The Failure of Purely Philosophical Arguments.

Recently and quite serendipitously I have been privy to a number of conversations between atheists and theists in which logical proofs from the imagination of the theist have claimed the efficacy of the transcendental argument and its many cousins for the existence of god.

What is fundamentally wrong with the absolute reliance on philosophical “proofs” is that most often, and here I am being generous, as I think it is in fact always the case, these proofs are predicated on premises that are claimed erroneously to be true axiomatically when in fact they cannot be shown to be self-evidently true.

As elegant as the premises may seem prima facie, it is possible, though admittedly by no means necessary, that they may in fact be erroneous. Given that we are employing only our critical thinking to substantiate their validity it is wholly possible and often the case that we may miss the logical flaws upon examination of the premise claims. Thus we end up accepting conclusions that are wrong because we were blind to the faults of the component premises of the argument.  Using our critical faculties to verify arguments born of our critical faculties is both a form of practical tautology and limited by our inability to overcome our biases and presuppositions.

This is where Science excels, in essence we are bound by empirical observations. Here too we put forward hypothesis which are born of our critical reasoning and subject (as is often the case) to error, however because we hold these ideas to be conditional until measured against objective reality of the natural world we immediately find ourselves on firmer footing. Another additional advantage to the scientific reliance on experimental data, that is, the arbitration of the real world is that hypotheses too are constrained by the need to fall in line with already existing and well tested theories.

Now, it is true as critics will say that this does not mean that we will always get correct theories on first pass, however what is true is that at some point, objective reality will force us to converge on the truth where we are wildly off track. This is a result of better measurement and understanding which accompanies an increase in knowledge (observations) of a subject, which is always and without exception quantitatively positive over the long run. In case it is unclear, what I am attempting to say here is that over the long run we will always learn more, thus better data will lead to better theories and ultimately convergence on the truth.

This arbitration by a reality outside of just our minds gives us the confidence in our scientifically held beliefs that a purely philosophical and thought experiment based derivation simply cannot.

Thus given the extraordinary nature of some claims, particularly those of a metaphysical and alleged supernatural nature, the idea that we should rely only on our logical intuitions is at best a risky proposition and at worst an outrageously preposterous one, depending of course on the subject matter and claim at hand.

To illustrate the above let us take for example the Transcendental Argument for God summarized below:

  1. God is a necessary precondition for logic and morality (because these are immaterial, yet real universals).
  2. People depend upon logic and morality, showing that they depend upon the universal, immaterial, and abstract realities which could not exist in a materialist universe but presupposes (presumes) the existence of an immaterial and absolute God.
  3. Therefore, God exists. If He didn’t, we could not rely upon logic, reason, morality, and other absolute universals (which are required and assumed to live in this universe, let alone to debate), and could not exist in a materialist universe where there are no absolute standards or an absolute Lawgiver. (source Wikipedia)

The first premise is an assumption that is axiomatic in nature, but this is not demonstrated. Firstly, it is not at all clear that there must be a precondition for logic and morality. Secondly it is not an automatic fact that if there were a precondition that it must be a god. This seems only to be true if we will it into being so, purely by defining a god as the sole necessary precondition. Which should be evident to the reader as being wholly misguided and circular.

Thus we can see that empirical evidence will always reign supreme in this exercise as many thought experiments may explain the presence of a particular premise. Unsurprisingly this is in fact the case for both logic and morality.

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