“In Your Opinion…”

Knowledge will make you free

Knowledge will make you free (Photo credit: tellatic)

Before I begin, let me say that this post is in no way directed at anyone in particular, it’s a long-time pet peeve of mine, and a problem that has existed in my country since its founding…

Onward then…

There’s a species of relativism that sometimes tries my patience, and that’s because as one who values knowledge over belief, fact over fantasy, I consider it arrogant, condescending, and dismissive to equate objective knowledge painstakingly gained through much effort and thought with mere subjective opinion or personal preference, as though all claims to knowledge and assertions of belief were on the same footing.

And if all are on equal footing, none are on any footing whatsoever.

Especially when that knowledge conflicts with personal convictions or strongly held, if misinformed, opinions.

This view stems from a naive understanding of what knowledge, facts, beliefs & opinion actually are.

Beliefs are our expectations of experiencing something or its implication if and when we would conceivably be able to. When we believe, we hold as true or false some statement about reality, but belief is not knowledge. It is only a halfway point.

So believing there to be a massive alien space fleet in orbit around the Earth amounts to expecting to see it, or otherwise detect it if and when the means and opportunity were ever available to the believer, whether its actually there or not.

If a belief happens to be true, to reflect actual states of affairs, it is still not knowledge unless we have some way of informing ourselves that it’s true. Even if true, such a belief is still only a fortunate guess.

So unless you have some way of getting information that confirms or disconfirms the presence of the alien fleet, you have no way of actually knowing it in any real sense, and so no actual knowledge either way.

Despite the claims of mystics on “other ways of knowing” through notoriously unreliable methods as revelation, faith or sudden insight, etc, we actually get most of our information about the world through firsthand and secondhand sensory experience, and as potentially misleading and limited as that is, it’s the most reliable, frequently employed and useful means we have of getting information about the world…

…especially when the range, accuracy and power of our sensory experience are boosted ginormously by the instruments we create, and our inherent flaws can be mitigated using the methods and conceptual tools of science.

So we reach knowledge when:

  • we have information on something that may be turn out to be true or false, something that could be believed if known of…
  • we anticipate in some way, through some sensory modality, observing that something, or an implication of it were the means and occasion to arise…
  • this anticipation is correct and and it may possibly be fulfilled by acquiring confirmatory information about it…

There’s one final step to make before we get there…when…

  • we obtain this information through some form of input, usually sensory, possibly others, when this input passes the tests necessary to establish its accuracy, relevance, public accessibility, etc.

So knowledge includes belief as one of its components, but does not equate to belief, and opinions are essentially a form of belief, or at least just as valid or invalid and whether informed, misinformed or uninformed, they CAN be true or false if expressed as well-formed descriptive statements about reality, even the reality of politics, art, sports, or any other human endeavor.

Because knowledge subsumes belief, belief that must further be both true and justified, to truly know something on an emotional as well as intellectual level, to understand and grasp its nuances and subtle points, that thing must be accepted as true. Also, because of this aspect of knowledge, you cannot know something that is false, and you cannot truly know something that you think false when it is true, no matter what your personal intuitions are telling you to the contrary…

…and a classic example of this is Albert Einstein’s failure to grasp the full implications of quantum mechanics through failure to accept them, despite his own genius, to paraphrase Michio Kaku, a field of science “…so strange and bizarre, even Einstein couldn’t get his head around it.”

Finally, there is no such thing as a “true fact,” and a “real fact” is simply redundant showing a day-glow red flag that the one using the words in that way is clueless or full of sh*t.

A fact cannot be true, nor false, nor anything in between — it either exists or it doesn’t — and the existence of a fact is independent of anyone actually accepting or being aware of it. Facts are those events, properties and collections of things that through their existence or lack of it make beliefs and descriptive statements made about them true or false.

So yes, facts can and often do trump our opinions, at least when we know about them, except perhaps in our own minds of course. No belief or opinion whose truth is not borne out by facts we can be made aware of will never amount to knowledge in itself.

As for internal, subjective things, there exist objective facts about those as well…

Were I to experience anger in any situation, or a belief or lack of belief about something, my anger, belief or its lacking are objective facts about the state of my brain at that time. The facts can, of course, change over time with changes in mood or understanding, but these facts reflect actual physical conditions in my brain consistent with these states, conditions that can at least in principle be objectively measured while they exist.

So, as long as my introspective abilities are reliable in informing me of my mental state in any instance, I’m actually in a particular state, and I’m being up-front in any report I may make about what goes on inside my own mind — which, by the way, I have exclusive and privileged access to, just as you do yours — there is no legitimate way for anyone to claim, “It’s only true for you that you think X (or whatever), not a fact (subtext: I know more than you do about what you really think — bow to my superior magical insight, puny mortal!).”

We’re all ignorant, just about different things.

I’d like to close this with a quote by the late great Isaac Asimov:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

People, Belief, Claims, & the Validity of Ideas

People’s rights generally deserve respect, including that to freedom of belief, and with the occasional exception, people themselves deserve to be respected.

Not so with ideas and claims of a factual nature, and especially deserving of disrespect and even outright ridicule are misleading claims and the typically dishonest means used to promote their acceptance to the unwary, via flawed reasoning, propaganda, and fabricated or misrepresented evidence.

Even when the logic used in arguments promoting such claims is technically valid, the arguments are often supported by false, irrelevant, or at least questionable premises and assumptions.

But even the most absurd ideas have fervent adherents, no matter how silly, and therein lies the problem.

People often identify very closely with their beliefs, considering them to be core to their very being.

What we hold to be true for often poor reasons indeed can be held so close to our metaphorical hearts that it leads to a sort of thin-skinned resentment, defensiveness, anger, and sometimes, rage when those claims are in any way called into question or threatened by contradicting information.

This can cause us to dig our heels in deeper rather than make us change our minds, so aggressively “beating people over the head with logic and evidence” to convince them rarely works, and is often counterproductive.

Much depends on our earliest, most ingrained beliefs and knowledge, and on our value judgments – even the notion of an idea’s truth or falsehood, based on prior understanding or misunderstanding, is a value judgment, of true, false, or somewhere in between, to claims we evaluate and accept or reject using prior information and reasoning, even when that information and our reasoning are incomplete or otherwise faulty.

Over time, though, our beliefs and values are actually rather fluid, and are altered, replaced, and discarded throughout our lives as we gain new information from our environment, information which demands that we accommodate it, account for it, dismiss it, accept it, or ignore it, and sometimes change what we know and believe.

I think we should give our ideas and beliefs less worth than we do, for given time they will change anyway, often without our notice, and what we believe and think we know should always be open to correction and amendment by newer information and better arguments.

Now, you can make any faith-based claim you desire about what is true, or what exists or not, and you can call it a metaphysical claim, not a scientific one, all you want. But whenever you’re making a statement of factual existence, no matter what you call it, you are making a claim that is scientific as long as it’s in principle testable.

This also applies to beliefs deriving from untrained and unvetted personal experience; any testable claim anyone makes about the world is a scientific one, and may potentially be either verifiable or falsifiable depending on how the claim is formulated and the existence or nonexistence of its alleged facts.

Not all beliefs or statements of them are equal in the arena of validity, though any claim should be considered if there is reasonable evidence presented for it when it’s asserted.

The fact that science has built-in mechanisms for a reality-check on ideas, to tell the effective ones from the useless ones, is why it’s so successful in advancing our knowledge of the world.

Faith-based beliefs lack this reality-check, and often are tailor-made to ignore or reject it, while the numerous ways our minds and senses can fool us can make uncontrolled personal experience very problematic as well.

Politics has a bit of a reality-check, though less rigorous than that of science: Policy decisions work well, moderately well, poorly, or fail completely, and a wise politician will abandon failed ideas…

…which raises a few questions about the wisdom of many of my country’s top Congresspersons, though that’s neither here nor there.

To say that science is true or false is a mistake of language, since it is not the sort of thing that can be true or false, but a set of methods for testing ideas against how things really are, not a claim, a belief system nor an ideology of Western hegemony.

The fact that science is a social construct, though true, as is every human endeavor including religion and politics, is irrelevant to the validity of it’s statements or the usefulness of its methods, no matter how hot Thomas Kuhn was in academic circles for decades.

We lay our ideas up against the world and see if they match, and if they do, if experiment agrees with them, so much the better. But ideas are cheap, potentially without number, and unfortunately all but a very few are worthless.

Social construct or not, science works, bastitches.

I am a Pseudoskeptic [Repost]

You all may have noted that I’m reposting some of entries from my archives, those classics that didn’t get much airtime due to this blog’s obscurity at the time they were originally published. I’m going to be posting some new entries this week, of course, but the reposting is necessary to make time for study periods and other non-blogging necessities at home and at library.

This is also useful for showing some of the ‘best of Troythulu’ from this blog’s earlier days, and the evolution of my writing style, such as that is, over time.

So here it is, like yesterday’s entry, verbatim with all its warts. Enjoy.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I am not a genuine skeptic, but a pseudoskeptic and a pseudointellectual according to Neo-Velikovskians I’ve met online. Yep, I’m downright delusional and deranged, because I believe that…

…anecdotes are only useful for the purpose of forming hypotheses, not testing them,

…Nostradamus was not a prophet—he may have seen things, but not the future,

…there is such a thing as an objective reality, that exists regardless of our wishes, thoughts, and beliefs, and that this is the best,  most rational explanation for the evidence of our senses,

…the scientific community is not a sinister, monolithic conspiracy bent on hiding the truth of the paranormal, nor skeptics a ‘new inquisition,’

…President Barack Obama was born a United States citizen, and that his birth certificate proves this,

…claims of the paranormal can be most parsimoniously explained by conventional means without invoking supernatural powers or phenomena,

…coincidences are real, and that it would be an extraordinary coincidence if extraordinary coincidences didn’t happen as often as they do,

…the Fantasy-Prone Personality type exists as a real psychological phenomenon, even if it explains a person’s belief that they are psychic,

…you don’t have to be crazy, lying, stupid, or uneducated to believe things that just ain’t so,

…unlikely statistical correlation does not equate to paranormal causation, or scientific importance,

…conventional explanations are not weak or implausible & contrived just because they are not understood or known,

…evolution actually happened, and the Earth is billions, not thousands, of years old,

…while electromagnetism does play some astrophysical role in the universe, the principle large-scale binding force of the Cosmos is gravity,

…anthropogenic global warming, and the resultant climate change, are real, and need to be dealt with in a rational manner to stave off their detrimental consequences,

…Quantum mechanics, Classical mechanics, and the Special & General theories of Relativity are all valid descriptions in their own context as to how the universe works,

…conventional evidence-based medicine is not a conspiracy to make and keep you sick, and is safer and more effective than most alternative modalities,

…miracles do not really happen, the mundane actually exists and isn’t boring,

…black holes, quasars, neutron stars, dark matter and dark energy are all real astrophysical entities,

…impact craters on planetary bodies are made by (gasp!) impacts by meteorites, asteroids and comets over billions of years, not electrical scarring over minutes or hours,

…the supernatural and the paranormal probably don’t exist, just the natural, the normal, and those things we have yet to explain,

…looking for conventional explanations and eliminating them one by one is more rational than grasping for supernormal explanations first,

…personal testimony is not a reliable form of proof that something is real, works, or is true,

…skeptical organizations, while not perfect, are generally more factually correct, honest, objective, rational, and fair in their treatment of subject matter than organizations run by paranormal and fringe-science believers,

…meta-analyses are not an accurate way of demonstrating the validity of a set of studies if the component studies have incompatible methodological and statistical protocols, or are ‘tweaked’ or ‘fixed’ after the fact,

…relativism and false balance are not the same thing as objectivity,

…astrology is not a valid science, and has been falsified in every empirical test of it to date,

…the UFO phenomenon is more likely to be psycho-cultural than extraterrestrial in nature,

…open-mindedness is unquestionably a virtue, but not opening your mind so far that your brains fall out,

…Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil, Nessie, Mothman, the Montauk Monster(s), Mokele Mbembe, the Mongolian Death-Worm, and other similar creatures probably don’t exist as real animals,

…free-energy or perpetual motion machines don’t work as claimed, much less at all,

…real science and the wonders of nature are far more interesting than the parochial claims of the paranormal,

…evidence does not have to be ‘absolute concrete physical proof’ to be acceptable in science, or to skeptics,

…claims of fact or statements about reality are not just opinion and immune to being considered wrong just because one wants to believe them,

…the burden of proof for a claim of fact rests primarily upon the one making the claim, not its critics,

…all views should get a fair hearing, but not all views are equally valid in truth content,

…human beings have the unalienable right to believe what they wish, so long as they don’t infringe upon the rights of others to believe what they wish,

…and finally…

…science and reason are superior to authority, ideology, intuition, faith, and mystical experience as ways of knowing the world.

Yessiree, I am just one big-time true believer for harboring all these crazy, irrational ideas… Fnord.

On Judging and Judgment

I judge. You judge. We all judge, even when we aren’t aware of it and won’t admit that we’re doing it.

Everyone makes judgments, assessments, appraisals and evaluations if they are at all cognitively capable of interacting with the world and the people in it.

What does it mean to judge, and is this necessarily a bad thing to do?

Few, I hope, would disagree that prejudice, a form of judgment that by definition is made on hasty or at least ill-informed reasoning, is something to avoid when we can, or at least try to mitigate by coming to understand the subject of our prejudice.

Postjudice, on the other hand, a judgment rendered after the data is in, while it should never be considered final and timeless truth, is much more acceptable, and useful, unlike it’s evil twin.

Judgment in some form, fair or unfair, cannot be avoided. It’s simply not possible to meet people, or hear of them, or notice their behavior, and not judge them, no matter how distasteful we may find it personally and try to hide it from ourselves.

Criticism of any kind entails the act of judgment, of assessing a claim made by someone, in pointing out fallacies in reasoning or possible deficiencies in facts, in fairness using said criticism to enhance the rigor of a discussion and justify our confidence in the constructive outcome of an argument.

Even when we criticize someone for passing judgment, silently to ourselves or to others, we are ourselves passing judgment. To judge, to be able to judge, is part of the human condition.

Most of what I come across on fringe websites and discussion forums involves the admonition of “Don’t Judge,” mostly by theists and spiritualists who don’t like their claims — and when sincere in these claims, their precious beliefs — subjected to any sort of, to them, sacrilegious scrutiny.

It’s typical of some with a relativist philosophy who ostensibly consider all views to have their own equally valid truth, and among those of an absolutist world view who see only their own perspective as valid, but admit it openly, who are often themselves quick to judge the claims and beliefs of others, even secretly, who show thin skins indeed over even the fairest of critiques, considering their own ideas off-limits and showing great offense when this holy ground is crossed.

But subjectivist, objectivist, or absolutist, none of these approaches to knowledge necessarily excludes dogmatism or intolerance, even those normally associated in the public mind with tolerance and pluralism.

When our own views are questioned, the more certainly those views are held, the more passionately opinionated we are about these views, the less objective we are about the matters they concern, and the more intolerant we are, the less likely we are to question them nor wish to allow others to do so.

The right to believe, and to express that belief is to me inalienable, but the special privilege to protect one’s claims, no matter how ridiculous, or at least mistaken, against all factual and logical examination, to shield them from all conceivable criticism, is not.

For it is those ideas that are the most absurd which require just that sort of protection, because they cannot stand on their own merits. No one’s unproven ideas should get a free pass.

For all the talk of ‘love and light,’ and ‘blessed be,’ many purveyors of nonsense are not nice people when it comes down to it, and to condemn others for criticism and cry ‘intolerance’ while simultaneously vilifying, even demonizing, one’s critics is at best inconsistent and at worst abject self-righteous hypocrisy.

Respecting the Right to Believe, without being uncritical about It

Vermeer The Allegory of the Faith

Image via Wikipedia

My view as a skeptic is that the right of others to believe as they choose should indeed be respected, but let’s not confuse the right to believe with uncritical respect for or assent by silence of others about the belief itself.

Also, in respecting the rights of others to believe, I claim for myself the right to free expression, of free speech, and the right to respectfully inform others to the best of my understanding, without bullying or condescension, by whatever lawful means available, when a claim leading to a belief can and has been shown erroneous, or at least inconsistent with itself or the truth of what it concerns.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, though, and needed to get my thoughts in order, hence this particular post.

It’s not my right, nor my interest, to coerce or deceive someone into believing or not believing something. I’m not out to make people “not believe,” or any similarly absurd canard.

My focus is on the claims themselves, not the beliefs. Nor is it my interest to relieve someone of the burden of faith, only giving them the means to relieve themselves of the burden of credulity, to accept things by way of good judgment on the basis of the reasons given for them.

To me, dogma, in the sense of holding a claim, proposition, or principle infallibly true on the pronouncements of authority, is anathema, and its antithesis is modern skepticism. Dogma excludes the freedom to question.

It’s mistaken to confuse claims with beliefs, or faith with trust. They are very different things indeed, as I will attempt in my own clumsy way to explain, my somewhat limited understanding being ever more evident as I continue.

I distinguish faith from trust, and when I use these words, I have very specific meanings in mind.

A claim, simply put, is a proposition or statement that something is true or false, at least to a degree, whereas a belief is the acceptance of that claim, a position taken on it, whether this acceptance is critical or uncritical in nature.

Faith, as I use the term, involves belief without (or even in spite of) sufficient evidence, and in this sense is inherently non-rational if not irrational at times.

Trust, in the sense of putting stock in the relevant and true expertise, or in the friendship and the general goodwill of others we know, is based upon evidence, the evidence of reliable honesty and past successful performance or advice of those we come to call trustworthy.

I’m hoping that this entry has made clear my perspective on this, and though I can’t speak for other skeptics without their say-so, I strongly suspect that I’m not at all exceptional in this.

There’s no silly rule saying that you have to be a baby-eating ogre, or at least a jerk, to be skeptical.