Intuition: a logical interlude

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I’m still working on the continuation of my MBTI & Temperament-themed posts, but in the meantime an article on Mercatornet caught my eye:

Whenever someone makes a claim to you about politics or morals — anything from “Morals are all relative anyway” (which you might hear at the corner convenience store) to “No one should be required to surrender his autonomy” (which you might hear at a political theory conference) — ask these three questions.  (1) What do you mean by that?  (2) How do you know it’s true?  (3) What difference does it make?

When you ask the second question — “How do you know it’s true?” — the person to whom you are speaking should reply by giving a reason for his claim.  The reasons are the premises; the claim they are supposed to support is the conclusion.  Taken together, the premises and the conclusion make up an argument.  Here are three tests for arguments.  (1) Do the terms used in the premises have clear meanings?  (2) Is the reasoning free of fallacies?  and (3) Are the premises true?  If it passes all three tests, you can be sure that the conclusion is true.  But if it fails even one of the three tests, you know no more about whether the conclusion is true than you knew before.  Arguments that pass tests 1 and 2 are sometimes called valid whether or not they pass test 3.  Bear in mind, however, that a valid argument with false premises may still have a false conclusion.

I’ve been asked, “What if I just know the conclusion of an argument is false, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t find anything wrong with the terms, the premises, or the reasoning?”  The answer is, “Then you change your mind.”

The author is a natural law theorist, and I’ve enjoyed his work in the past. In fact he’s quite an interesting guy with the slightly intimidating name of J. Budziszewski, a Professor of Philosophy in Texas.  In the article he runs through a set of common fallacies. But what caught my attention was the last line quoted above.

Since I started looking at the Four Temperaments, I’ve wondered whether there might be temperamental differences or nuances in how people present theories, or which theories they subscribe to.

For example, my late PhD project involved looking at the Intellectualist and Voluntarist controversy throughout the history of the free will debate. The heart of the debate is whether the will is subordinate to the intellect or vice-versa.

It occurred to me that the temperaments might play a role in how people respond to this issue, albeit probably not to the objective answer. That is, I don’t think temperament means some people’s intellects are subordinate to their will, while in others the will is subordinate to the intellect. Rather, I think that some people might seem to subordinate their intellect to their will, or others might appear to be wholly subordinate to their intellect.

Let’s say voluntarism is true, but philosophy has historically attracted a great many very rigorous thinkers, people who are inclined to adhere very closely to their own reasoning, valuing coherence between beliefs and actions, and so on. These people might provide exceptions to the voluntarist rule, apparent counter-examples of individuals who seemingly can’t help but will according to their intellect.

Well, it’s possible anyway.

But what caught my eye in Professor B’s post was that final line:

I’ve been asked, “What if I just know the conclusion of an argument is false, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t find anything wrong with the terms, the premises, or the reasoning?”  The answer is, “Then you change your mind.”

A good philosopher should indeed be ready to go where evidence and reason lead. But in my experience, “just knowing” is more significant than it appears. To be fair, some people “just know” because they are too stubborn or too afraid to consider the possibility that they are wrong. For them, “I just know” really means “I want to believe”.

But for others, “I just know” means an intuited gap in the logic. It points to a flaw that the discursive intellect may be yet to identify or clarify. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t verify the intuition, or that it will necessarily end in vindication of our original position. Sometimes it points to a hidden assumption that is tripping us up, or an expectation that may be holding us back.

Yet there are also occasions when intuition points to the broader errors in the other side: the flawed motives that might underlie a perfect strategy; or the difference in worldview that renders fine-grained debates redundant.

This is something I’ve learned from examining my own processes. I’m quite familiar with my own ways of thinking, learning, and solving problems, enough to know that the standard-issue approaches are rarely a perfect fit.

So I wouldn’t encourage everyone to stick to their “just knows”. It’s the kind of thing you earn after learning how to change your mind to suit the evidence, after all the hard work of self-examination.
But maybe it’s also an N thing? In MBTI terms, if intuition is unevenly distributed within the population then we can’t presume that everyone should follow the same approach. Some people just won’t get it, others need to learn to trust it.

This is certainly the general message of the Four Temperaments: as a Melancholic you can waste a lot of time and energy trying to be like everyone else, and still fail at it miserably. Ironically, that waste and struggle and (hopefully) realisation are also part of what it means to be a Melancholic.

J’Accuse! Dissecting an accusatory comment

I don’t get much time these days to reply to comments as I once did. I used to greatly enjoy responding to comments on MercatorNet, and still miss the discussions and debates.

But ultimately I think my replies were solipsistic. I tried to resist the urge to reply snappily or angrily to insolent or sarcastic replies. I rarely indulged the desire to mock someone for their half-arsed arguments or complete misunderstandings of the issue at hand.  Instead I viewed the comment as an opportunity to check and correct myself, as though I were posing it as a challenge to my own reasoning and beliefs.

Solipsism isn’t always a bad thing. Unfortunately, there are diminishing returns on even the most charitable approach to argument. We must, I think, proceed with the assumption that the commenter will get nothing from the exchange. Only then can we respond freely.

In that vein, reader ayametan posted the following comment in response to my article on religious perspectives on lust:

The consequences of a “lustful” (i.e. natural) life are usually far less than the consequences of not having sex (and here I include mastubation) at all, such as stress, pent-up frustration, boredom, etc., and it removes an outlet for stress.

Sex also plays a crucial bonding role for many couples.

Zac, I find it the epitome of hypocrisy to claim that people who enjoy sex are hedonistic, especially when you work for a Catholic website, and beleive that those of your religion will receive eternal paradise. Nothing I can imagine could be more hedonistic.

Firstly, apologies to ayametan for replying to your comment indirectly. By way of direct reply, it’s clear we disagree on a great deal. Any further elaborations would be contained in the following observations.

The disconsolate reality is that once we adopt an appropriately detached attitude, far too many such comments begin to feel like answers to a question that was never asked. This is not so much a critique of the commenter, but an observation of my own detached response to such comments.

Take the first line for example:

The consequences of a “lustful” (i.e. natural) life are usually far less than the consequences of not having sex (and here I include mastubation) at all, such as stress, pent-up frustration, boredom, etc., and it removes an outlet for stress.

Firstly, I am not a consequentialist. Telling me that the consequences of A are worse than the consequences of B leaves as much unanswered as telling me that I should follow football because it is better than cricket, when really I am uninterested in sport generally.

Therefore we have to ask:

1. Are consequences the only relevant or most relevant factor?

Secondly, I know enough about consequentialism to know that the evaluation of consequences is a vexed question, not only in terms of where to draw the line, but also in terms of how to weigh the relative consequences. It is not self-evident that consequences such as boredom outweigh consequences such as prostitution, for example, but this in turn refers us back to where we draw the line.

Therefore we have to ask:

2.i Where do we draw the line between direct and indirect consequences?

2.ii How do we weight the relative consequences?

Thirdly, the commenter implies an equivalence between the terms “lustful” and “natural”. What is meant by these terms? Do we agree on the definition of either term? Is there an implication that “natural” lends normative weight to the exercise of lust?

Therefore we have to ask:

3. How do we define our key terms? Do we agree on the terms we are using?

Moving on to the next line:

Sex also plays a crucial bonding role for many couples.

I might agree with this, but looking at it critically we have to ask more questions.

4. What is the relationship between sex and lust?

Question 4 is clearly dependent on the answer to question 3.  Question 5 could, if pursued, take us deeper into the various religious systems touched on in my original article:

5. How does bonding relate to the spiritual disciplines contained in the various religions?

I would also envisage question 5 examining in greater depth how these religions deal with the overlap between lust and sex, and how this unfolds through their broader sexual morality.

Moving on to the final paragraph:

Zac, I find it the epitome of hypocrisy to claim that people who enjoy sex are hedonistic, especially when you work for a Catholic website, and beleive that those of your religion will receive eternal paradise. Nothing I can imagine could be more hedonistic.

My first thought is:

6. What is hypocrisy? Does this scenario match actual definitions of hypocrisy?

Followed by:

7. Is this scenario accurate? Does it match my experience and circumstances? Is this a fair accusation?

And then we’re back into the more philosophical domain, which overlaps somewhat with questions 6 and 7, but also with question 3 and maybe others:

8. Am I claiming that enjoyment of sex is hedonistic?

Clearly this question requires answers to question 3 regarding the definition of terms, including now hedonism, as well as question 4 regarding the relationship between sex and lust. We could in fact turn this whole question into a separate subcategory beginning with 8.a. What is hedonism? This would actually be quite pertinent given the concluding assertion:

Nothing I can imagine could be more hedonistic.

The commenter’s accusation that the desire for eternal paradise amounts to hedonism is by no means novel. It is better known in the context of psychological egoism: the claim that all actions, including supposedly altruistic ones, are ultimately selfish. The standard example given in undergrad philosophy courses is that Mother Theresa was not truly selfless, but acted selfishly on the belief that helping others would earn her a heavenly reward.

The accusation is not usually crafted around hedonism, as hedonism is typically described as the belief in pleasure as the only, or primary good, and there is debate over to what degree this belief would facilitate or be compatible with long-term delay of gratification, or with the allegedly hedonistic endorsement of non-hedonistic moral standards.

But as the philosophy teachers will explain, the bigger problem with defining all action as selfish is that it diminishes the descriptive power of the concept itself.  Clearly there are meaningful differences in behaviour for which the terms “selfish” and “selfless” have arisen. It’s all very well to argue that “selfless” is an empty category, but that doesn’t negate the distinction between acts for which those two terms first arose.

If we were to pursue this further, it would lead us to the question:

Q. What do we mean when we say that an action is selfish?

That’s a lot of questions contained within one brief comment. To be fair, my article also left many questions unanswered. But for me it is important that an article be the product of my own best attempts to ask and answer the right questions for myself. Too often, I find that commenters seem to have done little of this work for themselves before attempting a critique.

I think many people comment without realising the questions implicit in their opinions, accusations, and conjectures. It is rare to find someone sincerely asking questions that can be answered, because those who are sincere are either capable of finding the answers for themselves, or else, perhaps, they are more justifiably preoccupied by their own questions and interests.

If nothing else, I think philosophy can give us an appreciation for the immense difficulty of knowing. Confucius put it well:

“When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it – this is knowledge.”

 

 

 

The unfolding logic of euthanasia

Eureka Street has just published my latest article, this time on the euthanasia of a psychiatrically disturbed Belgian prisoner, serving a life-sentence for rape and murder. As far as controversies go, this one is brimming with ethical questions and challenges. Read a little about them here:

A Belgian court recently granted permission for a psychiatrically ill prisoner to be euthanised. Having worked in bioethics, I find it hard to avoid a morbid fascination with the gradual unfurling of euthanasia in nations where it has had a chance to become firmly established. While members of the public are usually shocked to hear of each new milestone, from an ethical perspective there are no real surprises.

http://eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=42084#.VC4aaRZhUtp