Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Doggerel #20: "Obvious"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

I've been inadvertantly reminded of a conversation I once had with a fundie that went something like this:
Me: "What makes you think that some deity made the world in six days, and sent his son to Earth for some kind of 'sacrifice'?"

Fundie: "It's obvious!"
The reminder came about when Daniel Pinchbeck commented on Skeptico claiming,
All that we really know of material reality is what comes to us mediated through our consciousness - therefore it should be paternaly obvious that our consciousness is fundamental rather than the material world we perceive through our senses.
Of course, the problem with this is that there's no reason to believe that consciousness is a required part of the world: If life never formed, electrons would still buzz around nuclei, comets would still collide with planets, and black holes would still suck. The only difference would be that no one would be around to care. (I wonder if there's a potential Zen koan in there.)

The problem with the word "obvious" is that it's usually a sign that someone isn't prepared to debate the point. Just like "and then, a miracle occurs," it's often used as a way of skipping a step. Many people, if they read that piece of Pinchbeck's comment, would go along with it, simply because they aren't able or willing to contemplate the possibility of a universe where consciousness is optional, not required.

"Obviousness" is a featured part of many logical fallacies. For example, in the classic "shill" ad hominem, there's usually an implicit argument that the shill would "obviously" lie to protect his interests. The unexamined alternative, usually covered up by the "obviousness" of the scenario is that the truth can be in the shill's favor. As Stephen Colbert said to demonstrate that concept, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."

Additionally, what is "obvious" to a human being is not necessarily true. One of the purported geocentric arguments out there was "Any child could tell you that the Earth does not move." Of course, the Earth does move, but our circumstances render that movement difficult to detect by non-rigorous means. But it is detectable for someone willing to put forth the effort.

Hopefully by now, it's obvious that "obvious" obviously can't be used to defend an argument. Duh.


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The Uncredible Hallq said...

I'm not so sure about this one. I remember this passage from Richard Carrier's Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection:

"Can you imagine a movement today claiming that a soldier in World War Two rose physically from the dead, but when you asked for proof all they offered you were a mere handful of anonymous religious tracts written in the 1980's? Would it be even remotely reasonable to believe such a thing on so feeble a proof? Well--no."

Common sense impressions can be powerful tools in debate.

Justin said...

I agree with Hallq that there is a role for the "obvious" in terms of critical common sense.

Re Daniel’s claims, while I would agree that consciousness is fundamental to our knowledge of the world, it is certainly not “obvious” that it follows from this that it is fundamental in any metaphysical sense.