Jason Rosenhouse on ways of knowing

Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse analyzes the claim of Joshua Rosenau (don’t get these guys mixed up!) that there are many diverse non-empirical “ways of knowing” that offer truth about the universe. It’s a big “ouch” for Josh:

In short, if Josh wants us to take his comparison seriously, he needs to answer some simple questions. What do we know from religion that we do not know by other means? What lessons can we learn from the alleged insights of the world’s religious traditions that we can not learn more clearly in other ways?

I don’t think Josh, or anyone else, can give a compelling answer to those questions.

Okay, can we drop this “other ways of knowing” stuff now? As Jason says, nobody has yet provided one truth — about the divine or otherwise — that has come from non-empirical ways of knowing.

This whole discussion would be purely philosophical save for the efforts of the National Center for Science Education (Rosenau is Public Information Project Director), which promulgates the view that science and faith are nonoverlapping “ways of knowing.” This position, of course, is meant to assure the faithful that they can have their God and Darwin too. But it undercuts the very fabric of rationality.

__________________________
Just in: Here’s what the religious “way of knowing” tells you: Iranian President Ahmadinejad has just pronounced that the Holocaust was “a lie.”

And, over at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson has two new posts on the “ways of knowing” issue: here and here.

50 Comments

  1. Posted September 18, 2009 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    The “secrets” hidden within the fabric of sophistry are infinite.

    Rosenau provides us an epsitemological masturbation marathon.

    • Posted September 18, 2009 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      Epistemological. I need more Tetley’s.

  2. Matt Penfold
    Posted September 18, 2009 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I no longer have any hopes of getting clear answers from Rosenau.

    For example, here is his reply to you about you calling him a fatheist:

    For instance, am I a “faitheist”? No. Coyne defines the term as: an “atheist[] who [is] nonetheless soft on faith.” First, I’m not an atheist and have never claimed to be one. I am an apathist agnostic (Cf.), and have said so on many occasions. Had Coyne invested the modest effort to either ask my religious views, or checked my archives (as I’ve done to find how he defines this term), he would know better. Second, I don’t know what he means by “soft on faith.” If he means that I don’t think faith is ipso facto bad, then yeah. By that standard I’m also soft on dance but not on mushrooms (yech). If it means that I think faith is inherently good, or worth promoting, then no, that’s not my position at all.

    An incredibly verbose way of saying “Coyne is wrong to call me an fatheist. I believe in god”. The rest of the stuff about not having a problem with faith is irrelevant and there either because he does not understand what is meant by fatheist, or he is trying to distract attention away from his lack of substance.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 18, 2009 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Ap´a`thist
      n. 1. One who is destitute of feeling.
      Agnostic
      1 : a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable

      That, combined with accomodationism toward religion, is faitheism in my book.

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted September 18, 2009 at 10:22 am | Permalink

        What annoys me is that Rosenau elsewhere seems to indicate he does not believe gods exist. Which would, of course, make him an atheist.

        I suspect he is more concerned with the connotations associated with the word atheist in US, and how it would impact his ability to do outreach work for the NCSE if he openly claimed to be an atheist.

  3. Posted September 18, 2009 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    How about 7+5=12? Or are you an empiricist about mathematical truth? At the very least, non-empiricism about mathematical truth seems to be a respectable position. Godel, for example, was a philosophical platonist who thought that we could come to know the truth of new axioms in set theory through rational intuition.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think that the post-modernist epistemological relativism expressed by many theists and mysticists is wretched. I just think that a little more philosophical sophistication is in order in making the criticism. Maybe there is a plurality of “ways of knowing”. (Maybe not). It surely wouldn’t follow that believing crazy ancient mythologies just because your parents do is one of them. Or whatever. There would still be a whole list of ways of forming beliefs that aren’t ways of knowing, it would still be incumbent on believers in mythologies to convince us that they are believing in knowing way, and it would still be a huge problem for them if they fail to assume epistemic parity with competing mythologies.

    • Tulse
      Posted September 18, 2009 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      How about 7+5=12? Or are you an empiricist about mathematical truth? At the very least, non-empiricism about mathematical truth seems to be a respectable position.

      But that is only because mathematics is a formal system, and the truths of mathematics only apply within the specified formal system. So, for example, whether “p or not-p” is true depends on the type of logic one is using — it isn’t, for example, true within multivalent logic systems.

      And math is not alone in this kind of “constrained” truth. For example, it is a non-empirical truth of the US legal system that “intentionally killing someone unlawfully is murder”. But that is a truth only if we’re looking at that legal system — it is not some sort of truth about the world as a whole.

      (Indeed, even basic mathematical truths like the one you suggest aren’t always borne out in the real world — for exmaple, if you add 7 gallons of water and 5 gallons of alcohol, you get less than 12 gallons of liquid.)

  4. Andrew Alexander
    Posted September 18, 2009 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Of course, I disagree with the blog post.

    In fact, I would say that religion teaches us the only things worth knowing.

    I would also say that you are just irrationally and arbitrarily saying that their are certain ways of “knowing” things that are better than others. How do you know that “empirically” knowing something is better than knowing something “non-empirically”? It seems that their is no empirical way to make a determination that empiricality is better?

    I would hope that you admit that it is just a feeling of yours that being empirical is better than not being empirical.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 18, 2009 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      ok, troll, you don’t think it’s worth knowing that penicillin kills bacteria? If you can’t defend your point of view that science doesn’t teach us anything worth knowing, I’ll send you packing to the religious websites.

      • Andrew Alexander
        Posted September 18, 2009 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        Of course, I think that knowing penicillin kills bacteria is worthwhile. I could not hold that belief unless I non-empirically believed in the value of human life.

        The interesting question is, why would you favor empiricism over non-empiricism when there is no way of empirically knowing which one is preferable?

        Also, I do not understand your threat. How could you send me packing? If you block the name I am currently using, what is stopping me from using a different one? Also, is not your current attitude a little intolerant?

      • articulett
        Posted September 19, 2009 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        Maybe his “inner knowingness” tells him that you’re a nutter, Andrew. Of course, I would point out that there is empirical evidence for that conclusion. You certainly are not a role model for the virtues of faith.

        Here is example of things that people “knew” from religion: That others could be witches or be possessed and thus needed to be killed or exorcised–

        That god give virgins to those who die martyrs for his cause…

        That sacrificing humans pleases god(s) and ensures the survival of crops…

        That homosexuality causes hurricanes…

        That you really can’t kill anyone because you live forever and ever…

        That life is a test that you must pass and it’s good for kids to die young because they automatically pass and get to live happily ever after…

        That an all loving god can make humans that can suffer forever as part as his plan.

        That an invisible immeasurable entity communicates with people in some way that is indistinguishable from a delusion.

        That you can be saved for believing an unbelievable story and indoctrinating others with the lie.

        Religions claim all sorts of conflicting knowledge and there is no way to tell a real truth from a delusion. I imagine all
        “inner knowingness”, revelation, transcendent feelings, are profound to the one who feels them– it might even make the bozo feel like he knows something useful or true.

        But faith and feelings are not avenues towards truth. Convincing your feeble brain that it is, does not change reality one iota.

        But in science we understand that humans are prone to such errors in thinking. It’s why we use evidence and demonstrability.

        What the hell is the useful thing that you find worth knowing that comes from religion? Why do you think human life is valuable when everyone is just going to live forever any way? Wouldn’t it have been better for those who are slated to suffer for ever per your omniscient god to never have been born?

        You are as disturbed as the god you believe in, Andrew.

        On the bright side, you make a whole slew of people glad not to be as religiously delusional as you.

    • Posted September 18, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Andrew, you’re right. Oxygen is made of evaporated cane juice. I made this discovery via some non-empirical calculations that were non-empirically verified yesterday.

    • Darek
      Posted September 18, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      In fact, I would say that religion teaches us the only things worth knowing.

      Of course you say this without giving a single example. Thanks for nothing.

      Jason’s question still stands: What do we know from religion that we do not know by other means?

      The rest of what you say is just pure nonsense. You haven’t thought out your position well enough, and it shows.

      • Andrew Alexander
        Posted September 18, 2009 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        Darek, I have put alot of thought into this subject, but it turns out, that there are so many answers to this question I hardly know where to begin. Here is a list I came up with right quick.

        1. Do not murder.
        2. Do not steal.
        3. Life is better than death.
        4. Give money to the poor.
        5. Be kind.
        6. Monogamy is best.
        7. Obsession with money is bad.

        Now, I can already forecast some of your rebuttals. they will come in one of two flavors.

        1. for a truth like murder is bad, you will say that everyone knows this and that it is not a religous truth. Well, please demonstrate how you know this (either empirically or not).

        2. You will say that it is not a truth, maybe in response to my truth that obsession with money is bad or that monogamy is good. Well, if you are defining what the truths are, I will admit that it will be tough to give you a truth that you will accept. After all, you are of the mind that their are know non-empirical truths.

      • TheBlackCat
        Posted September 18, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

        People have already dealt with your specific examples, but let me ask you a more general question: on what ground do say that these are “truths” in the first place? How did you determine that these are true?

      • Darek
        Posted September 18, 2009 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

        Andrew,

        I see. So it comes down to value systems for you. One value system (conveniently yours, no doubt) is somehow inherently ‘better’ than another value system – say, any other religion other than Christianity today or, for that matter, before any known religion.

        You tried to project what I might say in response, but even though I think you know what you put down within your numbered points is completely arbitrary, you neglected to mention how I might suggest that things like stealing, murder, altruism, etc.. were subject to laws well before something like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc…

        I mean I think Hitchens says it best when he poses this as a question to his debating opponents, but do you really think, Andrew, that things like stealing, murder, kindness, greed, etc. were things that were completely fine and dandy for mankind before Christianity came on the scene to say “Hey everyone, knock it off!”?

        You cannot be that obtuse, unless its deliberate.

        Though, having a ‘value’ system is all too solipsistic to begin with, seeing as how it is clearly we (human beings) who define what is valuable or not – clearly you must see this, yet you deny it for something you cannot prove.

        Again, I insist based upon this submission – Jason’s question still stands. If you still think these 7 points you gave are still viable, then explain how any of them cannot be known by other (empirical) means.

      • Darek
        Posted September 18, 2009 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

        I should mention that I single out Christianity only because I am aware that Andrew is a Christian.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 18, 2009 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      You still haven’t explained how religion teaches us that penicillin kills bacteria.

      Give your evidence and don’t obfuscate with issues like “the value of human life” (which, by the way, is also a tenet of secular morality).

      That’s independent of the fact that penicillin does, in fact, kill bacteria.

      • Andrew Alexander
        Posted September 18, 2009 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

        Oh, I see what you are contesting. Of everything that I said, you are challenging my notion that “religion teaches us the only things worth knowing”. Let me explain.

        Without a value system, knowing that penicillin killed bacteria would be worthless. With a value system, it wont be worthless but it will might spur different responses under different values system. If a particular value system values bacteria more highly than humans, then the empirical truth that penicillin kills bacteria will be valuable, but for the reason that it should never be used on bacteria, lest it kill them.

        However, in my particular value system, where I value humans higher than bacteria because of my religion, then the particular empirical fact that penicillin kills bacteria happens to particularly useful.

        In summary, a particular empirical fact is worthless unless you have a value system to give it worth. Therefore, you could say that the value of all the empirical facts has value to me because of my religion. Therefore, “religion teaches us the only things worth knowing”.

      • Posted September 18, 2009 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, but you can use religion to say that god designed P. falciparum. That’s all that Behe really did in Edge of Evolution.

        And you could never know that from mere empiricism.

        Glen Davidson
        http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

      • Posted September 18, 2009 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        1. for a truth like murder is bad, you will say that everyone knows this and that it is not a religous truth. Well, please demonstrate how you know this (either empirically or not).
        ————–
        We are a social species. Therefore murdering others runs counter to our further evolution, plus if we murder others, others will feel free to murder us. Plus we, or at least I, have empathy for all living things and their suffering because I can feel what it is like to be them. I can put myself in their place. It is logic, mere logic, that tells us this. No beliefs necessary.

      • Posted September 18, 2009 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        However, in my particular value system, where I value humans higher than bacteria because of my religion,
        ————
        You thing God is why you value human life? How delusional are you?

        And what a snot you are to think that and tell us, as if we do not value human life more than bacterial!

        It is an insult.

        Of course, insulting others is par for the course for religionists. No real sense of EMPATHY. Oh, you *believe* that you have one, but that’s just a nice lie you tell yourselves so you can believe in your superiority.

        You are all ego, all pride, and here you are trying to tell others how superior your way of belief is.

        If you people are so moral, then why are you so over-represented in our prison population while atheists are hugely under-represented?

        In all your thoughts and words there are lies… and the funny thing is, you believe them!

        Again, whan a person claims the moral high ground, most often its because they love to think that they are moral; not because they really are.

    • TheBlackCat
      Posted September 19, 2009 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      I’m starting to wonder why we even bother responding. It is clear he is just a hit-and-run troll. He comes here, posts the 1-3 comments full of the most tired, worn, illogical, ignorant apologetics you could possible imagine, gets them thoroughly shredded by everyone, never responds to questions or criticisms, disappears for a while, then comes back later on a different blog post claiming no one addressed his points or that everyone here is too stupid to understand the genius of his “arguments” (if they could even be called that), then repeats the same arguments that were shredded a few weeks before mixed in with a few arguments that he thinks will stump us but were already demolished by the ancient Greeks.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted September 19, 2009 at 10:46 am | Permalink

        I’m not going to allow mush-brained trolling any longer. I don’t mind dissent at all, but if people make ludicrous arguments just to inflame the group, I won’t have it. Let’s go for high-class, thoughtful comment.

      • TheBlackCat
        Posted September 20, 2009 at 9:30 am | Permalink

        Just make sure you make the rules clear and easy to find, and that yo0u give people at least several official warnings before you take action. Otherwise people like Alexander will claim (maybe even believe) that they were banned because you were unable to deal with their genius arguments and that you are suppressing dissenting view. They will probably claim that in any event, but if you have explicit rules and had warned them that they were breaking them then you have a pretty clear counter to that claim.

  5. Posted September 18, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Maybe we’ll just have to say that religion is another way….

    Or perhaps we’ll say that religion is a non-overlapping magisterium, managing not to overlap any meaningful “way of knowing.”

    Put either of those ways, it’s not objectionable. Not desirable, but not objectionable.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  6. scott
    Posted September 18, 2009 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I agree with Shipley. Whether there are multiple ways of knowing or not is an interesting question, but a major branch of philosophy covers this question: epistemology. Even slight familiarity with it would make posts like Jason’s a lot more satisfying (and less amateurish). Nuance isn’t synonymous with accommodationism.

  7. Darrell E
    Posted September 18, 2009 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    I wish some better trolls would show up here.

    Andrew, you are persistant but, very boring. Do you really think that any of your feeble arguments are new, or presented in such a novel manner that the average reader of a blog such as this would find them the least bit interesting or challenging? Your arguments are moldy and stale, and your penchant for projecting your own simplistic cognitive abilities onto your opponents all adds up to you being not even worth arguing with.

    I feel a tiny bit bad for being harsh but I figure that in this case it would be best to be honest with you so that maybe you wouldn’t waste any more of your (or anybody elses) time posting here.

  8. KP
    Posted September 18, 2009 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I was going to put that link to Ahmadinejad article in a comment earlier…YIKES.

    Let’s not forget that penicillin stopped working on some bacteria and religion *definitely* can’t explain that.

    I suppose, at best, one (not me) can argue that some of the explanations of the natural world in the Bible (for example) — the ones that aren’t *ridiculously inaccurate* — are “ways of knowing.” That they are simplistic is understandable for the level of intellectual sophistication of 2-3K years ago. But those aren’t really ways of knowing that *came from* religion, are they? They are a group of people’s best understanding of the natural world, written down and documented for the time. Unless, of course, you’re a fundamentalist who believes that this is the inerrant word of God, in which case you have bigger problems than trying to explain that the value of pi calculated by the Hebrews was “pretty close.”

  9. Sili
    Posted September 18, 2009 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    1. Do not murder.
    2. Do not steal.
    3. Life is better than death.
    4. Give money to the poor.
    5. Be kind.
    6. Monogamy is best.
    7. Obsession with money is bad.

    Not gonna bother with 1, 2, 4 and 5 since it’s already been covered by the “social animal” answer.

    But 3?! Seriously. What religion lets us know that “Life is better than death”? They’re all focused on the afterlife. Life on Earth is pain and suffering and it’s merely a test for the real life that comes after this one. Sorry, but you can not claim this as a religious truth – least of all Christian.

    As for 6: [Citation needed] – and if monogamy is so good, what the flying fuck is wrong with gay marriage?

    7: My dear mr Alexander, I think you’ve failed to notice the god-fucking-damn prosperity gospel.

    May I take it that by “t religion teaches us the only things worth knowing”, you mean that religion does this by showing us how not to do it?!

    Sheesh – I’m as thick as two short planks, and I can see you’re off the rails.

    • TheBlackCat
      Posted September 18, 2009 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      I would like to address 6 in a bit more detail. A lot of religions, including branches of Christianity, hold that monogamy is NOT better. Further, you can empirically determine which is better by looking at various factors in light of their impact on humans as a social species.

      • KP
        Posted September 18, 2009 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

        “Branches” of Christianity? Frickin’ *mainstream* Christianity…

        Abraham *himself* had a wife (Sarah) and a “concubine” (Hagar). Isaac and Ishmael are the sons of each, respectively. Abe uses Hagar as a brood patch – at Sarah’s suggestion – and then, lo and behold, God suddenly makes the 90 year old Sarah able to conceive. Monogamy is pretty much an afterthought of the Abrahamic tradition…

      • KP
        Posted September 18, 2009 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

        Meant to say “brood mare” which would have been funnier…

      • KP
        Posted September 18, 2009 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

        erg. Sorry, Genesis 16, by the way for anyone who needs the ref.

      • Posted September 18, 2009 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

        1-5 are commands. They don’t even purport to be the kinds of sentences that could be true or false.

        As for the other two, we need definitions of “bad”, “good”, “best” and so on. Once these are defined, it may very well be possible to test their truth by means that are broadly scientific, or at least rational. If not, then we are best off ignoring them, since they are not rationally justified.

        “Bad”, “good”, “best”, etc., usually mean something like “ineffective/inefficient for a purpose that we understand in context”, “effective, efficient for a purpose we understand in context”, “most effective/efficient of the available options for a purpose that we understand in context”, etc.

        For example, “obsession with money is bad” means something like “obsession with money is the sort of thing that is ineffective/inefficient for making people happy”. We don’t need religion to reach that conclusion. There are other reasons to think that this is true. Indeed, if there weren’t, we wouldn’t be impressed with the claim when it’s made by a religious person.

        As for the monogamy one. Well, I thinks it’s a highly controversial claim and probably untrue, however we define “best”. I certainly don’t think that religion is a good guide to whether the claim is true or not.

        I would agree with it if it meant no more than “in contemporary Western circumstances, a default expectation of pair bonding is more likely to be efficient for the purpose of increasing overall happiness in the society than a default expectation of either polygamy or polyandry.” There may be some evidence for this.

        But that’s assuming it’s a good (efficient/effective for contextually relevant purposes) idea even to have a default expectation. Perhaps it’s best (most efficient/effective for the purposes we have in mind) if (1) the state and society as a whole had no view about what sort of relationships people ought to enter into, (2) and if individuals have monogamous, open, polyamorous, or whatever sorts of relationships suit them.

        There are ways of arguing about this rationally, and of gathering relevant sociological data, but there is no reason at all to think that religion has anything useful to contribute.

      • Posted September 18, 2009 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

        Whoops, 3. is not a command. It’s an odd case. But without spending more time, I don’t see how religion has anything to contribute. Insofar as the proposition can be discussed rationally at all, religious dogma will only make the issue more confused.

        For the record, now I am alive I have lots of reasons to want to stay so. But it doesn’t follow that anything as vague as “life is better than death” is true.

      • Posted September 18, 2009 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

        Oh, and technically I should have said “polygyny or polyandry” rather than “polygamy or polyandry”. But I think the meaning was clear.

  10. Posted September 18, 2009 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I hate that “ways of knowing” meme trotted out by religious apologists every time they are at a loss for arguments in a debate against science.

    It’s a lazy, incorrect usage: “ways of seeing the world” would be the accurate phrase! And of course, there are ways of seeing that are better than others as getting a true picture. Tinted glass, strobe lights and kaleidoscopes may be pretty and wonder-inducing, but to see where you put your feet when you cross the street, you’d better have clear eyes. And clear glasses, microscopes and telescopes, of course!

    • Posted September 18, 2009 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      If I were to take the position that this universe is entirely composed of data (or thought if you will, similar to a dream but dreamt by all of us at once, together) and we all get what we subconsciously expect that we’ll get except when the expectations of another person or person ‘interferes’ with that, as unlikely as that it, it’s STILL much more likely and tenable than any religion ever practiced.

      Especially Christianity. I mean, buddhism makes a lot more sense, and it’s far from logical… Or the Ba’hai faith, which is FAR more moral.

  11. paul fauvet
    Posted September 19, 2009 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    “Do not murder”. Those who wave this injunction aloft as evidence of the superiority of religious “ways of knowing” are remarkably ignorant of the history of their own faiths.

    Does Andrew Alexander not know that when religious leaders down the ages have said “Do not murder”, what they actually meant was “Do not murder the people who agree with us. Everyone else not only can, but should be murdered”.

    So Christians were instructed to hunt down and murder heretics and witches.
    Moslems are instructed to murder apostates. Wars were declared by pontiffs (e.g. Urban I’s launching of the First Crusade, Innocent III’s campaign of extermination against the Cathars).

    This should not be surprising since the god of Abraham, Moses and Mohammed openly and proudly ordered his followers to commit genocide. Alexander should just take a look at the Book of Joshua.

    And the worst mass murder of all was committed by God himself, when he became annoyed with his creation and drowned the entire human race with the exception of one family.

    So can the religious crowd please stop preaching morality to us atheists.

  12. Ian
    Posted September 19, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Seems to me that the tenor of the article, and many of the comments here is something along the line of:

    Tell us something a non-empirical ‘way of knowing’ tells us? Ah, but how (empirically) do you know that is actually true and not BS.

    If a theist tells you that they know that God exists non-empirically, we rightly ask where the evidence is. But we can’t have it both ways – we can’t then tell them that their non-empirical way of knowing doesn’t tell them anything. It clearly does.

    As far as I can tell the atheist position isn’t that non-empirical ways of knowing don’t tell people things that are important or valuable, just that the things they learn that way are (empirically) bankrupt.

    In my experience the analogy with Mathematics is quite a good one. Theology has a similar tenor – you start from some set of axioms, you derive some set of results and if you didn’t choose a set of axioms that conformed to the world, then you shouldn’t expect the results you came up with to be at all correlated with the world either.

    Dismissing math as a ‘formal system’ and therefore claiming that it doesn’t form a counter-example to the original question seems a bit artificial to me.

    • articulett
      Posted September 20, 2009 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      Are you saying that claims of knowledge about god are more likely to be true than claims of knowledge about demons or alien visitations of our planet? How so. How do you distinguish true religious knowledge from myth? Is there a way? Is there a way to verify whether any of this knowledge is actually true?

      If not, then it’s not knowledge, it’s wishful thinking that feels like knowledge to someone or other. Humans are known to be very good at fooling themselves and each other in this way. Ask any magician or mentalist or creator of optical illusions.

      If something is indistinguishable from an illusion, then it’s probably an illusion(or delusion, myth, belief, religion, superstition, misperception, fantasy, etc.) If it has no measurable qualities, then science cannot know anything about it. But neither can anyone else–even though they might feel they KNOW something or other.

      Feelings aren’t facts and they are not a path towards objective truths. Feelings evolved to promote the survival of the genes that code for such feelings and the humans that replicate them. They can guide your behavior in a physical world, they cannot tell you whether your perceptions are objectively true. In other words, they are not a method of confirming the existence of any invisible entities you believe in– not gods, souls, angels, demons, or fairies. None. You can’t “feel” your way into “knowing” whether such things exist or not. Evidence could prove that they do exist… and a lack of evidence where evidence should be is evidence that they don’t exist–

      • articulett
        Posted September 20, 2009 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        I think I missed the gist of your message the first time, Ian. I mistook you for another Ian when you suggested that a theist has an alternate way of knowing.

        But then you pointed out this way of knowing is empirically bankrupt–

        We have no way of distinguishing such claims of knowledge from a delusion of knowledge.

        I mistakingly thought you were supporting “other ways of knowing” through semantics. I would distinguish between “feeling like you know something” and “actual knowledge” that would be true whether people knew about it or not.

      • Ian
        Posted September 20, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        I’m trying to point out a fairly simple philosophical gotchya.

        It seems to me Jerry, Jason and some of the commenters here are *defining* knowledge to mean empirical knowledge, and therefore the question they ask “are there other ways of knowing?” is by definition no, and therefore a straw man.

        It clearly is tautologous, unfair to theists, and tells us nothing of any use. It reminds me of the kind of ‘prove God doesn’t exist’ silliness that theists sometimes try to stand up against us.

        There is plenty of idiocy of substance to argue against without inventing straw men. Like, for example, if faitheists claim to find value in both unempirical and empirical ways of knowing, why does information only flow from the empirical to the spiritual knowledge?

        I chewed out a creationist a few weeks back who didn’t understand what introns were (but thought they absolutely disproved evolution). Its just as painful to see atheists who wouldn’t know a ‘synthetic a-priori’ if it bit them on the ass, try to make grand pronouncements on epistemology.

        That’s what motivated me to stop lurking and post.

  13. articulett
    Posted September 20, 2009 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    I think you are the one playing semantic games, Ian. Yes, by knowledge we mean the facts that are true for everyone. The earth is a sphere… gravity exists… molecules move faster when heated… etc.

    Don’t confuse faith and feelings with knowing objective facts. Face it, these things have never brought about demonstrable objective truths.

    How else are we supposed to define knowledge? How else can we distinguish a nutty notion from a fact or possibility? Apologists for faith always get fuzzy when it comes to words LIKE faith… and knowledge– but they certainly wouldn’t be that fuzzy if someone was trying to pass off a conflicting nutty claim as knowledge.

    I don’t care what definitions you use. The only way to get to demonstrable objective truths is through empiricism. Otherwise, you have the equivalent of a belief or opinion or feeling. Nothing more. It might feel like “knowledge”, but it doesn’t count as knowledge to those interested in finding out what is objectively true. It’s anecdote, and not particularly helpful in discovery.

    I think you are the one arguing a straw man, Ian. You suggest that there are other ways of knowing without really pinning down what these ways might be and what the hell we’ve come to KNOW from these special “ways”. Moreover, you haven’t defined a method for culling the real knowledge from basic delusions of the type that humans are known to have.

    Your argument might sound good to a religion or philosophy person, but to me it’s just smoke and mirror semantics that obfuscate rather than clarify.

    I guess it makes you feel superior to Jerry, but that feeling is your opinion… it’s not a fact, and I don’t think anyone else here shares that opinion. I find Jerry much more intelligible than you. Can someone other than you tell me what your point is and how it relates to “other ways of knowing”??

  14. articulett
    Posted September 20, 2009 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    If you don’t have a better definition of knowledge and you don’t have a philosophy that can distinguish between want some feels is true (the earth is flat) from what is objectively true (the earth is an oblate spheroid), then you are just playing with words so that you can pretend there are other ways of “knowing” stuff.

    You have to be able to distinguish between the belief that someone is a witch and someone actually being a witch if you want to do science.

  15. articulett
    Posted September 20, 2009 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    I can believe that someone else really believes they were probed by aliens, but I can also believe that it didn’t happen. That’s a distinction the supposed “other ways of knowing” don’t address.

    • Ian
      Posted September 20, 2009 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

      True. How would you deal with the case when someone believes something that is actually true, but for reasons that are unempirical, subjective and or just plain false?

      Is that knowledge?

      (It is entirely irrelevant to the question at hand, but turns out to be important in the philosophy of science – it is called the Gettier problem).

  16. Ian
    Posted September 20, 2009 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    I don’t feel superior to Jerry, not by long shot.

    I was just concerned we’d set up a circular argument and then were wondering why the world doesn’t fall at our feet (not that they would if we’d set up a working argument, either, but hey).

    I think we agree articulett. You’re using the words ‘objective’ where I would hedge a little more and say ’empirical’. You can mostly replace every ’empirical’ with ‘objective’ in my previous posts to translate it into your preferred vocab.

    In your terms: my point was this. If you define knowledge to be only objective (excluding knowledge of qualia, for example), then it is churlish to ask people who don’t share that definition to show you some non-objective knowledge that meets your criteria.

    I happen to (mostly) share your definition, but then I’m not trying to promote ‘other ways of knowing’.

    I do think you might benefit from finding out a bit more about epistemology though.

    “The only way to get to demonstrable objective truths is through empiricism”

    This, for example, is not true (not matter how much you feel it to be :-). Google analytic vs synthetic knowledge for a basic overview.

    “I don’t think anyone else here shares that opinion. I find Jerry much more intelligible than you.”

    I agree completely, which is why both of us are reading his blog.

    “Can someone other than you tell me what your point is and how it relates to “other ways of knowing”??”

    I suspect the rest of the world has moved off this thread, and I’m sorry I did such a crap job of making my point.

    • articulett
      Posted September 20, 2009 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

      I’m sorry for misreading you; I get squeamish around philosophy, because I’ve heard it used to promote woo so often–

      I can understand Dennett, so I’m not a complete philosophical ignoramus. And I understand that people can have knowledge of things they cannot prove. But if that knowledge is about anything supernatural then there must be evidence of such a nature that it would be more ridiculous not to accept their claim than to accept it. Barring that, lesser claims of evidence are needed to establish more likely or mundane claims. If you told me your favorite color is purple, I’d believe you even though you can’t prove it, for example.

      You can know what your preferences are without being able to prove it to anyone, but it is a FACT that people have preferences… the preferences themselves are more akin to opinion, feeling, and interpretation than to fact. Any useful method of knowledge would need to distinguish the former from the latter.

      Yes, it is circular to say that in order to be verifiable knowledge verifiably verified, but it’s not circular to say that in order to count as “knowledge” in the realm of science it must be demonstrably factual– empiric–measurable in some way.

      Aack… the more I think about it, the more confused I get. I shall leave it to the philosophers.


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