How do we know things?

by Greg Mayer

There’s an interesting piece on the NY Times website entitled “Epistemology and the End of the World” by philosopher Gary Gutting of Notre Dame about the recent (failed) prediction of the end of the world by a radio preacher named Harold Camping. Camping was certain it would happen on May 21. Gutting begins by noting

No sensible person could have thought that he [Camping] knew this. Knowledge requires justification; that is, some rationally persuasive account of why we know what we claim to know.  Camping’s confused efforts at Biblical interpretation provided no justification for his prediction.  Even if, by some astonishing fluke, he had turned out to be right, he still would not have known the rapture was coming.

Although his prediction is now refuted, Camping has adjusted his claim, saying that an “invisible judgment day” did occur. This, as Gutting notes, tends to make his claim irrefutable– no evidence can count against it. Philosophers of science (and philosophy of science is largely a branch of epistemology), especially the late Karl Popper, have long insisted that the hallmark of a scientific claim is that there can, in principle, be evidence that would count against it. Popper used Freudian psychiatry as an example of claims that can be made irrefutable. If all men have homosexual tendencies, but you then find one without such tendencies, it means that that man’s tendencies have been so deeply repressed that they are undetectable. Repression saves the general claim, but it also means you can’t have evidence against the general claim. And if you can’t have evidence against it, then you can’t have evidence for it– the claim is untestable. Another example is in the work of Immanuel Velikovsky. He explained the lack of historical records concerning the historical catastrophes he postulated by invoking a “collective amnesia” by which the events were forgotten or repressed (Velikovsky admired Freud). Such dodges and hedges (“dedges”) against refutation tend to disconnect a claim from any possible observational basis for the claim, and are characteristic of pseudoscience.

Gutting is most interested, however, not in Camping and those Christians who agreed with him, but in examining the views of Christians who thought Camping was wrong about the date. He notes that a subjective feeling of certainty provides no basis for knowledge, and that this is what characterizes Camping’s Christian opponents, as well as his followers. Camping’s opponents cite a Biblical passage saying the date of the end of the world is unknowable, but Gutting points out that this makes his opponents’ claim irrefutable, too. (Camping’s original claim, before he said the effects were invisible, at least had the merit of being an empirical, refutable claim.) Their subjective certainty is no more evidence for their claim than Camping’s was for his.

The case against Camping was this: His subjective certainty about the rapture required objectively good reasons to expect its occurrence; he provided no such reasons, so his claim was not worthy of belief.   Christians who believe in a temporally unspecified rapture agree with this argument.  But the same argument undermines their own belief in the rapture.  It’s not just that “no one knows the day and hour” of the rapture.  No one knows that it is going to happen at all.

37 Comments

  1. Jim Jones
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    “Although his prediction is now refuted, Camping has adjusted his claims, saying that an “invisible judgment day” did occur.”

    True, but not this year. The rapture occurred in 1963. A retired lady schoolteacher in Topeka was lifted up to meet her savior.

    No one else made the cut.

    • Dominic
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      Strewth! going to be awfully lonely in heaven!

      • Diane G.
        Posted June 17, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

        Naw. God is omnifriendly.

        • Jim Jones
          Posted June 17, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

          She’s just like Cher?

  2. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Do people realize that Popper isn’t the last word on the Demarcation Problem? Popper’s falsificationist criterion just isn’t right (as Philosophers of Science have known for a long time) and better accounts in the intervening five decades. Philosophy of Science didn’t stop in 1959. I don’t understand why Popper is dragged out as the last word on the subject every time the Demarcation Problem comes up.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pseudo-science/

    • Dominic
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      Popper came undone?!

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted June 17, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        Nice one Dom

    • Aqua Buddha
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      He also had the nutty notion that “Darwinisn” wasn’t falsifiable, and therefore not science.

      • Posted June 17, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

        But I think he was later convinced that it is.

        • Posted June 17, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

          “I have changed my mind about the testability and logical status of the theory of natural selection, and I am glad to have the opportunity to make a recantation.” – Popper, K (1978). “Natural selection and the emergence of mind”. Dialectica (32): 339–355. (via Wikipedia i.e. I haven’t checked)

      • Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

        It wasn’t nutty.

        Many formulations of “survival of the fittest” were tautologies, or looked like tautologies at first glance. Tautologies aren’t testable. Popper still thought the theory of evolution was extremely valuable in science–he called it a ‘metaphysical research program,’ which is very close to Lakatos’ work on scientific research programs. Luckily, we know now that the theory of evolution is in fact testable, and that we were mistaken about its supposed tautological nature. Popper himself apologized for this mistake.

    • Tulse
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      I don’t understand why Popper is dragged out as the last word on the subject every time the Demarcation Problem comes up.

      Because his solution, while not perfect, does an excellent job in practice, and it very easy for non-philosophers to understand.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Various scientists at various times have put undue emphasis on Popper’s work, and some still do, but most scientists interested enough in philosophy of science to know who Popper is know that he is not the last, or even the next to last, word in philosophy of science. I can’t imagine that Gutting thinks he is, but, nonetheless, the idea of irrefutability is an important one, and one of the aspects of Gutting’s piece I wanted to address. If I were giving a series of lectures, my next would be on the pitfalls of naive falsificationism, and how we can move past them.

      GCM

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted June 17, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        The only thing you need to add to naive falsification to conform to observation of science progress is the fact that the observable universe is finite.

        Then the parameter space that needs to be considered is finite as well. (There will only be so many relevant orders of magnitude.*)

        Which means that the process will converge, as is observed. I consider that a conclusive test of any theory of testing. That is what got us there.

        But of course as in all empiricism, that is not the all of it nor the last word.

        ———–
        * Conversely, and perhaps not unrelated, you get the same result from a local perspective, if indeed physics maps to algorithmic processes as our physics models imply. Then you have only finite computational resources to play with locally, again resulting in a finite parameter space.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted June 17, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

          Hey, I just realized a connection I haven’t been able to make before! The local and global constraint, if a fact, _are_ related. They are related by way of causality that forces finite light-speed on us. So forces a finite observable universe.

          Conversely, the way to implode algorithmic structure, the tower of complexity classes as defined in computer science, is to make acausal time travel. (Which presumably is why it isn’t observed, and naturally gets you self-contradictions in physics.) So that reinforces the importance of causality as regards these putative constraints.

          Wouldn’t it be poetic if the success of science hinges on the very causality that gives us laws in the first place?

          [Well, symmetry and symmetry breaking is what gives us laws, but causality is an important special case that allows the rest to gain their familiar form.]

      • Dominic
        Posted June 18, 2011 at 1:46 am | Permalink

        Anyone interested in the arguments my like a brief book by Steve Fuller called Kuhn v Popper (2003). They met just once. Fuller brings it down to a division over Kuhn trying to maintain the authority of scientists under pressure of the Cold War & Popper defending ‘The Open Society’.

        • Dominic
          Posted June 18, 2011 at 1:46 am | Permalink

          MAY like…

      • Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

        “If I were giving a series of lectures, my next would be on the pitfalls of naive falsificationism, and how we can move past them.”

        The only naive falsificationist I can think of would be Lakatos’s ‘Popper0′ as published in “Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge”: Popper was not, nor any of his students, naive falsificationists.

        Scientists, then? Or students that did not pay attention in philosophy class? It’s possible that they are naive falsificationists, but I don’t think their ignorance warrants an imaginary lecture.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted June 18, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

          It’s not an imaginary lecture. It’s part of a series I give most years to students who have not had a philosophy of science class (so they can’t be faulted for not paying attention). As I wrote just a while ago to Jerry: “Popper was actually a fairly sophisticated falsificationist, anticipating many criticisms of his approach, and often hinting the direction of solution.”

          GCM

          • Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

            I apologize for my mistake. I hope, then, that your lectures point out that the difficulties of falsifying theories in practice does not constitute a criticism of Popper’s solution to the demarcation problem.

            Falsification of theories != falsifiability of theories, after all.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      Popper’s falsificationist criterion just isn’t right (as Philosophers of Science have known for a long time) and better accounts in the intervening five decades.

      Who cares about self-proclaimed “Philosophy of Science” or a non-existent non-testable “Demarcation Problem” in science? No one claims that testing is the last word of understanding how science works, but

      a) many scientists accept it as important,
      b) it works (so I guess Philosophers of Science Don’t Know What They Are Talking About; why am I surprzd?), which is the measure of use in science,*
      c) it is itself a testable theory, so consistent.

      Reversely, if you can’t tell what is wrong, how can you tell what is right? In other words, if you don’t include testing in your theory of science process you will fail outright.

      ——–
      * Which tells you right there: usefulness is what we need to get to knowledge by way of science. Not some esoteric “Demarcation”, which can’t be defined or observed in the first place.

    • Posted June 18, 2011 at 1:12 am | Permalink

      You don’t have to think that Popper’s was the last word on the supposed “demarcation problem” to realise that he had a point about claims that are protected from falsification by adding untestable auxiliaries.

      We would never accept that approach in day-to-day life. After a certain point, someone who keeps explaining away facts that seem inconsistent with a “truth” that she evidently wants to believe will be dismissed as basically fooling herself. She’ll be vindicated if her explanations somehow turn out to be true, but if they’re of a kind that defy any investigation that is not likely to happen.

      You can bet that this sort of reasoning was used, and inferences like that were drawn, long before Popper was even conceived.

    • Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      Care to propose an alternative, or provide a criticism of Popper’s solution to the demarcation problem?

      I think Popper’s solution solves a pseudo-problem: it demarcates scientific from non-scientific statements (or behavior); I’d rather go with W.W. Bartley’s solution to the demarcation between rational and irrational behavior (which universalizes Popper’s work on nonfoundationalism).

  3. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Given their faith in the Bible, believers in the rapture do offer what they see as good reasons for their view as opposed to Camping’s. They argue that the Bible clearly predicts a temporally unspecified rapture…

    Wrong! The Bible is clear that the end times would happen within a generation; within the lifetime of those in Jesus’ original audience. This is clearly stated in several places.

    • moochava
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      “Vampire Apostles.”

      Yeah, take that.

    • Posted June 17, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      So, from the disciples perpective, it’s going to happen within a generation, but no-one will know the day or the hour… It sounds like that old logic problem about the teacher telling the class that she’ll give them a surprise test one day next week.

      /@

  4. MadScientist
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    So Gutting is essentially saying what PZ did weeks ago when he was pissed off by people quoting the bible as stating that no one can know when the end of the world would come: quoting a silly book to refute silly claims based on that same silly book is just meaningless. Camping wasn’t wrong about the end of the world because the bible says so but because Camping is delusional and made claims contrary to facts.

  5. Jim Thomerson
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    I characterize myself as an Incomplete Popperian because I do not understand all that Popper has to say. It is unlikely, then, that I will evolve into a Post Popperian.

  6. TomZ
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    No sensible person could have thought that THE BIBLE AUTHORS knew thiNGs ABOUT PRE-HUMAN OR POST-HUMAN HISTORY. Knowledge requires justification; that is, some rationally persuasive account of why THE BIBLE AUTHORS know what THEY claim to know.

  7. moochava
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    So this god, first he invisibly tinkers with hominid evolution ten million years ago, then he waits around a while, then he invisibly raptures some stuff?

    According to the Christians I know, one of these claims is crazy, and one of them is completely reasonable. Theology is hard.

  8. amrine
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Like I told my Christian friends, trying to use the bible to “prove” Camping wrong is like using “Twas’ the Night Before Christmas” to “prove” Rudolph does not exist.

  9. Posted June 17, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    for those of us who have not seen this yet:
    (God speaking with angels about going to earth)

  10. Posted June 17, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    We see this as basically a power relationship tactic.

    - Capture attention with brain triggering signals (ideas, stories, etc.)
    - Once attention is invested there is momentum – “Hmm? Is is more brain energy effecient to discard the trope, which did fill a brain need, or further invest. Intermittent reinforcement triggers far more dopamine.

    Our brains are paleo-centric, flawed Bayesian machines. “So it all makes perfect sense.”

  11. BigBob
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    FWIW Camping predicted the ‘rapture’ for 21st May 2011, not the end of the world. The end of the world, he says, is supposed to happen on 21st October 2011. You know the crazies are going to have even more fun between now and October, and we’ll have plenty more opportunities to point and laugh.

  12. Tualha
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 4:11 am | Permalink

    I’m a schismatic Campingist. I believe the judgment day was invisible *and pink*. Here I stand, I can do no other.


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