The "Stick Test" - useful tool or just pointless amusement?

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, 'I refute it thus.' -- Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson

Sometimes, when discussing philosophy (or anything based on philosophy), the person you're talking with will defend their point by taking refuge under the shield of the undisprovable - that there's no way to prove the universe is real, or that you're real, or that there's any point in doing anything at all.

I've started using a shorthand argument against such positions, which I call the 'Stick Test'. I simply start (virtually) thwapping them repeatedly on the head with a stick, until such time as they can offer a reason for me to stop, with the minor caveat that the reasoning they give can't be self-annulling. For example, if their argument is that it is impossible to judge another culture's activities as being 'evil', I offer up the idea that it's part of my culture to repeatedly thwap people I disagree with on the head with a stick, and thus they have no justification for telling me to stop.

I've both had and inspired a few chuckles with this method... but I'm now throwing it in the fire - is it a *good* technique for pointing out that sort of flaw, or is it a poor tool which should be replaced by some *better* one? Assuming that it's not totally useless, what can be done to apply it most effectively?

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Here's a test to determine whether it's useful: Does it ever get people to change their minds/concede the argument? If yes, it's good. If no, it's useless except for the fun it provides you.

What if you can't tell whether they've actually changed their minds or whether they're just willing to say whatever you want to get you to stop hitting them with a stick?

What if you can't tell whether they've actually changed their minds or whether they're just willing to say whatever you want to get you stop hitting them with a stick?

That is why people usually change their minds. Well, that and the carrot. The social implication of the compliance is usually the important part.

If they're able to come up with the proper reasoning processes to say what I want when I'm (virtually) hitting them with a stick... then they'll be able to use those same reasoning processes without a stick, and there will be no reason to continue using it on them.

If yes, it's good. If no, it's useless except for the fun it provides you.

And if sometimes?

I said, "does it ever". If it's convinced someone at least once, it's got some use.

How likely is it to change someone's mind when they're wrong, and how likely when they were right?

Jayson_Virissimo's comments show one reason why it's a poor instrument: it doesn't actually address any of the arguments you actually want it to.

Another reason is that it's a "virtual" argumentum ad baculum. Because it doesn't actually address your opponent's arguments, the only reason it gives them to agree with you is to avoid (virtual) punishment. If it actually does get them to concede the argument, it might be useful, but be aware that it's Dark Arts at best.

For example, if their argument is that it is impossible to judge another culture's activities as being 'evil', I offer up the idea that it's part of my culture to repeatedly thwap people I disagree with on the head with a stick, and thus they have no justification for telling me to stop.

Not being able to judge another culture's activities as intrinsically evil isn't the same as having to like everything everyone else does.

I don't think your "stick test" is worth anything: the person being hit can invoke desire utilitarianism as their justification and still not claim that your action is "evil".

the person being hit can invoke desire utilitarianism as their justification

Indeed they can - and, for the sorts of arguments I tend to use this argument for, if they do, doing so will require them to accept certain of the axioms upon which desire utilitarianism is based, which can then be used in reverse against the argument I applied the Stick Test against.

It's not really meant to be used against people who've read through the Sequences (or equivalent), but as a teaching tool for those people who don't understand some of the basics of reasoning (which is still an annoyingly high percentage of the total population).

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, 'I refute it thus.'

If Berkeley's hypothesis is "impossible to refute" or "undisprovable" (as you put it), then how could Johnson have refuted it via his rock kicking experiment? Surely, for all x, if x is unfalsifiable, then x can't have been falsified.

That's the point. It looks unfalsifiable, but it isn't. It can answer all your words with "O RLY?", pointing to an axiom you need to prove. But it can't answer actions so easily. The bishop could have said "So what? Your idea-of-a-foot interacts with your idea-of-a-stone" similarly, but his sophistry starts showing. And when the actions are harmful to him, he has to admit he doesn't in fact hold the theory, otherwise he'd just say "oh, a concept-of-a-stick".

But it can't answer actions so easily. The bishop could have said "So what? Your idea-of-a-foot interacts with your idea-of-a-stone" similarly, but his sophistry starts showing.

How so?

And when the actions are harmful to him, he has to admit he doesn't in fact hold the theory, otherwise he'd just say "oh, a concept-of-a-stick".

He has to admit no such thing. According to Berkeley, harmful things like the pain from being beaten with a stick (a particular pattern in experience) are sense impressions (just like color or taste). His hypothesis doesn't deny sense impressions. On the contrary, it doesn't postulate anything other than sense impressions and the patterns they form.

Okay, then the quote is wrong: this is in fact unfalsifiable. In fact, if you consider interactions between sense impressions, including sense impressions of reports of sense impressions in other patterns-of-impressions called humans, this is indistinguishable from good ol' reality.