Tuesday, May 31, 2011

An anecdote on obscurantism

You know what I realized earlier?  It's been over a year since I've talked about the ontological arguments for a god.  Perhaps it is because I think the last post I wrote summarizing the flaws in the modal ontological argument is about as clear as I can manage.

In the course of blogging about the ontological arguments for years, I attracted a handful of self-described philosophers who argued with me rather persistently, perhaps because I am one of the few people on the internet who is willing to discuss what is wrong with the ontological arguments in detail, rather than what is wrong with them in the big picture.  Of course, I found out that most of these self-described philosophers were unable to speak of logic without making the most basic of errors, even when it was irrelevant to the argument.

Buried somewhere in the archives, buried in dozens of long comments, buried in jargon and symbols, is a joke I thought so funny that it's stuck with me over a year later.  It starts like this:

What can you do to make an already obscure argument even more difficult to understand?

As I explained before, the basic modal ontological argument has just a few steps:
Premise 1: If God exists, then God necessarily exists.
Lemma: If God possibly exists, then God exists. (proof omitted, as it is irrelevant to this post)
Premise 2: God possibly exists.
Conclusion: God exists.
But what if we were to make this argument instead? The difference is in bold.
Premise 1: If God exists, then God necessarily exists.
Lemma: If God does not exist, then God does not possibly exist.
Premise 2: God possibly exists.
Conclusion: God exists.
It's the same argument, only the lemma has been replaced with its contrapositive.  Every if-then statement has a logically equivalent contrapositive statement.  For example:
If Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal.
Contrapositive: If Socrates is not mortal, then Socrates is not a man.
The contrapositive of the contrapositive statement is the original statement.  So whenever we make an if-then statement, we have two choices in how to say it.  Why not choose the one that is most clear and intuitive to lay audiences?  Often times the two statements can each be unclear for different reasons, but that's not the case here.  The lemma as originally stated is shorter, allows the conclusion to use modus ponens rather than modus tollens, not to mention that it flows more naturally from the proof I omitted.  So why replace it with its contrapositive?

That's more or less what one of the philosophers did.  It's a very small thing that hardly matters, but I couldn't help but think... why?  Why take these tiny steps to make an obscure argument just a tiny bit more obscure?  I asked him, and he said it was the simplest way to state the argument.  He also seemed to have trouble understanding whenever I stated the argument the other way.  I found all of this hilarious.

Some might say this is to be expected, since obscurantism is what philosophers are trained to do.  I suspect that the person simply didn't understand the argument well enough to spot a purely unnecessary step that was added in.

1 comment:

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

Some might say this is to be expected, since obscurantism is what philosophers are trained to do.

Yeah, that would be me.

I suspect that the person simply didn't understand the argument well enough to spot a purely unnecessary step that was added in.

Both statements can be true.