Evaluating Arguments, Part 10: Hypotheses, Objections, and Category Mistakes


Today we continue yet again with the exciting series on the critical appraisal of arguments. Let’s dig in!

(1) A given hypothesis H faces some objection O. H can successfully avoid objection O by adding proposition P1 to H. However, hypothesis H also holds proposition P2, and P2 conflicts with P1. In that case, either the objection O holds (and hence P1 is false), or the objection does not hold on the basis of the success of P1 (and hence P2 is false). Either way, H is false.

Example: A theist might respond to the problem of evil as follows:

P1: “God takes a non-interventionist approach to the actions of agents who possess libertarian free will, because creating a world in which there are (free agents & evil) is better/more valuable than creating a world (without free will & without evil).”

But many such theists also offer the following prayer:

P2: “Let us pray to God for an end to violence, war, abuse, rape, slavery, and murder.”

Of course, putting an end to these would seemingly require God’s intervention into the actions of free agents, thereby conflicting with P1.

The theist may respond with:

P3: “Well, we are not praying that God violates their free will and infringes upon it directly, we are merely praying that he gives people extra graces to choose to do good and choose not to do evil.”

One might allege, though, that this still conflicts with the response to the problem of evil. The atheist may press further, asking: Why did God not create us with these graces to begin with? If giving graces to help someone choose the good does not infringe upon their free will, then why did God actualize a world with (free will & significant moral evil) instead of (free will & God-given graces & much less evil)? The latter still preserves free will.

Once again, I cannot emphasize enough that I am not taking a stance on this debate. This example is purely illustrative for teaching purposes irrespective of whether the theist or the atheist in the above dialogue are correct.

A second example: A theist is faced with the problem of evil (objection: evil, hypothesis: theism). This theist may respond with the following two propositions:

P1: A world with free will and the accompanying moral evil is better/more valuable than a world without free will and devoid of evil.

P2: A world with free will inevitably has moral evil.

However, the theist is also committed to P3: God is omnipotent — meaning he can do all that is metaphysically possible (this is a common though not uncontentious view among philosophers).

But P3 conflicts with P2, since one may argue it is metaphysically possible to actualize a world in which there are free agents who freely choose that which is good on every occasion. Indeed, presumably there is a possible world in which solely God exists  — and if God is free and essentially morally perfect, it follows that a world in which there exists freedom is not necessarily a world in which there is moral evil.

Again, no matter what your positions on the above issues are, the point is not to develop the problem of evil in depth. Rather, the point of this example (post, series) is simply to give a plausible example of ways to assess arguments and premises.

(2) Category mistake (or, category error)

A category mistake is the placing of an entity in the wrong category. In one of philsopher Gilbert Ryle’s examples, to place the activity of exhibiting team spirit in the same class with the activities of pitching, batting, and catching is to make a category mistake; exhibiting team spirit is not a special function like pitching or batting but instead a way those special functions are performed.

A second use of ‘category mistake’ is to refer to the attribution to an entity of a property which that entity cannot have (not merely does not happen to have), as in ‘This memory is blue’ or, ‘A prime minister is a prime number’. These two kinds of category mistake may seem different, but both involve misunderstandings of the natures of the things in question. Category mistakes involve attributions of properties (e.g., being a special function) to things (e.g., team spirit) that those things cannot have. According to Ryle, the test for category differences depends on whether replacement of one expression for another in the same sentence results in a type of unintelligibility that he calls “absurdity.”

Another category mistake involves someone visiting a university, and after being shown a tour of the admissions office, the library, the auditorium, the class hall, the dorms, and so on, he asks:

“This is nice and all, but where is the university?”

This falsely categorizes the university as a singular entity or a singular building alongside other buildings. In fact, however, it refers to the conglomeration of the buildings already shown, the interactions among them, and the activities of the people involved in them.

Example: “I will not believe in God until someone presents a well-researched and evidence-based theory not only concerning his existence but also concerning his origins.”

Doing “research” (in the scientific sense demanded above) presupposes an ability to measure and observe, and measurable and observable presuppose something that is physical in nature. However, by the very definition of God, he is immaterial and therefore non-physical in nature. So, this demand is a category error based on faulty assumptions and a misunderstanding of theism.

Further, this comment seems to hinge upon the metaphysical principle, “only things that are presented as well-researched and evidence-based theories warrant belief.” Funnily enough, this very claim cannot be validated by a research study or an evidence-based theory. Thus, this criterion is self-refuting.

What’s more, God cannot be said to “originate” because originating/beginning presupposes a temporal sequence of events. Moreover, things that originate are finite and arguably must be brought about by some prior conditions. God, on the other hand is (a) eternal/timeless, and (b) infinite, and thus beginning or originating do not even make sense when applied to God.

Further, God is what Aquinas and others deem an “unactualized actualizer” and what Rasmussen and other philosophers deem a “necessary being”. Necessary beings cannot not exist — they must exist and cannot fail to exist. Since (it seems) a being which “originates” failed to exist, any being that originates cannot be necessarily existent (importantly, there is no straightforward inference from “x necessarily exists” to “x exists at all times” unless we adopt presentism). This, however, does not apply to God, since he is held to be an unactualized actualizer and uncaused cause.

Finally, God is said to be “purely actual” in that he lacks any and all potentialities. God is said to be Being itself. Since being caused to originate would entail having a potentiality that is actualized by an external agent, it follows that a purely actual being devoid of any potentialities cannot be caused or actualized by an external agent.

In short, the above quotation is an egregious category error in that it essentially assumes God is a caused, physical being when God is an uncaused non-physical being. Of course, the criteria is also self-refuting!

Now, once again, I do not presently claim that the Thomistic conception of God is correct, or even that such a God exists. This topic will be explored in great depth in future posts. However, this example simply serves the purpose of giving a common and illustrative example of a category error.

Example: “Omniscience and omnipotence cannot coexist because if one is to know what is to happen in the future, they are powerless to stop it from happening, and are therefore not omnipotent. If this is untrue, and they are omnipotent, then they do not know what is to happen in the future (as they can end up doing anything) and are therefore not omniscient.”

This presupposes that concepts of time apply to God, such as “past”, “present”, and “future”. But this doesn’t have to be the case, and in fact we have reasons to suppose it is not the case. God is atemporal and non-physical. As such, he is not constrained by time, and his relationship to time is different than that for us temporal and finite beings.

And, thus, speaking of a “future” for a timeless being just doesn’t make sense and exhibits a category error.

Stay tuned for the next post. Hope to see you there!

Author: Joe

Email: NaturalisticallyInclined@gmail.com

1 thought on “Evaluating Arguments, Part 10: Hypotheses, Objections, and Category Mistakes

  1. Pingback: An Index of Blog Series! | Majesty of Reason

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