Human Fallibility

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

From my previous post, on the contingency of knowledge, I’ve arrived at the point where our working model is that we think with our minds and we have senses to sense the natural world.

But on closer examination, by our minds, these senses appear to be fallible, so we concoct methods for gaining confidence in particular sense experiences. On even closer examination we discover that our reasoning and other cognitive faculties can also be fallible, so we take steps to account for that observation too. So all we can do is construct experience and look for multiple ways of confirming what we experience to gain confidence in it, to give credibility to it, to compensate for the fallibilities. When we do this rigorously we call this science. Science gives us the best and most reliable explanation of our cognitive and sensory experiences, accounting for and accommodating for our fallibilities the best it can.

Note that this is an entirely inductive experience, from the particular to the general. It is true that induction lies on top of no firm and absolute foundation. An inductive argument indicates some degree of support for the conclusion but does not ensure its truth. So, just to make it clear, none of this is offered as a proof! Of anything.

For any of the detail along the way we might use deductive reasoning, which is often thought to be more thorough than induction, more concrete. This does not mean that deduction is always the better choice. Deduction is fine if you construct a valid argument; and if you have true premises then you have yourself a ‘sound’ argument, the most sure argument there is. But it’s an illusion to think you can have a sound deductive argument at the limits of philosophy, in metaphysics – you can never be sure your premises are true! Why? Because all we have are our thoughts and our senses – we have no prior premises and arguments upon which to build our starting premises. So, if someone tells you they have a proof that, say, God exists, it’s baloney, because it always relies on presupposition, and the presupposition can’t be guaranteed to be true. If someone wants to offer you ‘evidence’ for God, that’s a different matter and should be treated seriously.

We are fallible human beings. The very best we can do is accumulate data, examples, lots of them, and compare them and subject them to any tests we can. We create hypotheses, of which Richard Feynman said they could just as well be guesses. Any old random guess won’t usually do – we could be here forever checking every possible hypothesis – something some theists think atheist are claiming (and what Pirsig mistakenly thought was a problem, in ZAMM – more of that in another post). Of course we base hypotheses on prior experience that appears to work. This is induction and science in action.

Science concludes (this means best explanation so far, not we’re absolutely certain) that according to our senses and reasoning there is a physical world out there. It gets a bit quirky sometimes – e.g. quantum physics – but so far nothing has been found to refute this tentative conclusion. I mean, really, nothing! You have to consider what it would mean to refute this. You would have to find something that isn’t physical. This is a tall order. Before sub-atomic particles were figured out the world was still physical. Discovering the sub-atomic particles didn’t introduce some magic into the universe – it was simply that we discovered something we didn’t know was there before, but is still considered part of the physical universe.

This is what will happen with any ‘paranormal’ effect or ‘energy’ that might exist. If it exists, then when it is found, that is when there is evidence of it, then it too will become a part of our physical description of the universe. The reason the paranormal is ridiculed so much isn’t because we know it to be false absolutely, it’s that fantastic claims have been made, but no evidence has been found to support them.

Astrology? No evidence. And further more, many of these ‘crank’ pseudo-sciences, are actually shown not to fit with scientific ideas that have much more support. The moon clearly has an immediate impact on our lives, with the tides; and has influenced us over a long evolutionary period. The other planets contribute to the stability of the solar system, and provide attractors for debris that might otherwise come our way. A supernova going off too close would have a significant impact too. Some cosmic events could wipe out life on our planet. But the suggestion that the particular arrangement of planets and stars at the time of our birth has some impact on the formation of our individual character? No only is it a dumb idea, but we now know of many more personal localised biological, psychological and sociological influences that are involved in the formation of our character. Astrology is a good representation of how bad ‘mystical’ nonsense can be – it doesn’t even rate as pseudo-science.

Evidence is the route to discovery and the support and maintenance of ideas and theories and facts. No evidence? Then it might as well not exist.

Not, you note, that it doesn’t exist! Science does not have to assert that anything in particular does not exist. It only says to what extent there is evidence to support an idea or the existence of something.

In everyday life, if we can’t see it, taste it, feel it, etc., then we might as well act as if it doesn’t exist, even if it does, for how can we tell the difference. We can happily go about our daily lives as if the speed of light does not have a limit, because in our daily lives we never reach that limit, and where it does impact on our lives, we are usually ignorant of it. Many cities around the world are built as if earthquakes don’t exist, because in those regions they rarely experience any of significance – and yet on a larger scale, for thos eliving in safe zones, we not only know they exist but we consciously participate in relief for those that suffer from them.

The extent to which reality affects us has some influence over how much we live as if some aspect of relaity exists or not. So, what about God?

We can ignore God as an entity because whether he exists or not makes no apparent difference. And even based on reason alone, so many varieties of teleological entities can be dreamed up, the limited theisms of the religious don’t really cover the bases they are trying to protect. And as for actual effects, … prayer does nothing to the event being prayed for, and has only psychological effects on believers. This means that despite the fact that theists can’t prove God exists and atheists can’t disprove it, it’s irrelevant, because there is no evidence, and that’s sufficient. We can act as if God does not exist because there is no evidence that such an entity does exist.

Many theists realise this and no longer require the existence of God as an entity ‘out there’ – See Rob Bell (h/t Lesley’s Blog). But that doesn’t mean theists have dealt with the problem of human fallibility in relation to faith. I’ll get to that in another post.

Of course, those people that believe God exists do themselves exist, and they do have an impact on the reality of the rest of us, which is a bit of a nuisance at times.

Thin Blue Line

Are you worried you know nothing at all about our environmental problems? Do terms like Greenhouse Gas, Climate Change and the like have you concerned, but you simply don’t understand how basic atmospheres work and how important they are to life? Then check this programme out while you can.

Thin Blue Line, Brian Cox, BBC iPlayer

This is probably one of the best popular explanation of why we need an atmosphere that’s appropriate for life, and how fragile atmospheres can be. There’s no doom mongering, just pure unadulterated enthusiasm for how our planet’s atmosphere works. In the context of other planets and moons you get a real feel for how special our planet is, and why we should consider, at the very least, what we are doing to it.

The Problem with Faith

Following on from my previous blog, I think the crutial point is faith.

I think Stephen is right in that any point of view can be a faith ( – Faith topic), and that’s certainly the case for most, if not all, religions. And I personally know at least one person for whom atheism is a faith. She has no interest in any arguments one way or the other, and certainly has no interest in science, but believes herself to be endowed with ultra reliable common sense, to the extent that she believes the whole God business is nonsense. It’s as if this faith of hers has grown out of some dissatisfaction with religion and all its trappings, a discomfort in the presence of religious people and proceedings. Continue reading “The Problem with Faith”