The empirical two-step

I notice a pattern.  Here’s the most famous case:

British empiricism phase 1:  Locke argues that all we know is sense and mental experience and logical deductions therefrom.  But we seem to know a lot of things that we don’t “experience”:  personal identity, substantial unity, distinct essences of things, natural law.  Not to worry, says Locke.  We can derive those things logically from our experiences.  So, since senses + logic gives us all we need, why imagine we know anything else?  We shrug our shoulders, say okay, and become empiricists.

British empiricism phase 2:  “Gotcha!” says empiricism, in the persons of Berkley and Hume.  It turns out you can’t get substance, personal identity, causality, or natural law from empiricism.  Therefore….these things are illusions!

It’s all about the timing.  If Locke had come out and just stipulated that he wouldn’t believe anything other than his senses and right away followed it by saying that causality is just sloppy thinking, we would have all laughed at him, and thought to ourselves “Well, obviously we know lots of things that senses+logic doesn’t cover.”  (Let’s not get distracted, as people were at the time, by asking if nonempirical ideas are “innate”.)  It’s not like the case for empiricism was overwhelming, but we wanted to be assured that we could keep our ideas of substance and causality because of a sentimental attachment to these ideas.  To people in Locke’s time, the reality of substance, causality, etc. and our knowledge of them were manifest.  A philosophical school had to accommodate them, or it wouldn’t be at all credible.  Now, logically, when Hume came around, people should have responded the same way.  “What, I don’t have an experience of having a self?  Well, I know I do have one, so empiricism must be stupid.”  But no, because the English had already made up their minds to accept empiricism (under its false pretenses), they thought that the soul had just been disproved.

Then there’s this one, only slightly less famous:

Evolution, phase 1:  Darwin says that evolution by natural selection can explain the diversity of species.  It can even explain elevated human behavior like intelligence and altruism.  “Cool!” we say, and accept Darwin’s theory.

Evolution, phase 2: “Gotcha!” say the materialists.  It turns out–they say–that evolution by natural selection does not explain qualitative differences–only differences of degree.  Therefore, qualitative differences–differences of species, of kind–don’t really exist!  There’s no qualitative difference between a human and an amoeba.  Don’t like it?  Well you must be an idiot who doesn’t understand science.  Also, it turns out evolution doesn’t explain altruism, which means there’s really no such thing.  It’s just genes being selfish through kin selection.  And the aesthetic sense is really just an our evolved appreciation of habitable landscapes and healthy mates.  And religion is really just a group survival mechanism.  And…

One difference between the two:  I think Hume correctly inferred the consequences of empiricism, but I think the materialists are completely wrong about the implications of Darwin’s theory.  The above is a gross misunderstanding.  I have argued this at length elsewhere.  The rhetorical strategy, though, is the same.  It it is really true (and it isn’t) that evolution is incompatible with there being a qualitative difference between humans and amoebas, or with there being a spiritual aspect of humanity, then evolution must be wrong, because these things are manifest.  Logically, the materialists’ attacks should misfire against evolutionary biology itself, which will always be far less certain to me than the existence of my own soul or my capacity for altruism.

Recently, The Damned Old Man, presented another two-step maneuver against me.

secular culture, phase 1:  You Christians shouldn’t judge art by the morality of the characters.  That’s a dumb, philistine thing to do.  Don’t you know there’s murder and adultery in the Bible?

secular culture, phase 2:  You Christians are hypocrites!  You like dramas that include acts you regard as sins, and you even express sympathy with supposedly-sinning characters, and yet you refuse to approve such acts in real life.

As with Darwinism, I here accept the phase 1 claim but deny the phase 2 claim.  (For empiricism, I deny both.)

4 Responses

  1. Organ donation.

    Step 1: Taking a dead person’s organs can save umpteen bazillion other people, and, hey, they’re dead anyways!

    Step 2: You know, we do not have the faintest idea when someone is actually dead, nor have we ever. One thing we’re pretty sure about, though, is that many of the people we have been taking organs from are not, in fact, dead. So, whatever it is which makes organ donation acceptable, it isn’t a dead donor. So, I guess it must be consent or utility-maximization or something. And that means . . .

    The article linked above makes, quite literally, the step 2 argument.

    Lydia McGrew has a really nice set of blog posts on organ donation. My favorite observation is that “brain dead” patients are routinely given anesthetic prior to organ removal because, otherwise, “Nurses get really, really upset” about the pain response (crying, raised pulse and blood pressure) of the “dead” person.

  2. Berkeley and Hume weren’t a cartel – they represent opposed views.

    Also, you can too get natural law from empiricism. You can even get natural theology from empiricism.

  3. Hume would disagree on the natural law claim.

  4. […] Auster calls it the “good cop/bad cop” routine.  I call it the “empirical two-step“.  It just keeps […]

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