My Epistemology

A lot of postmodern inanity flies around the internet relating to knowledge and our epistemological bases. Philosophical rumination has its place, and indeed I find it quite fascinating, but in many discussions it is a red herring. Worse, it is the direst form of special pleading.

This issue raises its head most commonly (in my experience) when discussing belief. For instance, I’ve read recently:

But atheism is itself nothing more than a belief. Any assertion to the contrary is to claim that one has discovered all there is to know about the universe, a logically indefensible claim.”

The first sentence is symptomatic of ultra-liberal political correctness; where all opinions and worldviews are equally valid, and are all expressions of some kind of belief. (Note: I’m not pretending to read anything into the author’s character or beliefs.)

First of all, the claim that one needs absolute certainty to make ANY claim is ridiculous and self-refuting. It’s ridiculous, because absolute certainty of anything is impossible. It’s self-refuting, because unless one is absolutely certain of the certainty claim, one cannot make the claim in the first place!

Second, lack of belief cannot be belief. One might lack belief in aliens, gods, zogblogs, or nerkfrends. However, one might believe that aliens or gods, zogblogs or nerkfrends don’t exist. This is of course a belief. (When discussing atheism, one must be careful to differentiate between implicit or explicit atheism.)

Not all opinions are equally valid. Not all worldviews are equally rational. Not all explanations are of equal probability. This might seem to go against politeness and respect for other people’s opinions, but a reductio ad absurdum demonstrates why not all opinions/worldviews/explanations are equal:

Claim X: “all opinions/worldviews/explanations are equal”

You believe Claim X. Let’s suppose however that my opinion is that Claim X is totally false. For the claim to be true, it would mean there that my opinion is just as valid as yours, which means there is a 50% chance that the claim is false. If there is an equally likely chance of a claim being true as it is false, there is absolutely no reason to accept it! So the claim is self-refuting, and your opinion that all opinions/worldviews/explanations are equal is just as valid as my opinion that they aren’t. So, nothing is achieved.

Furthermore, the self-annihilating nature of the claim notwithstanding, if every opinion is of equal validity, there could in theory be as many opinions on a topic as there are people capable of holding them. There are over 6 billion people on the planet, so assuming we all had a different opinion of equal likelihood, there is a 6 billion to 1 chance that yours is the correct one.

Absolute knowledge is a fantasy. We cannot be 100% certain of anything. But to use that fact to suppose that we can safely say nothing certain about anything is dire scepticism. It is also gross hypocrisy. Nobody in real life pretends that knowledge is impossible. We use the word “know” all the time, because it means something. If someone suggests that knowledge is impossible because it can never be certain, then what word do we use when we say “I know it’s raining”; “I know I love you”; “I know the earth orbits the sun”?

In a court of law, a jury is asked to conclude beyond reasonable doubt the veracity or falsity of a proposition. Imagine if video evidence shows the defendant murdering the deceased. The knife at the scene matches the wounds. The blood of the victim is found on the defendant. The defendant’s DNA and fingerprints are found on the weapon and at the scene. And the defendant has also lied about his/her alibi. What would happen if the defence attorney stood up and said: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you have no epistemological basis for reaching a conclusion, because your decision is based on your empirical senses which are uncertain, and absolute knowledge is never a possibility. Therefore you cannot safely say with certainty whether my client is guilty or not.”

If this lawyer wasn’t laughed out of court, he would probably never acquire another case.

This is where hypocritical double standards come in. Inasmuch as we can know anything, that is the extent to which we can use that word. To couch certain issues in questions about knowledge, or equally-likely philosophies, is disingenuous. Why only bring these objections up when discussing belief, atheism, religion, and science? Why not being them up when discussing the weather, the traffic system, politics, or criminal trials?

I’ll tell you why: political-correctness, and ultra-liberalism. Perhaps some genuinely believe that all ideas are equal, or perhaps they’re afraid of saying anything definite, or offending others. Some see faith as something to be respected, or something that moves a topic beyond rational discourse. This is, of course, patently absurd. If you disagree with this, I invite you to imagine defending yourself from a rape or murder charge with the excuse “I had faith I was doing the right thing”, and see how far that gets you.

No, nobody uses faith in the real world beyond their personal convictions or metaphysical biases. Nobody stands in the rain and says “I have faith it is a beautiful clear day today!”

So why all a sudden when somebody says “I have faith that a being impregnated a woman with itself, so give birth to itself, to sacrifice itself to itself, to appease itself for the crimes of others” does the issue become unverifiable and unable to be discussed? It is bad enough when those of faith resort to this irrational equivocation, but it is even worse when non-believers pander to the faithful and pretend that these issues are beyond rational discourse! (This is commonly encountered by the “I’m an atheist, but…” crowd.)

If certain people want to invoke faith to reconcile their beliefs, that is their choice. But it doesn’t mean that others should accept this. Again, if I said I had faith that the moon was made of cheese, you would hardly respect that. I doubt anyone would think twice about sitting me down, hearing what I had to say, and looking over pictures of the moon, lunar landings, samples of moon soil etc, to establish that I was wrong and that the moon isn’t made of cheese. So why the ridiculous double-standard when it comes to analysing other claims of faith?

Not all worldviews are equal. If somebody’s worldview is riddled with contradictions, we can say that that belief system is inferior to a worldview that doesn’t contain contradictions. Believing in an Invisible Pink Unicorn is a contradiction; how can something be invisible and also pink?? Calling it a matter of faith is not an acceptable answer. It does not elevate the question to a higher realm of thought where rational discourse is impossible. It is a cheap cop out. It a lazy surrendering of intelligence. It is placing belief over truth; faith over fact.

Similarly, as I recently argued, believing in a being that is supposed to be all-loving and caring and yet acts in the exact opposite way, is a contradiction. It doesn’t cease to be one when somebody plays the “faith card”.

Imagine walking across a busy main road with your eyes closed, but having faith that you won’t get hit. Nobody in their right mind would consider this rational, and if you heard of such an incident you would question the mental health of the deceased.

So again I ask: why the double-standard? Why does nobody have a problem with the expression: “I believe flying elephants don’t exist” yet if you say “I believe that the Christian god doesn’t exist”, certain people will question your epistemology, and the impossibility of absolute certainty. They might claim you’re making a religious claim yourself, or say that believing Not-X is just as much a matter of faith as believing X.

The answer is obvious: nobody believes in flying elephants, so it doesn’t affect anybody. Nobody’s beliefs are threatened or questioned; nobody is offended. Well, I never set out to offend anybody. I never set out to insult or destroy beliefs or worldviews. However, IF it happens along the way I’m not going to apologise, and nor should I. If somebody disagrees with me and proves me wrong, I’ll thank them for correcting my understanding! I want to better myself and improve my understanding of the world. Assuming that all honest intelligent people want the same thing, what harm can come from critical study? As I say, nobody has a problem talking about logic and knowledge except when they feel it violates some magical barrier. All I do is deny that this magical barrier exists.

The question of god’s existence is a supernatural and metaphysical one that probably cannot ever be settled by scientific discovery, empirical validation, or logical argument. Note, when I say “god” I mean just “GOD”, the generic term for a personal all-powerful deity. I’m not referring to a specific human myth. Now, just because we can never know for certain whether a god exists or not, doesn’t make the likelihood 50/50! To elucidate this, replace the word “god” in this paragraph for “zogblog”. Would you concede it’s equally likely that zogblog exists or doesn’t? Well, what is zogblog? What does it mean? It is a word that can be defined as we wish, just as “god” is. But we cannot define beings into existence, and just because something either is or isn’t the case doesn’t make the probability of either 50%. I don’t know if a god exists or not, but I see absolutely no reason to believe in one, just as I see no reason to believe in zogblog. If however we’re talking about a specific god, there is absolutely no reason at all for us not to see if this being is at least logically coherent. If I say Zogblog is a square circle, you would call it irrational. So why withhold a conclusion about another being that also has a definition that allows us to reach conclusions?

Only by rational discussion and analysis can we select the best possibility from a variety of options. If there are several explanations for a phenomenon, let’s see what the best one is. Let’s see which makes sense. All explanations and worldviews must yield to logic, because logic is the basis for all epistemologies. Knowledge is predicated on logic, so if something defies logic, it makes no sense to claim to “know” it. To pretend there are some things beyond logic is self-refuting and duplicitous.

 

(This article isn’t intended as an attack on belief (or anything). The purpose is to show the idiocy of ultra-liberalism and the hypocritical special pleading when it comes to knowledge and certainty. I’ve used atheism and theology here as examples only.)

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15 Responses to “My Epistemology”

  1. tobe38 Says:

    Excellent post (I say it because I mean it, Derek).

    When discussing the existence of God, we shouldn’t even let ourselves get dragged into these pseudo-philosophical ramblings on possibility of knowledge. It is, as you say, often a red herring.

  2. Dana Says:

    Whaaat?

    Saying that atheism is a belief is not making any judgments about the validity of the belief. Pointing out that ANYTHING is a belief is not making a judgment about its validity. It’s merely pointing out that that idea is a belief.

    Atheism *can* be a belief, if you’re the type of atheist who believes God does not exist. That’s different from merely not believing in God. And part of me wants to argue that not believing in God is a type of belief too, but I don’t have the philosophical background to make it stick. Let’s just say that the declaration “I don’t believe gods exist” implies SOME kind of belief concerning the nature of reality and the purpose of existence that has nothing to do with deities whatsoever. It is implicit in that very statement, because of the cultural background involved.

    I consider myself a liberal but I share your disgust with the idea that all beliefs are equally valid. I’ve seen that expressed, although I do not see it expressed here in what you’ve quoted in your post. I do not agree with it. That said, in terms of whether God exists, I suppose most beliefs, if not all, ARE equally valid because none of us little hairless monkeys really know the answer, and we may never know.

    But remember: absence of proof is not proof of absence, and guessing is not science. MAN, it annoys me what gets passed off as science even by so-called “intellectuals” who decry so-called “pseudoscience.” I guess I should add that big-Johnson contests aren’t science either.

    Sorry for the ramble. I have not had enough caffeine yet this morning.

  3. tobe38 Says:

    @ Dana

    That said, in terms of whether God exists, I suppose most beliefs, if not all, ARE equally valid because none of us little hairless monkeys really know the answer, and we may never know.

    I think you’ve missed Evanescent’s point. Just because we don’t know the answer (and may never) either way, doesn’t make the probability 50/50.

    absence of proof is not proof of absence

    This is normally phrased as “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” (proof is for mathemeticians and alcoholics!). Actually, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. If we’re discussing the existence of unicorns, then the fact that there is no evidence for their existence is in itself a piece of evidence against their existence, although it is not conclusive proof.

  4. jonfeatherstone Says:

    Here’s my supa-simple “Jon’s epistemology-in-a-nutshell” version:

    There are 5 ways we can know something:

    Reason (My brain told me)
    Experience (My body told me)
    Intuition (My gut told me)
    Authority (My teacher told me)
    Revelation (God told me)
    It is my thought that we get into trouble when we let one of these 5 ways become grossly over-balanced compared with the others.

  5. evanescent Says:

    It should also be noted that there are degrees of probable knowledge that these sources produce.

    In terms of what we can safely objectively “know”, one could say that logical reason should produce the same results for all. Uniform sense experience also seems sufficient.

    I wouldn’t list Authority as a separate source though; that seems to come under sense experience too.

    As for revelation, it is very doubtful this can be considered a sound epistemological basis, because it is only likely to foster Belief, not knowledge. And personal revelation, (ignoring for a second its dubious nature), is not uniform and contradicts revelation from other people.

    Just to labour the point with an anology:

    “Person A KNOWS about God X from personal revelation”

    “Person B KNOWS about God Y from personal revelation”

    If we grant that God X and Y are mutually exclusive, either Person A or B is wrong and with no way to decide between them, neither of them can say they “KNOW”; they can only claim to believe.

    Whereas with empiricism there is an objective way to decide knowledge.

  6. jonfeatherstone Says:

    You are of course probably right. I was just wondering about green olives, and more specifically how we can know whether or not they taste nice.
    If you ask me, they taste horrible – really horrible.
    If you ask my wife, she loves them. Yum!
    How do we “know” what olives really taste like?
    Jon (Junior clerk, Department of Evolutionary Lies)

  7. jonfeatherstone Says:

    The “Authority” category means you know something to be tru based on the authority of the source that told you. Thus, you know that the country of New Zealand exists, despite the fact that you have no persoanl experience of any sort of this country. Yet, you know it exists because you trust the authority of the sources that have told you.
    Where the christians get all tangled up here is when they go using this authority category and try and make it apply to the bible! … buts thats another kettle of fish.

  8. evanescent Says:

    Hi Jon,

    you raise a good point regarding taste.

    I would tentatively suggest that subjective “knowledge” has it’s place when the purpose is not to establish objective knowledge.

    The question of how green olives taste cannot be “known”, unless we use objective words like “salty; raw; bitter” etc which we can agree on. Some may find this makes them nice, others horrid. I would venture that, just with human beauty, we all still see physically the same person, but one of us finds her beautiful and one does not; we can KNOW exactly how she looks, but to KNOW how another sees her, well, that’s a matter of opinion.

    When we talk about personal tastes, we aren’t really talking about knowledge anymore; at least we cannot objective know what an olive tastes like, all we can KNOW is what an olive tastes like to a PARTICULAR PERSON.

  9. jonfeatherstone Says:

    OK then, so we can know what someone looks like, but whether or not she is beautiful is subjective. I find her attractive, you don’t. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.
    Yet isn’t it odd that 2 people can experience such a different perception of the same person. “She’s ugly”, “She’s pretty”. As you point out, all we can “know” for sure is what each particular person experiences of that girl.
    Therefore, it seems to me that we cannot say with any real meaning at all whether or not the girl is pretty, or whether or not the olives taste nice. So it also seems to me that such reasoning may also be applied to God (whatever that is). We simply can’t know hat He/She/It is like, but at least we can know each other’s experiences – just like girls and olives!
    Just a thought.
    Jon

  10. tobe38 Says:

    With both olives and girls, our perception is not entirely subjective, it has been guided by natural selection. When looking at the opposite sex, the things we tend to find attractive are actually signs of fertility and of good genes to pass on. Child bearing hips in women, evidence of strength and good survival skills in men, and in both cases, strong symmetry of facial features are something we’ve been trained to unconsciously look for and find attractive.

    With food, the reason we tend to like sweet foods is that glucose is a quick source of energy, and our ancestors who developed the ability to sense its presence would have been naturally selected for.

    This is why although our preferences are certainly subjective, they’re not completely random.

  11. evanescent Says:

    No doubt about it that there are very objective qualities that humans are attracted to, but some men prefer blondes, and some prefer brunettes. How do we know which is more attractive? Well, of course we don’t.

    I have no doubt that sweet foods taste sweet to all humans, so we KNOW that they’re sweet, but we cannot know which is the ‘best’ food: this is where objective knowledge breaks down; which of course you would expect: objective knowledge is meaningless when discussing personal tastes.

    So when saying “I know because my thoughts tell me”, we have to decide if we’re making a personal statement, or making a judgment on the external world.

    e.g.: “I know I love you” would be acceptable.

    e.g.: “I know god exists because I feel him” would not be.

  12. Tanya Says:

    DNA functions like a software program unlike anything man has ever seen before. It is estimated that the bilogical information neccessary to build all of the proteins in all the species of all the organisms that ever existed on planet earth could be held in a single teaspoon and we’d still have enough roomleft over for all the information contained in every book ever written.

    Where did the information in DNA come from?

    There is only one known cause for the origin of information. Intelligence.

    The signature of God is found in every cell of every living creature.

    I do not base my belief in God on just feelings. DNA is just one of the many scientific discoveries that points to a higher being. There is the discovery recently made that the universe had a beginning and therefore is ever expanding, or you could look at the recent discovery that we are all genetically linked to a single alpha female ( makes me think of eve) or the fact that over 600 scientist with PHD’s have now signed A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism. I haven’t seen much scientific evidence that leans toward flying elephants though.

  13. evanescent Says:

    DNA functions like a software program unlike anything man has ever seen before. It is estimated that the bilogical information neccessary to build all of the proteins in all the species of all the organisms that ever existed on planet earth could be held in a single teaspoon and we’d still have enough roomleft over for all the information contained in every book ever written.

    What does this prove? Nothing.

    This is yet another way of phrasing the Argument from Complexity – a self-contradictory argument indeed.

    From another discussion I had recently:

    P1: Complexity requires design
    P2: Design requires a designer
    P3: The universe is complex

    Conclusion 1 (from P1 & P3): The universe was designed, (& P2: the universe had a designer)

    P4: God is at least as complex as the universe

    Conclusion 2 (from P1 & P4): God requires design, (& P2: god had a designer)

    Therefore god was designed.

    But, from C2 & P2, Conclusion 3: The designer of god requires a designer
    But, from C3 & P2, Conclusion 4: The designer of the designer of god requires a designer

    This is a reductio ad absurdum. Repeat until insane.

    QED

    Where did the information in DNA come from?

    There is only one known cause for the origin of information. Intelligence.

    This begs the question, and equivocates on the definition of “information”. “Information” can mean ANYTHING by this interpretation. What exactly do you mean by information?

    By this reasoning, the wind gives information to a leaf as it blows on it; a raindrop carries “water” information; the structure of the atom contains “information” about protons, neutrons, and electrons.

    The signature of God is found in every cell of every living creature.

    I will remember this the next time I come across junk DNA, vestigial organs, joint aches, the blind spot in the human eye, the appendix, babies born without brains, babies born with holes in their heart, AIDS, deadly parasites, hunters specifically designed to toy with and then rip their prey to death, a cooling spinning of rock in space with hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes, mass deserts, mass floods, 85% of which is uninhabitable, etc etc etc. If this is the work of “god”, he is incompetent.

    I do not base my belief in God on just feelings.

    So you base your belief partly on feelings then?

    DNA is just one of the many scientific discoveries that points to a higher being.

    Actually it points to common descent.

    There is the discovery recently made that the universe had a beginning and therefore is ever expanding

    Existence is not created. Whatever gave rise to this structure of matter and energy was not the beginning of existence.

    What created god? See argument above.

    or you could look at the recent discovery that we are all genetically linked to a single alpha female ( makes me think of eve)

    This points to common descent, since humans and chimps share a common ancestor which scientists call Lucy.

    or the fact that over 600 scientist with PHD’s have now signed A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism

    Which was responded to by over a petition of 7000 scientists concurring with evolution. Funny how creationists pick and choose their facts, eh?

    They point to the odd religiously-motivated scientist, most of which have never studied evolution, yet forget that 99% of the scientific community accepts evolution as fact.

    I haven’t seen much scientific evidence that leans toward flying elephants though.

    Flying elephants are more likely than an invisible all-powerful all-knowing perfect sky bully that MUST exist because the universe is so wonderfully complex… yet it itself is so wonderfully complex which means it was created by?? Blank out.

  14. Tanya Says:

    I have the feeling that I have been essentially been chewed up and spit out by you. Although, your comments don’t offend me, I think there is a lesson in everything and I will think on your comments and get back to you. It’s interesting that you call God a “sky bully”. Do I sense some anger there or are you just angry in general?

  15. evanescent Says:

    Hi Tanya, that’s a very nice loaded question you offer. Actually, I’m not angry at all. I think I was at my most angriest when I was a theist and believed in god.

    The reason I call “god” a “sky bully” is because that is the character portrayed by the Bible. The “god” of the bible is the most resentful cruel chauvinistic creature one could conceive of. Once I realised that the bible is a load of rubbish and “god” is a figment of peoples’ imaginations, I felt a profound sense of relief and fortune.


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