Thursday, May 21, 2015

Out of the philosophical trilemma

I stumbled across this little gem the other day. It expresses a misconception, that rational thought is not rational. This is common across every level of Christianity and other religions that I know, from the most fundamentalist to pagans and nature worshipers. I’ve seen it expressed by the highly educated, like the editor of the religion page for Washington Post. C.S. Lewis had a popular version in his time. This particular web page has a fundamentalist bent, but the graphic is laid out nicely and gives me something to build from.

This trilemma, 3 choices that all fail on some level, has been around since the Greek Skeptics. There is no ultimate solution, but a path can be built out of it. That path discussed here is the same, regardless of what belief system you start with.

The idea was first proposed by Agrippa in the 1st century. Although famous, religion continued to be tied into daily life with its clear rules and rituals, no dilemmas. Then Descartes sat down and tried to think his way out of the problem of not knowing where thoughts come from. Like the option on the far left of the chart, he theorized that maybe we don’t exist as we think we do, but our thoughts are being controlled by an evil demon. For Descartes, this was just a thought experiment. For some that is a real possibility, but it’s one I won’t pursue here.

Descartes determined that even if he was under such control, he still had the awareness that he was separate from that demon. That he existed. But Descartes still couldn’t solve the basic questions of knowing what is true or what is right. He decided that since he could conceive of perfection then perfection must exist, and that must be the God of the Bible. This was a bare assertion and dumps him back into the trilemma, and we’ll leave him there.

On the other side of the chart, we have the answer of divine revelation. Although different terms may be used, this is still widely used as a solution to the problem of a basis for knowledge. It is regularly invoked by elected officials at the highest levels of public office in modern democratic countries. In the WaPo editorial I mentioned, the woman explained how she grew up religious, then became an atheist, then thought about the difference and thinks either is a faith decision. She says she read a bunch of books with good reasons for religion, but doesn't share much of those reasons..

I admit it's a problem. We weren’t there in the beginning, so we don't know how we got here.

We came into consciousness in a world that was already over 4 billion years old. If you count the earliest proto-humans as having some kind of awareness, it took a few million years for us to figure out where we are in the universe. We’re still working on what that means. I don’t have an answer to that, but I have some thoughts on how to get there.

Digging into the trilemma, if you haven’t already, we are faced with three choices, circular reasoning, infinite regress, or making some bare assertions. The last one is expressed in a variety of ways i.e; axiomatic, self-evident argument, bedrock assumptions and others.

Circular reasoning is the easiest to spot, and to dismiss. The article that gave me the graphic does a horrible characterization of atheism, saying it assumes god doesn’t exist in its effort to prove god doesn’t exist. This wouldn’t be so bad if so many didn’t make the circular claim for god. There is even a verse for it, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness .” That's in the Bible, proving the Bible is the word of God. This usually gets confused during a discussion with some version of the Aristotelian solution to infinite regress.

Infinite regress is also easy to understand if you’ve ever played the “why” game with a 5 year old. They keep asking “why” until you run out of answers. Aristotle solved the problem by saying there must be some uncaused cause at the beginning. Descartes did something similar. A more sophisticated form is Anselm’s Ontological Argument. Spinoza also requires some sort of prime mover, although his is more of a pantheistic creation. Contemporary “spiritual but not religious” have some concept of how consciousness existed before the physical universe. All of these lend credence and intellectual rigor to the possibility of a real supernatural being of some kind. They all fail, but I'll leave those long arguments for another time.

Formal logic can deconstruct and find the flaws with these arguments. But those discussions are not satisfying for the average person on the street. Finding flaws with an argument does not mean the conclusion is wrong either. Worse, we still don’t know where our thoughts come from exactly, how we developed morals, when life began, or where the universe came from. The Big Bang seemed like a solution for a few decades, but we don’t even have the language to describe what that was. How do you say when time began? Beginnings imply time. They imply something existing to create creation. We have a mathematical language for it, but very few understand it and even those who do, don’t agree. We still have questions.

Bare assertions may be the easiest to identify. There is no reason given for them, circular or otherwise. They only have value when they are such a bedrock of an assumption that no one argues. Of course there are always a few out there who will argue anything. Some examples:

  • All complex things come from simpler things.
  • With regards to morality, pain hurts, I assume you experience it the same as me.
  • Consistent rules of nature that we figure out today were the same in the past and will be the same in the future.

Problems with the given solution

Our friend in the article suggests the trilemma is false, that by leaving out the possibility of God, it presents an unsolvable problem that actually has a solution. But his solution falls back into the trilemma. “Personally verifiable” is a bare assertion. Something that is true for you may not be true for someone else. I can only verify things that we can share and demonstrate. Your thoughts and feelings are true, but I have no way to know if you are lying about them or not. Or maybe you are not lying in the sense that you are misrepresenting your thoughts, maybe you are convinced of your own truth, but if I don't know how you arrived at it, I don't know if it is true or not.

“Whoever seeks Him finds Him” is circular. This is shown when people don’t “find Him”. They are told to go back to the scripture, and to repeat the rituals, because if they didn’t “find Him” then they must have done the seeking wrong. I actually have more respect for someone who states that they are in the “Assume God therefore God” box. They are being honest with their thoughts and reasoning and letting me know where they stand rather than attempting to apply logic and failing and then not accepting their failure.

There are also worse ways to do this. Attempting to apply Quantum Physics to escape our cause and affect universe for example. These states of matter that we have recently discovered, where the same particle exists in two places at the same time or things just appear and disappear, can only be maintained for fractions of seconds. They have only led to new theories, not to new principles that we can apply. We can’t apply these new data to psychology or spirituality. If you do, it is pure speculation. Not that there’s anything wrong with speculation.

Speculation is also something I respect. As long as you say you are speculating. It is the beginning of science. If we didn't look up with awe and wonder, we wouldn't have started asking questions in the first place. Sometimes science does not give us satisfactory answers and we can look to our dreams, our stories filled with allegory. Mythology opens our minds and leads us to new thoughts. Just call it what it is.

Building our way out of the trilemma
If you read the linked article, you'll see his chart copied below, showing four foundations of irrational thought and his one claimed rational process. My chart builds it's way out of two of those foundations and shows where the others fail.

There’s one box in this chart that shouldn’t be a box. It's called “infinite” so it's representation in the chart should go on infinitely. We can't do that, but even if we could make a box that contained all human knowledge it would still go on for, well, quite a few pages. We may not be able to ever answer every question “why”, but we can answer a lot of them. We've done that by choosing a starting point and building on it.

Darwin did this when he theorized about where species come from. His theory was incomplete, and he freely admitted it. He had evidence for differentiation within a few specific species and speculated on how that could explain where all of life came from. DNA was not discovered until after he was dead. How life came from non-life is still an open question. But having an open question does not destroy Darwin's answers.

This is the box where most people live. The box where there are no philosophical problems. There are answers that allow us to have lives, get to work, raise our children, see a movie now and then, enjoy a decent cup of coffee and hopefully enjoy old age. If you go to church, you may not be sure what the sermon is about every week, but it's close enough and the community offers you something, so no need to question it. There's nothing terribly wrong with living in this box. We accomplished quite a bit without knowing that we are a lonely planet on the edge of one of many galaxies. It's only a problem when people start defending the boundaries of their box and hurting others in the process.


But even a finite regression needs something to base itself on. This is where we finally get to the base assertion that religion has such a problem with; There is no supernatural. It's not proven. It's an assertion. When teachers in Catholic universities in the 13th century started considering it, they shut the schools down. They did re-open them, but with the agreement that the Church would decide about the supernatural. If they said it was a miracle, the philosophers were not to question that.


Some say this was suppression of science. Others say this was a clear boundary that allowed science to begin to define itself outside the walls of religion. There's no doubt that science began to take off after that and has not slowed down. The rules and guidelines are continually questioned and refined. There is no one place to go for a list of those rules. Like scientific knowledge itself, each generation builds upon the work of the previous. There are no authorities. The authority is the accumulation of evidence and logical reasoning that interprets that evidence. New evidence is accepted and new interpretations are made all the time.


The difference between religion's base assertion that the supernatural exists and science's base assertion that only the natural exist, is that science, by its own rule, allows its base assertion to be questioned. The difference is, you can question it without pulling the rug out from under it. So far, questioning scientific facts has only led to new facts. We look back in time when we look in a telescope and we don't see anything but the natural physical universe. If we ever see evidence of something else, we'll have to accept it, but provisionally, we'll stick with the original premise.  

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