Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Raving Atheist Critiques Aaron Kinney's Asymmetry Argument

The Raving Atheist posted a few critiques of my "The Asymmetry of Immaterialism" post. Right off the bat, I want to thank RA for his consideration of my argument, and for the critique he provided. I hope to be able to answer his critique, as well as clarify a few ambiguities that he pointed out.

RA starts off with listing my four "asymmetrical" statements. I will repost them here for the convenience of my readers:

(1) For you to be in my line of sight, I need not be in your line of sight.
(2) To hold up this 10 pound object, I need not exert any force.

(3) It is wrong for me to murder you, but it is not wrong for you to murder me.

(4) I am your Son, but you are not my Father.

RA then begins his critique of each of my four statements:

I think this analysis is flawed for a number of reasons. Some of the statements may be false because they involve contradictions, but this has nothing to do with their symmetry or asymmetry.

First, the "asymmetry" of a proposition does not prove its falsity. AK seems to be asserting that the converse of every true statement must also be true, but that's not simply not the case. It may sometimes be the case, but that can only be determined by examining the nature of the proposition.

It may seem to be that I am asserting that the converse of every true statement must also be true, but that is not what I am asserting. What I am asserting is that when you make a statement involving two entities and their interaction between each other, both entities must conform to the preconditions that the interaction requires. In other words, both entities involved in the interaction must have symmetry in regards to the preconditions that each entity meets. A good example for this "symmetry" demand is in my first asymmetrical example.

Speaking of my first asymmetrical example, RA has this to say:

Example (1) is false simply because we know, empirically, that light travels in a straight line (mostly) and that two objects on the same line must thus be in the same line of sight. But if we preserve the "asymmetry" and change the statement just a little, we can form a true statement such as "for you to be looking at me, I need not be looking at you."

The straightness or curviness of the path of light is irrelevant to my statement (1), but it doesn't look like RA is challenging it on those grounds. In fact, RA is challenging it by tweaking my statement from having line of sight, to choosing to observe said line of sight. At this point, I am not sure if RA understands what I mean when I talk of "asymmetry".

It is logically impossible for entity A to be in the "line of sight" of entity B without entity B also being in the line of sight of entity A. Whether or not either of these entities chooses to observe or look through said line of sight is irrelevant. And as I said earlier, the straightness or curviness of the path of light is also irrelevant. Note that my argument from the line of sight is only making a claim of symmetry; of both entities being "symmetrical" by meeting the same preconditions required by the interaction in question.

To elaborate: For entity A to be capable of seeing (interaction) entity B, entity B must meet the preconditions of said interaction. In other words, entity B must be in the line of sight of entity A. However, entity B cannot be in the line of sight of entity A without entity A also being in the line of sight of entity B, because the interaction (seeing) has a precondition that both entities must meet (line of sight) before any interaction can begin. Whether or not both entities "choose" to "see" each other is irrelevant, and after all, without a line of sight available between the two, the "choice" of whether or not to "see" each other would not even be available.

RA continues to statement (2):

Example (2) is false because we know, empirically, in a gravitational field, force must be applied to keep an object from falling. But again, a slight modification -- changing the weight term to one of mass -- could convert it into an asymmetrical but nonetheless true statement: "To hold up this 10 kilogram object, I need not exert any force." Astronauts do that all the time in zero-gravity situations.

Actually, in a zero gravity environment, force must still be applied to contain or control objects, and that force must be equal to (or greater than) the object's force that one is trying to change. Just because a ten kilogram object is in outer space, doesn't mean that it needs no force applied to it in order to be contained, controlled, or otherwise interacted with. Even in zero gravity, fuel must still be burnt to change the velocity of rocket ships, for example.

Consider also the comment from Axel_621 in regards to force being applied to objects:

I'd like to point out that if an immaterial entity exerts force on a material object, then the material object is also applying force to the immaterial entity by default. If this were not so, then no force could be applied to the material object by the immaterial entity.

So true, so true.

Now we continue to RA's critique of my statement (3):

Example (3) is false (to the extent moral statements have a truth value) only because "murder" implies a wrong, or at least a legal wrong. But the symmetry of the "who kills who" aspect of it is irrelevant. There are plenty of situations in which it would be right for one person to kill another, but not vice versa -- a police officer would be justified in killing a sniper or suicide bomber. And statements of the "it is wrong for me to X you, but it is not wrong for you to X me" are true in countless situations despite the asymmetry. It's fine for a small child to sit on its parent's lap, but the adult doesn't have the same privilege.

I think RA got confused here between the words "kill" and "murder". RA is right that "murder" implies a wrong. In fact, it implies coercion, and I chose to use the word "murder" very deliberately. RA is also right that "[t]here are plenty of situations in which it would be right for one person to kill another, but not vice versa," because the word "kill" is not morally contextual; it is not as specific as "murder" is, for "murder" is a specific kind of killing - a wrongful one.

For a moral statement to be true, it must adhere to The Moral Razor. According to Francois Tremblay:

The Moral Razor is this :
A moral principle or system, or a political principle or system, is invalid if it is asymmetrical in application (to locations, times or persons).

Which means that if it is immoral for person A to initiate coercion (like murder, theft, or whatever), against person B, then it is also wrong for person B to initiate coercion against person A. What it means, is that all conscious entities must operate by the same moral rules in the same way that all material entities must operate under the same laws of physics.

In response to RA's charge that "a police officer would be justified in killing a sniper or suicide bomber," I again will quote from Francois Tremblay's Moral Razor argument:

There is one exception, and that is when we are looking at scenarios where a valid rule was already broken. Arresting someone when no crime was committed is asymmetrical, but arresting someone who initiated force is a different scenario. In this case we are looking not at a political principle - which is what the Razor is about - but rather at the consequence of breaking such a principle. In that case I would argue that, as long as no other asymmetry is present, singling out initiators of force should not be seen as breaking the Razor a priori.

In RA's critique, he mentions snipers and bombers. I am assuming that he means an immoral, coercive sniper like Lee Harvey Oswald, or an immoral, coercive bomber like the Unabomber. In this case, since these snipers and bombers already broke the rules of morality, then a coercive response from security forces is justified.

So what is my point about RA's critique of my statement (3)? That RA has failed to show that a moral rule can apply to person A but not person B, and that RA has failed to show a valid example of moral asymmetry. RA's use of the word "kill" was not contextual, his argument involving the police stopping a sniper or bomber is actually compatible with my moral argument (as well as Francois' Moral Razor), and my claim that symmetry is necessary is still valid: that for any interaction between two entities, both entities must adhere to the demands set forth by the interaction for said interaction to take place.

RA then continues to statement (4):

Example (4), as a commentor pointed out, may be true as it stands because the "you" may be the son's mother (I thought everyone knew this riddle). Furthermore, the effect of the symmetry in relationships between people is very fact-sensitive. "I am your sibling, but you are not my sibling" is always false, whereas "I am your brother, but you are not my brother" is only sometimes true (where there's a sister). And returning to the actual example given, we can see that "I am your son, and you are my father" is less symmetric than "I am your son, and you are my son," but experience teaches us that the first is true and the second is not.

RA really did get me here. He pointed out a problem with my statement that I overlooked. I mistakenly said "son" and "father" when I should have said "child" and "parent". Allow me to correct it right now:


(4) I am your child, and you are my parent.


(4) I am your child, but you are not my parent.

Is it now more clear how the "symmetrical" statement is logically true, while the "asymmetrical" statement is not?

RA then addresses my claim that for material and immaterial entities to interact, both entities must be symmetrical in that they both meet the same preconditions required by said interaction:

Which bring us to the question of whether, as AK insists, there is a necessary symmetry between the ability of material and immaterial things to observe and test one another. I don't see why this would be so. This supposed rule doesn't even hold between material entities. I can observe and test a rock, but that doesn't mean the rock can observe and test me.

RA's statement regarding a rock is factually incorrect. For a human to test a rock, the human can touch it or see it (via light waves reflecting off of the rock), or something else. But does the same hold true for the rock testing a human? Of course it does! If a rock touches a human, isn't it true that the rock applies force to the human? And isn't it true that when a rock is within the line of sight of a human, that the human is also within the line of sight of the rock? Isn't it true that when light waves are reflecting off a rock and hitting a human, at the same time there are light waves reflecting off the human and hitting the rock? One may protest, "but the rock has no eyes!" But this is irrelevant, for the light waves are indeed reflecting off both the human and the rock and hitting each other nonetheless. The rock has visual observation of the human available to it whenever the human has visual observation of the rock available to him. And just as Axel_621 noted, whenever a force is applied, an opposite force is applied back. So if I were to touch a rock (apply force), the rock is touching me also (also applying force).

Again, we come back to the principle of symmetry. Between two entities (human and rock), both entities must meet the same preconditions (line of sight, application of force), set forth by the claimed interaction for said interaction to actually occur.

RA then critiques my claims regarding interaction itself:

AK also talks more broadly about interaction between material and immaterial things, again reasoning that if somethingness can't affect nothingness, nothingness shouldn't be able to affect somethingness. If I can't pick up a ghost, a ghost can't pick up me. The problem with this logic, is logic itself. Logic is immaterial, and yet AK insists that it governs the possibility of interaction between all things in all situations. And all of science is premised upon the existence of invisible "laws" which somehow infallibly direct the workings of all matter. Numbers, too, are immaterial, but play a large role in our interactions with the universe. I can't interact with the number 2, change the laws of gravity or violate laws of logic, but they still affect me quite profoundly (even if they're not omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent or even conscious).

We now come to a fundamental difference between RA and myself that runs deeper than I initially expected. RA believes that logic is immaterial. I could not disagree more. Logic is material in the same way that all meta-data is material. Properties of material entities are material as well, and that includes logic.

RA is also factually wrong about interacting with the number "2". RA interacts with the number "2" every time he imagines it. Concepts are just as material as software on your hard drive. It is meta-data, or data that describes data. Meta-data is just as material as the material that it is composed of. Are the songs on a Compact Disc immaterial? No, they are the meta-data of all the little bumps and valleys found on the surface of the disc.

Gravity is material, and the law of gravity is the concept that humans create in order to help understand gravity itself. The law of gravity is a material concept comprised of meta-data that is used to explain and understand a particular property of material matter/energy (that property is gravity). Just as the property of gravity is as material as the matter that produces it, concepts are just as material as the matter and energy that imagines them (the human brain).

I believe that my symmetry argument remains intact through RA's critique, in part because he didn't seem to fully understand it, also due in part to a bit of ambiguity and incorrect assumptions of entity descriptors (son instead of child, father instead of parent), on my part. I hope that I have cleared all that up. Note that my argument of symmetry does not mean that I claim that the converse of the given statement must be true. It only means that when two entities want to play together (interact), they must obey the same rules.

For clarification, my asymmetry argument against immaterialism's undetectability goes like this:

For two entities to interact, both entities must by symmetrical in that they both meet the same preconditions set forth by said interaction for the interaction to occur.

I would like to thank The Raving Atheist for critiquing my argument. I hope my response serves as good food for thought, and I invite more critiques from RA as well as anyone else who wants to take a shot at it. I am more than happy to listen to, and respond to, any critique of my arguments, so bring 'em on!

Crossposted at Kill The Afterlife.

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At 4/04/2006 10:46 PM, Blogger TheJollyNihilist declaimed...

I also responded over at Kill the Afterlife.

Bottom line: You win this round, Aaron.

It will be interesting if RA responds in kind. In-depth debate between two capable atheists will only serve to hone our already-formidable arguments.



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