Sunday, May 31, 2009

AtF: Inconceivable!

We enter in to yet another failure of reason on the part of Cooper. I know. You didn’t think that was possible. Yet here we are.
One of those arguments concerned the trustworthiness or otherwise of the senses when it comes to deducing the validity of evidence from design. How, for example, can we be sure that we interpret that evidence correctly through our senses?
Now, as much as I’d like to handle both halves of this thought together, one doesn’t actually follow from the other at all. The former idea doesn’t even lead to the latter. We cannot be sure that the evidence we receive through our senses is correct. Humans are simply too limited in their faculties, too arbitrary in their judgments, and too prone to variance from one person to the next. I may well be able to say that one thing is hotter than another, but I need a thermometer to tell me how much variance there is. And I’m sure we’ve all been in the situation where two people are in the same room and one is complaining about how hot it is while the other is reaching for a sweater. This is why we have scientific instruments. This is why we have systems of measurement. This is why we’re taught not to trust our senses in situations where we need rigorous methodology because our senses will fail us. It then follows that if we can’t trust our senses, we can’t be sure that we interpret the evidence we gather through our senses. This is why Cooper’s thoughts do not follow each other in a logical way. He’s asking us to be sure that we can interpret evidence of the validity of design when it is by following the scientific process that we realize that design is, in fact, not evident. This is why we had prominent creationist dentist Don McLeroy trying to get confirmed to the Texas School Board by informing everyone that somebody has to stand up to the experts. Scientists are experts and we should listen to them primarily because they are experts. Those who tout creationism want us to look at the world without the burden of knowledge or expertise so they can say, “Look, how can that possibly come about by chance? It must be designed,” and we will nod in agreement because it sure looks that way to the untrained eye and we’ll all be significantly dumber for the experience. Either way, Cooper then takes a shot at Lucretius. So I guess we can add him to the stable of philosophers our author neither understands nor correctly interprets.
This, for the Stoic, was the fatal weakness in the Epicurean argument which, as Lucretius stated it, runs: The nature of phenomena cannot be understood by the eyes. Lucretius said this not because he believed the eyes themselves to be at fault, but because it was a failing of the mind to perceive things correctly or accurately through the senses. In fairness to Lucretius, he did go on to qualify this statement, recognising that this dictum, though it appeared to answer the creationist on a philosophical level, could not usefully be translated into everyday experience, for: (24) "This is to attack belief at its very roots--to tear up the entire foundation on which the maintenance of life is built. If you did not dare trust your senses so as to keep clear of precipices and other such things to be avoided and make for their opposites, there would be a speedy end to life itself." (25)
Okay, does anybody but me see what Cooper did there? What? I’m the only one reading along? Damn. We have two different citations here. Both are from a Penguin Classics edition of Lucretius’s On the Nature of the Universe. The first part of the citation, given up until the (24) apparently comes four pages before the second part of the citation. So unless Penguin has taken to adding commercial interruptions to the middle of their books, something is missing. What that something is, I don’t know. Moreover, this isn’t a simple ellipsis that ignores a few words or a sentence. This is a completely unacknowledged (in text) jump of four pages. Further, I’m pretty sure that even though Cooper claims Lucretius is the one making the statement, the first part of that quote comes from the writer/editor/translator/whatever of the Penguin Classics book in question. Something about how Lucretius is referred to by name tells me that. I’m also not entirely convinced that the second part of the quote actually comes from Lucretius, either. It smacks of third-party commentary to me. But on this one I can’t actually say. I’m generally pretty good at divining the meaning of Cooper’s useless citations save this situation. But, hey, if you want to try to find it, be my guest. Anyway, Cooper goes on:
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[…]was to cut no ice at all with the Stoic Cicero. It smacked too much of that special pleading for which Cicero, as an advocate in law, had little patience. For if our reasoning powers could be trusted to interpret what our senses were telling us on a day to day basis when it came to such vital matters as personal safety and survival, then they could surely be trusted to interpret less vital phenomena such as evidence from design in the universe around us, which spoke so eloquently and forcefully of the universe having been created by an infinite and omnipotent intelligence. As a creationist, the Stoic Cicero simply could not appreciate the Epicurean viewpoint of Lucretius:
Except this is absolutely, completely, and utterly wrong and it’s why we have to suffer the Don McLeroys of the world. Yes, I can trust my senses and my reasoning to get me through the day. But my senses also tell me that there are connections in phenomena that simply do not exist. This is why faith is an almost entirely unreasonable activity in which to engage. I cannot tell you how many times I had conversations back in my church days that hinged on god having revealed some tiny part of the big, cosmic plan through something entirely random. There would be people who said that they couldn’t find their socks, so they left the house thirty seconds later and because of that just narrowly avoided being in a bad car accident. Therefore god hid their socks from them to save them from a car accident. First off, it’s really too fucking bad god didn’t bother to hide footwear from the poor people who were in a car accident. Second, it’s really fucking selfish to say that god didn’t want ME to get in an accident but was perfectly okay letting someone else get in one. Third, chances are that if the person in question couldn’t find socks today, they probably couldn’t find them on other days, either, and simply only remembered this one incident because of the whole car accident thing. This is why we can’t trust our senses. We put too much emphasis on certain things and ignore others. We pick and choose our sense data in order to serve our own story about how the universe does or should work. We, in short, find evidence of design in everything because we reject the information that refutes design. This is exactly what Cooper is doing. He’s cherry-picking favorable quotes from those he imagines are his allies and cherry-picking negative quotes from those he imagines are his enemies. In truth I’m pretty sure that Zeno, Chrysippus, and Cicero would be just as likely as Epicurus and Lucretius to wipe the floor with Cooper in a philosophical debate. Stoicism is many things, but literalist Christianity is not on the list. Believe me, the tendency to quote-mine favorable phrases is not limited to deluded writers of stupid books. This is why we’re constantly forced to be on guard against the Christian nation crowd. They’d love us to believe that Adams, Washington, and Jefferson were actually closet fundies. If you think that I’m going out on a limb by drawing that parallel remember that there is a wide swath of the Christian religion that believes it is the only answer to all the world’s problems and that it has been that way since before it existed. It’s a delusional, megalomaniacal belief system. This isn’t to say that all Christians are that way, but that there is a subset that most definitely is. They pop up on a fairly regular basis and make things miserable for everyone, including Christians who don’t quite believe the same things they do. Anyway, here’s the Cicero quote Cooper uses to confront Lucretius (note the ellipses):
In the heavens there is nothing accidental, nothing arbitrary, nothing out of order, nothing erratic. Everywhere is order, truth, reason, constancy ...I cannot understand this regularity in the stars, this harmony of time and motion in their various orbits through all eternity, except as the expression of reason, mind and purpose ...Their constant and eternal motion, wonderful and mysterious in its regularity, declares the indwelling power of a divine intelligence. If any man cannot feel the power of God when he looks upon the stars, then I doubt whether he is capable of any feeling.
And the following commentary:
To Cicero's mind, it was the greatest irony that a thinker like Lucretius who bleated most about his unshakeable faith in the innate powers of matter to create itself and arrange itself into a meaningful and purposeful order without any outside aid or influence, found himself unable to trust that same matter when it came to perceiving or even explaining this fact!
But that’s the thing. We can’t trust ourselves to properly perceive or explain the nature of the universe. That’s why we have science. Without rational, measurable ways of examining our world and replicable ways of recording those observations we’re left with nothing but superstition. Y’know, like superstition and saying the world was created out of nothing based on a two-thousand and something year-old book. We wouldn’t want that now, would we?


PersonalFailure said...

Beyond that, we can't really trust ourselves entirely for safety and getting through the day- look at all the idiots that kill themselves in spectacularly bizarre ways. Clearly they couldn't be trusted with their own safety.

jessa said...

I'll have to look for this when I get home, but I'm pretty sure I have that Penguin edition of "On the nature of the universe".

To be honest, your critique of Cooper here is nearly as hard to follow as Cooper himself. I found it easier to follow what you were saying be reading the Cooper all together and then rereading what you had to say about his arguments. Maybe it was all the tangents or the fact that Cooper was especially bad here.

Cooper here is making an assumption that seems common in Evangelical Christianity: if you just look around you, you will be forced to conclude: God. I'm not sure where this idea originated or how anyone purports to defend it. They usually end up having to defend why people don't make the God conclusion or make stuff up and argue that people actually do make the God conclusion, but are fuzzy on the details. It seems like Cooper has definitely done the "they see God but they are fuzzy on the details" thing for Cicero and some others.

Now he is working on defending why Lucretius didn't make the God conclusion. Well, not so much defending why he didn't make that conclusion, but ridiculing him for not making it. He uses Cicero to back him up, saying "Cicero got it! So why couldn't Lucretius?" He brings up Lucretius' reluctance to trust his senses, and when Lucretius admits he must rely on his senses to some degree, Cooper pounces and says that if Lucretius is at all willing to rely on his sensory perception, he should be willing to make the God conclusion. As though the God conclusion is THE most evident, more evident even than seeing a precipice and concluding that it would be a good thing to avoid. I guess if that was actually true, this would be an okay argument, but it isn't. Cooper has made an assumption, but it doesn't sound like he ever mentioned it or tried to defend it.

Geds said...


If it makes you feel any better, this was - by far - the hardest section for me to figure out. It really didn't help that I simply could not find out what Lucretius actually said.

I really don't feel that my surrounding points were tangents, however. The overall point is that science has borne out the intelligence of the claims of Cooper's (straw?) Lucretius. Continuing to rely wholly on senses limits our ability to grow in knowledge and forces us to remain enslaved to the superstitious nonsense that comes from our own minds.

jessa said...

I hate Cooper right now. You sure were right about his citations being useless. I looked at the citations for the Lucretius, and there are at least 3 different editions that fit the "citation" he gave. I have one of them, but the page numbers don't match, so it probably isn't the one he used.

I found the actual quote from Lucretius, it might smack of third-party commentary because it is a prose translation of a work written as poetry. Anyway, here it is from the web translation, though starting a bit earlier to keep the sentences intact:

"And if the reason be
Unable to unravel us the cause
Why objects, which at hand were square, afar
Seemed rounded, yet it more availeth us,
Lacking the reason, to pretend a cause
For each configuration, than to let
From out our hands escape the obvious things
And injure primal faith in sense, and wreck
All those foundations upon which do rest
Our life and safety. For not only reason
Would topple down; but even our very life
Would straightaway collapse, unless we dared
To trust our senses and to keep away
From headlong heights and places to be shunned
Of a like peril, and to seek with speed
Their opposites!" (Book IV, ll. ~500-510.)

I have no idea what Cooper thinks is going on here. But Lucretius is basically telling us to trust our senses. He has just given lots of examples of how things look different than they are and explanations (some wrong) for why things look the way they do. In this quote, he is saying, "we don't always understand why things look the way they do, why angles look round from afar, but we are better off assigning reasons for these things, even fictitious ones, than ignoring them, because otherwise we will have a tendency to fall off cliffs." As whoever it is that Cooper "quotes" says, "The nature of phenomena cannot be understood by the eyes." Yes, Lucretius says that, the nature cannot be UNDERSTOOD by the eyes, but it can be APPREHENDED. I think Cooper's problem in understanding Lucretius probably comes from not making that distinction.

I am getting the distinct impression that Cooper isn't actually reading the texts of these philosophers, he is just reading about them somewhere else, then quoting quotes or just looking for the quotes they used in the original texts.

And I reread the whole post. I think that my problem with your writing was probably on account of your problem with Cooper's. There is so much crap in this paragraph, that there was so much for you to criticize, that I missed the forest for the trees.

Geds said...

Thank you, jessa. That's, um, that's well above and beyond the call of duty.

I like the distinction you draw between apprehending and understanding. I think it fits in nicely with the idea of the scientific drive and attempting to peel back what we think we know and get to true knowledge.

I'm also ever more convinced that Cooper is setting a straw-Lucretius alight in that section. It reminds me of high school Humanities class wherein a bunch of 17- and 18-year olds sat around picking apart philosophers because those philosophers were trying to figure out how we could actually know the nature of reality. We thought we were so damn smart back then. But I'm pretty sure people will still be reading the words of David Hume in a hundred years an no one will be reading the words of 18-year old Geds...

And you're probably right that he's not actually reading the stuff he's quoting. I ran in to a lot of Christians who quoted second- or third-hand about things they themselves had not bothered to read. I think that's reason #1,506 on the list of reasons my days as a Christian were numbered as soon as I became a halfway decent historian.

jessa said...

I miss school. I went to Shimer College where we rely on primary texts, which is why I have the Lucretius (and the Paley). Taking apart Cooper's arguments that relied on Lucretius and Paley was kind of like taking apart the arguments of classmates who really didn't understand the text or who didn't read it well enough to understand it. Discussing it with you is like commiserating with other classmates over the stupidity of certain classmates. It is all intellectually thrilling.

When I was in Evangelical circles, I definitely noticed people taking Bible verses out of context all the time. I also noticed that some people complained that certain verses are taken out of context, but continue to take other verses out of context. It was probably that some of what they said was in agreement with the Bible, so they didn't have to take things out of context, but they had to take other things out of context where they didn't actually agree with the Bible, but wanted to believe they did (or wanted others to believe they did). Still, I wonder how often it happens that something is taken out of context so much and has that inappropriate, out of context meaning applied to it so much, that even when it is actually read in context, we still attribute the out of context meaning to it. I hope that made sense. But of course, I can't go around counting this because it is by its very nature something I would not notice myself doing.