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Back to Basics

Maybe the biggest problem I have with debating ideologically driven people (you know the ones I mean: creationists, global warming deniers, believers in the paranormal, extreme conservatives, etc) is that they think about things in a different way from me.

They will probably accept this as a fact but claim that their way of thinking is at least equal and probably better than mine. Needless to say, I would disagree.

So the question is, what is the best way to analyse a subject, to think about it, and to draw conclusions which might have some merit beyond that given to an opinion or an anecdote? Well this requires going back to the basics of your world view and of your general philosophy. I think that my epistemological philosophy is hard to fault so I’ll go through it here and refer my detractors to it with the challenge of finding a better one!

Step 1. First we have to admit that logically there is no way to ever know what is real and what isn’t with absolute certainty. This is an old theme in philosophy, most famously advanced by Rene Descartes with his famous phrase “cogito ero sum” (I think therefore I am). He was saying that the only thing a person can be sure of is that he, himself, exists. All the rest could be a delusion.

Descartes also included the existence of God as a prerequisite but that was an arbitrary inclusion and shows how even great philosophers can be badly influenced by the prevailing religious dogma of the time.

Since then other philosophers have claimed that we can’t even know for sure that we exist (and pointed out that the claim of the existence of god as a first principle is bogus). I agree this is ultimately true but also useless. Its far more useful to accept that what can be objectively demonstrated as very likely can be said to be true (this is probably most like philosophical pragmatism).

Step 2. Given that we need to find an objective, unbiased way to establish the truth we need to look for a method which would allow this.

It should be obvious that revealed truth and truth through authority aren’t valid because there are multiple sources for revealed and authoritative truth and no way to establish which is best. So saying something is true because it came from a holy book is useless because another “truth” could easily be contradictory and also come from a (different or even the same) holy book. The same applies to truth derived from gods, mystics and prophets.

A similar argument applies to truth from individual, subjective experience. It doesn’t matter how strongly an individual feels something is true they could still easily be wrong. This can easily be demonstrated by showing that religious zealots will perform suicidal acts for their belief yet anyone outside that religious group will very likely say they are still wrong.

So ideally truth should never come from sources that rely on poorly established authority, or on an experience that is only available to certain groups, or on any other source with poorly defined provenance.

Its also important to avoid a biased world view or a set of unsubstantiated premises. Many religious people start with the requirement that their god exists. And contrary to what many of them say, the rational worldview doesn’t start with the idea that god doesn’t exist, it starts with the idea that we should look at the evidence before we decide. There is no good evidence to support the existence of a god so that idea is rejected, but this is not done as a premise, that’s the critical difference.

The answer in my opinion is empiricism. The particular definition I’m referring to is the idea of a cycle of hypothesising, testing and observing, which is a major component of the modern scientific method.

If anyone doubts this idea I would ask this: if something really is true (even if it is originally derived from a revealed or subjective source) then shouldn’t there be some way to test it through experiment and observation? Some people will say “no” (God can’t be measured, my belief is spiritual, etc) but I would then ask them if their belief has any effect on the physical world. If it does then it can be tested, if it doesn’t then it doesn’t exist (even a spiritual experience affects the subject’s brain in some way).

Step 3. If we accept that an experiment can be performed to support or to reject a hypothesis we also need to accept that there could be other observations which disagree. This is because some experiments are badly designed or badly executed, sometimes the people doing them might have a bias, and sometimes the phenomenon being studied gives variable results because of statistical variations (maybe an experiment just happened by chance to measure something when it was particularly high or low).

So its necessary to look at the big picture. For example, someone determined to believe faith healing works can find studies showing its efficacy, but the overall experimental literature shows no good evidence that it works at all.

So experiments need to be repeatable. It would be preferable if anyone could repeat them, but given that many require expert knowledge or specialised equipment its acceptable if any other expert in the area can. This means that individual bias can be eliminated – even if it still doesn’t negate vast global conspiracies!

Step 4. We need to accept that no one, no matter how intelligent or well informed, can be an expert on any more than one or two subjects. That’s because we have advanced so far, especially in science, that its just impossible to keep up with the skills and knowledge necessary to be an expert.

So its necessary to accept the consensus of experts in most cases. I don’t necessarily think we should blindly believe everything experts tell us for two reasons: first, experts are sometimes wrong or even biased in some way; and second, its sometimes hard to tell who the real experts are.

There are plenty of good tools on the internet (and elsewhere) which allow study of every side of any issue. Anyone can use these to look at the facts. I do agree that the scientific consensus shouldn’t just be followed blindly buit should be given greater credibility than most other sources because it does reflect the majority view of experts.

So let’s use this methodology to examine a contentious issue. Let’s choose… creationism! Creationists (or at least the literal creationists do) claim the universe is about 6000 years old. Let’s see how that theory survives a critical examination by applying the steps above…

Step 1. The origin of the universe is in the past and we can never be 100% sure about what happened but let’s just look at the best evidence and take that as the (interim) truth on the subject.

Step 2. Reading the Bible will tell us how old the universe is according to its authors (whoever they were) but we could choose a different book and get a different answer. We also shouldn’t trust a book with an unknown provenance. So its more sensible to observe and test to see what answer we get for this question.

Step 3. So let’s do the tests. For hundreds of years the results have been accumulating from many areas of knowledge. Without exception they show an old Earth. There’s one experiment anyone can do if they have a little bit of equipment – at least in theory. That’s determining the speed of light and the distance to stars (demonstrating the light has travelled for far longer than creationism allows). I don’t have the space to list the steps here but that might be the subject for a future blog entry.

Step 4. If we can’t do the tests (and most people can’t) we should accept the expert consensus. Its so overwhelming that its stupid (yes, I stand by that word) to believe otherwise. Every branch of science agrees. It would take a conspiracy of far greater in scope than one involving all evolutionist or even all scientists to maintain it. The world is much older than 6000 years. There is no (reasonable) doubt.

So creationism has been rejected. The “controversy” the creationists have tried to create doesn’t exist because, although we should never accept anything completely, the age of the universe being much more than 6000 years is so close to an undeniable fact that it might as well be one.

Taken back to basics crazy beliefs like creationism all just self-destruct!

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