Tag Archives: reason

How to reason with flat earthers (it may not help though)

The Conversation

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Nikk Effingham, University of Birmingham

Thinking that the earth might be flat appears to have grown in popularity in recent years. Indeed, flat earthers are gathering for their annual conference this year in Birmingham, just two miles from my own university.

But the earth isn’t flat. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t hard to prove. But as scads of YouTube videos demonstrate, these proofs fail to convince everyone. A glance at the comments show there’s still vitriolic disagreement in some quarters.

Philosophy can explain why. Consider one, standard, flat earth line: “Can you prove the world is round?” Maybe you point to the (often artificially assembled) photos of Earth from space. Or possibly you rely on the testimony of astronauts. The flat earther knocks it all back. The standard of proof is higher, they say. You haven’t been to space. You haven’t seen the round earth.

Perhaps you then start to appeal to science. But unless you’re unusual, you probably don’t know all of the details of the scientific proofs – is it something to do with ships and horizons? Or eclipses? And even if you know the details, unless you’ve indulged existing flat earth literature you are unlikely – right here, right now – to be able to cogently, concisely and comprehensively respond to the lengthy rebuttals flat earthers will give to each and every scientific proof.

You could double down. Getting knee deep in the vloggersphere, you might learn the details of the scientific proofs as well as painstakingly spelling out each error in every flat earther’s rebuttal.

I recommend against doing that. I recommend letting philosophy do the work. I recommend “epistemic contextualism”. To understand what this is, we first must understand a familiar idea: context shift. Consider the sentence “I’m tall”. Surrounded by five year olds at a rollercoaster park, the sentence is true – after all, I can get on all the rides and they can’t. But at the try-outs for the Harlem Globetrotters, my measly 5’11″ won’t cut it. So in that context, the sentence is false. Tallness is contextually sensitive. And it makes no sense to further ask whether I’m really tall or not. It only makes sense given a particular context.

Epistemic contextualists say that knowledge is the same. Imagine you’re transferring £10 to your daughter. You know her bank details. You tap them in. You send the money. But now imagine you’re transferring £50,000. Doubt sets in. Do you really know her bank details? Are you sure? Sensibly, you phone her to double check. The contextualist says that in the first case, you know her bank details. In the second case, even though nothing about you has changed, the context has. And in that case, you don’t know the details.

Moving the goalposts

That said, I claim the flat earther is doing a “Phoebe”. In one episode from Friends, Phoebe and Ross argue about evolution. Ross piles on the evidence thick and fast. Finally, Phoebe loses her temper. Can he be so unbelievably arrogant, she asks, that he can’t admit the slightest chance that he might be wrong? Sheepishly, Ross agrees that there might be a chance. Suddenly, Phoebe has him – Ross’s admission destroys his worldview. He’s a palaeontologist and, having admitted he can’t be sure about evolution, how can he “face the other science guys”?

Phoebe has (humorously) shifted context. Ross’s proof starts off relying on fossils in museums, books and articles on evolutionary biology, and so on. But Phoebe moves him to a “sceptical context” in which if there’s a hint of doubt about something – any possibility that you might be wrong – then you don’t know it at all.

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Philosophers are well acquainted with these sceptical contexts. For instance, you could be plugged into the Matrix and, if you were, then every belief you had would be false. By bringing your attention to that, I put us in a sceptical context within which we don’t know much of anything. Most people, though, ignore this possibility – most people assume themselves not to be in a sceptical context.

It’s now easy to see how Ross can face the other science guys. He does know evolution is true in most everyday contexts. It is only in Phoebe’s weird context that Ross does not know evolution is true.

Where flat earthers go wrong

Flat earthers are pulling the same trick. They’re right that you don’t know the earth is round. But they’re only right in a context where testimonies of hundreds are disregarded, where widely accepted facts among the scientific community don’t count, where photographic evidence is inadmissible, and so on.

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The flat earther’s argument is framed in a context where you can’t set aside the possibility that there’s a pervading global conspiracy – albeit one which somehow intermittently leaves glaring errors which give them away. In that context, you don’t know the earth is round. But in that context, nobody knows much at all and so this conclusion is simply unsurprising.

In the more everyday contexts that we care about, we can rely on testimony. We can rely on the fact that every educated physicist, cartographer and geographer never pauses to think the earth might be flat. And we are correct to rely on these things. If it was incorrect, we’d never get treated at hospitals – for in a context where we can’t trust the established laws of physics, how could we trust the judgements of medical science?

The ConversationSo do you know whether the earth is round? It turns out it depends on context. But in most regular contexts then, yes, you do. And that’s even though I doubt most people could prove it, right here and now.

Nikk Effingham, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Birmingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Steven Pinker on identity politics

Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. He is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. Pinker has been named as one of the world’s most influential intellectuals by various magazines. He has won awards from the American Psychological Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society and the American Humanist Association. He delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 2013. He has served on the editorial boards of a variety of journals, and on the advisory boards of several institutions. He has frequently participated in public debates on science and society.

Identity politics is the syndrome in which people’s beliefs and interests are assumed to be determined by their membership in groups, particularly their sex, race, sexual orientation, and disability status. Its signature is the tic of preceding a statement with “As a,” as if that bore on the cogency of what was to follow. Identity politics originated with the fact that members of certain groups really were disadvantaged by their group membership, which forged them into a coalition with common interests: Jews really did have a reason to form the Anti-Defamation League.

But when it spreads beyond the target of combatting discrimination and oppression, it is an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values, including, ironically, the pursuit of justice for oppressed groups. For one thing, reason depends on there being an objective reality and universal standards of logic. As Chekhov said, there is no national multiplication table, and there is no racial or LGBT one either.

This isn’t just a matter of keeping our science and politics in touch with reality; it gives force to the very movements for moral improvement that originally inspired identity politics. The slave trade and the Holocaust are not group-bonding myths; they objectively happened, and their evil is something that all people, regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation, must acknowledge and work to prevent in the future.

Even the aspect of identity politics with a grain of justification—that a man cannot truly experience what it is like to be a woman, or a white person an African American—can subvert the cause of equality and harmony if it is taken too far, because it undermines one of the greatest epiphanies of the Enlightenment: that people are equipped with a capacity for sympathetic imagination, which allows them to appreciate the suffering of sentient beings unlike them. In this regard nothing could be more asinine than outrage against “cultural appropriation”—as if it’s a bad thing, rather than a good thing, for a white writer to try to convey the experiences of a black person, or vice versa.

To be sure, empathy is not enough. But another Enlightenment principle is that people can appreciate principles of universal rights that can bridge even the gaps that empathy cannot span. Any hopes for human improvement are better served by encouraging a recognition of universal human interests than by pitting group against group in zero-sum competition.” – Steven Pinker, The Weekly Standard, February 2018.

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How French ‘intellectuals’ ruined the West: postmodernism and its impact, explained

by Helen Pluckrose Areo magazine, 27 March 2017.

Postmodernism presents a threat not only to liberal democracy but to modernity itself. That may sound like a bold or even hyperbolic claim, but the reality is that the cluster of ideas and values at the root of postmodernism have broken the bounds of academia and gained great cultural power in western society. The irrational and identitarian “symptoms” of postmodernism are easily recognizable and much criticized, but the ethos underlying them is not well understood. This is partly because postmodernists rarely explain themselves clearly and partly because of the inherent contradictions and inconsistencies of a way of thought which denies a stable reality or reliable knowledge to exist. However, there are consistent ideas at the root of postmodernism and understanding them is essential if we intend to counter them. They underlie the problems we see today in Social Justice Activism, undermine the credibility of the Left and threaten to return us to an irrational and tribal “pre-modern” culture.

Postmodernism, most simply, is an artistic and philosophical movement which began in France in the 1960s and produced bewildering art and even more bewildering  “theory.” It drew on avant-garde and surrealist art and earlier philosophical ideas, particularly those of Nietzsche and Heidegger, for its anti-realism and rejection of the concept of the unified and coherent individual. It reacted against the liberal humanism of the modernist artistic and intellectual movements, which its proponents saw as naïvely universalizing a western, middle-class and male experience.

It rejected philosophy which valued ethics, reason and clarity with the same accusation. Structuralism, a movement which (often over-confidently) attempted to analyze human culture and psychology according to consistent structures of relationships, came under attack. Marxism, with its understanding of society through class and economic structures was regarded as equally rigid and simplistic. Above all, postmodernists attacked science and its goal of attaining objective knowledge about a reality which exists independently of human perceptions which they saw as merely another form of constructed ideology dominated by bourgeois, western assumptions. Decidedly left-wing, postmodernism had both a nihilistic and a revolutionary ethos which resonated with a post-war, post-empire zeitgeist in the West. As postmodernism continued to develop and diversify, its initially stronger nihilistic deconstructive phase became secondary (but still fundamental) to its revolutionary “identity politics” phase.

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How Britain’s Election Divided the UK

by Helen Dale, 11 May 2015

Conservatives won a decisive and unexpected victory in last week’s UK General Election, roundly beating expectations set by pollsters to claim a clear majority in the House of Commons. But the Scottish National Party (SNP) also scored major wins, even beyond what was expected. The Tory win and the SNP gains set the stage for a divided nation—and possibly the end of the U.K. as we know it.

Last September, Scots rejected independencenarrowly but decisively, 55 to 45. But in last Thursday’s vote, the SNP, which brought the independence referendum to a vote and has fanned the flames of independence, converted that loss into a staggering win in the UK General Election. The SNP claimed 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats, leaving the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour with just one seat apiece. Previously, Labour held 41 Scottish seats, with the Liberal Democrats on 11.

The rest of this article may be viewed here.


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Hitchens on religious instruction

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Stephen Fry on philosophy

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Thomas Paine on useless arguments

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Hitchens on faith

“Faith is the surrender of the mind; it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals. It’s our need to believe, and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. Of all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated.” – Christopher Hitchens

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