You used to say that it was so easy, but you’re trying now… Barefoot Bum’s metaphysic-epistemic confusion

The Barefoot Bum had a major meltdown because I contracted:

And even if the universe were as thick with causally inert objects as morons at the Creation Museum, who — besides philosophers, theologians, pseudo-intellectuals such as Sangy, and other professional bullshit artists — would ever care? [Source: The Barefoot Bum, ‘Injustice’]


[W]ho — besides philosophers, theologians, pseudo-intellectuals such as Sangy, and other professional bullshit artists — would ever care [about truth]?

While I stand by the way I parsed his post (after all, he is asking who would care if causally inert objects existed, which means he’s asking who cares what actually exists and is therefore true), I didn’t intend to misrepresent him.  It is often the case that people who are losing a discussion will find some trivial reason to brush the conversation off, and I suspect that this is what’s going on here.

Meanwhile, he started addressing some of the problems in yet another post entitled ‘A Neutral Worldview‘.

In one sense, metaphysics is not about the world at all, but about the most basic principles about how we shouldthink.  [Source: The Barefoot Bum, ‘A Neutral Worldview’]

While it’s clear that, in general, the Barefoot Bum is a Graduate of Wikipedia, it should be evident to just about everybody that the Barefoot Bum is right off his rocker here.  Let’s get a better definition of metaphysics:

It is not easy to say what metaphysics is. Ancient and Medieval philosophers might have said that metaphysics was, like chemistry or astrology, to be defined by its subject matter: metaphysics was the “science” that studied “being as such” or “the first causes of things” or “things that do not change.” It is no longer possible to define metaphysics that way, and for two reasons. First, a philosopher who denied the existence of those things that had once been seen as constituting the subject-matter of metaphysics—first causes or unchanging things—would now be considered to be making thereby a metaphysical assertion. Secondly, there are many philosophical problems that are now considered to be metaphysical problems (or at least partly metaphysical problems) that are in no way related to first causes or unchanging things; the problem of free will, for example, or the problem of the mental and the physical. [Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Metaphysics‘]

The Barefoot Bum is describing epistemology.  Again with the SEP:

Defined narrowly, epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief. As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits? As the study of justified belief, epistemology aims to answer questions such as: How we are to understand the concept of justification? What makes justified beliefs justified? Is justification internal or external to one’s own mind? Understood more broadly, epistemology is about issues having to do with the creation and dissemination of knowledge in particular areas of inquiry. [Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Epistemology’]

Indeed, this definition looks eerily familiar…

One way of looking at metaphysics is as the definitions of the fundamental philosophical fields: What does it mean to say we know something? What does it mean to say that something exists? What does it mean to say that something is good or beautiful? And, most importantly: What do we mean when we call a proposition true? Your answers to these questions comprise your metaphysical system. [Source: The Barefoot Bum, ‘A Neutral Worldview’]

(Note: I’m distinguishing between two separate questions, ‘What does it mean to say that something exists?’ and ‘What does it mean for something to exist?’  It might be unfair to expect the Barefoot Bum to say what he means, but they’re different questions.  The first is epistemic; the second is metaphysical)

Because the starting point is so incredibly wrong-headed, the rest of his piece is incoherent blather.

But the presuppositional apologist is by definition engaged in apologetics, which is some form of communication; if the apologetic is actually happening, there must be some congruence between the apologist’s metaphysical system and the skeptical listener’s. If the presuppositional apologist claimed there were no congruence at all, then he would be implicitly claiming that he was not engaged in apologetics, that he was simply making noises in the air his listener was unable to understand. So the presuppositional apologist must claim congruent neutrality, and therefore his protestation that there is no “neutral” ground on which to stand must be at least irrelevant and at worst intentionally misleading.  [Ibid.]

Errrrrr…. ummmm…  What?

The presuppositional apologist is by definition engaged in apologetics… okay… and apologetics is a form of communication… right … and if the apologetic is actually happening (as opposed to..?) then there must be some congruence between the apologist’s metaphysical system and the sceptical listener’s…

Nope.  I’m baffled.  Surely there must be some congruence between the apologist’s and the sceptic’s language (taken as, perhaps, meaning such that words mean roughly the same thing).  That’s how communication works.  When I say, ‘I like marzipan’, we share a common understanding of those words such that they make sense.  We might muck it up occasionally, but — in general — we share the meanings of words.  Why does that mean that we have a congruence in our metaphysical system.

Well, it doesn’t.  The fact that we share the same universe means that we share the same metaphysical system.  The apologist doesn’t live in a private universe where God exists, after all.  Or perhaps ‘metaphysical system’ means ‘way of describing that which is’, in which case the Barefoot Bum is still incorrect.  The Barefoot Bum might say that no causally inert objects exist and yet we can still understand each other though I consider causally inert objects to be possible.

Perhaps — perhaps — the Barefoot Bum should stick to words and concepts he understands?

Again, I’ve been too wordy.  Check out this nugget from the end of his post:

The second tactic, asserting that naturalism “fails to account” for things like logic, reality, ethics, etc. could be trivially addressed by presupposing such things directly, without the mediation of the Christian God. [Ibid.]

Yes.  You could address the failings in naturalism by abandoning naturalism.  Well done.  Gold star.

You want to sleep and I do too… but computer programmers aren’t philosophers

So The Barefoot Bum has responded again

The Story So Far…

The Barefoot Bum called religion infantile because ‘[t]he specifically religious type of make-believe has an especially disturbing characteristic: Meaning and purpose come from without.’  And then he floundered around before wrapping up with ‘It would be nice to just be pluralistic, to say that well, we’re still going to need people to clean our toilets, and those who cannot consistently understand reality in a rational, adult manner will always be at a substantial disadvantage.’

I said that his post was both false and relied on assuming the conclusion.

He replied that my direct quotes of his argument were a mischaracterisation of his argument and that quoting a person was not a way to argue.  He wound up by showing that he was out of his depth with ‘“bald naturalism” (as opposed to what, hairy naturalism?’.  Amidst the personal attacks, he mentions the philosophically interesting part:

The fundamental principle of atheism is the rejection of ethical and epistemic authority: even if there were some form of objective values, meaning or purpose, they must be knowable to each and every person capable of rational thought. [Source: The Barefoot Bum, ‘How Not to Argue’]

I still hold that this is an interesting idea, mostly because it is a very common belief amongst internet atheists despite being irrational and indefensible.

So I replied why we shouldn’t believe the statement and why it was irrational.  ‘[I]f there were [X], [X] must be knowable to each and every person capable of rational thought’ is not a provably true statement.

When Computer Programmers Disagree

‘[I]f there were [X], [X] must be knowable to each and every person capable of rational thought’ is not a provable statement, as noted in a previous post.  How could a person mount a defence of it?

The Barefoot Bum tries to do it by stating that he never said it.

In the quoted passage I do not […] link knowability with existence. [Source: The Barefoot Bum, ‘Injustice’]

So when he says that ‘[I]f there were [X], [X] must be knowable to each and every person capable of rational thought’, he doesn’t really say that.  It makes me feel better that he doesn’t say what he means.  Perhaps when he says that I’m egregiously stupid, he actually means something completely different.  He might mean, for example, that I like marzipan (making it a true statement).  And the frequency with which he charges others of poor reading comprehension would make more sense if we suppose that he is projecting his deficiencies on to others.

So what does the Barefoot Bum mean?

I just don’t make the argument […] is not that what we cannot know does not exist. [Ibid.  All sic]

When reading masterpiece sentences like that, I wonder if I’m being really unfair by quoting him.  It’s like all those YouTube clips of children falling over.  Sure, it’s funny when they hurt themselves but should we laugh at the incapable?

I’m arguing against authority, that no individual can reasonably assert private knowledge of any objective truth. [Ibid.]

This is an exciting revelation because it strikes directly at the heart of ‘objective truth’.  Is the fact that I’m wearing black pants objectively true?  Really?  When I kick you, is it objectively true that you’re in pain?  Really?

On some accounts, the answer to all of those is yes.  If so, then there are clearly objective truths for which an individual has private knowledge.  ‘As it is objectively true that I am experiencing pain, I have private knowledge of an objective truth.’

But, in fairness to the Barefoot Bum, he might believe that colour and qualia are subjective (with propositions relating to them being made true by virtue of magic, perhaps — I wonder if he’s written ‘extensively’ on the role of magic as a truth-maker).  In which case, he’s making contentless statements: objective truths are those where there is no first-person authority to their truth; truths which depend on first-person authority are not objectively true.

If so, so what?  You’ve just defined a term annoyingly.  It’s like those theists who pull throw the chessboard by saying ‘God is unable to be debated’.  Nobody defines objective truths as those which aren’t based on first-person authority.  People define objective truths as those which are independent of the observer.  Truths which are based on first-person authority can be independent of the observer: ‘Anybody in this position would know X to be true.’

But we’re still back at the start: the Barefoot Bum is asserting unprovable statements and then firing abuse to people who disagree.  How do you know that there are no private objective truths?  Because you don’t know any?  Are you feeling left out?  I know many, many objectively true things which cannot be verified by others.  This is because I’m not a p-zombie.

Given that the Barefoot Bum goes on to complain that he has difficulty imagining things, I’m not so sure about him.

Can we imagine an causally inert object? Is such a concept even coherent? What is an object but a collection of causally relevant properties? Ordinary people don’t ever talk about causally inert properties of ordinary objects: such as the happiness of a rock, or the consciousness of piece of cheese. Indeed, does a causally inert object differ at all from no object at all? If so, how? [Ibid.]

The answers to all of these are: Yes.  Yes.  An existential being (Go-go Gadget Aristotle).  Happiness and consciousness are not causally inert, especially when they’re ‘of’ other things.  Yes.  Beingness.

Again, I’ve waffled far too much.  I could have left it with his statement:

[W]ho — besides philosophers, theologians, pseudo-intellectuals such as Sangy, and other professional bullshit artists — would ever care [about truth]? [Ibid.]

It is awfully interesting to discuss this issue with a person who states that only philosophers, theologians, pseudo-intellectuals, &c. are the only people who care about truth.

Darling, just don’t put down your guns yet… It’s game on with the Barefoot Bum

The Barefoot Bum left a comment whining that I’d done him some injustice by quoting his post and criticising it.  It’s true: I am a terrible person for quoting his arguments.  It was unfair to use his own words to illustrate his argument.  We atheists can’t stand up to that kind of scrutiny.

A better defence of his ‘argument’ was found back at his blog.

The stupidity starts with the title: “If there really was [sic] a God here, He would have raised a hand by now… the infantilism of atheist moaning.”

Commentary and criticism, even if it’s mistaken, is not “infantile”.

But commentary and criticism is infantile if it’s from and adult and displays ‘markedly childish […] psychological characteristics’ — as the original Barefoot Bum post did.  I guess the defence available to The Barefoot Bum is that he isn’t an adult…

Now, this post could get a bit tit-for-tat, and the Barefoot Bum’s commentary does lend itself towards the infantile (‘One wonders if OTSF successfully completed elementary school, where students typically learn how to read and comprehend simple declarative sentences in the English language.’), but let’s see if we can’t find some high level, thematic discussion of my criticism.


What we do find — amongst the whining and sniveling — is an interesting idea about two-thirds of the way down.

The fundamental principle of atheism is the rejection of ethical and epistemic authority: even if there were some form of objective values, meaning or purpose, they must be knowable to each and every person capable of rational thought. [Source: The Barefoot Bum, ‘How Not to Argue’]

This is groundbreaking stuff.  Since when do we link ‘knowability’ with ‘existence’?

Imagine that there exists an object which is causally inert.  It would be weird to say that the object doesn’t exist by virtue of our being unable to know of its existence.  Indeed, that would be ignoring reality as it is and ignoring that ‘our preferences […] and wishes have no effect on reality except through our actions’.  This isn’t a revolution in thought, by the way.  Positivism has been dead in the water for decades.

But maybe I’m being unfair.  Maybe the Barefoot Bum isn’t saying that it’s a general rule that everything which exists is knowable.  Maybe he’s just special pleading the case of values, meaning, and purpose.  Everything else is mind-independent; values, meaning, and purpose aren’t.  Why do we know that this is the case?  Oh…  Wait.  Don’t ask that question.  It will upset The Barefoot Bum.

Again, I have been unkind and spoken at great length where I could have been more brief:

“bald naturalism” (as opposed to what, hairy naturalism?) [ibid]

Lesson for Only the Sangfroid: the atheist bloggers aren’t that smart.