Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, January 10, 2016

THE TRUTH? Belief masquerading as knowledge

Is there a god? Is there life after death? How was the universe created? Do you know the answer to any of these questions? Let me be clearer. Do you really know the answer to any of these questions?

People have been asking these sorts of questions for thousands of years. Some Christadelphians claim to have the answers to them. But do they actually know the answer? or is their claim to knowledge actually just belief masquerading as knowledge?

No one really knows the answers to these questions with certainty. Some people may feel that they are certain in their belief, but unless they can actually demonstrate their claims, they may well be simply over-confident. Or they're trying to sell you something. Or both.


Without getting too deep into the subject of epistemology (the study of knowledge), I want to persuade you that, at least when it comes to claims about our physical reality, knowledge must be demonstrable. If I make some claim about reality, but cannot in any way demonstrate it to be true, then how could I honestly say I know it is true?

For example, suppose I claimed that there was an invisible force field in my house that gave me headaches. If you're skeptical enough, you might ask me how I know it's there. But what if I said I couldn't tell you how I know it's there, but I just feel in my heart that it's there? Would that be enough to convince you that I'm right? Has my claim to knowledge been justified? Well, no. Of course not. For a start, no actual causation was demonstrated. No invisible field was demonstrated. If I can't measure it, on what basis do I know it is there? A feeling is not sufficient. Feelings are subjective and easily misinterpreted. Further, we know that headaches can have multiple causes (even psychosomatic), and while it is in theory possible that some invisible force might cause headaches, it is far more likely that the cause is something less mysterious.

The bottom line is, if someone makes a claim about reality but cannot adequately answer the question, "how do you know that?", then it's probably fair to say they don't know it. They merely believe it. Once they are willing to admit that, then the situation changes a little bit. Beliefs are fine, so long as they can be justified by evidence. If someone cannot produce evidence to warrant belief, then that belief is, well, unwarranted. In other words, if someone cannot provide a good reason why you should believe them, then you have no good reason to believe them. Moreover, even if they do provide a good reason, if there are other explanations that would work at least equally well, then you have good reason to remain agnostic, pending more conclusive evidence.


Ok, so knowledge about reality must be demonstrable. But how do we come to know things? Well, I'm not attempting to provide an exhaustive definition or description, but generally we gain knowledge about physical reality via repeatable observation and inference. In short, the methods we use all fall under the banner of what we call "science".

For example, what is the colour of grass? Well, if it's healthy, it's probably green. We can easily discover this simply by observing some well-watered grass and reporting on the colour. If we want to be objective (and rule out colour-blindness etc), we can measure the wavelength of sunlight it reflects, and confirm by experiment that it is indeed within the range of wavelengths we would call "green".

So that's one method for discovering truth about reality. What I have described is basically the scientific method. I'll expand on that in a moment.

Are there any other methods? I want you to stop and think about it for a moment. Is there any other way to learn stuff about reality, other than just making observations and recording what we find?

The scientific method

Although there is no official "scientific method" written down on tables of stone or anything like that, the thing we normally refer to as the scientific method is really just about observation and inference. At a deeper level it often also involves using data from observations to build a model (or a hypothesis), and then using that model to make predictions, and then testing those predictions via more experiments, and using the results of those experiments to make further refinements and adjustments to the model, and so on. Once a model has passed several rigorous tests and repeatedly been confirmed via experiment and/or further observations, it becomes known as a scientific theory. Germ theory, quantum theory, general relativity (the current theory of gravity), and yes, big bang theory and evolutionary theory, are all examples of theories that have so far passed every test.

One thing that should hopefully become clear when you read the above paragraph is that this form of knowledge is always provisional. Some new experiment could always disconfirm the hypothesis, and then we'd have to refine the hypothesis to account for the new data, as well as all of the existing data we have accumulated. Thus, it could be said that while science can never lay claim to any "absolute" truth about reality, it is always converging on the truth and it is our best and most reliable tool for determining truths about reality. The more data we have, and the better our ability to observe and measure, the closer to truth we become. We assume of course that reality itself is not somehow self-contradictory, but in a sense that assumption is also implicitly tested and confirmed over time by the fact that it appears we can successfully use our models to build rockets and other amazing machines. So the uniformity of reality is not something we just take on faith. We confirm it implicitly every time our models work.

The scientific method has proven itself as an exceptionally reliable tool for discovering new knowledge about reality. The rapid advances in medicine, physics, engineering, biology, and any other field of science you can think of, are testament to just how effective the scientific method is. There are even new fields of science emerging, such as nanotechnology, as our ability to measure and discover new things continues to expand.

So there is no question that the scientific method works. But is there another method of discovering new knowledge about reality?

Revealed truth

Many Christadelphians seem to think that we can discover knowledge about reality simply by reading ancient texts and accepting what they say. In fact, it seems that the vast majority of Christadelphians believe that if what we read in these texts contradicts what we discover via the scientific method, we should reject the scientific method in favour of these texts! So this is not merely a claim that ancient texts provide a way to discover truth about reality. This is a claim to a higher source of truth about reality than any other method we have! That carries with it quite a burden of proof, but that's where things get tricky.

There are a couple of fundamental problems with the idea of "revealed truth". The first is that often these texts were written by people, in another language, in another culture, in another time period, and let's not even get into the messy details of whether the copies we have are sufficient to recover the original words. Actually interpreting these texts is often more of an art than a science, if you'll pardon the expression. Any claim to truth is dependent on the simultaneous claim that one's interpretation is somehow correct. But interpretation is inherently subjective, which means at best it could only provide "subjective truth".

The second problem with the idea of "revealed truth" is that without borrowing the tools of science, how do we go about determining that it is actually true? If the claims cannot be tested, nor demonstrated in any way, then why should we trust them, and in what sense are they "true"? Should we just blindly accept them as true? What then should we do about texts that contain contradictory claims? To be explicit, the Bible is not the only such collection of ancient texts that people around the world consider to contain "revealed truths". So how do we go about figuring out which of them, if any, are actually true?

It seems that the only method we have is the scientific method, which is to say that ancient texts are almost entirely redundant when it comes to knowledge about reality. At best they could maybe steer us in the right direction, but in all cases our actual knowledge only materialises once we have confirmed it via experiment and observation. Before that it's just an assertion.

But suppose an ancient text made only 10 claims and 8 of those claims were confirmed via experiment and observation, while the other 2 were either not yet confirmed or not able to be tested. Well, I think that would be pretty interesting. Maybe ancient texts could provide useful insights in that case. Now might be a good time to mention that I don't know of any such case. The Bible certainly doesn't fit this description, although I'm sure many of you might want to object vigorously. Well, just in case I've overlooked something, you are welcome to list off all of the claims about physical reality made in the Bible, and provide details to experiments or scientific evidence that confirm all but a handful of them. One small condition though - if your "scientific evidence" does not agree with the scientific consensus, then it doesn't count. The reason for this is simple. I am not a scientist, so I cannot verify your claims myself. I therefore rely on the worldwide body of scientific experts in each field to do this verification, using experiments and observations for which they are highly qualified. To do otherwise would be extremely dishonest.

How do you know that?

Probably one of the most important questions we can ask whenever someone makes a claim about reality is, "how do you know that?". Of course, we should also be aware that unless we ourselves are educated on the topic being questioned, we may not be in a position to determine whether or not the given answer was true. But we should always be skeptical. No one is beyond fact checking. Even if we don't fully understand the answer, we can always research it further to see if it at least agrees with the consensus opinion of experts in the same field.

Now, obviously I'm not suggesting we respond with a, "how do you know that?" every time someone makes any trivial claim, such as what is on their sandwich. That would get tedious and annoying very quickly. Most of the time it doesn't matter. Obviously I am only referring to claims about reality, and in particular the rather bold and over-reaching claims often made by religious texts, and the religious people who hold those texts in high esteem.

Most religious texts, including the Bible, are known to have been physically written by humans. Therefore, any claims made by religious people based on these texts quickly change from, "how do you know that?", to "how did they know that?". The standard religious answer, for almost any religion, is that "God told them". To which the obvious response is, again, "how do you know that?"

There are typically two categories of responses to this. One is an appeal to empirical claims made in the text, such as prophecy. I have dealt with these in previous articles. The other is an appeal to really weak arguments that amount to little more than, "I just know, and you have to trust me". If it quacks like a con-artist...

What is religious belief really?

Is religious belief really a rational response to the evidence, and a conclusion one draws after patiently and dispassionately weighing up all of the available data? Hardly.

I mean, are we really supposed to believe that out of all of the people who have ever lived on the earth, and out of all of the thousands of various superstitions and gods they believed in, one or two small tribes of people living in the Iron Age just happened to receive information from their particular tribal deity, who it turned out was actually the real god, unlike all the similarly-described fake gods of other tribes and other nations, and they wrote it all down accurately, and were neither lying nor mistaken about any of it? Even though we've never met them, and know almost nothing about the people who wrote it, except that they, like everyone else who lived in that time period, worshipped their own particular deity and believed their deity helped them win battles against their enemies, and would someday make their tribe the greatest one.

Further, after inspiring these primitive people to write a huge volume spanning 66 books, this god provided absolutely no information that was not already known to them, and imparted no scientific knowledge whatsoever that could have allowed billions of people thereafter to live healthier, longer lives, including a dramatic reduction in the number of deaths relating to childbirth. No, for that we had to wait almost another couple thousand years, until clever people figured out how to use the scientific method to revolutionise the field of medicine, along with other advances in technology.

So this is probably the point where religious people insist that prophecy is the magic silver bullet that means we can suddenly trust that everything the Bible says is true. I get it. I used to think like that once too.

If you haven't yet read my article on why prophecy fails, you should do so now.

Given that appeals to prophecy are themselves subject to interpretation and often also rely on bizarre methodology, religious belief really seems (to me at least) to be about something more fundamental, such as a prior commitment to a belief system, perhaps most commonly the one the believer was raised in.

So long as a believer holds that prior commitment as sacred and is unwilling to question it and everything that goes along with it, they will never discover any truth about reality.

Or, to put it another way:

None are so blind as those who believe they already have THE TRUTH