Thursday, July 21, 2011

Skepticism and Epistemology: It's Not What You Believe, It's What's You Know...

For a while now, I've considered myself a skeptic. I'm a proud James Randi-style skeptic; I approach everything with a open mind for all possible conclusions, not just the ones that people desperately want to be true. Guarding against confirmation bias is the first rule of being a real skeptic, as opposed to the ones that get played on television, since the human mind is naturally inclined towards patterns. Skeptics are a misunderstood group of people; the way we get portrayed in fiction is often as an ironclad believer in this mystical religion known as "Science", always with a capital "S". The first order of business here is to clear this up - skepticism is not a religion. If a skeptic is dogmatic, they're straight up doing it wrong.

Skeptics often get this reputation because so many people so desperately want the supernatural to be real. We want that confirmation, we want to know. And there standing in your way is the skeptic, telling you that no, it's not real. No, fairies do not exist. No, there is no angels. No, you can believe that Thor has something to do with lightning, but you're wrong. We know what causes these things. We have proof. If you want to convince me, as the skeptic, and thus, us, as a scientific community, it's time to pony up with the evidence.

Which brings me to my main point: the difference between "believing" and "knowing." The study of belief is called "epistemology," and while I'm not a solid student of it, I'm familiar enough with epistemology to know a lot of people believe a lot of things that are unfounded and, most often, wrong. Let me illustrate with an example:

It's a hot a humid day, and you've been hiking for, oh, say, several hours. You're ready to get back home, but you're pretty far up in the mountains, and for whatever reason, you can't use the path that you took to get up here. You have to find a new one; which isn't hard. After all, you've got map. The map guides you through the trees and it's there you see a canyon. This yawning chasm is linked one end to the other by a rickety old looking bridge. It doesn't look entirely stable, but because there's no other way around, you have to use it. You size the bridge up, decide that you believe it looks pretty stable, and then slowly start across. Turns out the bridge is a lot more solid than it looked, and once you're on the other side, you're off on your way home.
There's multiple examples of belief and knowing at work in that example, but let me single out two: The map and the bridge.

If you've never take this path before, you have to believe that the map is going to guide you in the right direction. Now, that's belief. Your belief will be unfounded it, for example, the map is by a company that you know is guilty of turning out bad maps, or maps that are incorrect (*coughcough*MapQuest*coughcough*). However, because the company that made this map is run by the state park rangers, and they're familiar with this region, having laid these trails, you can know that there's a good chance this map is right. There's still the off-chance this was a whacky map, but you feel reasonably confident in the map knowing the source. Your belief that the map is reliable is backed up by the fact that you know the map company is reputable. Thus, your belief is a founded belief; you're on epistemologically solid ground in basing your belief that the map will take you where you want to go because you have knowledge that the park rangers are generally reliable. You can then say that you know the map is accurate. In a proper sense, it works like this: Knowledge (of the reliability of the map's designers) ---> Belief/Knowing (the map is correct). Can you be wrong? Yes. But you're justified in saying that you know the map is right, until you're proven wrong.

Now, what about that bridge? You don't have any knowledge at all about that bridge - you weren't here to see it built, and from where you're standing, it doesn't look incredibly safe (rope bridges never do). What are you doing here? You're taking all of your previous knowledge that you possess about rope bridges, even from incorrect sources (for instance, television), and you're building a framework that you can hang your belief off of. Now, the end result here will be a belief that the bridge is not stable, and not something you'd want to walk across. This belief can be either founded or unfounded, but you certainly don't know. Why? Because you don't know whether or not the individuals who built the bridge built it that way or not. Unlike the map, who you knew was made by a reputable source, you know nothing about the bridge itself, just bridges like it. Your mental scaffolding that you've hung the belief off of does not address the bridge exactly - thus, you're basing your belief off of similar bridges, but not that bridge. Now, depending upon your mental scaffolding that you've built, you can be pretty close to the mark (for instance, basing your belief that the map is good off of other maps made by different park rangers) or way off mark (basing the trustworthiness of the map off of the scribbled drawing that the guy down the street conned you into buying). You won't know for certain until you test. You can believe what will happen, but because your mental scaffolding is incomplete (you know no relevant information about the bridge itself), you won't know whether or not this bridge, at this location, is safe. So you walk across, and, lo and behold, it's safe. Here's what happened: Incomplete Knowledge (based on other bridges like it but not that bridge by that engineer, and by visual input and assessments) ---> Belief (stable or not stable). Belief was tested ---> Complete Knowledge/Knowing (bridge is safe or not safe). You believed (or didn't believe) that the bridge was stable, but you did not know it was stable until you tested it.

You can have unfounded beliefs that are right or wrong. That's not the issue here - it's the fact that they're unfounded that matters. You can be right for all the wrong reasons, or you can take a most backasswards way of getting there, but you still get there. That doesn't make you anymore right. Now, if you're making your claim to test it, that's something different. You're not believing it; you're making the unfounded belief this is what will happen, but you're not swayed one way or another until you see what actually does happen. This can be good or bad (For instance, if the above bridge hadn't been safe; you were stupid for trying to test it, even though that's what science is all about. In theory, you should've tried with something different; preferably a rock or something close to your weight.)

Religion, and beliefs like it, are epistemologically unsound beliefs. Just like your unfounded belief that the bridge was safer or not, your belief in a God/s/ess/es is also unfounded. Not until you test them, anyway. I feel like picking on Christianity tonight, so let's do that (it's en vogue. If I didn't, they'd come for my Liberal Card and Academic License).

The whole of the Christian religion is based on one single document, which sits at the core of the religion, without which the religion could not exist. The actual reason I singled Christianity out is because I grew up in a heavily Christian culture, and as a result, I'm far more familiar with Christianity than I am with other religions. This book is called the Bible, it's self derived from the Latin word for "Book". The Bible is made up of two separate sections - the Old Testament and the New Testament. Let's treat those like maps, since most people often do. They're road maps into Heaven (itself an unsound belief). Now, like our map in the example above, we have a belief that the map is sound. However, we can't know until we check with the publisher, and we look at similar documents and double check. We can assume it's correct, but assuming does no good. With the Bible, however, you can't go back and check the author. There wasn't one single author. As you look through it, there are any number of contradictions. While these themselves do not discount the document (they make it hard to read, though; especially that jarring, flat out recon between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 that basically undoes all of Creation and lets God start over, without a word one about it). In order to know whether or not the map is reliable, we have to test it's claims. We have to see; if the map is telling you there's a turn up here, there'd better be a turn up there, especially if you need the next turn down. However, time and time again we've tested the claims made by the Bible and without fail, most do not withstand the criticism directed at them (Pi = 3, for instance, or that insects have 4 legs, or that the Earth is flat, anchored in place, and the universe is Geocentric). Thus, any belief that the Bible can be a functioning road map in the material world is wrong and unfounded. We don't just believe it's wrong, we know it's wrong. (Knowledge of preexisting material world ---> comparison with the Bible, which is believed to be right. That comparison does not add up, which ----> Bible is wrong.)

Most will claim that the Bible (and other books like it) are not for use for here in the material world, but the spiritual world. Well, there's a problem there. Any belief in a spirit, in a soul, or in an afterlife is completely unfounded from an epistemological stand point. It's not a solid belief (one founded off of previous experiences and knowledge in the light of lack of evidence about a current situation) but something all together different (one founded off of no previous experience, with no previous knowledge, and a lack of evidence.) There is no evidence, most of us have no previous experience with it (because you have to be dead; near death experiences do not count. The human brain does strange things when deprived of oxygen; and if I can explain your experience with a mundane reason, there's no need to throw a completely unfounded supernatural one down, too), with a total absence of evidence. Thus, you don't know, and your belief is unfounded. Now, in light of this, how can someone claim that the Bible is a spiritual guide without acknowledging that they have no epistemological grounding for the belief in an afterlife? Millions of people do it daily, and while they aren't right or wrong per say, they're wrong for making a belief without any previous evidence. This doesn't even apply to religion most of the time:
Oh sure, the large lake that formed under the bridge during that last heavy rain didn't look that deep. At least, not until you followed through on your unfounded belief it wasn't and flooded your car. Maybe the hefty repair bill for your car will serve as a reminder that it's not intended to be a submersible.

Well, how were you to know that's what the switch meant, and why you should never mess around with electronics. You have no previous knowledge of it, you've never picked up an electronic device before, but you believed that, because you heard from a third hand source and had a manual you barely understood, you know what you were doing before you knocked yourself flat on your ass. Next time, get someone who knows what they're doing, or you'll really get killed.

You burned 16 dollars on tickets for a movie by a direct you'd never heard of, in a genre you're not familiar with, in a theater that you've never been too. You went in believing that the film would be good and you'd have a good time, but that belief was completely unfounded and the film was crappy, the theater was crappy, and you walked away knowing you'll never want to see any movie by that direct again, in that theater again, and maybe of that genre again.
That's what's at the heart of a Skeptic. If we don't have the necessary evidence to suggest it, then we don't believe. If it stands in the face of existing evidence, then we not only disbelieve, we attack it for the lie it is. If it's easier to use a mundane explanation rather than a supernatural one, then we use that, especially because w know that the mundane exists, as opposed to the supernatural.

Don't think that creating an unfounded belief is wrong in and of itself - an unfounded belief should be tested. And it should be tested, and tested, and tested, until it's not an unfounded belief anymore. And it should be tested intelligently. If you can't test it, and you believe anyway, then your belief is unfounded and therefore wrong - whether or not it turns out that you're right in the end.

So, to recap:
Knowing: A belief that's been tested in the past and proven correct. You know that you'll die without air, because others have done it. You can be wrong in knowing something - you might have some superrare mutation that allows you survive without air for all we know, or you might be a robot, but the point is, it's been tested, it's been observed, and it's been, for all intents and purposes, proven for most people. Science calls these "theories" - the Theory of Electromagnetism, the Theory of Gravity, the Theory of Evolution, and the like. In order to prove a theory wrong, one has to present a huge amount of evidence (For instance, you have to be able to show me you won't die if you go without breathing), or, to quote Mr. Carl Sagan, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof."

Belief, founded: A belief that's based on preexisting knowledge in lieu of evidence for the situation at hand. A belief is not something occurs in just the absence of evidence - you have to have preexisting knowledge to back that belief up. For instance, the map. You know it's from a trusted source, because you've used that source before or because you've worked with them, so you have a founded belief that the map is trusted.

Belief, unfounded: A belief that's assumed automatically without any preexisting knowledge in lieu of evidence for the situation at hand. This does not include beliefs that are blatantly wrong - a belief in Creationism, for instance, or a belief in the Flood - are all demonstrably wrong. A belief in the Abrahamic God hovers between this and being outright wrong; it's unfounded, because there's no evidence or preexisting knowledge to support any belief for the existence of said God, and most of God's "miracles" are testable and none of them - not one - have proven to survive the skeptic's gaze (that is, never believe an unproven supernatural explanation when there's a proven material one). Being generous, an unfounded belief that isn't held too closely to the heart can be called a "hypothesis" and tested, and proven whether or not it's right or wrong. Unfounded beliefs are actually quite useful in illustrating how the scientific method works, which uses an unfounded belief (say, magic exists), and proceeds to design a study to determine whether or not it does exist based on previous knowledge, and then tests it, and then comes to a conclusion (probably that magic doesn't exist, unless we're talking magical thinking).

So what does this mean? Well, this means that if there's evidence that appears to defend the unfounded belief in an Abrahamic God, I'll believe. But it has to be irrefutable evidence, not circumstance, anecdotal, or something that can't be replicated under laboratory like conditions. Until that day, from an epistemological standpoint, such beliefs - whether ultimately right or wrong - are wrong by sheer virtue of the fact that they're held without any kind of support or preexisting knowledge.

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