Ed Erwin vs. Sidney Gendin On What It Is Rational To Presuppose.

In 1966 or 1967, Ed Erwin and Sidney Gendin met in the corrosive environs of a college on Long Island that does not deserve mentioning, not even to damn it. They became very close friends and remain such to this day although after a few years Erwin escaped to the southlands and Gendin scooted westward. In matters of philosophy and politics they were very simpatico. Both believed, what seemed a novel position at the time, that when two persons disputed, neither one had the onus of proof. Each side was simply to present the best arguments in favor of its position that it could, and the jury of world opinion could decide the matter. That still seems right, at least so far as philosophy is concerned but not necessarily so far as politics is concerned.

Erwin drifted off to Democratic Liberalism and became deeply troubled by what he perceived to be dishonesty on the part of radical right wing Republicans. They always seemed to be leveling charges that they could not back up with arguments or evidence. Erwin began to ask with more and more frequency, “What is the evidence for that accusation?” Unsurprisingly, there never was any.

From the perspective of Gendin, this was not quite the right question. It is all a matter, I suppose of foundations. In other words, what is the rock solid starting point of your politics? As years went by, Gendin became ever more deeply convinced that corruption was even-steven on all sides of the political spectrum and was converted to Dogmatic Revolutionary Socialism. He came to the conclusion that no Republican could trot off with the prize for Worst Human Being Imaginable. That honor could not be conceded to him by thoroughly indecent Democrats who also laid claim to it. For Gendin, the overarching political question became (and remains), “What is the evidence that the accusation is NOT true?” It hardly matters how dastardly the accusation is once you acknowledge the view that each side is hopelessly corrupt. Say that some Republican claims that Obama regularly forces his children to have oral sex with him and, upon that ostensibly outlandish claim, calls for Obama’s impeachment.

Well, the operable word above is “ostensibly,” for, from the gendinian perspective, no accusation is too outlandish to rule out of court ab initio and ab absurdo. Nothing prevents Gendin from having inclinations, and with respect to this seemingly mad accusation, he will surely think it is false but he will not accept the position that the onus of proof lies upon the Republican. He will not be able to see why, if the claim is obviously false, it should not be defeated in the Court of Rationality.

One might say that, by this token, any charge has to be taken seriously and the world would get bogged down in refutations and counter-refutations. I hope not, and like to think madness can be defeated quickly without our having prejudices against it. Of course, the fact that people continue to debate the existence of God although the idea of his existence seems at least as unlikely as the idea that Obama regularly enjoys oral sex favors from his children counts somewhat against my hope but is not decisive for a number of reasons I won’t explore or even enumerate.

In time, the Erwin/Gendin dispute may become a philosophic classic, and won’t that be nice.

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  1. The Court of Rationality is, itself, corrupt. There isn’t some flawlessly reasonable and logical entity to which we can appeal allegedly mad statements. At rock bottom, there is only opinion steeped in emotion, marinated in prejudice, and seasoned with carefully selected facts. An example, admittedly imperfect, of corruption posing as rationality is the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Tell me, comrade, what have you done to secure the credentials of Dogmatic Revolutionary Socialist? If you tell me you voted for Norman Thomas, I will burn down your dacha.

  2. How could I have voted for Norman Thomas when, as you know, his last run for presidency was in 1948? BE RATIONAL!

  3. I once spent a couple of hours in the company of Norman Thomas. In the early 1950′s. I was the chairman of what was supposed to be a debate between Thomas and a man named, I think, Rukeyser. Thomas was a wonderfully sweet man and a gentleman of the old school. I spent most of my time with him marveling that I as in his company, but I do remember his definition of socialism:”Socialism is planning.”
    America is a funny place. It’s alright to be a socialist when it comes to highways and traffic control, but not when it comes to universal health care.

  4. Dear Elmer,

    For me, if nobody else, it is very worrisome that you think socialism fails when it comes to universal health care. May I ask you to give us a full explanation for this view?

  5. Dear Sidney,
    What I was trying to point out is that, in America, almost everyone accepts planning when it comes to traffic control and highways, but we are seriously divided when it comes to planning for and providing universal health care. We are socialists when it comes to the former but not the latter. The puzzle: Why the failure to be socialists—planners—in the latter case?
    People do not scream that their liberty is infringed when they are told where, when and how they may drive their motor vehicles. They accept the ideal of traffic safety. Why do they scream when they are told to buy insurance to achieve universal medical care?

  6. Well, the answers to the questions you raise, are difficult. Still, they should not be the basis for pessimism. It is precisely people like you, who know the mental confusion most people suffer, that should help spread the word that socialism is a good thing.

  7. I think you mean to say that socialism without corruption is a good thing. Socialism with corruption results in authoritarianism.

  8. “Socialism is planning” is arrant nonsense, and every subsequent statement, above, which accepts that premise is absurd. Whether a military dictator or an organized proletariat runs the government and owns the means of production, there is planning. Otherwise, there is chaos.

    Socialism is not a government-run program here and there. Socialism is an answer to “Who is government?” Every Dogmatic Revolutionary Socialist knows that.

    Dr. Sprague, traffic safety rules and highway construction are not islands of socialism in a sea of capitalism. They are the result of the time-honored philosophy that government exists to do what the people cannot do for themselves in the furtherance of the common good. Therefore, people accept limitations on their “liberty” to drive drunk at 120 mph because those limitations are obvious to even the biggest fools and Tea Partiers as being in their own best interest.

    However, many people are indignant when told that they must buy medical insurance. These ragged individualists think that the government is usurping their freedom to take care of their own health and their own money. They do not comprehend that this, too, is for the common good. The only cure for their idiocy is to deny them access to the E.R. and the free care that they would receive, courtesy of responsible tax payers. Unfortunately, the decision to treat the freeloaders was made long ago by Hippocrates.

    Still, as long as for-profit insurance companies run the medical-pharmaceutical racket, health is for sale. The ACA is nothing more than several thousand pages of rules, like the abolition of pre-existing conditions, insuring children until age 26, etc. It is a sop to make free-enterprise medicine palatable. All that is required are the words added to the Constitution: “We are guaranteed by our Creator to life, health care, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

  9. A further word about the history of planning in “socialist” states: The production plans of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and of China in the 1960s were incidents of forced labor leading to genocide. Plans by agrarian countries to leapfrog the industrial infrastructure, which was created over time under capitalism, were doomed to failure. You can’t have nine babies in one month. I hope that Rev. Norman Thomas knew that.

    An innovative, creative society requires personal freedom and fair reward more than the planning of PERT charts. But the siren song tempts too many of our best minds away from science and the arts into the lucrative, but corrupt and parasitic manipulation of wealth for personal gain. The late-stage capitalist plan, or Final Solution, is to fleece the general public once and for all. But in the past few years I have seen the word “capitalism” invoked in the press more often than in all my previous lifetime. This, I think, is a very good sign. There is a great debate brewing over the desirability to maintain capitalism as we’ve always known it. Its natural tendency for greed is finally destroying the idea of capital for capital’s sake — not for the sake of repairing our bridges and modernizing transportation and all the other things that government ought to do to promote the general welfare.

    As if to punctuate the excesses of an evil system, Nature is responding to capitalism’s heedless, smoky effluence with this destructively hot weather.

  10. As best I recall it, Karl Popper criticized Plato’s Republic for, among other things, its very detailed planning. Popper thought planning was anathema to an open society. It is often thought that communism and socialism are both blunders because they are extravagant in their plans. So, when Elmer Sprague says Norman Thomas defined socialism as planning, he is probably factually correct. Whether Thomas understood Plato is something I can’t comment upon. However, in the light of Popper’s remarks and his profound influence on 20th century philosophy, I think it odd to say Thomas’s view is arrant nonsense.

  11. Sid:

    I see that several people have responded, but on what I am about to say, I am afraid it is just you and me that will be interested.

    I still hold the view that for any subject, the burden of proof lies with the person claiming that something is true. It does not matter whether the claim is negative or positive, or even one about a lack of evidence. I say that God exists and you say that this is wrong. An agnostic says that neither one of us has any rational grounds for our belief. Who has the burden of proof? All three.

    I also think, however, that this talk of burden of proof is not very important. It is just a convention, one that not everyone accepts, that where there is a burden of proof, it lies with the person asserting something. It is not illegal, or immoral, and sometimes is quite appropriate, to refuse to assume the burden of proof.

    It does not matter, at least not to me, whether the theist or atheist is willing to answer the question: What is your argument? What is important where the proposition is of some importance is that the rest of us can ask: Is there good reason to believe the thesis in question? Burden of proof and who bears it, in the end, are of little significance.

    Perhaps we agree about what I have said so far, perhaps not. Where we may disagree is about your claim about the starting point of one’s politics. I do not hold the view that Republicans make more unsupported claims than Democrats or are more corrupt, or the reverse, nor do I agree that both sides are corrupt. Some are guilty on both sides; some are not. Let’s stipulate, however, that, as you say, each side is hopelessly corrupt. Even if this is true, I do not see how this supports your position, assuming I understand it.

    Suppose that someone we know to be corrupt asserts that Obama regularly forces his children to have oral sex with him. If I cared to evaluate the claim, I would ask if there is any evidence for its truth. Now, suppose that someone not corrupt were to make the same charge. Would it not be reasonable to proceed in the same way and inquire about the grounds, if any, for what was claimed?

    Even at a meeting of the liar’s club, if someone asserts that Obama abuses his children, or that social security is about to run out of money, or that God exists, if I am interested in the thesis and not so much about the characteristics of the liar, should I not inquire about the supporting argument or evidence, if any? How else can one determine what is true or false?

    The upshot of the above is that I fail to see how the rock starting point of one’s politics should make any difference as to how one should proceed in deciding whether a claim is true or false.

    Perhaps the next point to be considered is the main one, not the one about the foundations of one’s politics. You say that the overarching political question for you is “What is the evidence that the accusation is not true?” This can be an important question, but why should it be the overarching one?

    What would you say about the following example not taken from politics? I suffered a lot of pain recently because a dentist putting in an implant left a piece of bone in the cavity he created after botching the pulling of one of my teeth. As the weeks passed and six dentists failed to discover the cause of the pain, the implant guy convinced me to go to a dental surgeon he described as “superb”.

    The second guy said that he had no idea what the problem was, but he proposed cutting my gums open. This would result in a great deal of additional pain which was likely to last for several more months. I asked if he had reason to think that this would cure the original problem. He said “no”. When I persisted, he began walking rapidly around the room saying repeatedly “The philosopher wants certitude, but unlike philosophers, I deal in facts”. After a while, the implant guy came in and the mad surgeon said repeatedly to his friend that I wanted certitude where there was none. Despite the pain I was very amused by all of this and finally replied: I do not need certitude. Just give me a 51% probability that the procedure will work. He could not do that; so, I walked out.

    When Pat fell ill with a-fib, I did a lot of research and decided that there was reasonably good evidence that ablations can cure a-fib. I did not consider prayer or witchcraft. Did I have evidence that prayer and witchcraft are not likely to cure a-fib? I did, but it did not matter whether I did or not. I wanted to know what was likely to work. A lack of evidence for the efficacy of prayer and witchcraft was enough reason not to rely on either.

    Is politics different concerning the request for evidence? Nations go to war and cause tremendous destruction and pain based on flimsy propositions based on little or no evidence, as we did when the Senate passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and when we attacked Iraq because of the threat allegedly posed by WMDs. Should the overarching question have been in these cases: Do the opponents have evidence to the contrary? Even without such negative evidence, the government was about to begin killing many people based solely on a certain argument. If the argument was worthless, they were about to pull the trigger without reason. Was it not worthwhile to show that the government’s reason was no good even if we could not at the time demonstrate that there had been no second attack in the Gulf of Tonkin or that there were no WMDs? Often it is not necessary to rule out a claim ab initio or ab absurdo. Let the thought linger that the claim might be true and be content to expose the weakness of the supporting arguments.

    But, finally, in many cases, we do have enough evidence at hand to conclude that an accusation is very likely mistaken and not merely not evidence-based. I have returned from Milan and am now in Miami. If you were to accuse me of spending part of my trip travelling on the moon without a passport, I could rule this out from the start, could I not, based prior evidence? If someone were to accuse Obama of having sex with his children, could we not reasonably conclude straight off that this is probably false? Yes, we should be open minded about such accusations; once in a while, wild, unfounded accusations prove to be true. Yet to spend time trying to refute many of them is often a waste of time.


  12. What long-winded nonsense. While philosophers argue about evidence and counter-evidence, the world is bursting into flames. The ivory-tower debaters should realize that there are some propositions that are beyond the pale. There is no sense to such outrageous claims, and they do not deserve debate. Both Gendin and Erwin fiddle while Rome (along with Athens, Madrid, and Colorado Springs) continue to burn. I say to them, get some guts about you and do something constructive instead of just blowing smoke. No wonder philosophy gets the bad rap it has.

    Nothwithstanding the hell that people eleswhere are experiencing, I found Amsterdam, Brussels, Bruge, and Paris to be delightful places to visit, expecially to experience a glorious sunset while cruising on the Seine after dinner at the Eiffel Tower. The fact that I was privileged, whereas others are not, was not lost on me, but I felt no guilt–which is probably why I cannot consider myself to be a Catholic.

    As for Professor Erwin’s pain, perhaps he should consider self-hypnosis. I find this to be more effective than visiting quacks in white coats. My grandmother was said to have cured “the evil eye.” Call it witchcraft, or call it whatever you please. “There are some things, Horatio, that are not dreamed of in your philosophy.”

  13. First a word directed to, or rather at, Leonard Carrier. It angers him that Ed Erwin and I are having a discussion. He prefers that we “get some guts” and “do something constructive and stop blowing smoke.” This outburst is typical of many that Carrier makes both in this blog and in private correspondence. Often, in private correspondence, he is much worse, sometimes threatening to smash people. I am worried about him and think he should seek psychotherapy.
    I think Ed Erwin misdescribes our “disagreement” which is really much smaller than the length of his response suggests. He says that anybody who makes a claim should prove his point. That is fine with me. I guess he makes that simple point better than I did. My position is that neither side has a greater burden of proof than the other. I think he accepts that. My example about Obama and his children was very poorly chosen because only the worst kind of provocateur would make such an outrageous remark. In honest-to-goodness politics that doesn’t occur. Still, each side is often outrageous. To hear Bernie Sanders carry on, one would believe that what motivates radical right wing Republicans is just the desire to hurt people in the middle class. This is the rhetoric of such wild TV left wingers as Cent Uyger, too. I happen to enjoy it and I am afraid that Ed does, too. That is why he gives them a free pass. The fact remains there is not a scintilla of evidence that hatred of the middle class is what motivates the right wing. This crazy speculation into the psyches of the radical right wing ought to be criticized. Ed should ask Uyger or Maddow or Sanders or anybody else, “What’s your evidence?” but I think he doesn’t. Instead, I am afraid Ed will ask me to document instances of left wingers accusing the right of hatred. Of course, I can’t, because I don’t keep records.

    I am content to let the matter rest at this: Ed and I agree that people who make claims should try to prove their points. That is all I meant by saying neither side has a greater onus of proof than the other.

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