A philosophy lesson for Stephanie Zvan, PZ Myers, and everyone else

Blogger Stephanie Zvan recently published a blog post containing a great deal of philosophical confusion following blogger PZ Myers’ philosophical confusion. In this post — a response to Myers and Zvan’s post — I discuss what an argument is and talk about thought experiments with hope to dispel all of this confusion.

I previously commented on atheist blogger and biologist PZ Myers’ recent assertion — in a post titled “The only abortion argument that counts” — that abortion reduces to “a simple question.”

Myers wrote,

We can make all the philosophical and scientific arguments that anyone might want, but ultimately what it all reduces to is a simple question: do women have autonomous control of their bodies or not? Even if I thought embryos were conscious, aware beings writing poetry in the womb (I don’t, and they’re not), I’d have to bow out of any say in the decision the woman bearing responsibility has to make.

I argued that the issue of abortion is not as simple as PZ makes it out to be and, contrary to what he wrote, that philosophical arguments actually do matter. I noted objections to pro-choice stances and reasons why persons would not think abortion reduces to a simple question — regardless of whether the objections or reasons are persuasive — and noted that PZ’s assertion itself seems to be a philosophical claim.

Following my commentary, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci — in a post titled “Okay, let’s talk about abortion” — offered criticism of Myers’ post in which he discussed Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” paper which contains various thought experiments. Pigliucci further discussed responses to Thomson’s paper showing that the issue of abortion is not a simple one.

Massimo wrote,

…one does need arguments and/or evidence for any rational position, no matter how “obvious” such position may seem at first glance. Otherwise, one takes himself de facto out of the community of reason. In this instance, a bit more philosophical reading would have done PZ a world of good. Moreover, the debate is far from simple and obvious, as should by the number of thoughtful papers written in response or support of [Judith Jarvis] Thomson’s ideas. Most of these papers have been written by professional moral philosophers, not fundamentalist cranks. And many of the objections come from authors who are also pro-choice… 

Stephanie Zvan — blogger for the Freethought Blogs network writing for the blog ‘Almost Diamonds’ — recently authored a post titled “Just What Philosophers Do?” which draws on Myers’ comments about abortion. In her post, she used the phrases “PZ’s argument,” the “counter-factuals [which] serve different purposes in PZ’s argument,” and “people he is arguing with.”

PZ, though, didn’t provide any arguments. In fact, he wrote the following: “We can make all the philosophical and scientific arguments that anyone might want, but ultimately what it all reduces to is a simple question…” What arguments of PZ, then, is Zvan referring to throughout her blog post?

When philosophers speak of arguments, premises and conclusions are of concern. At a very basic level, something is being argued for (the conclusion) and is supported by statements (premises) which should lead to the conclusion.

Consider the following:
(1) Jake is a King’s College student if he is on the King’s College roster.
(2) Jake is on the King’s College roster.
(3) Jake is a King’s College student.

In the above structure, (1) and (2) are premises [reasons given to establish a conclusion] and (3) is the conclusion [something that is being argued for].

Not all arguments, though are as clear as the above structure because some hidden premises and conclusions may exist. Consider the following: “An all-loving god would not create a universe with natural disasters, so an all-loving god does not exist.” Here, the premises of the argument are not explicit, but with some investigation and understanding, an argument (at least one version) is apparent as follows:

(1) A universe with natural disasters exists.
(2) A universe with natural disasters and an all-loving god cannot both exist.
(3) An all-loving god does not exist.

Here, although it was not initially explicit, an argument was formed. This is not merely an opinion or an assertion someone made, but rather is an argument. If, in the previous two cases, premises (1) and (2) are true, conclusions (3) must follow; previously shown were simple deductive arguments which are inescapable if the premises are true.

Returning to Zvan, Zvan refers to PZ’s previously mentioned thoughts concerning abortion in a post titled “The only abortion argument that counts.” His thoughts, restated — what Zvan seems to be considering as PZ’s argument — are, broken down by numbers which I will utilize, as follows:

(4) We can make all the philosophical and scientific arguments that anyone might want,

(5) but ultimately what it all reduces to is a simple question: do women have autonomous control of their bodies or not?

(6) Even if I thought embryos were conscious, aware beings writing poetry in the womb (I don’t, and they’re not),

(7) I’d have to bow out of any say in the decision the woman bearing responsibility has to make.

(4) is a mere assertion PZ makes in which he states that philosophical and scientific arguments do not matter because (5) he believes that the issue of abortion reduces to a simple question. This is merely a reflection of what PZ thinks. There are no premises leading to a conclusion here; there is no argument.

(6) is a hypothetical statement PZ proposes and (7) is an assertion that PZ would not make decisions concerning abortions but instead would “bow out of any say in the decision the woman bearing responsibility has to make.”

Recall PZ’s assertion that arguments do not matter in the case of abortion. PZ may be providing a conclusion of what could be an argument (abortion reduces to ‘a simple question’ of whether women have autonomous control of their bodies), but he isn’t providing an argument.

If PZ were to say, “Abortion is moral/legal if and only if women have autonomous control of their bodies. Since women have autonomous control of their bodies, abortion is moral/legal,” PZ would be advancing an argument, but PZ had said in his post that abortion reduces to a ‘simple question’ irrespective of argument.

Most of Zvan’s post, then — considering she mentions “PZ’s argument” — seems to reduce to nonsense. Apart from this, her post seems extremely unclear. She also references arguments Sam Harris provides, but said arguments aren’t present in the post. (Must we read something beyond the post to discover what Harris’ arguments are before reading this post? Why wouldn’t she just state the arguments in her post?)

She also makes some odd comments surrounding thought experiments which, by their very nature, are hypothetical, imagined situations. She writes, referring to Sam Harris (although not identifying what Harris’ counter-factuals are), “Harris draws conclusions that depend directly on his counter-factuals.” Drawing conclusions that depend directly on counter-factuals seems to be the precise nature of and reason for, in many cases, proposing thought experiments.

For example, consider a thought experiment involving a fat man standing atop train tracks who, if pushed off, would prevent the death of five other people. (If the fat man were standing, then five people would not die). If you arrived at a conclusion based on my thought experiment such as ‘It is sometimes moral to push a fat man off train tracks if this would prevent the deaths of five other people,’ you drew a conclusion that depended directly on counter-factuals.

Conclusions reached through thought experiments, contrary to what Zvan seems to think, actually do have an impact on the ‘real world’ and directly inform our moral reasoning. Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” paper, as previously mentioned, is a great example.

I’m further confused by Zvan mentioning what seem to be meaningless or contradictory statements when she writes [about]

  • counter-factuals “being wrong”
  • a counter-factual, “despite the bizarre nature of the idea” being false
  • “hypotheticals, contradicted by real-world data, used […] for purposes of illustration
  • “counter-factuals” being “factual”
  • Harris being told “his counter-factual was wrong and why”
Feel free, as always, to leave your thoughts.