Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Argument from Revulsion

Here's a sketch of another argument I'm toying with: (1) I'm rightly repulsed by some aspects of the natural world, but (2) I wouldn't be rightly repulsed by some aspects of the natural world if theism is true; therefore, (3) theism is false.  Call it the argument from revulsion.

The kind of revulsion in play is not primarily moral, but aesthetic. The argument therefore seems distinct from arguments from evil. Examples of repulsive things are easy to find -- think, for example, of most insects and parasites. Here is a randomly chosen example: 
The crustacean Cymothoa exigua has the dubious and unsettling honor of being the only parasite known to replace an organ. It enters through the gills of the spotted rose snapper, attaching to the base of the fish’s tongue, where it drinks its blood. The bloodsucking causes the tongue to eventually wither away, at which point the crustacean attaches itself to the tongue stub, acting as the fish's tongue from then on. (link)

The key premise is (2). Why should we accept it? The basic line of reasoning in support of the premise is that if theism is true, then our cognitive and affective faculties are reliable, and so they track the truth about aesthetic properties of the world. Now if theism is true, then God made the world, and it is good. But given epistemic reliability, my aesthetic judgements about the repulsiveness of parts of the natural world are prima facie justified, in which case parts of the creation are prima facie repulsive. But this conflicts with the hypothesis that it is good (at least aesthetically). 

So that's the argument in a nutshell. What can be said in reply? Perhaps a "greater good" response could be constructed. But how would it go? Is a world full of aesthetically revolting things necessary for a greater good? If so, what is it? 

P.S., I am seeking a list of creatures and other aspects of nature that readers find particularly repulsive. Please comment liberally with your examples!


17 comments:

Bradley C. said...

Our fallen nature prevents from seeing the true beauty of the star-nosed mole.

Chris King said...

I'm first concerned with premise (1). It seems to have a normative claim embedded in it that I don't know what to make of. What does it mean to be "rightly" repulsed by something?

exapologist said...

Hi Chris. The notion of rightness here is (roughly) aptness or fittingness. So the idea is that revulsion is an appropriate affective response to entities with (for want of a better term) negative aesthetic status, just as wonder and delight are fitting responses to entities with positive aesthetic status (e.g., a beautiful sunset). The idea is that affective responses can serve as a guide to truth.

Angra Mainyu said...

Hi, EA

I don't think I have better examples given that as you point out, many insects and parasites are repulsive, and that covers a lot of ground. But how about [url=http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2012/02/22/earthworm-this-is-not-new-family-of-legless-amphibians-are-tough-to-catch/]chikilidae[/url]?

Also, might the argument be expanded, considering not only the parasites and other things, but the results of their actions when they function properly – also part of creation, assuming there is some creator?

For example, any illness – in humans, other animals, plants, etc. – that results from viruses, bacteria, or any sort of parasite growing at the expense of the host is a part of creation under that assumption, and not human-made (in nearly all cases at least).

While those are abnormal situations for the host organisms, they are normal for the parasitic ones. So, many created beings, when they function properly, make other created beings function improperly, cause a lot of suffering, and in addition to that, are aesthetically revolting and make things that are also repulsive, like some growths that are abnormal on other beings – but normal for them to make.

exapologist said...

Whoops -- I accidentally hit the "reject" button for Chris King's nice comment. Sorry, Chris! In any case, here it is:

That makes sense. On a theistic picture, you would expect to have a truth about aesthetic value and thus a person could be rightly or wrongly attuned to that value.

However, granting that human aesthetic responses can be "truth-tracking," why think that they must be, or at least prima facie would be on theism? (I'm waiting for the entomologist and marine biologist readers of your blog to take exception to your aesthetic judgments.) :)

Angra Mainyu said...

I'm not sure whether there is another post by Chris that I missed, but on the issue of truth-tracking, it seems to me there is another problem for the theist, as follows:

Given what we know about evolution, truth-tracking with regard to aesthetic value seems plausible long as different species are generally tracking different things and – if intelligent enough – talking about different things.

For example, let's consider Homo Erectus. They were rather ugly. But they were not H. Erectus-ugly – we probably are.

It's a case similar to color, it seems to me. We plausibly do track color truths, in a robust enough sense: if Alice says Bob ran a red light, and Bob says otherwise, there is a fact of the matter as to whether he did, one of them is making a false statement, etc.

But let's now consider aliens from another planet that use words that sound like “red”, and “green” and even perceive objects like we perceive green and red objects (I take that different humans perceive colors very similarly, but this is not crucial), but their perceptions are associated with very different wavelengths. Their words would not mean the same as ours, and they would be tracking something else.

The same may well happen (and almost certainly does happen if there are other civilizations, despite some overlap) with respect to aesthetic value; to go with the example of a beautiful sunset, beings that evolved in dark caves (say, species#2) may well not find it appealing but quite the opposite, and the sunset might be #2-ugly. And if they are capable of speech, they will likely have words for things they care about, like what they perceive in a positive light, roughly similar to our aesthetic perceptions.

But then, why would one think that a creator finds beauty appealing, rather than H. Erectus-beauty, or #2-beauty for some alien species, etc.?

I guess a theist might not claim that the creator prefers beauty, in which case they would avoid both your argument and the problem of different species tracking different things, but that doesn't work for common conceptions of God, so in the case of many theists, it would have a very high cost.

An alternative would involve a claim that there is only one beaut and no H. Erectus-beauty, #2-beauty, etc., but then why should we think that humans are equipped to track it, rather than some other species, whether here on Earth or somewhere else in the universe?

Granted, a theist might say that all species that become intelligent converge to the aesthetic truth, some better perhaps than other, but that would be a rather bold claim about exobiology – why would anyone think it's true?

Chris King said...

EA, thanks for (re)posting the comment.

Angra, I don't see why "our" beauty, H. Erectus-beauty, and #2-beauty need to be mutually exclusive from a "truth" point of view. I would rather think that, as you point out, what a population sees as beautiful is radically contingent upon features of cultural context and biology. In other words, having particular and limited views on beauty is a part of creaturely finitude.

However, on the hypothesis of theism, the creator wouldn't be limited by cultural or evolutionary factors and therefore would be able to see everything created as beautiful.

Thus, you would have all capable creatures partially tracking the truth of what is beautiful according to the means appropriate to their contingencies, while the creator is able to transcend those contingencies and affirm all created things as aesthetically good.

Angra Mainyu said...

Chris,

A problem with that is that we wouldn't have a truth-tracking mechanism in that case.

For example, let say that Bob's eyes are modified by an evil demon, and then Bob sees every object as we see, say, orange objects, and says things are orange.
Then, Bob would not [no longer, assuming he had normal color vision before] have a mechanism that is truth-tracking with respect to color, at least in the usual sense of the expression “truth-tracking”, even though she would actually get it right in all cases when the object he is looking at, is orange.

Similarly, if we assume that there is some “true color” out there, we should not believe that we have a way of reliably tracking it. That assumption would lead to a color error theory (side note: I'm simplifying a bit because I'm not considering differences in color language across human societies, but that's not relevant to the basis point I'm making; it would just complicate the example a bit).

The case remains relevantly analogous in the case of aesthetic value – though one can make the argument without the analogy -, because we have an aesthetic sense that tells us what is beautiful and what is not, whether an object is more beautiful than another one, etc.; under the assumption that there is some property “beauty” that is not related to our species in particular and that all things are beautiful, then we would not be tracking beauty at all, even if we would get it right when what we perceive as beautiful happens to be beautiful – just as a broken clock gets it right twice a day, or Bob would get it right with orange objects, but that's not truth-tracking.

It might be said that we would get it right more often than Bob, or the clock. Perhaps, but still no where near enough to consider it a case of truth-tracking, given that the really ugly growths caused by parasites (for example) would be beautiful, and generally all of the ugly things we perceive.

Moreover, even in the case of objects we perceive as beautiful, we would not have a reliable way of ordering them as more or less beautiful.

So, the view that all created things are aesthetically good leads to an error theory about our usual talk about aesthetic beauty, replacing them with a claim that everything created is beautiful, which would be a very different practice, and our sense of beauty would not be in any usual way truth-tracking.

Also, we still would not be able to tell (under the assumption that everything the creator made is beautiful) which things are more beautiful than others, whether the things humans make are beautiful, etc.; we might make assumptions like that too, but that would also have no relation to any truth-tracking on our part. So, for example, assessments that some paintings are better than others – for aesthetic reasons – would not be justified if we make that assumption (perhaps, some aliens or some other animals got that particular case right and the painting that we find aesthetically better is actually worse; of course, the aliens or animals would be wrong about other stuff, etc., so they would not have a reliable system, either).

In short, the theistic view in question, when combined with evolution, leads to skepticism about our judgments of beauty.

Chris King said...

Angra,

I can see why you might think that our aesthetic judgments wouldn't be fully truth-tracking on theism. In fact, I'm inclined to agree - that's what I was questioning EA about in my reposted post. However, I'm thinking of a partially-truth-tracking structure for humans. (Maybe I'm misusing the phrase "truth-tracking" according the way it's usually used. I'm not super familiar with its literature history. Just as if something is partially reliable, then it would be called unreliable, perhaps if something is partially-truth-tracking, we would call it non-truth-tracking.)

Anyway, the difference I see in this case as opposed to the analogies that you give is that we do have a reason, on theism, to think that when we identify something in nature as beautiful, it actually is: namely, that everything in nature is created by God and thus is beautiful according to an absolute standard. We also have reasons to think that we may not be able to identify all cases of natural beauty, namely, our biological and cultural limitations.

Now, how all this applies to judgments of whether something is more or less beautiful, or to human-made vs. natural things is a good question. I'm inclined to think that the theist wouldn't be skeptical about the beauty of natural things. And if she is skeptical about more fine-grained judgments and about the beauty of human artifacts, she's in no worse position than the non-theist. For instance, I'd think that in the case of human art, making judgments that are appropriate to the conditions of human beings would be the proper manner of evaluation.

Angra Mainyu said...

Chris,

Let's say that there is a creator of all other beings, say Hera to give her a name. Hera has some appreciation of things – say, H-beautiful things are very pleasing to her.
Let's further stipulate that, given her psychological makeup, she will be so inclined to make H-beautiful thing, that on H-theism, we have good reason to believe that all things that she created are indeed A-beautiful.
Let's also accept the evolutionary picture, including that minds result from adaptations, drift, etc.
Then, under those hypothesis, we do have good reasons, on H-theism, to think that any sort of parasite, or any abnormal growth in a human being resulting from the actions of the parasite in question, or a warthog, a leech, Cymothoa exigua, etc., are all H-beautiful.

But that tells us that Hera's standards are radically different from what our aesthetic sense delivers.

So, are they also beautiful, using “beautiful” in the sense in which the word is usually used in English?
If our sense of beauty is any guide to what is beautiful, then the answer is clearly “no”. Then, H-beauty is a standard different from beauty, as are H. Erectus-beauty, #2-beauty, and so on.
If we, on the other hand, insist that those things are indeed beautiful, the conclusion is that our sense of beauty is massively off-track. Yes, granted, given that on this scenario everything is beautiful, then when we find something beautiful, we get it right, but not because our sense is reliable at all. Our sense is tracking something else (which depends on evolution), or nothing. The conclusion that everything is beautiful does not result from our sense of beauty, but from our assumptions that Hera exists and is like that, and that H-beauty is beauty – rather than something else.

Also, we would have no means of telling what is more beautiful as I mention.

Assuming God we get similar results, if we also assume God-beauty is beauty, etc.

As for the analogies, they're not needed, but they work: let us suppose that the creator (whoever that is)would not make anything c-yellow, c-red, or any combination of them. If we further add that c-colors are colors, then our color vision is massively off-track, and we can tell that Alice was wrong and Bob did not run a red light simply because there are no red lights in the first place.
It's just that God is not said to have some G-color, but the problem of beauty remains.

As an argument against God, one can point out that accepting that our sense of beauty is not massively in error, then there is no particular reason to think that God exists, rather than some #2-God who has a sense of #2-beauty, or for that matter Hera (as long as a preference for beauty is included in the concept of God, as it often is).

The non-theist has no similar difficulty, as long as she accepts that if some aliens have a sense of alien-beauty and they talk about alien-beauty, they would (in the case of most other species in the observable universe at least) not be talking about the same property we're talking about when we talk about beauty (and trying to debate in case of contact with them would be talking past each other, as would be the case with respect to color).

Chris King said...

I would argue that there is an important difference between our aesthetic sense being massively in error and our aesthetic sense being massively limited. And it's not clear to me how the non-theist can get out of saying that our aesthetic sense is massively limited, or how she could assume what alien-beauty would or would not be like.

Even granting aesthetic skepticism for the sake of argument, I don't see how it could count as an argument against theism. I'm not trying to build an argument for a particular God based on aesthetic experience.

Angra Mainyu said...

Chris,

There is a difference between massively limited and massively confused. In our case, it would be massively confused, for the reasons I pointed out earlier. I will leave that point at that.

As for alien-beauty, the non-theist needn't assume how alien-beauty would be like.
It's like alien-color, in this regard.

In the case of color, she only needs to go with science – in particular, evolution -, observe the differences in the visual system of different animals – eyes sensitive to different wavelengths, and more or less sensitive, etc. - despite a common ancestor, and point out that every species would have their own color-like perception - perhaps with some intra-specific variations too -, that is in those cases they have some perception like that at all.

In the case of two different animals on Earth, evolution changed them partially since their last common ancestor, but they remain partially unchanged. As a result, there will be some overlap in their color or color-like perception, smaller or greater depending on the amount of change since the last common ancestor.

In the case of aliens, there isn't even a common ancestor, so the degree of overlap would depend on the degree to which their environments are similar, the adaptations are similar, etc., but their color-like perception when they have one will be different from color perception, and different from each other's, in most (nearly all) cases at least, in the observable universe. If we consider the entire universe, the result is the same if the universe is finite. On the other hand, if it is infinite (infinitely many planets, etc.), then probably there are infinitely many alien species that have a color perception like ours, and infinitely many who do not, etc., though still one would not expect to find one who did.

In the case of beauty, also the non-theist only needs to go with science – in particular evolution -, observe the differences in shapes, smells, landscapes, etc. that different animals are attracted to on Earth, despite a common ancestor, and point out that nearly all species have or would have their own sense of beauty-like – perhaps with some intra-specific variations too.

In the case of two different animals on Earth, evolution changed them partially since their last common ancestor, but they remain partially unchanged. As a result, there will be some overlap in their beauty-like appreciation, smaller or greater depending on the amount of change since the last common ancestor.

In the case of aliens, there isn't even a common ancestor, so the degree of overlap would depend on the degree to which their environments are similar, the adaptations are similar, etc., but it would be different from the sense of beauty, and different from each other, in most (nearly all) cases at least, in the observable universe. If we consider the entire universe, the result is the same if the universe is finite. On the other hand, if it is infinite (infinitely many planets, etc.), then probably there are infinitely many alien species that have a sense of beauty like ours, and infinitely many who do not, etc., though still one would not expect to find one who did.

Angra Mainyu said...

Chris,

As for how that would count as an argument against theism, one way is to say:

P(theism)=P(theism&aesthetic skepticism) + P(theism&aesthetic non-skepticism), and that gives a very low probability of theism, as long as aesthetic skepticism is very improbable, and so is theism&aesthetic non-skepticism (which is the point here).

Another way – similar in the end - is to point out that there are infinitely many potentially different beauty-like alternatives (like H. Erectus-beauty, bottlenose dolphin-beauty, or any of the potential alien-beauties).

Given that background evidence, assuming that there a creator of all other beings, one may reckon that the probability that she prefers beauty is negligible.

In fact, if one give equal probability to all alternatives, then it's zero (or a non-zero infinitesimal if one accepts those), while if one bases the probability on the complexity of the beauty-like sense, there are still zillions of alternatives less complex than beauty, or about as complex (so, each as probable or more), plus infinitely many more complex (less probable each, but infinitely many).

So, the probability that the creator prefers beauty is negligible, given that background. Then, further evidence does not change that probabilistic assessment.

On that note, while there are beautiful things, as EA points out, there are plenty of revolting things; there are also plenty that, while not revolting, are pretty ugly. That evidence does not favor beauty over all other alternatives. In fact, if the creation is evidence for the aesthetic or aesthetic-like preferences of the creator (assuming there is one), then the observations count against a preference for beauty, against also a preference for H-Erectus beauty (since there are plenty of things that are H. Erectus-ugly, etc.), etc., and for some very different sort of appreciation.

On the other hand, if the creation is not evidence for that, we're stuck with the prior probability given the background.

Either way, the probability of God remains negligible.

A theist might try to find a way out saying aliens will be like ours, or converge to the same sense at least, positing God as a genetic engineer guiding evolution towards beauty. But that requires a rejection of present-day evolutionary theory – not as obvious or extensive as the rejection by those rejecting common descent, but still a rejection -; the non-theist needn't follow the theist there, and may properly ask: why would anyone believe that?

Side note:

If, on the other hand, the concept of God does not include any preference for beauty, that avoids all arguments from ugliness, revulsion, alien analogues to beauty, etc., but that would be too high a cost for many theists.

Even then, the non-theist still has a similar argument at hand (though it doesn't work for all non-theists; see below): she only needs to shift the focus from aesthetics to morality, go with something like Sharon Street's argument against what she describes as “realist theories of value” (side note: I don't share that terminology; I would instead classify moral naturalism as a type of realism, as philosophers like Huemer, Copp and others do), and again go with alien moral-like evaluations, etc.

Then, instead of revulsion and ugly things, she can point to moral evil and morally bad things, etc., and in the end, the probability of a morally perfect or a morally good God (or, generally, one with preferences for good things, rather than some other #something-good) is negligible.

Granted, that would not be available to non-theists who hold something like what's usually called “moral non-naturalism” (e. g., Huemer) or, for that matter, Kantian constructivists (e. g., Korsgaard), and the non-theist making an argument like that would have to tackle those variants as well, but in my assessment, Street's arguments and/or similar ones work in that regard.

Chris King said...

Angra,

So on your view, there would be no absolute truth about beauty, only beauty as indexed to species at particular times and places. So there's no truth about beauty per se, only truth about beauty-for-humans-at-time-t-and-place-x, etc. So judgments of beauty perhaps say more about human constitution and context than they do about about the actual features of reality. Is that right?

Angra Mainyu said...

Chris,

No, I wouldn't say that it says more about human constitution, and certainly not that the judgments are about.
For example, color is also like that (with some intra-specific variation), but if Alice tells me that Bob ran a red traffic light, that says something about what actually happened, not about human constitution, and it's definitely not about human constitution.
Similarly – to some extent -, I don't think that beauty judgments say something about human constitution. It is just that we care about some particular features of reality and not others because of our constitution, so we have names for them, etc.
But if someone tells me that a parasite is revolting, that tells me something about the parasite.
When I say “to some extent” I mean that there might be a greater degree of variation in beauty judgments among humans (and without error) than there is in color. That might result in some greater relativization – again, to some extent. But that depends on the case. For example, in the revulsion case, there seems to be a fact of the matter. Even in the case of many paintings, that may plausibly be so (i. e., about which one is more beautiful, etc.), but there are plausibly be cases in which different people will have different appreciation without error, and there will be no fact of the matter as to whether a painting is more beautiful than another one, or whether an object is beautiful.
That, however, does not seem to be a feature of beauty in particular.
For example, take the word “rich”; some people are rich, and some others are not, but it's not plausible in my assessment that the word is precise enough so that there is some number X so that someone who has X dollars is not rich, but someone who has X + 1 is; other words have different degrees of vagueness, depending on the case.
Still, in a sense, in those cases in which there is variation between different people, judgments of beauty provide some information about the person making the judgment, but that's not what the judgments are about; a judgment that states that a painting is beautiful is about the painting, even if it indirectly provides information about the person making it.

Also, I'm not saying that beauty is “beauty-for-humans-at-time-t-and-place-x”, just as color is not “color-for-humans-at-time-t-and-place-x”; it's just that we humans (and, perhaps, some other species with complex language if the universe is big enough for that, e. g., infinite) care about color, and most other species (on Earth or elsewhere in the observable universe) do not, though many have analogue perceptions, and if some species have complex language too, they probably have some color-like language, which is not the same as color.

P. S.:

EA, I sent a reply to Chris's second objection/question (i. e., regarding how that might count against theism) in another post. I'm not sure it got through. Would you reconsider posting it please, or let me know if something went wrong so that I send it again?

Chris King said...

Angra,

Those are some very interesting thoughts. I'll have to let someone else respond who has more time to do justice to the detail of your arguments. Thank you for the conversation.

Angra Mainyu said...

Chris,

You're welcome, and thanks for the conversation as well.

EA,

Thanks for posting that second reply.