David Deutsch Rediscovers The Worst Argument In The World

David Deutsch Rediscovers The Worst Argument In The World

You can read the whole story at Jim Franklin’s place of how the late and lamented David Stove held a contest for the Worst Argument In The World.

In [Stove’s] marking scheme, half the marks went to the degree of badness of the argument, half to the degree of its endorsement by philosophers. Thus an argument was sought that was both very bad, and very prevalent.

Here is the Winner:

We can know things only

  • as they are related to us
  • [or] under our forms of perception and understanding
  • [or] insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes,



we cannot know things as they are in themselves.

Famous philosophers and academics do make this argument. Which is to say, they speak it. But nobody believes it. Everybody who uses it in everyday real life, in their interactions with the world, and particularly with the academic bureaus in charge of parking and paychecks at universities, reject the argument with gusto.

But they will say it, if only to sound mysterious.

Here’s a recent example from physicist David Deutsch. The quotation comes from a tweet, at which is a two minute video of Deutsch.

The eye only detects light, which we don’t perceive. Brains only detect nerve impulses, and they don’t perceive even those as what they really are, namely electrical crackles. So we perceive nothing as what it really is. Our connection to reality is never just perception; it’s always, as Karl Popper put it, “Theory Laden.” Scientific knowledge isn’t derived from anything; it’s like all knowledge; it’s conjectural, guesswork, tested by observation, not derived from it.

We will another day examine a paper in which Deutsch tries to out-Popper Popper, but today we’ll stick with this example of the Worst Argument. It’s obvious that we can swap in his minor premise “as they are given to us by electrical crackles” and it fits the Worst Argument schema to perfection.

Ed Feser saw it and responded that Deutsch’s effort was

About as good an argument as: “I can’t see the eye chart without my glasses; therefore, all I ever really see are my glasses, and never the eye chart itself!” One of modern philosophy’s zombie sophistries, which refuses to stay dead no matter how many times it’s refuted.

Franklin quipped, about earlier attempts, that the Worst Argument can be summarized “In Alan Olding’s telling caricature, ‘We have eyes, therefore we cannot see.'”

What Deustch should have concluded, it being obvious that he perceived the piece of paper on which he had written his speech as a piece of paper on which was his speech, is that electrical sparkles, or whatever, are therefore insufficient as explanations. Something more is needed than neurons firing to explain perception. He should have seen that materialistic explanations, at the very least of the kind he had in mind, weren’t enough.

It’s more amusing when you consider he was trying to convince an audience that what they, the audience, were perceiving could not be known as perception is in itself. “Ah,” some of them might have said, convinced by his authority, “I finally understand why I cannot understand!”

You might have recognized the trope, common with those who attempt arguments against free will. As I often say, it always boils down to this: “We could make better decisions if we realized we cannot make decisions.”

Stove generated an example leaning on Berkeley’s Idealism (quoted from Franklin): “[Y]ou cannot have trees-without-the mind in mind, without having them in mind. Therefore, you cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind.”

This argument, which Stove called `the Gem’, is a version of the `Worst Argument’ because it argues from the fact that we can know physical things only under our own mental forms to the impossibility of knowing physical things at all. Stove finds this argument in many later idealists. Fascinating as High Victorian idealism is, its hold over modern thought is not what it was, so let us leave that topic aside — except to mention Stove’s complaints about the extra pomposity added to the argument as each successive stage: `Thus you never say, for example, “things as they are,” and still less, “things”. You say “things as they are in themselves,” or better still, “things and their properties as they exist both in and for themselves.”’ Then you can construct a seriously heavyweight argument, like:

We can eat oysters only insofar as they are brought under the physiological and chemical conditions which are the presuppositions of the possibility of being eaten.


We cannot eat oysters as they are in themselves…

Stove thought the prevalence of the Gem arose from cultural relativism:

The cultural-relativist, for example, inveighs bitterly against our science-based, white-male cultural perspective. She says that it is not only injurious but cognitively limiting. Injurious it may be; or again it may not. But why does she believe that it is cognitively limiting? Why, for no other reason in the world, except this one: that it is ours. Everyone really understands, too, that this is the only reason. But since this reason is also generally accepted as a sufficient one, no other is felt to be needed. (Stove, 1991, 167)

This attitude surely accounts for many Gems, but not, I think, for Deustch’s version. With him, and with a great multitude of scientists, it is the love of theory that creates the Gem.

In Deustch’s theory, all there is are crackles, and the particles and fields that generate them. The Gem follows directly. This is why Gem speakers usually end up saying things like “Perception and free will are an illusion”, but they never get around to defining who is having this curious illusion.

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  1. bgc

    Just in case you haven’t see it – this is Miles Mathis’s DD evaluation. I regard Mathis as a genuinely motivated scientist, so far as I can judge; and his wild slapdash swinging method seems to be more often on target than off in this particular instance (although quite often mistaken, as usual). At any rate the piece make me laugh several times throughout, as some of the best-aimed swipes hit home square. http://milesmathis.com/deutsch.pdf

  2. Ron Tomlinson

    I think Deutsch’s view is that you have to know something about paper first in order to perceive it, and that the perception component is always indirect. It occurs via a sequence of proxies, e.g. optic nerve, glasses, microscope.

    I find the materialism debate confusing since it is usually contrasted with believing in spirits and in God. However, physicists talk about *information* a lot nowadays which doesn’t strike me as material since the same information can be instantiated in a variety of media. Information is real and has autonomous effects on the physical universe, e.g. certain types of information are replicators which cause themselves to be copied, e.g. some information is knowledge which usually resists being destroyed.

    Deutsch’s view of what is real (as I recall) is that entities are real if they appear in our best explanations of reality. The ‘explanations’ can be scientific or philosophical. So I don’t consider him to be a materialist. However he is an atheist — go figure!

  3. Richard Stevens

    Thank you, Dr. Briggs, for bringing this interesting material to us. I didn’t know about the “worst argument” quest — so the whole idea is intriguing.

    Another way to describe this kind of “argument” is as “self-refuting.” In Christian apologetics we frequently encounter self-refuting arguments like this one. The easiest example to frame such an argument: “I cannot speak or write a word of English.” It is an assertion that refutes itself.

    One cannot help but recall St. Paul’s essay in Romans 1, where he describes starting at verse 21: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools …”

    A couple of years ago an atheist colleague convened a group of friends to listen to Sam Harris talk about meditation. Harris began his podcast talk explaining that we are incapable of knowing anything — every thought is the result of material forces and ultimately outside of our control. Following that preface, Harris then called upon people to consciously think about meditation, etc. Utterly self-refuting stuff — yet all of the atheists in the room nodded in solemn agreement all the way through.

    “professing themselves to be wise …”

    Thank you for your service to our minds, Dr. Briggs!

    P.S. A new article by Denyse O’Leary addresses these issues from another angle at MindMatters.ai : https://mindmatters.ai/2024/02/hall-of-mirrors-the-many-ways-consciousness-baffles-researchers/

    Another take that uses the Infinity Mirror paradox appears at: https://mindmatters.ai/2021/01/why-the-idea-that-the-human-mind-is-an-illusion-doesnt-work/

  4. Phileas_Frogg

    It reminds me of a short play I wrote entitled, “A Catholic Conception of Free-will,” it goes like this…

    SETTING: Garden of Eden
    CHARACTERS: God, Adam

    [It is noon of the 6th day of creation, God stands before a completed Adam…]

    GOD (Commanding): “Think!”
    ADAM (Firmly): “I think not!”


  5. DAA

    Small question: are not our observations dependent on what we know, as in, theory-dependent? I do not mean that they are essentially theory-dependent, as in the world does not exist, but what is in my head. I mean that what we “can see” depends also on what we know. Take radio, for example. One needed to have a theory of electromagnetic waves in order to search for waves and detect them, eventually inventing radio. That means that without the theory there would have been no observation.

  6. 1 – Not even close – the worst argument in the world, and the one most frequently used among experts and other deep thinkers, is “because i (iterating so-and-so) said so”.

    2 – you may want to read about the iep.utm.edu/integrated-information-theory-of-conscious . This provides an internally consistent framework within which the deutsch argument makes perfect sense: “if something is outside our ability to see it, we won’t”. well Duh!

  7. Incitadus

    All biological processes are decidedly unconscious though obviously driven
    by a logic and intelligence all their own which is completely alien to the abstract
    mind space we call call human consciousness. A mind space devoted to the
    manipulation of abstract symbols forming concepts of reality with words comprised
    of various shorthand phonic alphabets scattered across the globe. It’s amazing for anyone
    who is multilingual how much the perception of reality can differ from one language
    to the next.

    One area that abstract mind space of consciousness is devoted to is deconstructing and
    manipulating those unconscious biological processes which rule our very existence either
    to benefit or diminish longevity depending on the agenda which at a decidedly avaricious
    level has become profit centric. At this level disease progression is seen as adjunct to a fat
    bank account and chronic long term disease in a population a long-term asset. At the Machiavellian
    level of Machtpolitik it can become a nebulous hidden instrument that demands compliance or
    enacts the despotic calculus of depopulation. This to save the planet of course first they start with
    the farms and backyard gardens then they move on to the bank accounts.

  8. Cary D Cotterman

    Philosophy is fun to read, but ultimately it’s just a lot of jerking off.

  9. Briggs


    Never say that. Thanks.

    Update: Constructor theory! I was going to write about that myself. Hahahaha. Indeed.

  10. Johnno

    But Briggs!

    I think! Therefore, I am!

    But that is all!

    The rest is then what we choose to identify as!

    But how will we identify as anything… if all the things we want to identify as… are all… illusion…???

    Therefore, in the end, it is only about pleasing oneself!

    And we need the other imperceptible people around us to make us happy!

    I think! Therefore, DO AS I WANT!!!

    Cogito, ergo tu bigot!

  11. @DAA

    This is the rub with Kant’s entire distinction as shown here. It requires you to project out to reality and not receive from it. But where do these things come from? It seems strange given that we tend think in material terms: my mind “races,” my arguments “stink,” my ideas “fall flat.” Was I born with material projections to convey in my mind? I am more inclined to agree with the philosopher: “What exists in the intellect was first perceived in the senses.”

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