Almost everybody who has had a child -- that includes me -- knows how annoying it can be when they learn how to make "Why?" into a way to drive a parent crazy.
You need to turn the TV off and go to bed.
Because it's late and you need to go to school tomorrow.
Why do I need to go to school?
So you can learn things.
Why should I learn things?
And so it goes, until the parent gets fed up and ends the discussion with "Because I said so! Go brush your teeth!"
Andy Norman uses this sort of Why? reasoning (or pseudo-reasoning) to illustrate a philosophical point in his book, "Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind-Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think."
Many people consider that the essence of sound thinking is supplying reasons for something you consider to be true. That's basically correct, but two extremes need to be avoided.
One is requiring that every reason be backed up with evidence.
That leads to a infinite regress where every claim needs an evidential foundation, which itself needs an evidential foundation. This lays the groundwork for extreme skepticism where nothing is viewed as proven since every claim of truth depends on another claim of truth, and so on, and so on.
The other extreme is faith, a natural result of that sort of extreme skepticism about our ability to know reality.
If nothing can be known for sure, then why not have blind faith in this or that? This eliminates the need for reasons, and hence the infinite regress of reasons leading to the need for more reasons to support those reasons.
Norman concludes, persuasively, that the way out of these extremes is to recognize that presumptions form the basis for collaborative dialog aimed at gaining an understanding of some issue. This is the way of science, he writes.
Practicing scientists don't wipe the belief-slate clean, then painstakingly populate it only with evidence-based conclusions. Like all of us, they take many things to be presumptively true, and reason from them. (Without these presumptions, they wouldn't get very far.)
Science isn't special because it starts from scratch and builds everything from evidence and logic alone; it's special because it's resolutely committed to countenancing cogent challenges and making necessary revisions.
...Practicing scientists, in other words, give evidentialism a Socratic rather than a Platonic spin. They grow into a community of inquiry that takes many things as presumptively true, and for the most part, they accept those presumptions. That's part of the process of becoming a scientist.
Sometimes, a scientist will challenge elements of the scientific consensus and succeed in overturning one or several of them. But they never discard all their discipline's presumptions, and start from scratch. If they did, they'd be doing something like Cartesian epistemology, not science.
...The New Socratic picture of reason, then, doesn't require us to abandon the sufficient evidence standard. Instead, it urges us to enrich our picture of how reasoning and inquiry work. Inquiry yields findings, which are then presumed, for the most part, to be true.
These presumptions become available for premising, and a spur to new inquiries. Often, these presumptions summarize accumulated evidence or otherwise encode hard-won insights. In this way, the evidence and insight they contain become the "basis" of new knowledge.
...So in a sense, presumptions are repositories of evidence.
This discussion of presumptions, along with my reading of the rest of Mental Immunity (I'm almost finished with the book) helped me realize why comment conversations on this blog so often go awry. Religious believers tend to ignore the implied presumptions that I and others who accept the scientific worldview make in our arguments.
Here's examples of what I presume:
-- Our universe is real, not an illusion.
-- Objective reality exists independent of the human brain.
-- Consciousness arises in the brain.
-- The human mind is subject to errors about reality.
-- Science is the best way to correct those mental errors.
-- Nothing is 100% certain, but some things are more certain than others.
-- Most of what science knows can be relied upon as true, until proven false.
These presumptions aren't wild or crazy. They are founded on a massive amount of study, research, and experiments aimed at understanding reality. When I refer to these presumptions, either implicitly or explicitly, anyone who disagrees with one or more of them has the burden of providing persuasive reasons why a presumption shouldn't be accepted.
That person probably has their own presumptions. They might include:
-- Our universe is illusory; reality lies elsewhere.
-- God is the creator and sustainer of reality.
-- Consciousness can exist apart from the brain or body.
-- Some humans have perfect knowledge of reality.
-- Religion or mysticism is the best way to know reality.
-- Perfect mystics or prophets have 100% certain knowledge.
-- Science can't be relied upon, so it is fine to ignore it.
Problem is, those religiously-based presumptions aren't founded on solid evidence. So they aren't really valid presumptions at all. They're beliefs. If someone puts them forward as reasons for an argument being made, it makes sense to ask "Why do you say that?"
This is a valid use of Why? because the so-called presumptions are anything but. They're the sort of reasons that may make sense to a religious believer, and can be fashioned into a mutually reinforcing set of beliefs, but they are very weak philosophically and scientifically.
They're akin to the delusions of a psychotic who has a worldview that makes sense to them, yet lacks a grounding in the reality almost everybody else lives in. Sure, it's possible that the psychotic has an insight into reality that the rest of us lack, just as it's possible that a religious mindset is true.
The odds are just very high that such isn't the case, because the presumptions of both the psychotic person and a religious person aren't based on demonstrable evidence.