Sunday, November 01, 2015

the trials of scopes

To the uninitiated, the claim to have superior reverence for Reason may sound as presumptuous and self-congratulatory as Libertarians claiming to have superior reverence for Liberty. Way back in 2012, when I was first getting acquainted with atheists on the internet and with organized atheistic "movements" of any kind, I balked a little at their penchant for publicly designating Reason as a distinguishing feature of their views. My shift from religious to atheistic didn't reflect that. Although the outcomes of my thoughts had greatly changed, my appreciation of logical deliberation had never changed throughout. I had always embraced the importance of closely examining ideas. I know now that my former view had an undercurrent of awful deficiencies, but blatant anti-intellectualism wasn't one. If it had been, would I have been as attentive to the counterarguments that ultimately persuaded me?

Later, I realized my misunderstanding. In these contexts, "Reason"—not to mention "Rationalist"—represented an assorted category of commendable methods to gather and test knowledge. And a major need met through introducing a distinct category, no matter its choice of name, was to specifically set up an opposite to the flawed method of faith (and the unrecommended methods of gullibility, ungrounded conjecture, and the substitution of wishes in place of facts). According to the wording they chose when they were advocating greater respect for Reason, I saw that they were in general agreement with my philosophies. In their more succinct language, like me they were stressing the need for carefully gauging ideas' amount of meaning/accuracy according to the quality of the verification of those ideas' implications. As usual, abstracted labels don't expose similarities and conflicts as effectively as unsummarized particulars. In my experience, likelier than not their views shared a lot with mine: my absence of belief in gods, and the broad outlines of the best ways to handle ideas, and the stance that the ideas of materialistic naturalism are the most probable fit for all the actual findings that have passed adequate standards.

Nevertheless, crisply invoking plain Reason as an explanation and/or justification has a small risk. It might entice followers of faith-beliefs into once again attempting to gloss over or rationalize the key differences in their beliefs' premises. They may suggest that materialistic naturalism is also a faith (requires the method of faith) or suggest that its notion of authority is equivalent. To that end, they're pleased to detect the faintest whiff of immaterial stuff in materialistic naturalism. It offers the immediate opportunity to pronounce that this view is relatively incomplete, hypocritical, illogical, etc. Then they may swiftly declare that anyone who holds to this view is forced to concede that Reason is their own version of an immaterial foundation; like them, their view is "really" dependent on the existence of something ghostly. At the same time, they certainly won't mention the meagerness of this concession. Even to concede the existence of a spiritual being entirely synonymous with Reason, such as a Cosmic Legislator behind the "laws" of nature, would still be foreign to the anthropomorphic content of the commoner faith-beliefs. It would be a relative of Deism's aloof god.

Fortunately, I don't define Reason in those disconnected phantasmal terms, and as stated earlier, I'm sure that I'm not alone in this. My longstanding position is that Reason's existence is embodied in countless concrete acts. These acts include work carried out by human brains, despite the apparent passivity of some acts like direct perception. (Actually transforming the sense organs' nerve impulses into usable information is a convoluted process that incorporates expectations and judgments.) Except metaphorically, I don't see Reason as a guide, an oracle, or an overlord. Reason is an ideal to measure against each act, one by one. It's largely about honoring consistency. Acts that are in accordance with Reason, such as cautious deductions and generalizations, are beneficial due to the reliable consistencies of encountered realities. Reasoners can confidently let causality be causality because the reasoned links between causes and effects echo these reliable consistencies—though the links aren't easily disentangled.

This prosaic depiction of Reason has an inherent cost. Since these acts occur in complex, unique, concrete contexts, the acts' results aren't necessarily applicable to other contexts. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. The analogous limitation in software development is known as the scope of an entity in software. For instance, the entity could be a single running total. By necessity, software code is broken up into manageable sections. To keep the meanings of entities predictable at all times, each entity is associated with a set scope of one or more code sections. It can be simply referenced, and possibly manipulated, only by the code sections in its scope. Of course, the section in which it is first introduced is its primary or native scope. Before an entity is manipulated in a separate scope, it must be explicitly exported there, or duplicated to a new entity there, or mixed into one or more of the preexisting entities there, or retrieved from across scopes through a completely descriptive longer version of its name (i.e. more like a full mailing address for the entity).

The relevant similarity is that just as the scope of each software entity doesn't automatically extend outside of the code section it came from, clear-sighted appraisal of an act of Reason recognizes that its correctness has a scope that doesn't automatically extend outside of the context that led to it. Additional contexts might be in the scope. But neither acts nor contexts are all alike, so there can't be generic rules for determining scopes. Indeed, the boundaries of the acts' scopes might be unknown without experimentation. Near a phase transition, changes in heat have smoothly changing effects...until the phase transition happens. The phase transition violates acts of Reason on either side of it. Neither do pure mathematics escape scopes. The interior angles of a triangle have a sum of 180°...but that could be false for Non-Euclidean geometries. The result of multiplication doesn't hinge on the order of the factors...but that could be false for matrices. Numerous realities remain appallingly unsympathetic to human longings for smooth simplicity.

That said, the relentless accumulation of human acts of Reason has established, and repeatedly confirmed, an array of conclusions with undeniably wide scopes: elements, particles, fundamental forces, energy conversions. These conclusions weren't spoken by a singular thing, entitled "Reason", which humans idolized and begged for answers. Acts were committed, in a lurching sequence, until these conclusions' wide scopes were surveyed.

The question of scope is complicated, but it's not inconsequential hair-splitting. It's exactly why commonplace anecdotes—testimonies—have low validity. On its own, the highly specific context of an anecdote shouldn't be accepted as a decisive source for acts of "Reason" with prematurely extensive scopes. The reasoner should at minimum have plausible arguments for assuming that to be the case. And perhaps they should postpone that assumption altogether until after more acts of mental study and physical investigation.

Lastly, if Reason is a collection of acts, with shrewdly scrutinized scopes, performed by humans, then it functions as more than a category or an ideal. It's a spreading cultural custom of confronting ideas' accuracy in credible ways. I absorbed this to some degree in my conventional upbringing in contemporary America, but the cultural customs of my faith-belief started out more dominant nonetheless. At first, these two groups of customs persisted in a sometimes restless truce that divided up the territory of my beliefs. The start of the end was when I permitted myself to candidly compare the substance of the two. I didn't exchange my loyalties for a new metaphysical master. There wasn't a shining light of irresistible Reason compelling me to abruptly embrace "self-evidently right" opinions on all issues. All that happened was the crucial decision to more fully pursue the customs of the culture with the stronger corroborations, regardless of where the other disagreed on the details uncovered. It wasn't my fault that a thorough commitment to the one, combined with increasing quantities of information, ended up eroding the whole structure of the other...

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