About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Rationally Speaking podcast: the Pigliucci-Shermer debate on the science of ethics

In a special live Rationally Speaking, taped at NECSS 2013, Julia Galef moderates a lively discussion between Massimo and Michael Shermer, head of the Skeptic Society and founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine. The topic: Can science tell us what is "moral"?

This discussion comes after both men have tackled the question separately in books (Massimo's Answers for Aristotle and Michael's The Science of Good and Evil), and jointly in a recent debate on the Rationally Speaking blog. Questions under scrutiny include: Does "natural" = "morally right"? How do we make tradeoffs between different people's happiness? And what role should science and philosophy play in making these decisions?

66 comments:

  1. Well that was too short, although if it went on longer Shermer may have had his head bitten off.

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    1. You felt I was too hard on him?

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    2. I think you are closer to being correct but then I read your blog and know your opinion, so from my particular point of I would liked to have heard how Shermer responds to the points more - but obviously maybe the Shermer fans there would have liked your point more.

      What I do like about Shermer, being right or wrong, is his calm professional demeanor, which is refreshing in the blogosphere these days. But I'm sure I'm a minority in that regard.

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    3. I am surprised by what you say, downquark, because I couldn't help hear the irritation and impatience in Shermer's voice. That may have disappointed me as much as his rather shallow arguments which seemed to disregard that we simply don't live in black and white. I have been following Shermer over the years because although I didn't always agree with his ideas, I thought them worthy of my time and though provoking. Maybe if we'd been able to hear the first part of the debate that wasn't taped, I wouldn't feel quite as disillusioned.

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    4. Downquark, take a look at a few videos or so. Messrs Shermer and Pigliucci are jungle fighters and they know it.

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    5. I felt it was too short as well, though it's kindof 50/50 for me whether Michael Shermer would have dug himself more into the hole of 'rah rah, my provincial american view is the best and science will prove it!' or whether he'd actually manage to make a decent case for his point of view.

      I get the feeling that if Massimo asked Michael if he'd read much philosophy, Michael would answer 'Why yes of course! I've read the full works of *all* the founding fathers!'

      disappointed. :/

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  2. I liked it. I thought it was all very tame and friendly.

    I like the idea of speculating over whether the (now) extinct species of the genus Homo could have had their conservatives and progressives.

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  3. Massimo, as much as I like listening to you talk, I don't think you even gave Shermer a chance to say anything. This was not an enjoyable podcast at all. Even when he wanted to talk you would say you're not done and then you would go on to 5 other subjects. I love your podcast so much, but this time it was not very good.
    -John

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  4. I can't figure out why neither Shermer nor Pigliucci made a strong case for cognitive science and cognitive science of religion in their confrontation about science of ethics.
    I guess that this absence is a loss in terms of what should be clearly - and empirically - stated about how the mind works.
    BTW, a very interesting debate!

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  5. I love the podcast but there was so much tension between you two and it was obvious that you were both somewhat irritated by the answers of the other. The answers were too short and several times when the discussion was getting interesting, Julia seem to intervene and say that you are off the topic. I assume that the format of live podcast had to do it but I just wish you can be more thorough on some of the topics.

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  6. I really enjoyed this. Great podcast. I personally got the feeling that Mr Shermer seemed a little out of his depth - which was a surprise, as I usually find his books interesting and thought-provoking.

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    1. Yes; some might see this debate as a skirmish between "science" and "philosophy" for the territory of ethics. (Science as a kind of football team that should be cheered on seems to be the new model of intellectual virtue.) The reality is that the debate is a skirmish between two philosophical positions - one claiming that science is adequate and appropriate to answer ethical question, the other claiming not - and Shermer doesn't have the grounding for such argument, however knowledgeable and interesting he may be on actual scientific topics.


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    2. He isn't so much out of his depth as he is deeply committed to his libertarian principles and cannot think outside of them. When people are emotionally invested in their assumptions it is very difficult to reason them out of them because they did not get there by reason in the first place.

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  7. robotaholic,

    > as much as I like listening to you talk, I don't think you even gave Shermer a chance to say anything. <

    Sorry to have disappointed you. But I actually had to listen again to the entire episode, and I think Michael got a lot of air time, especially after a whole half hour by himself on stage (not taped) where he got to say whatever he wanted about his position, thereby putting me at a disadvantage at the beginning of the discussion.

    Leo,

    > I can't figure out why neither Shermer nor Pigliucci made a strong case for cognitive science and cognitive science of religion in their confrontation about science of ethics. <

    I’m not sure what that would have added to the discussion. We both started with the position that religion is irrelevant to ethics, so why discuss it further? It was not a point of disagreement.

    Gil,

    > I love the podcast but there was so much tension between you two and it was obvious that you were both somewhat irritated by the answers of the other. <

    You may have captured something here. I think the irritation came from what I perceived as Michael’s mischaracterization of my position in his talk, before the live discussion. And he has done it again yesterday, via Twitter. We are negotiating a possible way to clear the air, stay tuned...

    Paul,

    > The reality is that the debate is a skirmish between two philosophical positions - one claiming that science is adequate and appropriate to answer ethical question, the other claiming not - and Shermer doesn't have the grounding for such argument, however knowledgeable and interesting he may be on actual scientific topics. <

    Yup.

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    1. I saw the twitter and you are right, they do seem to mischaracterize your views. It's interesting to note that at the bottom line, you do overall agree what might considered right or wrong, but the process of which you reach these conclusions is vastly different.

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  8. One topic that briefly came up (which maybe could have been discussed further) was "Does science have something to say about the Euthyphro dilemma?" It could depend on whether one considers symbolic logic to be science.

    The Euthyphro dilemma is analyzed in:
    A LOGIC FOR ‘BECAUSE’, The Review of Symbolic Logic, September 2011. This article introduces BC, a propositional logic adding connective 'because', and QBC, a quantificational extension of BC, a theorem of which is applied to the Euthyphro dilemma.

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    1. I don't think Massimo would consider symbolic logic science - neither would I.

      I do think Massimo overstates the Euthyphro dilemma a bit in the discussion, Euthyphro dilemma can be resolved by the theist making some distasteful compromises in their theology (god isn't all powerful, morality exists and is inaccessible to man or god isn't "good") and then we are back to square one. At least by my understanding.

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    2. I think symbolic logic is science.

      Merriam-Webster agrees:

      Definition of symbolic logic
      : a science of developing and representing logical principles by means of a formalized system consisting of primitive symbols, combinations of these symbols, axioms, and rules of inference


      It might be interesting to poll the members of the ASL (Association for Symbolic Logic) with the question "Is symbolic logic science?"

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    3. Total nonsense. Symbolic logic is in no way a science. It is abstract reasoning that confers absolute truth to it's conclusions. 2 + 2 = 4 is true in all possible worlds. Quite unlike "The Earth revolves around the sun". Logic is not based on empiricism which is what it would have to be if it were a science.

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    4. Nonsense is when you set up symbolic logic as a mathematical tautology. Symbolic logic on the other hand can get extremely complicated, AND it does not require mathematics as the only tool in the box. We, as biological entities, set up our behavioral functions to operate by the use of symbolically pictorial algorithms. Numerical symbols are of course the simplest of pictorials, but we evolved our strategic systems logically by other means, before we then were able to evolve our mathematical means of measurement.

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    5. Philip,

      Symbolic (mathematical) logic is a science in the broad sense that mathematics is a science. It is not a science in the narrow sense of empirical methodology (scientific method) nor the even narrower sense of a certain institutional validation. To illustrate the difference between the latter two senses, anyone can do science in the first sense, but such science doesn't become science in the second sense until it has been validated by the relevant institution. Mathematical logic is not an empirical field, and institutionally it has a small foot in mathematics and a large foot in philosophy.

      But whatever the relation between "science" and symbolic logic, to apply symbolic logic to the Euthyphro dilemma, or for symbolic logicians to address the dilemma, would be philosophy. The reason is that the conceptual nature of the dilemma is underdetermined by the methods of logic. Note that if everything involving application of mathematical logic were "science" then much of analytic philosophy would be "science."

      As a final point, I wonder why it matters to you whether mathematical logic is "science." If logicians had something interesting to say about the Euthyphro dilemma, and you could follow their arguments, what difference would it make?

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    6. If science, according to the dictionary, is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment, then mathematics is not a science.
      If logic is defined as "the systematic use of symbolic and mathematical techniques to determine the forms of valid deductive argument", then you've erroneously assumed that "symbolic and mathematic" is a redundant phrase. I'd assume however that if symbolic was the same as mathematic, the "and" in the dictionary definition would have been omitted.

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    7. I don't know if it ultimately matters to me that much whether symbolic logic is a science (better tell Merriam-Webster!), but the issue of whether science has something to say about "Euthyphro" seemed to come out of the podcast I listened to. Symbolic logicians of the ASL will go happily about their work in any case.

      On the issue of whether symbolic logic (or mathematics for that matter) is empirical (See Is logic empirical?), I do tend to think that it is.

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  9. I would've liked to hear how Massimo and Michael would address a specific moral dilemma, like whether they'd save their mother or the President from a burning building, and whether their action would be different from the "moral" action.

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  10. Good debate. It seemed like Shermer conceded quite a bit (science as just one arrow in a quiver of many tools), but then a minute later would go back to science as the major/only tool in the toolbox (to mix metaphors a little).

    So my criticism of him is mainly that he makes an extraordinary claim (as Paul said, "science sufficient to exhaustively answer ethical & meta-ethical questions"), then when pressed, retreats to the similar-sounding but fairly trivial position "science relevant to ethical & meta-ethical questions."

    I wish this "many peaks in the moral landscape" metaphor were less abused; it's not just a case of many peaks but of disagreement about what a peak consists of in the first place. We saw that with the example of US politics.

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  11. Does "natural" = "morally right"?

    Mathematically: = is Nature's absolute.
    Philosophically: equal is Nature's truth.
    Scientifically: the uncertainty of Nature's measure equals a dice game.
    Religiously: Good is heaven, wrong equals hell, and God is or equals One.
    Justice: The blind scale of fairness or whatever the court decides.
    Democracy: The ruled and the rulers, the governed and the governors, and the self-evident equal right of independence or freedom.
    And me:

    =

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  12. I liked this episode. Personally I don't think Michael was very convincing. He shifts the argument whenever Massimo confronts him with a difficult logical choice. There seems to be a crop of skeptics that really do not understand the naturalistic fallacy at all.

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  13. You know what I would like to see? I'd like to see Massimo, or any moral philosopher play "The Walking Dead" video game. I don't know if people are familiar with it, the video game not the series. It is really effective at presenting the player with some pretty stark moral dilemmas. Choices that you make early on can affect the game in surprising ways later in the game.

    I think a walk through video recording of Massimo playing the game and then explaining why he made the choices he did would be really interesting. I think it would also attract a lot of attention from people not ordinarily interested in philosophy. It's a thought anyway.

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  14. I find it extraordinary (and somewhat na├»ve) that Dr Shermer think the implementation of “just ask” would be unproblematic and value-free. There is a whole field of research called ‘social choice’ which first and foremost demonstrates the difficulties and tradeoffs one faces in aggregating individuals’ preferences.

    It’s most famous result is probably Arrow’s Theorem and is actually a double-blow to Shermer’s position. Firstly it shows that there is no method of aggregating preferences which can simultaneously satisfy a small set simple reasonable requirements. Secondly, this result itself is arrived at using logical arguments, with no serious empirical input to speak of… ouch…

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  15. downquark,

    > Euthyphro dilemma can be resolved by the theist making some distasteful compromises in their theology (god isn't all powerful, morality exists and is inaccessible to man or god isn't "good") and then we are back to square one. <

    Yes, they have tried, but in the last chapter of Answers for Aristotle I explain why they failed. Besides, Plato was certainly not writing about just that particular type of god, the argument is general.

    Max,

    > I would've liked to hear how Massimo and Michael would address a specific moral dilemma <

    Well, we did talk about female genital mutilation and gay rights. See also more on this in the post just released today.

    But maybe I’ll take up Brenda’s suggestion of producing a video while playing “The Walking Dead” video game...

    Philip,

    on symbolic logic as non-empirical, I think Brenda and Paul got it exactly right. Your link about a possible empirical dimension to logic concerns Hilary Putnam’s and Michael Dummett’s work on the very specific case of quantum phenomena. That work is controversial in philosophy, and at any rate it does not affect standard logics of the type that apply to Eutyphro’s dilemma.

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    1. If the logic of the micro-world is empirical, then the logic of the macro-world should be empirical as well. (Why should the macro-world have a "privileged" status?)

      In any case, I doubt that either standard logic or mathematics is totally non-empirical.

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    2. Of course, Massimo, you won't respond to this, but I'll point out anyway that symbolic logic is NOT simply mathematical and if you pretend not to know that, it's because you've repeatedly refused to accept the existence of either intelligence alone or intelligence as an aspect of purpose existing anywhere outside of human or human-like intelligent functioning. And now you can't even accept that humans use symbols other than mathematical symbols when they use symbolic logic. Pitiful.

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    3. @ Baron P
      The predicate calculus is a framework not only for philosophical reasoning but also for reasoning about any subject matter whatsoever. It sounds to me like you are trying to make an argument for god or some deistic intelligence from logic. Is that right? Seems a bit stretched to me.

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    4. Philip,

      What would it mean for logic to be empirical (to any degree)? I think it is questionable whether the claim that logic is empirical is even coherent. Anyway, even if logic were empirical, that wouldn't mean it is a science. Note that history is empirical but not a science in any strong sense.

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    5. Another development that suggests the empirical nature of logic is the application of paraconsistent logics in database technology.

      Classical logic has proven to be useful for some domains. There is no Platonic ideal: Logic.

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    6. Paraconsistent logic:
      "A paraconsistent logic is a logical system that attempts to deal with contradictions in a discriminating way. Alternatively, paraconsistent logic is the subfield of logic that is concerned with studying and developing paraconsistent (or "inconsistency-tolerant") systems of logic."

      Please explain to me how testing for inconsistency is something new.

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  16. So you're calling the 2 plus 2 equals 4 a predicate calculus? And arguing that the determination of certainty is a basis for philosophical reasoning? And further, if you can call this an example of intelligence at work, are you assuming that we invented that intelligence, and from that invented logic?
    What do you imagine we used to invent anything like intelligence when there was nothing like it earlier in the universe to draw from - or especially to draw mathematical inferences from?
    Obviously you're one of those who thinks that creation was either accidental or magical, Gods being the only entities capable of magic. But I simply speculate that the universe has systems that have learned to take logical advantage of its accidents. And, cutting to the chase, that we've evolved as living systems accordingly.

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    1. The above should have been addressed to Brenda. And I should have written:
      What do you imagine we used to invent anything like intelligence IF there had been nothing like it earlier in the universe to draw from - or especially to draw mathematical inferences from?

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    2. I'm not sure I understand the question and the previous comment wasn't very helpful either. I don't understand why you think we cannot "invent intelligence", whatever that means, unless intelligence already existed. Reading between the lines I am guessing you've made previous attempts to argue your special view of things to no avail.

      I once had a long interaction with a guy who claimed the number zero was some kind of mystical entity and not just the null set. That was... interesting but not really very productive. So... you have some kind of special ideas about maths or logic that permits you to claim there is some intelligence out there? Something like that. I'm confused.

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    3. My "special view" has been of no avail to some on this blog, but if you were familiar with the works of John A Wheeler, Paul Davies, A N Whitehead, and numerous others, you'd find availability up the gazoo.

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    4. "Invent intelligence" means something like "create intelligence." Which, ironically, would make those like yourself, who seem to feel that the selection process provided it to humans, but not to early life forms, very similar to creationist believers. But you don't seem to like creationist philosophy (which can't really be called a science) so where do you stand except as some sort of a magicalist?

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    5. I have no idea what you're talking about.

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    6. I'm talking about the evolution of intelligence. You were talking about logic that evolved without it.

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    7. Take heart Baron P. you have friends here

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  17. The title should be "Pigliucci schooling Shermer on philosophy 101", but I had fun listening to it. I felt a little bit sorry for Shermer thought, even if I agree with Pigliucci on this.

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  18. Philip,

    > If the logic of the micro-world is empirical, then the logic of the macro-world should be empirical as well. <

    I doubt that follows, ahem, logically. The macroworld has plenty of properties that the microworld doesn’t.

    > I doubt that either standard logic or mathematics is totally non-empirical <

    On what grounds? I’ve never seen a logical or theoretical (as opposed to applied) mathematical paper that brought in empirical data.

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    1. There are several papers in the use of computers in generating data that is the basis for mathematical results, generally under the topic experimental mathematics.

      A notable example:
      the Bailey–Borwein–Plouffe formula

      "This formula was discovered not by formal reasoning, but instead by numerical searches on a computer; only afterwards was a rigorous proof found."

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    2. This doesn't show what you think it does. Using a computer to discover new mathematical proofs does not show that math is empirical.


      Experimental mathematics:
      "Experimental mathematics is an approach to mathematics in which numerical computation is used to investigate mathematical objects and identify properties and patterns."

      Using computers as a tool to investigate mathematics isn't true empiricism. People use computers to study fractals. Or for that matter, to study weather systems. But no scientist would claim a discovery made with a computer simulation as a true physical discovery. They would say that their model makes a prediction and then seek to confirm their model's prediction in the real world.

      You seem to be confused about what mathematics really is.

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    3. (empirical: "Relying on or derived from observation or experiment.")

      They should take my math Ph.D. back then!

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    4. I think Brenda is right. A way to suggest how math is not empirical in the sense that science is is in terms of justification. With a genuine empirical claim, justification terminates in observations. To illustrate, justifying the proposition that the universe is roughly 14 billion years old may draw on a lot of math and deduction but ultimately it rests on observations; if the observations turned out to be false, we would likely change our view on the relevant proposition. Now the situation is very different with math; the truth of an "empirical" mathematical proposition is not justified by or dependent on the observations that helped to establish it. The observations only help in arriving at the relevant proof, which henceforth is the basis of justification. Note that the observations show nothing until the relevant proof is established.

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    5. Brenda may be right, but you seem to have the reasons for that doubly backwards. "Justification terminates in observations"? Or "observations show nothing until the relevant proof is established"?
      Two contrary propositions, both of which are wrong. Did you do that on purpose?

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    6. Of course all the data we collect from nature could also be the output from a computer ("Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation", arxiv.org/abs/1210.1847). I like this idea!

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    7. "I like this idea" does not equal "this idea is true". I can find no compelling reason to believe the universe is a simulation or that I am a brain in a vat. Until someone gives me one I think I'll go with the radical idea the universe is exactly what it appears to be.

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    8. Assuming it appears to be what it appears to be.

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    9. "Assuming it appears to be what it appears to be."

      Which is an obviously true tautology.

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    10. To a literal thinker a tautology is true because it's not a lie. But in reality, Brenda, a tautology is neither true nor false. Although it is potentially deceptive, since again we tend to assume that a thing can only be true or false, and thus if not false, can only be true. And while our subconscious thought processes operate to discern and predict the most probable, our more rational deductive processes tend to see something that's probably not false as true. And worse, if you are averse to looking at things more metaphorically, which you seem to be, your deductive processes will win the day.

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    11. "To a literal thinker a tautology is true because it's not a lie. But in reality, Brenda, a tautology is neither true nor false."

      A tautology is the *definition* of what it means for something to be true. A tautology like A = A isn't true because it's not a lie. It's true because it is self evident that it is true. Reducing a claim or math equation to an equality relation is what it means to *prove* something.

      I think it is clear to me now that you have no idea what you're talking about. You have some non standard ideas that quite honestly don't make a whole lot of sense. Good luck to you.

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    12. Brenda,

      >A tautology is the *definition* of what it means for something to be true. A tautology like A = A isn't true because it's not a lie. It's true because it is self evident that it is true.<

      Not quite. A tautology is a statement that is true simply in virtue of its form. To illustrate, what makes 'Obama = Obama' a tautologous truth is the fact that it has the form 'a=a' and anything with that form is true. Tautologies do not define what it means for a statement to be true - they are just a particular class of truths - and they are not true *because* they are self-evident; not all self-evident truths are tautologies (and not tautologies are self-evident - in symbolic logic one can write formulas that would take a while to determine whether they are tautologous).

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    13. To a literal thinker, that would be tautologically false. But more seriously, in a philosophical context, it's silly to even call a tautology true. Because if it's a mathematical tautology, such as Brenda's 2 plus 2 equals 4, it's purpose will usually be the measurement of probability.

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    14. Well, I don't know what point is being debated. I wish people would just speak plainly.

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    15. '2 + 2 = 4' is not exactly a tautology, strictly speaking*. It is a theorem of Peano arithmetic. And not exactly that. An example of a theorem in PA is something like 'S(S(0))+S(S(0)) = S(S(S(S(0))))'. Now '2' might be chosen as a shorthand for 'S(S(0))' and '4' for 'S(S(S(S(0))))', so we get '2+2 = 4' as as shorthand for a theorem of PA. (Read the link for distinction between first and second-order arithmetic, and note the section on non-standard models.)


      * see Tautologies versus validities in first-order logic

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    16. I'll take your word for that.

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  19. Philip, I think your PhD is fine, but the discussion here hinges on an equivocation on the word "empirical." Most philosophers (and scientists) use the term when they refer to observations and experiments conducted on the physical/biological world. When you use computational methods you are doing something different, what's the harm in recognizing that?

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    1. No harm in that!

      But I think Wolfram and Chaitin, for example, embrace using "empirical" to describe what they do mathematically.

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  20. In this chat, the mediator seems to be trying to bring the discussion around to one view of reality - that opinions are as worthwhile as armpits, everyone has got them. Rational elimination of evidence supporting opinions can help sort them out, but so much remains unknown - or is unknowable - that plenty of scope exists for cruddy or fantasy 'values'. Still, the process of rational elmination continues, as it should.

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