Flash Apologetics in Mary’s Room

People trickled in slowly today. As such, conversation began with fluidity and not much intentionality. We briefly touched upon the ills of modern technology, the legalization of all drugs, the influence of Puritanism on American society and government, and the contradictions of organized anarchy. All these are fruitful topics, and perhaps they may resurface later.

The real discussion began with Steven introducing the Mary’s Room thought experiment: Mary is a girl who has studied the subject of color, and knows all there is to know about color. However, she has lived her whole life in a black and white room, can’t see herself, reads black and white books, and has a black and white computer screen, and therefore has never personally witnessed any color. Suddenly, one day, her computer screen malfunctions and displays a red apple. The question is: has she learned anything new?

The question seems to turn on epistemology. Is the experience of something different from the thing in itself, and is it distinct from other forms of knowledge, and does it count as “knowledge” to begin with?

Some of us said yes, and some of us said no. It seemed to me that to have something described to you, and then to actually experience that thing, are different. It also seems to me that experience could be classified as a form of knowledge, however subjective it may be. Mary now knows what it is like (for her) to see red.

This led back into our discussion about the forms. The form “red” exists separate from the objects that display it, but it is via those objects that we come to know the form through our senses. As in, when we look at a chair, we understand more about the chair than merely what we see–we have a sense of its structure, etc., we understand parts of the chair, we fill in the blanks of what we cannot see, which is ultimately the totality of our perception of it. Our perception is not limited only to the sensory data that we receive. The same is true of the forms. We cannot witness the forms in and of themselves, but we can come to know them through our perception of them as they are expressed by material objects.

As mentioned before, this flies in the face of the post-Hume empiricism which we’ve all more or less been indoctrinated with culturally. To my knowledge, Hume didn’t have solid “reasons” as such for why he denied transcendence (such as the forms, mind-body dualism), cause and effect, etc.– he just didn’t accept them.

In the midst of this discussion, I “came out” as a Christian, and Aramis pressed me on what the Christian perspective on the death penalty might be. I argued that an “eye for an eye” killing of a killer might be null under the covenant of grace. Additionally, ending a person’s life cuts short the potential, however slight, that they might repent and be redeemed.

This led naturally, if uncomfortably, into a discussion of the truth of Christianity in general, focusing mostly on the existence of God. This makes sense because, of course, if God can be disproved, Christianity crumbles. But the problem is, determining what constitutes “proof” or “evidence” for God is already to begin making statements about who or what God is in the first place. (At this point, I went about explaining what I understand to be the “presuppositional” apologetic. As before, I’m going to try to distill the argument, rather than trace its many twists and turns as they occurred in conversation.)

We all believe many sorts of different things, many of which are justified without the use of what we commonly refer to as “proof” or “evidence.” (And here I borrowed a little bit from Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.) A scientific belief, such as that a certain substance changes from liquid to gas at a certain temperature at a certain air pressure, is one based on evidence. This belief depends on its repeatability, the soundness of the principle of induction, and rests on the assumptions of constancy in the universe and the existence of material causes. Another sort of belief, such as what you had for breakfast this morning, is based not on evidence, but on memory and perception. You don’t open your stomach and examine its contents or return home and examine the remnants on your unwashed plate–you just know, and what’s more, the knowledge is valid. It is a “properly basic” belief. Another sort of belief, for instance, is that the ad hominem fallacy is an invalid form of argument. How might that be proved true? Well, that’s difficult to do, because the classification of the ad hominem as a fallacy is part of the system that we use to determine truth in the first place!

So, there are some types of beliefs that could be said not to require “proof” or “evidence” in the conventional sense, but that are still nonetheless justified. So, saying that the belief in God requires a certain proof is to classify the belief in God into a certain category of beliefs–more along the lines of scientific knowledge. But is this categorization justified? Well, the only way to say so is to say something about God–if belief requires such-and-such, it can only do so on account of something about the nature of God himself. Therefore, since this belief determines what constitutes evidence and how you interpret that evidence, to say that you can’t believe in God because there is no evidence is really to say that you’ve already chosen not to believe in God at the outset.

If the beliefs in God and Christianity are more along the lines of those “properly basic” (as Plantinga argues at great length), not only would it be difficult to frame any sort of argument for them, but such an argument might not be justified. It would not be the case that belief in God could be validated by logical or scientific means, but rather that belief in logic and science are validated by the existence of God.

(As an aside: there are, of course, arguments for Christianity, most famously Aquinas’ proofs. But even those arguments turn on an Aristotelian understanding of metaphysics, something that is mostly in concord with the teachings of Christianity. Since Descartes, I think, Western philosophy no longer subscribes to that sort of metaphysic, which might be why many people find Aquinas’ proofs insufficient.)

There were also some other objections worth noting, including: why would God create some people only to send them to hell, why does he make people sick/sinful, why would he make creation with a plan for salvation that included the killing of his own son, etc. But I would consider these to be “internal” issues–they have to assume the existence of God at the outset in order to be meaningful. Furthermore, if you can’t think of a good reason for God’s doing something, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t one. Another question was, if humans are broken and sinful, doesn’t that mean they are worthless? The answer according to Christianity is no–the price paid by Jesus indicates the worth God finds in humanity. If something is broken, but can be restored, it doesn’t lose its worth. If I have a precious, rare vase that I break into a million pieces, it would be said to have lost its worth, but that’s because it can’t ever be restored to its original state. Christianity says that we can, through Jesus, be restored. The original worth can be recovered (and for the Christian, is in the process of being recovered by the sovereignty of God through sanctification).

The next question was, then, if belief is a choice, why should I choose to believe? My response here was sloppy. I tried to say something along these lines: Christianity would argue that its worldview encompasses and explains more than any other worldview. For example, a naturalistic worldview explains physical phenomenon very well, but it is at a loss to explain our sense of morality and justice. A humanistic worldview explains why morality is important, but it fails to provide an adequate response when humanity fails, or when suffering happens.

I used the example of Chesterton’s madman (from Orthodoxy). If Steven is a madman, and he believes that everyone is in a conspiracy against him, and I say to him, “We are not in a conspiracy against you,” Steven will interpret this as confirmation of his theory. “Of course you would deny it,” he will say. “You would never admit that you are in a conspiracy against me! That proves that you are, in fact, in a conspiracy against me!” But if Steven believed that everyone was not, in fact, in a conspiracy against him, this theory would explain the data as well: I am telling the truth. But unfortunately, there is no way to argue him out of it, and there is no way for him to reason himself out of the belief, since his reasoning is determined by the belief, and not the other way around.

All worldviews explain the world in closed, self-justifying systems, and therefore can’t be argued against per se, but some might be said to explain the world more completely than others. Why believe in Christianity? Well, why should the madman choose to stop believing that everyone is in a conspiracy against him?

There is, of course, more to say about why one might choose Christianity, but that was all we covered. The discussion ended there abruptly because we were over time. However, we pledged to continue it at the next meeting (as uncomfortable as I am playing amateur apologist). Perhaps we will look at some of the classical proofs for Christianity (i.e. Aquinas), or maybe we will pursue this presuppositional argument further and discuss the supposed benefits of Christianity as a worldview.

Plato’s Forms

For further reading on the forms. This seems pretty basic, but there are references to the works where he talks about this idea.

Scholars disagree about the scope of what is often called “the theory of Forms,” and question whether Plato began holding that there are only Forms for a small range of properties, such as tallness, equality, justice, beauty, and so on, and then widened the scope to include Forms corresponding to every term that can be applied to a multiplicity of instances.


The Wikipedia article goes much more in-depth, and includes criticism of the idea, from Plato himself. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_Forms

Finally, here is the Wikipedia article for Plato’s theory of knowledge, which I referenced in the last discussion. It contains reference to the Theory of Forms, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on it. I had confused the two during our discussion. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platonic_epistemology

The Atomic Bomb, Artificial Intelligence, and the Forms

A small group today (only three of us), but a discussion no less lively than usual. We began talking about the atomic bomb in the context of an essay prompt for a history class. The question asks, was dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified? The arguments in favor seem to rely on speculation– specifically, that, had the bomb not been dropped, the body count would have been higher in the event of a more traditional invasion/attack and/or the continuation of the war. Others rely on the assumption that the Japanese would not have responded to a demonstration or a test, and that direct action without prior warning was the only effective way to send the message. The problem with these arguments is that they are wildly probabilistic, and there is no way to really know what “might have happened” in an alternate history. As we discussed last week, these sorts of projections and predictions are seldom justifiable. The unfortunate fact, though, is that these sorts of decisions have to be made. The arguments against the dropping of the bomb appeal more to morality, absolute standards by which a country should or should not act during time of war. These, however, seem arbitrary. Who’s to say which lives are more valuable than others? (Are American lives more valuable than Japanese? Are civilian lives more important than soldiers’?) It is possible to say that warfare in general is immoral, and then anything done in the context of warfare is automatically immoral to begin with, so we can say nothing either way about the dropping of the atomic bomb.

As to possible approaches to a paper, I suggested perhaps beginning with a strong “if”–if a certain premise or set of premises is true, then certain conclusions will necessarily follow, in regards to morality, prediction, or whatever. But in the end, it all depends on our acceptance of the initial premise or set of premises. Or, one might begin by putting the burden of proof on a certain party, and then show how that party has failed to prove its standpoint.

We discussed the nature of debate and argument, noting that some people seem less interested in having a dialogue than merely having a forum to express their own opinion. We can all be violent, aggressive defenders of our own viewpoints, failing to respond reasonably to someone else’s argument. The problem, for me, arises when that person does not really present an argument, nor seem interested in listening to one. We must always remember to be civil with people, even if they disagree with us, and even if they fail to go about argument and debate in a way that we think they should.

From there, the conversation took a turn to talking about artificial intelligence. Apparently, Google has created AI that can hold conversations–conversations that are mostly nonsensical, but that sometimes stumble on something philosophical, such as what constitutes “art,” or if one of them is, in fact, a human. We discussed whether or not AI could be said to be “conscious,” which of course depends on what our definition of consciousness is. Is something conscious if it could be like something to be that thing? (See Nagel’s “What is it to be a bat”)

I posed the question: given the proper amount of time and technological advancement, could an artificial intelligence ever be said to constitute a human consciousness? This raised another question: could an artificial intelligence, given time, learn everything, and therefore know everything, that a human knows? What is it to learn something, and what is it to know something?

From here, the conversation took several convoluted turns, involving an illustration featuring an adopted child living alone in a room painted blue, introduced to another human being (me) for the first time at the age of fifteen. Obviously such experiments are impractical to actually perform, but even as a thought experiment it was difficult to wrap our minds around. How much would this child “know,” beyond what we might say is mere instinct? An AI can be taught to avoid damage to itself, but how does it know what might constitute damage, given the myriad things it could encounter? Might it mistakenly think that a firm handshake is portentous of damage? Whereas a human being already intuitively understands what sorts of things constitute damage, and what don’t (even if they involve injury).

I posed the argument that there are certain things that we “know” that are not “learned” from experience, and that are not also mere instinct. This is what I understand to be part of what Plato talks about when he talks about the forms. I’m not an expert in this, so I may be mistaken. And this argument was lengthy and met many objections, so I will summarize rather than try to trace the actual direction of the discussion. My illustration was that, for example, when we learn the ad hominem fallacy of argument, what we are learning is only the term–the concept is something that we already know. We had likely encountered ad hominem before, so we knew what it was conceptually, and we also knew that it was wrong. But even if we had never encountered it before, we would still know, on the first encounter, that it was wrong, just as we would recognize that 1 + 1 = 3 is wrong (arbitrary mathematical language and symbols aside). We did not have to learn that–in fact, this is part of the construal by which we learn new things: for example, if we are presented with an argument that contains the ad hominem, we know to question its conclusion, and therefore we choose what to “learn” about it, if anything. So in “learning” ad hominem, all we are actually learning is the term for it–like how we learn that the word “blue” denotes the color that we experience as blue. Even if we are taught that the color blue is actually called “orange,” or that the ad hominem is actually called the “gobbledygook,” the knowledge of the thing in itself is something that we already have. So in terms of Plato’s forms, the ad hominem is something we accept as true because we already have an idea of what truth looks like, or is. It fits the “form” of truth, as we understand it, and in order to recognize that, we did not have to learn anything. We already knew it. So this theory of knowledge states that much of what we “learn” is actually just “recovered.”

This all comes into conflict with the notion that we, as human beings, are all just a bundle of organic matter wired with a set of instincts. We could call our sense of forms a kind of “instinct” but that seems to run up against the definition of “instinct” as it is commonly understood, and seems an inadequate explanation. It also runs up against common models of knowledge: we don’t know something, then we learn it, then we know it. It seems like there are certain types of knowledge–such as that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen–that conform to these models, but that there are also types of knowledge (or perhaps better called “beliefs”?) that do not–such as that the ad hominem presents a fallacious argument, an unacceptable means for uncovering truth.

The final word on this, other than suggesting that AI might never be said to achieve a state comparable to human consciousness because it cannot have access to this sense of the “forms”, was that, given the fact that there are things that we can “know” that are not “learned,” at least empirically, might this have some bearing on the field of ethics?

Sara seemed distressed, but I think it was a good exercise in considering another worldview, one that possibly makes better sense of things. Sometimes Philosophy Club is unproductive, but this one felt immensely productive. Except for the fact that there were no snacks. And on that count, it was an utter failure.