Thursday, September 20, 2007

I guess I was paying attention

I made the mistake of getting intellectually upset over at The Moderate Voice blog while on a break. Someone was doing a post about originalist judicial philosophy, over which I have no real opinion, and then a commenter declared the post to all be garbage, but provided absolutely no reason that it was so. I got mad and asked if he was ever planning on providing evidence for anything he says or not. This is a regular occurrence with this commenter. He always exclaims "false" and walks away as if that has helped anyone. The commenter then actually did provide evidence for what he was saying, but lead off his comment by stating that no evidence was needed.

I finally responded with the post below, in which I was shocked to learn that apparently I had paid attention in philosophy class a decade ago. Here you go and I'm headed back to linguistics:

Now, let’s tackle your lead off statement:
“Correct statements of fact aren’t “claims” (or “assertions,” a word I see misused frequently), and I owe no evidence or proof any more than if I say the world is round, rather than flat.”

Indeed brute facts are brute facts and remain so whether or not we believe them and whether or not we have evidence for them. There may be a certain number of stars in the universe at this instant and that is a brute fact. (The problem we will run into is when something is still a star and when not, but let’s ignore that. The point is that the universe is the way it is, no matter our beliefs or evidence.) I believe the error you are making is in equivocating over the words “fact”, “belief” or “claim” or “assertion”, and “knowledge”.

If I were to throw out an exact number of stars in the universe right now, I may or may not be right about it. Whether or not I am right is a fact. But when I give you the number, I am not providing a fact, I am providing a claim or assertion about a fact. I think that the number of stars is so-and-so. You may wish to know if what I am claiming is a fact or not and so you might ask me why I say that, i.e., what the evidence is.

Let’s say I cannot provide any evidence at all. In fact, I completely made the number up off the top of my head. The number I made up could still be true just by chance, it could be accurate; however, you’d have no good reason to believe it. In such cases, it is customary to say that I have a correct belief, but I lack knowledge, because I have no evidence for the belief.

One reason we want to make this distinction is that, as the cliché goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day. For two moments every day a broken clock gets the time exactly right, but that’s only because it must, and not because it can actually tell time. If I actually want to know what the time is in general, I’d much rather have a functioning clock that has a reason for the time it is giving, even, depending on my function, if it’s always 3 minutes off.

When you make claims about originalism, they may or may not also be facts out in the world. You clearly think that you have knowledge of those facts, meaning you think, based upon reading of originalists and general judicial philosophy, that your beliefs are correct and justified. However, no one else knows if you are right or not. We don’t know why you yell out the word “false” and claim to have established something. Those of reading your words need to distinguish the broken clock who might have it right by chance and the functioning one who has evidence, because, if we believe in a reasonable world, we think that complete guessing is not as likely to be correct most of the time as is a statment based on knowledge.

Giving up the idea of evidence when someone states something just because it is or is not a fact out in the world would be like going into a court room, having some one declare “guilty” for who knows why, and walking out. The person might have stated a fact, but no one, perhaps even the person who stated it, knows.

Of course, as always, this is all outlined in Plato, particularly the Thaeatetus.


Nicole Kelly said...

I think the best thing about reading your blog is knowing that I am not alone in the world of wanting logical arguements (it's not a snotty statement, I just really want people who claim to be logic lovers, to follow through with their passion).

The main problem I see with this arguement (as you have described it), and most arguments truthfully, is that someone has taked a working hypothesis as fact. In reality, there is very little truth. If you want to get nitpicky, you can really only claim axiom, which all parties would have to agree to accept. I have a problem with people who argue "truth" as though there is a universal truth, as if statistics presented to the public aren't often manipulations, as if the famous dead guy they are quoting had a direct line to perfect knowledge.

Go get 'em, Paca. :-)

Ello said...

Now you're just showing off! ;o)

pacatrue said...

Of course, Ello! I don't post thing that make me look like a complete idiot. I take that back. I don't intentionally post things that make me look like an idiot.

Nicole, I understand some of the issues that you are referring to with direct lines to the truth. I thought briefly about going into the nature of truth, the importance of category formation, etc., but I thought that would just confuse things. In the end, I just wanted the guy to give me some reason at all.

Nicole Kelly said...


1)You'll have to excuse the first ramble about "truth" out of me. I have a little cold right now, which makes me edgy and less forced (not a good combo ;-))

2)Failure to present evidence is, in my book, admission of a lack thereof. If you refuse to back your claims, assertions, truths, with some sort of empirical evidence, then you would have already agreed to this point as truth.

In short, he had no argument, which was your problem with him. On the other hand, he probably really believes that he was perfectly logical and you are just being impossible by not accepting something that is obviously true, as true (regardless of its obvious nature).

pacatrue said...

Ha ha. That's exactly what he believes. Interpretations of originalist judicial philosophy are as self-evident as the world is round for him. Of course, the world being round is not self-evident at all. Did any culture in the world think it was an actual ball before it was demonstrated? Circle, square, or other shape yes, but it wasn't a sphere. (I think a Greek guy did have the idea, but it was rejected.) We only don't have to argue for it now because we all have received sufficient evidence.

Church Lady said...

I can't think of a single thing to post.

But what's the difference between a goat and a llama?

pacatrue said...

Is this a riddle or a question, churchlady?