“Spookiness”: Get Over It.
June 19, 2011 — 22:16

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 18

I remember encountering as an undergrad the notion (Mackie?) that moral properties were “queer.” Then I remember reading some stuff in Phil Mind about “ectoplasm” and “spook stuff” with attributions of mental substance as “spooky.” I don’t know where this nonsense got started, but I was surprised “real” philosophers would play this kind of card. It is nothing less than a cop out. I once asked a famous atheist why he didn’t believe in God, and he said because it was just “weird” and compared it to belief in numbers. Not acceptable. We’re stuck with the weird. Peter van Inwagen is eloquent on this: that we face a choice among mysteries, not a choice between mystery and something else (actually I said that, but he inspired me to say it).

I’m not a Platonist. I find most Platonism inexplicable and at times unintelligible. But I don’t object to abstracta because they are “weird.” I don’t believe in concrete modal realism. But that’s because I find it raises more questions than it answers. It’s explanatory power and it’s ability to give a reductive account of modality provide reasons to believe it, but those reasons are outweighed in my estimation by reasons not to believe it (for example, I think it is very non-parsimonious). I don’t believe in the possibility of gunk or extended simples. But this is not because they are weird, though I do find extended simples weird. The point is this: If anyone should be able to get past the weird, it is philosophers. The weird awaits us around every corner. There are weird things about endurantism and certainly weird things about perdurantism, but I believe perdurantism because of its explanatory power and its vindication of certain deep intuitions I have about time and symmetry.
It is just laziness or a failure of nerve or both to dismiss God as “weird” or mental causation as “spooky.” We ought to do as we do with all metaphysics: follow the argument. Just as importantly, the assessment of the prior probability of theism should be set in a principled way, not by how unfamiliar the concept of God might be. Omnipotence, for example, is not a complex property. Potency is the ability to actualize states of affairs. “Omni-” means “all.” So the range of states of affairs actualizable by omnipotence is…all of them (in logically consistent aggregates). Plausibly, all God’s properties follow form omnipotence, for here’s a possible state of affairs “My knowing whether p.” At any rate, bare theism is built up out of very simple properties and parameters. Mental properties and substances are postulated for essentially the same reasons *substances* are postulated. Only a crude scientism can justify dismissal mental properties and substances out of hand.
The appeal to “spookiness” and “weirdness” represents a failure of nerve and should be discouraged.

  • Dr. Dougherty,
    Well said! though I would hesitate to identify Mackie’s argument from queerness as a similar cop-out.Mackie thinks moral properties would be queer if naturalism were true, not queer simpliciter. The conditional nature of Mackie’s argument makes it a bit more respectable than a cop-out.
    I suspect that most philosophers identify entities or views as “weird” because of ill-fit with important background beliefs (i.e., physicalism, naturalism, theism, etc.). Once acknowledged, I think an argument from queerness is legitimate; it’s no different than the conditional likelihood of some fact given some theory.
    But is there not a place for the incredulous stare? Lewis’ modal realism. Necessitarianism. Meinongianism. Mereological nihilism (old-school Unger stuff). I don’t think I react to these views because of important background beliefs I have. They simply strike me as…weird. But I’m willing to engage their arguments.

    June 20, 2011 — 0:51
  • Chad, you make a good point. Maybe what we might call “conditional weirdness” makes sense, but I think that is a very, very different thing from intrinsic weirdness.
    However, no, I don’t think the incredulous stare is a good reaction to any of those things. I think they simply ought to be evaluated for their explanatory power and simplicity. Quantum stuff sounds insane, and might be, but it has to be evaluated rationally.

    June 20, 2011 — 6:38
  • James Beebe

    Agreed. Another area where the spookiness card is often played: the debate about a priori knowledge. Much resistance to the rationalist view that we can have substantive a priori knowledge (as opposed to “merely” analytic knowledge, whatever that means) is grounded in the alleged spookiness of such a view.

    June 20, 2011 — 12:24
  • James, that is so right on!

    June 20, 2011 — 16:14
  • The “spookiness” card is just an appeal to opinion. It’s the opposite of a philosophical move.
    In any case since when was weird, or counter-intuitive, or whatever, a bad thing by default? In science we encounter surprising and odd results all the time, and in fact we depend upon it. Heisenberg remarked that “If atoms are really to explain the origin of color and smell… they cannot possess properties like color and smell.” Analogy is of course perilous, but if we extend this, we will have to say that any explanation of the ordinary will itself have to be non-ordinary.
    We face a choice among mysteries, not a choice between mystery and something else.
    Succinctly put.

    June 20, 2011 — 16:37
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    In relation to apparent spookiness I think there is an asymmetry between naturalism and theism. The naturalist may reasonably claim that the blind evolutionary process which produced our brain may very well have produced a metaphysically stupid brain. Indeed, given the adaptive irrelevance of metaphysics the naturalist may argue that this is most probably the case, and that therefore it is no wonder that naturalism entails so much that strikes us as spooky. Theism, on the contrary, entails that God has created us with cognitive faculties that are reliable enough to comport with the purpose of creation, which surely entails our understanding of metaphysical reality to the degree that our condition (and indeed our salvation) requires. Thus, to mention an important example, if knowledge of the Trinitarian nature of God is relevant to our condition then we must have been created with the cognitive faculties to understand that nature. So, I think, the theist cannot as plausibly call upon mysterianism as the naturalist can.

    June 20, 2011 — 17:06
  • Rob

    Well hopefully knowledge of the trinity is not necessary for salvation otherwise everyone before at least the late 2nd century AD is in trouble. But even regarding Christian belief after the formulation of the trinity, I don’t think any Church expects people to understand it in order to be saved. When we recite the Nicene Creed we are committing ourselves to the truth of the claim, not pretending to fully understand it.

    June 20, 2011 — 17:24
  • Dustin Crummett

    Dianelos, wouldn’t the naturalist’s pushing that line too hard risk undercutting justifiable belief in naturalism itself?

    June 20, 2011 — 21:21
  • Robert Gressis

    Hi Trent,
    You wrote:
    “However, no, I don’t think the incredulous stare is a good reaction to any of those things. I think they simply ought to be evaluated for their explanatory power and simplicity.”
    Hmm. Why do you think this is the best way to go about determining whether we ought to believe in the existence of something? Is this rooted in Bayesianism, or is this something separate (I don’t do epistemology, so I’m not trying to trick you into anything–not that I could, anyway)?
    More important, does this work with moral facts? After all, a moral skeptic would, I think, plausibly argue that it’s simpler to hold that there are no moral facts–just commitments to certain norms, or just emotional reactions, or whatever the noncognitivism du jour is–and that it also explains just as much, if not more so, about how people act than moral objectivism (e.g., it explains why there is so much disagreement about morality, it can be easily tied in with an evolutionary story about why we’re here now, etc.). The strategy of most moral realists, though, is to hold that it’s commonsense to hold that there is an objective right and wrong, and that, since it’s so counterintuitive to hold that there is no objective right and wrong, we should continue to maintain that there is one unless we have a really good argument for holding that there isn’t. Do you not think this is a legitimate strategy? Or does such a strategy full into your “simpler and explains more” approach? (In which case, wouldn’t “x is weird” simply be shorthand for “x isn’t as simple as ~x” or “x isn’t as simple as y”?)

    June 21, 2011 — 10:47
  • Trent:
    1. This doesn’t affect anything you really care about, but I did want to say something about the invocation of Mackie.
    I think there is a very specific kind of queerness that Mackie was worried about. As I recall the argument (and I recall it poorly), the basic idea is that if there are moral truths, belief in them motivates.
    So the entities that ground moral truths are such that belief in their existence motivates one to act. That’s the queerness that Mackie is worried about. The entities that ground moral truths are so spooky that mere belief in them causes action.
    What’s driving all this is not, I think, the unnaturalness of the entities, but the Humean idea that only desire, and not belief, motivates. The queerness point simply underscores this. So, I think that the tradition of objecting to entities for their oddness should not really be taking Mackie for its father. This strengthens your point–a compelling queerness move isn’t just to say something is queer, but to point out properties it has that conflict with an otherwise plausible theory.
    (Not that I actually find the Humean theory plausible, except in the trivial sense that one might call anything that motivates “a desire”, in which case an argument is needed that a belief is not a desire. It seems very plausible–this isn’t my example–that a request from another person motivates directly, without any non-trivial desire. It may even be that we’re evolutionarily programmed to act directly on requests absent defeaters. Very helpful in an emergency. “Duck!” “Which desire of mine will be furthered by duck…? Aargh!”)
    2. That said, don’t you think that an intuition that “This entity is too odd to exist” carries some evidential weight? Not much, though, as the animals of the deep sea show.
    3. I suppose sometimes the choice is between a holding that a weird entity holds or that a weird claim is true. For instance, in the classic version of the problem of diachronic personal identity (I am inclined to think the right solution is deflationary myself), one has to choose between something like believing (a) there are souls, (b) there are primitive identity facts, (c) we can’t survive total amnesia and (d) it is logically impossible to survive the destruction of the physical body. Claims (a) and (b) posit weird entities. Claims (c) and (d) are weird–they are deeply counterintuitive.
    I am guessing that the folks who don’t like queer entities implicitly accept as a regulative principle that one should opt for weird non-existential claims over weird existential claims. Such a regulative principle, once stated, looks very dubious, doesn’t it?

    June 21, 2011 — 11:03
  • Dr. Pruss,
    I’m not sure that’s the best reading of Mackie. For Mackie, the intrinsic motivational power of ethical facts is just one among several features that would make an entity queer given naturalism. Mackie identifies a whole host of entities that do not have this feature (“essence, number, identity, diversity, solidity, inertia, substance, the necessary existence and infinite extension of time and space, necessity and possibility in general, power, and causation”) as potential targets of the argument from queerness insofar as they resisted being given “empirical foundations.” 

    But I’m not sure simply being empirically recalcitrant is the best way to understand Mackie’s argument, either.

    June 21, 2011 — 16:02
  • Sorry, I’m kind of a philosophy newbie… You said “Plausibly, all God’s properties follow form omnipotence…” Did you mean “follows FROM omnipotence”, or is “form omnipotence” a theory I just haven’t heard about?
    Thanks, and great article (what I understood of it…!).

    June 21, 2011 — 19:00
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I don’t believe that knowledge of the Trinity is necessary for salvation. I can see now that what I wrote above is misleading, but I meant “requires” in the sense of “is very helpful” or “moves towards”. And I do think that knowledge of God, and more specifically the understanding of Christianity, is helpful (but is clearly not sufficient) for salvation. I believe that what is necessary and sufficient for salvation is to follow the path of Christ, by which one becomes like Christ – so salvation is open to non-Christians and even non-theists. An atheist who lives like Christ is closer to God than a Christian who lives like Caiaphas.
    Still, the dogma of Trinity is central to Christianity, and if Christianity as a belief system is relevant to God’s purpose in creation it follows I think that God has given us sufficient cognitive faculties to understand that central dogma.
    I think that the facts of natural evolution do undercut justifiable belief in naturalism. Plantiga in his EAAN has argued exactly that, but he attacked the reliability of the whole of our cognitive faculties. It seems to me that it is easier to accept that more specific claim that on naturalism and natural evolution (i.e. on the view that evolution is blind) our cognitive faculties for metaphysical knowledge are unreliable. Now I don’t think the issue is whether the naturalist will choose to push or not this line of argumentation. This result is implied by the conjunction of naturalism and natural evolution, so the consistent naturalist must embrace it. If I were a naturalist I would simply assert that reality happens not to be such as to satisfy philosophers’ epistemic principles. Actually I think there is a change in the air towards that position. Recently physicist Lawrence Krauss claimed that physical reality need not comport with logic, and indeed that we now know that it does not. I think that’s absurd, but I also think that naturalism provides the space for reasonable people to make claims which sound absurd – and indeed spooky.
    In conclusion, naturalism entails a shaky epistemic foundation but for this very reason is less falsifiable.

    June 21, 2011 — 22:37
  • I certainly think that people who play the “spookie” card often fail to apply it consistently, granting special status to science.

    June 22, 2011 — 11:14
  • Dave, yes, definitely a typo, but “form” is a loaded word in philosophy, so it makes sense to ask! 🙂

    June 22, 2011 — 11:17
  • Chad:
    You may be right. It’s quite likely that my memory has screened out the really bad arguments in Mackie and kept only the interesting one.

    June 22, 2011 — 11:27
  • Dr. Pruss,
    Haha, touche. But understood along Bayesian lines (i.e., Pr(moral facts that are intrinsically motivating & not susceptible to empirical investigaion & etc.|naturalism), do you think it would be worth remembering?

    June 22, 2011 — 12:25
  • Paul

    My TA in a philosophy of language class at UCLA used this sort of language.

    June 29, 2011 — 17:54