Monday, 19 August 2013

Now how do I know that?

On occasion it would be very convenient if human beings could read minds,
perhaps when interrogating crime suspects or when waiting for the moment to ask a girl out on a date. On balance, however, it's probably a good thing that they can't. Aside from laying bare all our deepest hopes and the ideas we'd never speak aloud, it would completely devastate a good game of chess.  Ah well, such is fantasy. As fantasy, it cannot serve as a neat little answer to a more fundamental question: how do we know things?

Some things, of course, we know because our senses tell us. We feel a switch flick beneath our fingers and see the room be bathed in light. While philosophers argue about the trustworthiness of our senses, broadly speaking we all agree that they're normally reliable.

That said, there are some things that we know even though our senses cannot tell us.
For example, I cannot taste that no fact and its opposite can be simultaneously true. I cannot smell that two premises related in such and such a way must lead to a given conclusion. These are are the basic building blocks of logic, not derived from aroma or any other sensation, but from their own necessity.

A third category of knowledge pertains to the internal state of our minds. I am aware that the light is on because my eyes detect the photons streaming from the bulb. However, how do I know that I'm aware of that fact? This knowledge is information I have privileged access to, being rather close friends with my brain. Other information in this category might be the knowledge of how much I love someone or what I intend to do about it. (the obvious thing: I'm off to Oz to see a man about some courage)

Finally, I have information of a form that my senses could have had access to were circumstances different, but circumstances weren't feeling so kindly. It is possible that the entire population of Japan could line up in front of me so I could see them and count them, but instead I've resorted to asking Google. Apparently there are about 128 million of them, so counting could have taken me rather a long time.
This is roughly how I find out most of my facts about the world; whether through blog posts, books, letters, hand signals, or plain old talking, information is transferred from another sentient brain into my own.

There is a rather peculiar tendency these days to suggest that the only really reliable source of information is science. In essence, that means taking in information through our senses (such as touching the hot plate) or setting up a known chain of equipment which gives output for our senses (such as pressing a thermometer against a hot plate). If we're sufficiently rigorous and carefully set up repeat experiments, that can provide an amazing amount of very reliable information. No reasonable human being would be anti-science.

However, three of the four kinds of information I mentioned above are completely inaccessible to our senses. One might protest that advances in technology such as PET scans may some day offer access to the "internal state" form of knowledge, but even that cannot be demonstrated to be reliable unless the subject tells you what he was thinking during the scan. Although nearly everyone accepts information from the scientific method, the most reasonable would not refuse information from other methods. To do so would be to constrain ourselves to a tiny subset of available information: that which we can directly observe ourselves.

There are whole branches of inquiry that depend primarily on the other three. Logic and Mathematics emphasize formal proof from basic principles, not repeated controlled experiment. Every kind of Aesthetics, the study of art and beauty, is not so concerned about the molecules of paint themselves but the pattern they project onto the internal canvas of our minds. History emphasizes transferred knowledge from another mind; a historian's task is to evaluate the reliability of writers who were contemporaries to the events studied, and piece together facts about times that they couldn't observe themselves.
Most disciplines mix them together, and even the traditional hard sciences would fail without the support of logic, maths, and information transferred via other scientists.

A lot of people present "Faith" as believing something without or even in spite of the evidence. In support they'll cite Hebrews 11:1, "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see."
If you subscribe to Scientism, that is pretty accurate. Having faith is daring to believe something even though you, personally, have not put it under a microscope and stared at it, normally believing with assurance from somebody else. If only empirical information through your own eyes or nose can be trusted, faith is lunacy.
Of course, that includes the faith shown by historians and the faith shown by scientists as much as the faith shown by the religious.

There is a saner way. The testimony of a witness is evidence. It isn't conclusive proof: witnesses can lie, witnesses can be mistaken, witness testimonies can lead to the wrong conclusion, but generally their words are supporting evidence. That means, if you read through a scientific research paper, you do not have to discard every citation in the bibliography to other peer-reviewed studies as groundless faith. You do not have to discard the paper itself as meaningful only to the small team who performed the experiment. You can accept what they say, of course taking care to evaluate it and keeping an eye out for hints of bias. At the same time you must accept that, by and large, the religious believe based not on blind faith but on faith nonetheless, and that doesn't make them irrational or idiots.


  1. Can't you also get knowledge from dreams?

    People are often having dreams in the Bible and the Bible claims they produce real knowledge about real things.

    'If only empirical information through your own eyes or nose can be trusted, faith is lunacy.'

    Is it lunacy to think that real flesh and blood men from Macedonia appear to you in visions, as Paul did?

    1. The psychology of dreams is interesting.
      There are various interpretations of dreams, such as they're just random electrical storms while we're sleeping, or they're the brain trying to sort through some of the things it couldn't process properly in the hectic pace of awakened life. If the first theory is true, most dreams are meaningless. If the second is true, they can provide interesting interpretations to things you already knew, but no independent information. Most dreams are natural.

      In Paul's case, there is no indication that he thought there was an actual Macedonian man calling out to him while he slept. He thought the message came from God, as shown by the next verse: "After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them." The same view is seen when other dreams are mentioned in the Bible; not that there is an actual cannibalistic stalk of wheat, but that God is sending Pharaoh a message.
      So long as you do not start by rejecting the possibility of God out of hand, it is reasonable to consider that he too would be a mind with information that he's in a position to communicate to us, and that could be through dreams or prophesy for example. Of course that too requires careful examination; it is always possible that the so-called prophet is actually a con trying to make a profit, while most dreams are perfectly natural and offer no new information except perhaps that we're overly fond of cheese.

    2. 'In Paul's case, there is no indication that he thought there was an actual Macedonian man calling out to him while he slept. '

      Really? So how did Paul know there was a man from Macedonia appearing to him when there was nobody from Macedonia there? How did Paul know this man was from Macedonia, when there was no man there to be from anywhere?

      And this man 'appeared' (opththe) to Paul, just like Jesus 'ophthe'd to Paul, and just like Jesus 'ophthe'd to the Twelve, and just like Jesus 'ophthed' to James, and just like the tongues of fire appeared (opththe) to the disciples?

      When Jesus 'appears' (ophthe) does that mean they are not really there, just like there wasn't any real tongues of fire, and there wasn't any real man from Macedonia when he 'appeared'.....?

      And when Peter saw food in a vision, and was instructed to eat, he responded 'There's no real food there'..

      No, he refused to eat, implying that he thought there was real food in his vision.

      And you really think that sometimes dreams are a valid way of knowing?

  2. I'd define faith as HOPING when evidence isn't enough to decide.

    Lovely greetings from Germany
    Liebe Grüße aus Deutschland

    Lothars Sohn - Lothar's son

    1. So you think there is not enough evidence to decide the Biblical claim that sometimes real angels appear to people in dreams, and that is just as valid a way of knowing as empirical evidence?

      Newsflash - despite what the New Testament claims, what happens in dreams and visions is not real.

    2. Lothar, I don't think that is correct.
      For example, suppose that someone goes to the hospital and, after running some tests, their doctor informs them that they have cancer. It is perfectly reasonable for them to accept this, a decision made based on their faith in the character and training of their doctor. However, no-one would hope they have cancer.

      Faith isn't about not having enough evidence, it's about accepting as evidence the words or promises of others who are in a better position to know something or do something.

  3. 'For example, suppose that someone goes to the hospital and, after running some tests, their doctor informs them that they have cancer.'

    Yes, because the doctor is not a man of religion who claims to have realised while in the Spirit that you have cancer.

    If he prayed to God about whether or not you have cancer, get a second opinion.

    If the doctor ruled out faith-based 'knowledge', stick with him.

  4. Taking independent human testimonies seriously has led me to conclude that for a small minority of UFO-cases, a non-human form of consciousness seems to be at work.

    This is of course a conclusion no conservative Christian could be at ease with.

    Kind regards.

    Lothars Sohn - Lothar's son

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