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Lately I've been listening to lots discussions with conspiracy theorists and science-deniers, and I've noticed that, when their position is challenged with evidence, their responses generally fall into two broad classes:

1) They respond by modifying their original position to acommodate the new piece of evidence, which introduces additional assumptions/complexity. For example, when the existence of time zones is pointed out to flat-earthers, the typical response involves the Sun being a "spotlight" with a complex lampshade that reproduces the pattern of day and night we observe. When it is pointed out that a lampshade cannot reproduce the ring of perpetual sunlight needed in the Antarctic ring during the Southern-Hemisphere summer, they propose that the Sun is also shining through a dome made of refractive material of just the right shape, and so on and so on. For other conspiracy theories, this usually takes the form of adding more and more agents to the conspiracy.

Eventually the explanation they create is much more convoluted, and requires many more assumptions, than the widely-accepted explanation. Ordinarily, this is where Occam's Razor would come into play in advocating for the simpler explanation, but this doesn't usually seem to matter to people who advocate these kinds of ideas, which indicates that they deny that Occam's razor selects the best explanation. Without the constraints imposed by Occam's razor, they are free to make their theory as convoluted as necessary, and they have no reason to believe a simpler one. Given that discussions take place in a finite amount of time, and only a finite amount of evidence can be presented, their theory is always defensible by applying a finite number of complexity-increasing "patches."

2) They assert that the evidence is fake, and was either fabricated by authorities with an agenda, or was put there by some supernatural being to serve as a test for mankind (this latter assumption is quite common among young-Earth creationists). As the argument progresses, more and more of the features of the natural world are denied (fossils were put there as a test, video footage of the planes was manipulated, photos of space are all CGI, editors for science journals were paid off, etc.). In the extreme, this argument collapses into solipsism, basically arguing that the whole world is an illusion, so they can ignore all evidence, no matter how much is presented.


I have seen philosophical justifications of Occam's Razor and arguments against solipsism before, but the issue is that these responses are made with the understanding that the reader is aware of some philosophy in the first place. Typically, that assumption doesn't hold in these discussions, and so these arguments are typically not helpful. Therefore, the question is:

Is there a way to prevent the discussion from proceeding along either of these tracks, assuming that the other party has essentially no knowledge of philosophy?

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    I usually like to pause, make an effort to lower tempers (and thereby defenses), then, in an atmosphere of good faith ask: what evidence could come to light that tends to disprove your theory, prove the mainstream theory, or both? If they resist even this line of inquiry, they’re lost. You can write them off as fundamentalist. If they pursue it, then you’ve got a string to pull on. You might even get them to the point where they realize they’re requiring a lot more positive proof of the mainstream theory than their pet. And then they start to realize they have a pet. – Dan Bron Nov 14 '18 at 19:37
  • @community: I changed the bold to italics. It didn't seem really necessary. It looks dictatorial. – Mozibur Ullah Nov 14 '18 at 19:47
  • As a person who holds certain views that sometimes get labeled "science denial", I recently had a discussion in which I was asked "are you willing to change your mind?" ...to which I was ready to say, "of course, if there's a good reason to!" This affirmation of open-mindedness, though, is mitigated by my personal resolve (recently formulated) not to debate anything that I consider off-limits, such as "your solipsism". Whatever I consider debating I must be prepared to let go of, I suppose. – elliot svensson Nov 14 '18 at 20:53
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Here is the question:

Is there a way to prevent the discussion from proceeding along either of these tracks, assuming that the other party has essentially no knowledge of philosophy?

The two tracks are the following:

  1. The opponents upon hearing new evidence accept the evidence, but modify their theory to accommodate the new evidence.
  2. The opponents reject the new evidence.

For the first track, consider that this might be what the opponents should be doing if they are following the scientific method and they wish to maintain their theory.

Here is Wikipedia's description of Karl Popper's falsifiability:

A statement, hypothesis, or theory has falsifiability (or is falsifiable) if it is contradicted by a basic statement, which, in an eventual successful or failed falsification must respectively correspond to a true or hypothetical observation. For example, the claim "all swans are white" is falsifiable since it is contradicted by this basic statement: "In 1697, during the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh expedition, there were black swans on the shore of the Swan River in Australia", which in this case is a true observation. The concept is also known by the terms refutable and refutability.

Prior to Vlamingh finding black swans in 1697, the theory about swans was simpler than it was before the discovery. The theory could simply claim that all swans are white. After the black swans were found did that mean that one should abandon the entire theory of swans or modify it to include black swans? The easiest position was to keep the parts of the theory of swans that still worked, say that they are birds, but modify the part of the theory to accommodate the new evidence.

The theory of swans was strengthen by this new evidence even though it now was more complex than it was before. Now it had to include black swans.

For the second track the OP mentions:

They assert that the evidence is fake, and was either fabricated by authorities with an agenda, or was put there by some supernatural being to serve as a test for mankind (this latter assumption is quite common among young-Earth creationists).

The mention of "young-Earth creationists" should also include people who believe that we are part of a simulation. See Nick Bostrom's view that under certain assumptions we are more likely to be a part of a simulation than not. The "supernatural being" in this scenario would be the race of "posthumans" who generate us as a simulation. They are "supernatural" because they themselves are not in the simulation.

Note if the simulation theory is true, evolution is false. It is not how we came to be here. We came to be here, based on that simulation hypothesis, by some superhuman turning on a computer.

Consider also the empirical evidence for "supernormal", "psi" or other such phenomenon that Dean Radin has made available.

Could the people who reject this scientifically obtained evidence be labeled "science-deniers" as well?


Given the above it would be hard to find a way to prevent either of these tracks from becoming part of an argument, whether someone knows philosophy or not.

Both sides of an argument would be tempted to do the same thing given the circumstances and in the case of the first track modifying a theory after getting new evidence is what one should do.


Reference

Select Psi Research Publications http://deanradin.com/evidence/evidence.htm

The Simulation Argument https://www.simulation-argument.com/

Wikipedia, "Falsifiability" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falsifiability

  • HI, I'm the OP. As far as I know, Occam's Razor says that if two theories explain observations equally well, we should use the one with fewer assumptions. The old theory about swans does not explain the existence of black swans, so it does not explain observations as well as the new theory, and so Occam's Razor is irrelevant there. This is not at all the same situation as the one in my question, where, for example, the super-convoluted flat-earth theory and the conceptually-simpler round-earth theory explain the evidence that was mentioned in the discussion equally well. – probably_someone Oct 15 '18 at 15:44
  • Also, I'm not quite sure about your claim, "Note if the simulation theory is true, evolution is false." At first I thought you might be conflating evolution and abiogenesis, but it's even more fundamental than that. If the simulation was turned on before life on Earth emerged, then both abiogenesis and evolution would be totally consistent with a simulated universe. – probably_someone Oct 15 '18 at 15:49
  • Regarding Radin, the methodological errors present in his publications are well known, and are delineated in almost any scientific review of his work, even when the reviewers are fellow parapsychologists. Calling methodologically-flawed, statistically-non-rigorous publications "scientifically obtained evidence" is a bit of a stretch. – probably_someone Oct 15 '18 at 15:57
  • @probably_someone I agree with you about Occam's Razor. It has nothing to do with whether someone will modify their theory given new evidence. My point is they should modify their theory given new evidence. I disagree with you about the assessment of Radin's research. Regarding the simulation theory, assuming it is true, those supernatural post humans could start up the computer at any time if they can start it up at all. Why are they required to start it up earlier so evolutionary theory is not falsified? – Frank Hubeny Oct 15 '18 at 16:36
  • I never claimed that people shouldn't modify their theories given new evidence. What I claimed was that, when their explanation gets much more complicated than the widely-accepted explanation, which will inevitably happen as more and more evidence is presented, they should do as Occam's Razor says and switch to the simpler one with equal explanatory power. They do not tend to do this in practice, which indicates that Occam's Razor is not being applied. – probably_someone Oct 15 '18 at 16:57
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My favorite argument against solipsism is the following:

You punch your interlocutor right in the face. Following this, you ask if you exist.

If the answer is "no, I still hold to solipsism" you punch him or her again. Repeat as necessary.

(I don't suggest that you really punch people in the face, but merely to suggest that you could if he or she insisted upon solipsism, thereby granting consent to you for whatever violence is caused by him- or herself.)

EDIT:

I think it would be much more powerful, instead of threatening the solipsist, to show genuine care for the solipsist, and not to leave the solipsist alone until he or she feels cared-for. Of course, if the solipsist never arrives at "feeling cared-for", then the question would change into "are you just trying to get me to do stuff for you?" instead of "do you really believe that I don't exist?"

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    Solipsism is merely the belief that only the self can be known to exist. This does not exclude the experience of others -- though it may deny them ontological status -- or of pain from having operative value. I don't think your argument really follows -- why does solipsism imply consenting to violence at the hands of the 'unprovable other'? – Ethan NOPE Nov 14 '18 at 21:58
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    @EthanNOPE, I don't feel convinced that a solipsist has "others". Maybe my conception of solipsism isn't solipsistic enough, but I think your conception isn't solipsistic enough. By what mechanism does a human solipsist expect that real others are sustained by him- or herself? It is much more plausible, and I think much more common, for solipsistic "others" to be merely interesting side characters with bit parts, or maybe major supporting roles, in the solipsist's ever-growing quasi-non-fictional autobiography. – elliot svensson Nov 15 '18 at 14:42
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    @EthanNOPE, oh! I just read on Wikipedia that solipsism can be divided between mere epistemological solipsism and complete metaphysical solipsism. The complete kind, I think, is "more vulnerable", but I still think that the mere epistemological kind is vulnerable here. – elliot svensson Nov 15 '18 at 16:47
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    Having dated a person who held to solipsism, I'm afraid I have to agree with your characterization of the common case; also, I totally dig the phrase "ever-growing quasi-non-fictional autobiography". I suppose the whole "punch a solipsist" sentiment rather rankled me, and I only wanted to hollow a little space for nuance. Many folks I've known who subscribed to the view, used it to cope with very messed up situations, wherein denying reality was better than existing in it -- they deserve compassion, in some cases, not punches in the face. I'll desist. – Ethan NOPE Nov 15 '18 at 20:19
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    @EthanNOPE, that's very kind of you. Kindness is just what I was missing in my answer, and better thoughts drove me to the edit I made. – elliot svensson Nov 15 '18 at 20:22
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Note that solipsism is a logical and metaphisical position that is quite coherent and open to defense. It is not falsifiable per se though. I am not sure it is a position worth pursuing or that it can bring anything interesting about life, evolution and society on the table (which is a different debate altogether).

Solipsism, as I see it, is the case where you should go against Occam's razor and claim that even though an explanation coming from an external world is more complex and elaborate, it is preferable on different accounts. If one is a big fan of Occam's razor, she should invoke God as the ultimate Occam mega-blade, offering a simple explanation of anything. Yet many (most?) philosophers would be non-occamists in this sense.

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