Philosophical Shell Games

Shell games are all about misdirection. Unfortunately, in a philosophical shell game one never gets to uncover every shell and be delighted by discovery. Though some would put the concept of “god” in this category of impenetrable shells, there occurs to me a few slightly more apt examples of an explanation that substitutes a poorly understood notion for a totally obscure one.

A person who tries to sound intelligent by rattling off a phrase like “matter is just energy condensed into a slow vibration” is simply impoverishing his understanding of matter, as we know much less about the nature of energy than we do about matter. He is essentially passing the buck. Though it sounded truly profound when I first heard it (and my compliments to the fine comedy of Bill Hicks), this notion isn’t much of a revelation at all. It may even be true, as perhaps one day we will actually understand energy enough to fruitfully make such a claim, but currently we know much less about energy than we do about matter, and thus this aphorism leaves us knowing less about the material world than what we started with.  It seems as if the notion that “all is mind” in various Idealistic traditions is doing much the same thing. We know (in a scientific way) much less about mind than we do about matter, so equating all material phenomenon with “mind” is actually making both more obscure. This does not prove either philosophical equation false, of course, but begs the question of whether we come to any useful understanding of the subjects in question by holding these views. Do they yield any predictions that may be tested? Probably not. So why are such statements so popular and intriguing? Quite simply, we enjoy such pronouncements because they inspire awe. Now, i enjoy awe as much as the next guy, and may even agree with Aristotle that all philosophy starts with awe, but let us not be seduced into ending our investigation with a state of awe, but rather with a clear and distinct understanding of our subject. However, if you belong to the “ignorance is bliss” school of thought, or simply want to feel awe-some, might I offer you the following brilliant philosophical equation for your enjoyment: “all mind is energy, and all energy is mind!”

On a more serious note, the state of modern physics and astrophysics unfortunately lends quite nicely to all such shell games. For example, anyone who would like to posit or rescue the notion of “chi,” or any other élan vital, can simply appropriate the modern notion of “dark energy” as scientific ally, neatly scooting a totally obscure concept under a poorly understood shell. After all, if the modern scientific establishment is willing to entertain the notion of a mysterious, all-pervasive energy that is impossible to confirm due to the fact that it never interacts with the material world other than to somehow accelerate the expansion of space itself, then how could they ever disclaim something like “chi” or prove that their very “dark energy” is not somehow produced by the human body? What is quite baffling, however, is that all too often people who make this kind of move will begin their rant with an exhortation regarding how little science actually understands; often drawing a comparison between the small sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to humans and that presumably small spectrum of reality that even a scientific human mind can see. This is nothing short of an argumentum ad ignorantiam or appeal to ignorance, a common logical fallacy in which one uses the state of mankind’s ignorance on a topic as positive support for or against a claim. This observation regarding human ignorance (the pessimistic meta induction is a strong example) can even be used to defeat an argument from ignorance and could, in the case above, have been used to meet any claim that similarly overstepped our empirical limitations by asserting that such a thing “chi” is surely false because it has not been empirically confirmed thus far. Neither use of an argument from ignorance will do when in comes to subjects of which we should all rightly remain agnostic, whichever direction we are inclined to lean on the matter. However, the former move becomes absurd on at least three different levels if then followed by some appeal to a scientific notion of the most highly speculative and hypothetical nature, such as dark energy, as some kind of solid foundation. Under the first shell we find a hypothetical scientific idea, the uncertainty surrounding which should preclude it from being the solid foundation for any other such speculative notion. Under the second shell we find your own attack on scientific ideas in general, which would immediately undermine this appeal to scientific authority for support. Under the last shell we find a logical fallacy, as you use an appeal to this scientific ignorance as some kind of positive proof of your concept! In an honest search into such matters, we might even make the following concessions: 1) dark energy may exist, 2) the current scientific worldview or consensus may only see as much of reality as the human eye does the EM spectrum, and 3) that something like “chi” may exist. However, even with this generous start, you will win only the foolish to your side if you decide to shuffle these three premises around, playing philosophical shell games in order to find proof beyond what has currently been established empirically.

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One Response to Philosophical Shell Games

  1. Pingback: Building Consciousness Back Up To Size – Norretranders, Libet and Free Will « Think On These Things

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