Thursday, September 11, 2008

Self-defeat in Philosophy

Arguing that a position is self-defeating is a fairly common, and often devastating, form of philosophical argument. It also has a limited aim; it is purely negative. I wanted to give you some examples so you’ll have more context when this comes up in our discussions about religion.

One of the most famous instances of this form of critique killing a philosophical position involves the Verification Theory of Meaning. Roughly, the VTM is

If a sentence can’t be proven true or false through empirical observation or by definition of its terms, it is meaningless.
But of course the VTM itself can’t be proven true or false through empirical observation or by definition of its terms. By its own standards, it’s meaningless. That tells us that this is not a good theory of meaning. (Logically: if P implies not-P, then not-P.) It does not tell us what a good theory would be.

Epistemological skepticism is a ripe field for this kind of argument. The (naïve) skeptic says,
No one has any knowledge
and then immediately has to answer the sly question, How do you know?
Or the skeptic may say
All human thought is weak, biased, and ultimately unprovable; therefore no inferences are sound.
So I guess that one isn’t sound either? Some skepticism amounts to declarations like
I have an excellent argument that no arguments are excellent! Or
My philosophical view is that no philosophical views should be taken seriously
which is hard to take seriously. Such observations tell us that these skeptical positions aren’t correct. But they get us no closer to actually having any particular knowledge.

Hard-core historicism has a similar problem. The hard-core historicist tells us
All philosophical positions are purely products of their time and circumstances,and therefore none has a greater claim on truth than any other.
But since the HCH includes himself here, his views have no special claim on truth, and we ought not pay him any more attention than we do some long-forgotten two-bit sage. You can get the same effect in logic:
Every generalization has exceptions.
No sentence of seven words is true.
All dogmatic assertions should be rejected.
Each of these defeats itself. Richard Rorty is famous for his remark,

Truth is what your peers will let you get away with saying
but his peers did not let him get away with saying this.

Morality offers similar pitfalls, often where skepticism or relativism are concerned. Suppose a cultural relativist offers

Moral principles are only valid for cultures that endorse them.
What is the status of this principle outside a relativist culture? Is the relativist trying to make an (inconsistently) absolute claim, one that applies everywhere? Or are they simply trying to legislate for their own culture, and everyone else has genuinely absolute principles (which, being absolute, also apply to the relativist)? Neither option is attractive. Consider also

Moral principles are never absolute.
Except this one?

No one has the right to say what morality is for everyone.

Except you, Mr. Speaker?
There is no truth about morality

Other than that? And
Everyone has their own opinion about morality, so you can’t trust anyone’s moral reasoning
is an inference that defeats itself, again. We can be sure that these are not truths. We have no way of proceeding from this observation, however, to any positive, substantive moral views.

There are subtler ways to look for self-defeat, too. The empiricist slogan

All knowledge comes from the senses
is unlikely to be justified by appeal to sense experience. You do not look around and observe trees, houses, and knowledge. Foucault used to say things like
Truth-claims are attempts to exercise social power
and this leads you to wonder how to read Foucault’s books. Cautiously, I guess. Hume (and Nagarjuna!) argued that

There is no stable, persisting self.
Sez who? Likewise for
Language never captures reality, and
Conceptual thought always falsifies.
In fairness, Nagarjuna seems clear that even these doctrines will have to be relinquished. They are “true” in the Buddhist sense that they assist in enlightenment, not in the sense that they capture an unfalsified reality. (One wonders what to think, though, about “these doctrines assist in enlightenment.”)

Now with all that background, I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to go back over Keller’s rendition of the religious pluralist’s views:
The content of religious doctrines does not matter
Each religion sees part of spiritual truth, but none sees the whole
Religious belief is too culturally conditioned to be ‘truth’
It is arrogant to insist that your religion is right and to convert others to it
It is ethnocentric to believe that our religious views are superior to others
and see if they are self-defeating, in obvious or subtle ways. Comments welcome.


Tom said...

"It is arrogant to insist that your religion is right and to convert others to it."

A form of this objection appeared recently in the Washington Post, written by a University of Chicago religion professor. The context there was political, but that fact hardly matters to the current discussion. The writer, Wendy Doniger, said,

"I am on record in this blog (and have not budged an inch) as not objecting to any candidate’s religious views.

"But I object strongly when anyone (and especially anyone with political power) tries to take their theology out in public, to inflict those private religious (or sexual) views on other people."

As I wrote elsewhere, Doniger is saying that religious views by their nature are private and ought to remain so. That itself is a religious view, however. She is airing it (not so privately) in one of the top newspapers in the Western world. If the politician in question holds a considered belief that religion is not something to hide, then Doniger is publicly saying that person's religious belief is wrong.

Of course it is well known that Christianity was not founded to be a private matter; public practice and expression of one's faith are at the core of Christianity. Doniger thinks that's wrong. But it seems to me that's her own private view regarding religion, which she's inflicting on the rest of us publicly.

In that same article she accuses a certain politician of hypocrisy. I doubt she would acknowledge the irony of that, but it's certainly there.

Evan Watson said...

I don't think this type of argument is necessarily self-defeating, and even if it is, I do not find it devastating. Obviously there are many statements that you can think up to demonstrate self-defeat, but these are manufactured to be tautologically true, and are reduced to just that.

As you said, the hard-core historicist would not exclude himself from the claim that all philosophical positions are influenced by historical context. Similarly, no one who wants to talk about how we all see the world through our various cultural lenses would claim that they are exempt from the same. But this does not defeat the claim that they are making, it simply points out a problem that we have to be aware of. It is equivalent to Socrates trying to move us from double ignorance to an awareness of our ignorance, so we can at least function in the process of learning.

I think that the important thing to pull out of these arguments is to become aware of the fact that we're all ultimately in the same epistemological boat, and to take it into account when analyzing other philosophical positions.

As for moral relativity, I think that the negative statement is of a fundamentally different character than the positive. To say that "x is a moral absolute" is a moral statement about moral principle x, but to say that "there are no moral absolutes" is a statement about the condition of absolutes having to do with morality, but is not a moral principle in itself. It also does not say that there are no absolutes at all, which would be self-defeating, but just that there are no moral principles which are absolute.