Reasonable truth?

The Reason Rally in Washington DC over the weekend caused a bit of internet debate. A lot of it pretty silly – even hysterical. At times I wonder if dogmatic religionists are getting rattled. This rally was really all about the non-religious “coming out”, standing up, being counted and doing a bit of congressional lobbying in the side. Also there were great speakers and excellent entertainment. But it seems there are some people who wish the non-religious would STFU. Hide in fear.

Some militant Christian groups angrily claimed that these horrible atheists were acting as if they owned, or were capturing, even kidnapping,  the word “reason.” One group retaliated by cobbling together a selection of already published apologist articles entitled “True Reason.” Perhaps we should complain that they were claiming ownership of the word Truth!

Never mind. As Russell Blackford says about choice of words over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club:

“it’s silly and literal-minded – and sounds carping – to complain about this sort of thing. It’s like people who complain about book titles, which are of course chosen to be memorable and attractive, not to be accurate in a way that’s defensible to all people.”

Reminds me of the local theologian who painstakingly did  in-depth theological analyses of the local Atheist billboards. You know those with simple slogan like “Good Without God;” “In the Beginning Man Created God” and “We are all Atheists About Most Gods.” I suppose theology can be used to reach any desirable outcome, no matter how silly the starting material. And there are plenty of other billboards he could now use his theological skills on.

The philosophical issues

Putting aside the nice alliteration of the “Reason Rally” slogan the debate does raise the question of what we mean by words like “reason” and “truth.” These are questions that philosophers love to debate – but I often find some their discussions sterile. They seem divorced from reality. More interested in playing philosophical games related to definition than considering how things actually work out in practice.

The problem is some philosophers are happy to actually ignore reality, to be unconcerned with practice. Or perhaps this is really only true of philosophers of religion and theologians.

On the other hand scientists are far more concerned with reality and practice than with high faluting philosophic debates. I just wish those philosophers were more amenable to catching up with what science has discover about the process of human cognition. And the way that science approaches the question of knowledge. If for no other reason than science is well known to be incredibly successful in helping humanity to understand, and interact with, reality. Scientific knowledge is important.

Reason: Rationalising rather than rational

The scientific fact is that objective rational reasoning does not come easy to humans. We are in fact a rationalising species rather than a rational one. Reasoning involves emotional brain circuits as well as straightforward cognitive ones. Apparently people who have suffered damage to their emotional brain circuits find decision-making extremely difficult. Emotional influence of reasoning is inevitable. Whatever our ideology we are all tempted to, and usually guilty of, selecting evidence to support a dearly held belief rather than being objective.

I am not suggesting that we give up all hope of objective reasoning and throw the towel in. As individuals we can attempt to overcome emotional prejudices and preconceived ideas. Of course this works more successfully when we do this together with others, especially when a wide variety of opinions are present. And even better when we do this using empirical evidence

That is why scientists, who despite their inevitable preconceived ideas and emotional preferences, can still work to understand the world as it really is. They rely on evidence to formulate their hypotheses, and they test or validate them against reality, using empirical evidence. And they do this socially, under the sceptical interest of their colleagues and the inevitable harsh scrutiny of the findings and conclusions by their peers.

This objective testing and validation against reality is vital. Relying on other members of one’s peer groups alone can actually reinforce mistaken ideas and beliefs rather than test them. We sometimes call this “group thinking.”

So no one owns “reason.” Neither does anyone own “rationalisation” or “confirmation bias.” We all do it. But some people are just better at reasoning objectively than are others. And it seems to me that the theologians and philosophers of religion whose articles are in the book “True Reason” may excel at the mental gymnastics and theological pretzel twisting required in their profession. But as they completely omit that important step of validating ideas against reality the “ownership” claim they make on reason is somewhat suspect. For example, at least one of the authors is well-known for his “reasoned” justification of biblical genocide, ethnic cleansing and infanticide! (And, no, I don’t think these are the only people who mistake their rationalisation for reason -  it’s a human problem).

Truth: relative knowledge vs unsupported conviction

Religions often act as if they have captured the sole ownership of “truth.” And not only any old truth but Truth with a capital T. So, I find it rather incongruous when these very same theologians and philosophers of religion rip into those horrible atheists, using philosophical arguments to “show” that their (the atheists) reasoning is incapable of finding truth. In the last week or so I have seen several blog posts and opinion pieces making the argument. Along the lines that one needs some epistemic criteria to judge  if the epistemic criteria you are using is producing the truth. This leaves one in a constant regression of different epistemic criteria or alternatively a circular argument using your favourite criteria. (See Defending Science: An Exchange, by Michael P. Lynch and Alan Sokal for contrasting views and How can we justify science?: Sokal and Lynch debate epistemology by Jerry Coyne for an insightful summary of that debate).

Stephen Law calls this philosophical sawing through the branch you are sitting on “Going Nuclear” (see Protecting yourself against bullshit). How can these people claim any access to truth for themselves when they deny its very possibility (for their discussion opponents)? Mixing metaphors, they think they have blown their ideological opponents out of the water, and then they realise that they themselves are sinking.

These people are caught on the own petard. They have a basic problem:

  1. On the one had they decline to use empirical knowledge, testing and validating against reality, to supplement their reasoning.
  2. Secondly they insist on “absolute truth” requiring a proof by deductive logic. They ignore the fact that we gain real knowledge by accepting something less than absolute.

But what about scientific knowledge? Isn’t that considered “truth?” And how does science justify this knowledge?

Scientists rarely talk about “truth,” more about knowledge. (Yes I know that sometimes words like “true” and “fact” may be used in book titles and newspaper articles – but here they are using the colloquially accepted language). And they never consider their knowledge absolute, complete. In a sense, scientific knowledge is always relative.  And as scientific knowledge is really the best knowledge we have I should think that we should see all knowledge as relative. Open to improvement, revision, or even outright replacement, as new information comes in.

“Other ways of knowing?”

OK, the militant theist may not think this is good enough – they claim that surely it would not be that hard to aim higher.” Strangely, of course, they never explain how they can get a more accurate form of knowledge. As Jerry Coyne says (see Stymied, Michael Ruse criticizes me for liking boots and cats) – when these theologians talk about “other ways of knowing” they really mean “other ways of making it up!”

We can understand that scientific knowledge, despite its relative and temporary nature, is generally accepted as the most reliable for of knowledge. And scientific method as they most effective way of understanding reality. The relative nature of scientific knowledge is one reason it is so effective. It is just silly to claim you have a higher or absolute form of knowledge by claiming it is somehow “revealed”, or “sacred”  and never allowing it to be tested against reality.

Why should we be so concerned with absolutes anyway? What do we need our knowledge for? To improve our lives, to solve problems we face, etc. So its understandable that in a sense we “get by” with our relative, incomplete, knowledge – we effectively have an “instrumentalist” approach. If it works – we use it and don’t worry too much about the complete reality behind it. And in this sense we break out of the epistemic circular and regressive  bind by adopting the great epistemic approach - “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

We shouldn’t separate our knowledge from the process of obtaining it, or from the reality we interact with. The very process of adopting an almost instrumentalist approach, of using our incomplete, relative knowledge in practice, leads to our becoming more aware of its incompleteness, of our need to review and improve our knowledge.

Scientific knowledge is really just an imperfect reflection of reality. But a constantly improving reflection.

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15 responses to “Reasonable truth?

  1. Challenging Lazy Thinking

    I enjoyed S. Law book, Believing Bullshit…………..outlining the various pitfalls & tactics used in arguing a certain point………….the phrase ‘going nuclear’….classic description!!
    We must first recognise in ourselves when we apply confirmation bias to our views/assertions, otherwise we run the danger of entrenchment and not self-correcting!
    I am glad the reason rally happened, particularly appropriate to be held in the US……………conscious raising and creating debate, the bedrock of civilisation!

  2. Yes, I have been following the Rally on Twitter. A lot of enthusiasm and pleasure at taking a stand and coming o0ut. Pity about the horrible weather.
    Next weekend there is a Rock Beyond belief, atheist gathering at a military base in the US. Should be interesting.

  3. Challenging Lazy Thinking

    No doubt the religious prayed for thunderbolts……….but the cosmic telephone lines got crossed, maybe God sub-contracted the exchange to the Andromeda galaxy……….and rain was sent!!

    The rock thing I presume is the one at Fort Bragg, can see the Army Chaplins down in the ‘mosh pit’ strutting their stuff!! :)

  4. if scientific knowledge is relative in any interesting sense, then, for example, F=ma is true or false relative to some framework of evaluation – e.g, to a individual, to a culture, to particular methods of inquiry. But that’s simply false. F=ma is either true or false, absolutely, and reference to individuals, cultures, or methods of inquiry have no effect on its truth or falsity. If you think otherwise, then I’d like to know what you think scientific knowledge is relative to.

    What I think you probably mean is that what is regarded as scientific knowledge may not be knowledge after all, since it may not be true after all. That is to say, scientific methods of acquiring knowledge are fallible, or alternatively put, that fallibilism is true. And you, along with scientists generally, are a fallibilist. In addition, you believe that knowledge is acquired through the senses, not through the exercise of reason alone. Knowledge is gained empirically, empiricism is correct, and you are an empiricist, as opposed to some theistic philosophers, who are by contrast rationalists. These are far better terms to use than ‘relative’ and its cognates, so please use them instead.

  5. So many years, so many theologians…and they still can’t tell us how many angels can dance on the head of a pin! Shame on them.

    Even their own Higgs boson, the god particle….think of the money saved if instead of us having to build CERN, they’d come up with the answer from Leviticus or wherever…

    Give up, guys.

  6. TaiChi, I don’t think you understand my post. I use the word relative in contrast to absolute. An absolute description of reality corresponds to it in every respect. Whereas our knowledge never corresponds exactly and in every respect. We need to acknowledge that at least parts of our knowledge are not absolute or concrete.

    You ask what I think scientific knowledge (or any knowledge) is relative to. I think I made it clear I was comparing it with the absolute truth – a complete and accurate description of reality.

    I am not referring to “individuals, cultures, or methods of inquiry”. You introduced them.

    Regarding use of terms – I try to keep away from jargon – because simply different people attribute different meanings to jargon terms. I hope I make the meaning of the terms I use as clear as reasonably possible through context.

    But clearly I have not been able to do that in your case as you have misinterpreted my meanings. Hopefully my explanation has clarified things for you.

  7. Ken,

    I find it clear enough what you mean, or at least I think so, since you haven’t denied that you are a fallibilist or an empiricist. What I’m pointing out is that you misuse the relative/absolute distinction: you don’t actually think scientific knowledge is relative to anything, so you don’t really think scientific knowledge is relative.

  8. TaiChi, how about stopping telling me what I think and reread my post. Scientific knowledge (any knowledge) is never absolute. It is always incomplete, an imperfect reflection of reality. Surely my meaning is clear?

    Or do you think you can have a complete absolute description of reality? If so – let us know how you plan to achieve this.

  9. Ken,

    “[Scientific knowledge] is always incomplete, an imperfect reflection of reality.”

    I agree.

    “Scientific knowledge (any knowledge) is never absolute.”

    I disagree, because you misuse the term ‘absolute’ – surely my meaning is clear?

    Nevermind. I thought to offer you some better terms to express yourself with, rather than a term which unwittingly lumps you in with the anti-scientific crowd Sokal et al. take to task, but it seems you’re unlikely to take correction. It’s a shame, because misusing a philosophical distinction undermines your dismissal of philosophy and mars (what seems to me) a post that is otherwise right.

  10. So, TaiChi, you are telling me that scientific knowledge can be absolute. Well, I think you should share with us the method you think achieves this. It would certainly save us a lot of worry. But I am not going to hold my breath.

    Perhaps you are over sensitive to my comments on some philosophers. My comments were clearly expressed to make clear I wasn’t making those criticisms of all philosophers but I do recognise there is a professional sensitivity which gets on the way of honest rational discussion. I am particularly criticizing philosophers of religion and theologians who tend to dishonestly hide behind the name of “philosopher”.

    Your claim that I ally myself with those that Sokal criticises is uncalled for and hardly honest. Of course I can do little to explain why as you yourself do not justify it. It is just silly. Anyone familiar with my writing knows where I stand regarding Sokal.

    Terms you suggest like “fallibilist” and “empiricist” are not appropriate descriptions of my epistemological outlook. And they are jargon which different readers would interpret differently. I am not going to use them.

    I get the impression you don’t really understand my point about scientific knowledge being an imperfect reflection of reality. I take that from your assertion that “F=ma is either true or false, absolutely.”

    However, be assured I am not dismissing philosophy. But neither do I hold philosophical dogma sacred. In my scientific research I always felt we all had room to criticize each others ideas. And we did.That was important to improving our knowledge. And I am sure that is also true for good philosophers.

    Philosophy also interests me but I do realize that there are different trends or schools – much more so than in natural sciences. So inevitably my comments may find disagreement – but that’s good. As long as we don’t make silly accusations and do give reasons for our claims.

    I am all for honest and hearty discussion.

  11. Ken,

    “So, TaiChi, you are telling me that scientific knowledge can be absolute. Well, I think you should share with us the method you think achieves this.”

    Sure. Scientific knowledge is absolute because all knowledge is absolute: if S knows X, then the assertion that S knows X is true irrespective of the perspective from which it is evaluated. The methods by which we can achieve absolute scientific knowledge are the same as the methods by which we achieve any scientific knowledge, i.e. by utilizing the scientific method. Of course, I’m not using the term ‘absolute’ in the same way you are here – that’s because (I say) you misuse it.

    “My comments were clearly expressed to make clear I wasn’t making those criticisms of all philosophers.. “

    Yep, I got that.

    “Your claim that I ally myself with those that Sokal criticises is uncalled for and hardly honest. “

    Those who Sokal criticizes argue that scientific knowledge is relative, and call themselves relativists, in contrast to the scientific establishment, who they consider absolutists. You too describe scientific knowledge as relative, which is why I say you lump yourself in with Sokal’s adversaries, even though (I’m sure) their views and yours are substantially opposed.

    “I get the impression you don’t really understand my point about scientific knowledge being an imperfect reflection of reality. I take that from your assertion that “F=ma is either true or false, absolutely.””

    My impression is you don’t get my point that I disagree with you over the meaning of the term ‘absolute’ – which is why I have explicitly agreed with you that scientific knowledge is an imperfect reflection of reality, but have disagreed that scientific knowledge is never absolute. My acceptance of the first, but not the second, only makes sense if I am attributing a different meaning to ‘absolute’ than you are.

    However, be assured I am not dismissing philosophy. But neither do I hold philosophical dogma sacred. In my scientific research I always felt we all had room to criticize each others ideas. And we did.That was important to improving our knowledge. And I am sure that is also true for good philosophers.

    I’m not sure where I’ve given you the impression I think otherwise. Of course, I agree with you.

  12. OK so you acknowledge that your definition of absolute is different to mine. Let’s hear what it is then as when people use terms that could have different meanings they should clarify the meaning. Otherwise they inevitable promote misunderstanding. I have absurdly no idea of your meaning.

    The argument you are making seems to me to be completely out of step with any modern scientific epistemology. Perhaps you could illustrate your claim that scientific knowledge is absolute by giving an actual example and the method it was obtained and explaining how you know it is absolute.

    I have used absolute as in the sense of absolute truth being a complete and accurate description of reality. I have made it clear I am not using relative in the sense of relativism (eg moral relativism) but as in incomplete, imperfect. That is clear from my context – it is not honest, or at least disingenuous, to chose to interpret my meaning of relative in the post-modernist way that you have explained.

    I am not alone in using these terms in the way I have. A quick example from a brief internet search can be seen at http://articles.philosophyforums.com/links/relative_knowledge-10.html.

    However, the context certainly makes clear my meanings. And that is what you should get to grips with.

    Funny enough I have heard this sort of argument about knowledge before using Plato’s definition which is accepted as problematic by established philosophers. In that specific case the position crumbled completely when a practical case (knowledge about the contents of a jar) was considered. Personally I think it is being used naively and don’t think authoritative philosophers use it so dogmatically. Certainly scientists don’t use that dogmatic definition.

    Hopefully if you provide your own definition of absolute this will clear things up. I think we have established that you are using relative in a completely different way to me.

    The relative, provisional nature of knowledge and it’s relationship to practice is an important, even key, aspect of science. So I hope we can clear up this misunderstanding.

    Answers to my specific questions about practical examples should do this.

  13. “OK so you acknowledge that your definition of absolute is different to mine. Let’s hear what it is then as when people use terms that could have different meanings they should clarify the meaning.”

    Fine. If X is relative, then this is a shorthand way of saying X is relative to some Y. For example, one might say that beauty is relative. What one means by this is that beauty is relative to something-or-other, perhaps up to the individual, as in the expression “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. In what sense is it then relative? In the sense that whether or not something is actually beautiful depends upon the perspective of the individual making the aesthetic evaluation.

    On the other hand, to say something is absolute is to say that it is correct as is without further qualification. “A triangle has three sides” is a correct assertion, and its correctness does not depend on any other facts about the one who asserts it. Likewise, “The boiling point of Arsenic is over 600C” is correct, irrespective of any other facts about the world. And so both these assertions are absolutely true, since we don’t have to refer to extraneous facts to determine whether or not they are true.

    “Perhaps you could illustrate your claim that scientific knowledge is absolute by giving an actual example and the method it was obtained and explaining how you know it is absolute. “

    You asked for this before, and as I told you: the method of acquiring absolute scientific knowledge isn’t going to be any different than the method of acquiring scientific knowledge generally, since all knowledge is absolute. I don’t see how giving you what I consider an example of absolute knowledge and you consider an example of relative knowledge is going to settle our disagreement over terms.

    “I have used absolute as in the sense of absolute truth being a complete and accurate description of reality. I have made it clear I am not using relative in the sense of relativism (eg moral relativism) but as in incomplete, imperfect. That is clear from my context – it is not honest, or at least disingenuous, to chose to interpret my meaning of relative in the post-modernist way that you have explained.”

    Oh for.. look, suppose I posted something about Galileo, stating he studied the planets with his microscope. You then reply that I should use the word ‘telescope’. I reply that I use the word ‘microscope’ to mean “an optical instrument designed to make distant objects appear nearer”, and that this definition is correct. Of course you disagree. Is it “not honest, or at least disingenuous” for you to choose to interpret my word ‘microscope’ as meaning something different than what I say it does? Would it even make sense for me to make that criticism of you? After all, you’d just be trying to correct my use of a term which I had used incorrectly – it’s not as though you’d be deliberately misinterpreting what I’d written about Gallileo. In fact, it’s quite likely that you understood what I meant exactly, and are interpreting me to mean ‘telescope’ where I say ‘microscope’, and that that is the basis for your advice to me that I should substitute the latter for the former.
    Same thing here. I’m not deliberately misinterpreting you by advocating my favored definitions. I’m interpreting you correctly, and pointing out on the basis of that interpretation that you are expressing your own views incorrectly, for the terms you use do not mean what you think they mean.

    “I am not alone in using these terms in the way I have.”

    No, you’re not. These terms are widely abused. The place to go is http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/, where you’ll see the general schema of relativistic theses as I’ve alluded to.

    “Funny enough I have heard this sort of argument about knowledge before using Plato’s definition which is accepted as problematic by established philosophers. In that specific case the position crumbled completely when a practical case (knowledge about the contents of a jar) was considered. Personally I think it is being used naively and don’t think authoritative philosophers use it so dogmatically. Certainly scientists don’t use that dogmatic definition.”

    I don’t know what argument you’re talking about.

  14. TaiChi – OK I think you are being contrary. Clearly I have used dictionary meanings of relative (comparative) and absolute (unequivocal). You have got hung up on dogmatic concepts of “relativism” and “relativist.” You are just being contrarian to inject such irrelevant terms into a discussion where I have clearly used everyday dictionary meanings of the word – and reinforced that meaning by the context. (Even when I have used a word technically – as in “instrumentalism” – and have not considered context important I have provided a Wikipedia link to help.

    Can we please leave that “relativism” behind – it just doesn’t apply here. And your little story about microscopes and telescopes simply is not relevant.

    But I really must take issue with your concept that scientific knowledge is “absolute” - “is correct as is without further qualification.” as you say.

    You illustrate with examples which we know are trivially irrelevant or just not true. Of course triangles have 3 sides – that’s how we define them. that’s not scientific knowledge. To say that As has a boiling point over 600 degree C is hardly scientific knowledge – it is imprecise, vague and anyway possibly (I am not bothering to check this out) already known to be wrong in some situations. Certainly we cannot be absolutely sure that it is true for all situations.

    But lets take your F=ma. You didn’t commit yourself but I gather you might have seen this as absolutely true. Anyway, it is more representative of scientific knowledge.

    Before 100 years ago we thought this to be “true.” We knew it to be true for all situations we had empirical information for and there were no theoretical reasons to doubt it. Now it is different – we have both empirical evidence and theoretical reasons for understanding it is not true in some situations. That is what I mean by the relative nature of scientific knowledge – because it relies on induction we can’t absolutely “prove” the truth of something for all situation. But that is irrelevant because it does not stop us using that knowledge. Even now when we know F=ma is not absolutely true will still use it most situations because it applies in most situations. And we know not to use it in the relevant situations.

    If we had taken the attitude that scientific knowledge like F=ma was absolute, science would have stagnated. Our understanding that scientific knowledge is relative, temporary, incomplete is extremely important and is what makes science such a powerful way of knowing things.

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