been demonstrated to a staggering degree, it would be a stunningly amazing thing [raises left eyebrow] to argue that either one or the other or both are incorrect.

Yet, I’m not dogmatic about even that. If someone can demonstrate as a separate issue that those categories aren’t valid descriptions of reality, then they can do it. Nobody does, except Christian apologists, and the apologists have an entirely different goal from understanding reality better; they think by discrediting chocolate ice cream that there will only be vanilla and that everyone will forget that any non-vanilla ice cream is even possible. This type of argument only wastes everyone’s time.

* Second, when Christian apologists bring those subjects up (and often materialism as well) they have already decided that ‘there is something else’ not that science is invalid or that nature doesn’t exist or that if they jump in a lava pit they won’t get hurt.

* Third, the ‘something else’ they want to argue for both contradicts reality and has no positive support for it in reality. If it did, they would be able to show what they mean impartially without having to resort to religious texts. Since they can’t, they’re left with asserting they know what they can’t demonstrate to non-Christians.

Yet, in the end by taking this approach of fighting the ocean, what they have actually done is to tacitly admit that they have lost the argument for the ‘something else’ that they advocate even before they start.

As such, to give them a chance at getting to the positive support they might actually have, I immediately move on and ask them for it. At times I’ve found it necessary to kept it brutal and blunt: “So, you’ve got nothing?”

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Tony Hoffman March 12, 2010 at 9:00 am

Luke,

I used the term “bad” in my quotation because I wanted to keep my quotation accurate; I realize this cast Vox in too dark a light, but I tried to straighten that out in my explication — that the problem isn’t that Vox is a bad person, but that (in a similar way) you are obviously at cross purposes in your dialogue. I would say that your positions are more similar to a prosecutor and defense lawyer than they are to two parties in a Socratic dialogue, and that this dooms the product.

I am unabashed in admitting my anti-religious bigotry here, btw. I would say that the apologist inevitably appears to me to be rationalizing a belief that would be too embarrassing or difficult for them to disavow – they have already spent (wasted) substantial intellectual resources, made public pronouncements, gained friends, power, influence, etc., as a result of the beliefs they defend. The skeptic, on the other hand, has nothing commensurate to lose by changing his mind — ignorance is an easily correctable state, eternal life is the great reward, and our community rewards those who support the pretense. (The benefit of the doubt is even greater in your favor, given your background and your apparently diligent (if sometime a tad self-congratulatory) application of philosophical principles even when they lead you to reconsider and alter views that still hold dear.)

Vox can change his mind and surprise me, there’s always that chance. But I don’t think it’s necessary to pretend that I believe you are both approaching the question with the same philosophical detachment.

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Lee A.P. March 12, 2010 at 10:36 am

I’ve actually begun to enjoy Vox Day. I take him to be an extreme caricature overlapping many various stereotypes that one generally does not see overlap.

Super computer nerd/video game geek boy

Extremist fundamentalist Christian cock-boy

Libertarian political-guy

Supreme alpha male chauvinist pick up artist guy (I once read him comment “Girls like guys like me and Tucker Max because….” LMAO)

I am not being sarcastic either. That motherfucker is a hoot!

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Beelzebub March 12, 2010 at 11:32 am

Lee A.P.
Exactly my view. VD and his site are like crack to tard addicts like me.

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Vox Teleos March 12, 2010 at 3:54 pm

TIA is a hoot, too. At one point, his significant other leans over to him in a church pew and draws parallels between apologizing for her Viking ancestry and the pastor apologizing for the history of slavery in the US. It is the kind of puerile reactive polemic that you expect Coulter or Glenn Beck to engage in, but is written with greater lucidity than either of them could muster.

By the end of TIA I started to imagine that there was a certain sociopathy in the way VD regards people and life, as if we are in God’s video game trying to get to the next level, and using each other for scoring points. As for obscurantism, he has the possibility of inventing a less rational and more romantic language to carry forward his vision, but that would mean abandoning the invective and zooming in on a thesis that isn’t just snarling.

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Atown March 12, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Luke,

Use more italics next time. It will make your letters easier for us unintelligent people to understand.

Thanks!

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lukeprog March 13, 2010 at 5:06 am

Atown,

Are my italics annoying?

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Dave March 13, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Theodore Beale is a true narcissist who depends on people of lesser intellect to worship his every argument, the self supporting deception of religion and the influence it wields, because his role as a religious writer and self appointed blog icon depends on his deceptions, particularly his delusional “superlative intellectual accomplishments… demolishing the central New Atheist arguments.”

Personally, I can claim the high ground over Beale and atheists because, although I lean atheist, I am not. I am a pragmatist/realist/agnostic who is open minded to evidence to support contentions. I have examined the evidence for christianity and I reject it as noble fable. Not to say I disrespect christians or their rights to believe. However, I am prejudiced somewhat against those who believe in the supernatural with absolute certainty, although I also have an open mind to accept evidence thereof. I simply find the tenets of Beale self serving, and religious divinity unsupported by evidence and highly improbable.

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Dave March 13, 2010 at 2:28 pm

And… I know this is old news but….

I suggest followers of Theodore Beale aka Vox Day, get to know him a little better. Born into wealth, the son of Federal Tax fugitive and World Net Daily former board member, Robert Beale. His Christian values did nothing to prevent him from setting up shell companies to shield his income, and he didn’t feel the need to file tax returns from 2000-2004, despite making over $5.6 million in personal income during that period.

Both Vox Day and his dad have fled the country.

Now you know how he got the gig at WND.

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RKL March 14, 2010 at 2:57 am

Just passing through from Vox’s site and I couldn’t let this one go:

Dave: Born into wealth, the son of Federal Tax fugitive and World Net Daily former board member, Robert Beale.His Christian values did nothing to prevent him from setting up shell companies to shield his income, and he didn’t feel the need to file tax returns from 2000-2004, despite making over $5.6 million in personal income during that period.Both Vox Day and his dad have fled thecountry.Now you know how he got the gig at WND.  

You seem to be under the impression that any libertarian in their right mind would see these as bad things. You’ve just described him as some kind of libertarian folk hero, for god’s sake! What will you tell us next, his real real-name is John Galt? Dunh Dunh Dunh!

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Tony Hoffman March 14, 2010 at 1:45 pm

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

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Hermes March 14, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Tony Hoffman: “… The other, of course, involves orcs.”

:-)

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Dave March 15, 2010 at 10:40 am

I wonder why scientists would waste their time debating someone like Beale. Theo is an individual who craves approval, quite possibly a full blown or borderline narcissistic personality disorder, or just plain conceited. He is a pseudo intellectual who has a personal and financial stake in the religious industry, although he was born the son of a millionaire tax fugitive, he probably doesn’t need the money. He wants something greater. What he craves is worship and reverence among his minions. Anyone who describes himself as a genius and believes he can stand toe to toe with a Phd biologist or physicist – a guy who doesn’t even have a graduate degree, is clearly delusional.

PZ Myers put it best:
“Not surprising, though; Theodore Beale aka Vox Day is a notorious loon, well known for making the most absurd claims as if they were just ordinary common sense.”

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2008/03/08/ignorance-is-blitz/

I posted this comment on his blog, it’ll be deleted for sure.

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Beelzebub March 15, 2010 at 2:37 pm

As far as I know Robert Beale did not flee the country. He was in the process of doing so but was caught in Florida, I believe. He’s now serving a sentence of over 10 years in federal prison.

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Lee A.P. March 16, 2010 at 4:45 pm

RKL: Just passing through from Vox’s site and I couldn’t let this one go:
You seem to be under the impression that any libertarian in their right mind would see these as bad things. You’ve just described him as some kind of libertarian folk hero, for god’s sake! What will you tell us next, his real real-name is John Galt? Dunh Dunh Dunh!  

The “hero” sounds a lot like a man who made a horrible mistake.

“The hardest part is thinking about family and friends on the outside,” said Beale, 64. “Emotionally, it’s horrible …”

Beale said: “In hindsight, I believe I was not wise. I’m sorry I even took this mission. … I was very naive.”

http://www.startribune.com/local/north/12916286.html

Hmmm naive. Like Father. Like son.

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