Thursday, 18 November 2010

Evidence

I've been mulling over Andrew Anthony's entertaining and encouraging interview with C Hitchens at the weekend. It's full of good stuff and I was partcularly struck by this:
Hitchens once wrote a line that has almost gained the status of philosophical epigram or even scientific dictum: ‘What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence’.

Very good and useful. However, an awkward question has popped into my mind: what evidence does he have for that statement?

14 comments:

Sean said...

experience?

jonathan law said...

Hitchens's dictum is neat, but surely just a rephrasing of that old chestnut, Ayer's verifiability principle (any nontautological statement that cannot be verified by observation is meaningless): which as any undergrad kno is self-refuting (the principle is neither tautological nor capable of empirical verification).

Hey Skipper said...

Conspiracy Theorists.

Brit said...

Yes, it's a practical one for use in Hitch's customary bust-ups (on religion, 9/11, conspiracy theoriests etc), rather than a coherent philosophical formula.

Hey Skipper said...

Actually, I think it is coherent.

What Hitchens is talking are statements that boil down to this:

P = not(P)

In other words, P is simultaneously true and false. If you nothing about any statement, besides the statement itself, then it is impossible to distinguish between the statement and its negation.

It is worth keeping in mind that the "New Atheists" are making an anti-theist argument (theologies exist, and they are both objectively and subjectively wrong).

In contrast, theists interpret this as adeism (there is not some entity that is godlike).

The anti-theist argument is evidence based -- of course, one may weigh evidence differently.

As for deism / adeism, those positions are of the P = not(P) variety: neither has any evidence, both may be dismissed out of hand.

Gaw said...

Sean: In practical terms yes. But still the logical contradiction remains.

Jonathan: Thank you for that. I thought it seemed a bit of a familiar problem

Skip: Conspiracy theorists are anything but short of 'evidence'...

Brit: Not sure there's much practical use in incoherent formulas, especially when dealing with those large topics. But it would be interesting to know the context of the remark.

Skip: Your comment makes me wonder about the pivotal meaning of evidence. Surely, there's no indisputable evidence that it's better to be good than bad. That is, there's no objective, universal and provable philosophical foundation for morality.

That's the problem with Hitchens' rationalism. I've heard him address this problem by arguing that the 'good' is what 'good' people have thought throughout the ages. It's a sort of historical tradition. Whilst this is probably the only place to go it doesn't seem particularly robust for a number of reasons (which I won't go into here!).

Hey Skipper said...

Surely, there's no indisputable evidence that it's better to be good than bad.

Yes there is: history.

Societies that act in ways that we consider "good" a far more successful than societies that do not.

Spain and Nazi Germany either killed or exiled a great deal of intellectual capacity. The consequences of those acts are indisputable evidence the acts were bad.

The same consequentalist argument can be used at any level of detail.

Is there any indisputable evidence that being on time for work is good, and being late is bad?

---

RE: Conspiracy Theorists and evidence.

Google "chemtrails".

Gaw said...

There are a great many periods, lives, states, countries, etc. that demonstrate the opposite.

Brit said...

I've seen him utter it in a debate - I think it was during the one with his bro. The formula is that if a Christian says something like "millions of people have felt the presence of God", then they walk into Hitch's trap.

In terms of practical debating use, Hitch can say pretty much anything and make it sound convincing.

Hey Skipper said...

There are a great many periods, lives, states, countries, etc. that demonstrate the opposite.

By using the word "demonstrate", you prove my point.

You are absolutely right, that is, there's no objective, universal and provable philosophical foundation for morality

However, the behaviors we moderns consider "moral" have proven themselves more fit than their opposites.

Take slavery, for one example.

Hey Skipper said...

The formula is that if a Christian says something like "millions of people have felt the presence of God", then they walk into Hitch's trap.

I don't think so.

That statement is exactly equivalent to "millions of people have not felt the presence of God."

Since both are true, they mutually negate each other as evidence for, or against, the statement "God exists."

Gaw said...

Skip, please see Whig Interpretation of History, critique of.

zmkc said...

The part of that interview that really struck me was his reaction to the September 11 attacks: "Here we are then," he later recalled thinking, "in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose."

zmkc said...

I hope he is right.