This is from a while back, but for ten minutes, it’s the most complete, indepth discussion Dr. Tyson’s given on this subject.
What does it mean to lie? In a strict sense, lying means relating a falsehood that one knows on some level to be just that — false. We are not always honest with ourselves, and our brains have many ways to deceive themselves. We are frequently convinced, often quite strongly of things simply not true, tenaciously holding some falsehoods as self-evident truths.
It seems paradoxical to be able to believe what we know to be false, so how then may it be possible to fool ourselves in that manner and still be aware, at least intellectually, that we are doing so?
First, a bit of what it means to ‘know’ something. Knowledge at it’s most basic level involves both awareness of an idea, or probable fact, and its acceptance.
Knowledge involves belief that something is the case or that something is not, that belief needed to fully grasp the intricacies and nuances of what is known, but we are not all the way there yet. We have a couple more steps to go…
To know something, we must not only be informed of a thing and believe it to be the case, but it must actually conform to existing facts — it must be true. Not just this, but there must be some grounds for believing it, and convincing ourselves that we have knowledge, and not just a lucky guess on our part.
Strictly speaking, you can’t really know something that’s false, and you can’t truthfully say you know something without good grounds…
There must be some information available, usually gained by our senses, by which we obtain those grounds and the justification for the item of knowledge we possess — some channel of information must necessarily and sufficiently complete the picture, so that we can confidently think that we know something.
Whether these grounds come from our own personal sensory experience, often enhanced by our instruments and other artifacts, secondhand or further removed testimony given by others (usually needing some kinds of grounding itself, like real and relevant expertise of the source giving the testimony…) and possibly other channels of information as well, we must have evidence, and it must be strong enough to justify the claim we accept.
We surely deceive ourselves, convince ourselves of probable falsehoods and we often hold conflicting beliefs by walling them off from each other — and even using processes of doublethink and rationalization to entertain them without the discomfort we often experience when both or all come to our conscious awareness at the same time.
It’s possible to have a lack of confidence in one’s knowledge, the niggling doubt that sometimes happens to those of us who hold all knowledge to be subject to correction with further and better grounds to retain, reject or amend what we know at any given time.
With doublethink, rationalization, logical fallacies and belief in belief — believing for the sake of belief itself as a virtue — we may hold at least as partially true what we intellectually know (and thus to an extent accept) to be false, and move from compartmentalizing our accepted and conflicting claims into the territory of the pious fraud, further into those of the pathological liar and victims of False memory syndrome…
…as well as when we willfully sacrifice the value of reason and evidence in favor of what feels good to us, rather than the uncomfortable realities we are often forced to deal with in daily life.
When we are faced with an incentive to believe something that agrees strongly with our prejudices, it comes down to a simple matter of “Can I believe?” that we may not even have to ask. We accept such things on a whim, unless we exercise care in our thinking. We have a tendency to first believe things we have an emotional investment in, and then cobble together, often quite ingeniously, reasons to justify our belief.
When we are faced with those things we are disinclined to believe, things contrary to our ideologies, or belief/value paradigms, it’s a matter of “Must I believe?” as though we are being faced with an uncomfortable choice and go immediately on the defensive with frequently clever rationalizations we muster to attack the discomforting idea and defend our belief structures from harm.
But I would add a third option, shown by thinkers and investigators I’ve known, read and listened to who approach certain…nonscientific and scientific…topics as intellectual curiosities or academic subject matter without a clear vested interest in accepting or rejecting the claims that these concern:
“Should I believe? Do I have sound reasons to accept this claim as true, or do I have sound reasons to reject it as false, or worse, as not even wrong?”
Often these questions aren’t even consciously asked by those believing, disbelieving, or suspending both until the data are in.
But the first two involve belief or disbelief first, followed by a attempts at conscious justification, often subjectively ironclad, and often fallacious, whereas the third involves deliberation, a weighing of evidence and argument, followed by a tentative conclusion, possibly with leanings toward either end of a continuum of credulity to denial, but a conclusion subject to newer and better information and reasoning as they are presented.
The third option is uncommon, and involves thinking unfamiliar to most of us, but as it occurs with perfectly normal human brains operating with the proper training and accumulated habit, it is every bit as human as reflexive acceptance or knee-jerk rejection.
It’s something we probably did not specifically evolve to do, but like playing a piano, also without a direct adaptive function, we can learn to do, and quite skillfully for many of us.
I think it’s something worth doing, but it requires that we consciously override some of our impulses, consider our thinking, our motivations, and mind the soundness of our reasoning and solidity of the facts we claim, and always consider that these things all have limits — they are fallible, but used well and with care, reliable and effective as paths to real knowledge.
We must consider the input and critiques of others, for alone we are prone to misleading ourselves, even the smartest and best educated of us, with our own biases and fallacies of thinking and memory.
To quote the late Carl Sagan, “Valid criticism does you a favor.”
This is why modern science acts as a community, so that research workers can get public input from their colleagues, cross-check their findings, and it is the reason that external replication of results is of the greatest importance — one-off phenomena that are impossible to verify objectively are of little use, and any finding must at least in principle be testable, or it cannot be demonstrably known.
Scientific inquiry works as effectively as it does, because unlike any other set of methods, it can tell us when we are wrong, and even when we are, to sometimes continue to reap discoveries from failed ideas that lead to new territory.
Is there something better than this now? Will there be, ever?
I don’t know, to both questions. If such a set of methods exists, I’ve not heard of it, and apparently, neither has anyone else I know of.
But if and when something superior comes along, that more effectively and accurately does what scientific inquiry, and as part of it, skeptical inquiry does at the moment, then I shall happily change my mind about science and support whatever works best instead.
- Why science is pseudo-science Debunked (areycorneja.wordpress.com)
- There Is Nothing Wrong With “I Don’t Know” (randi.org)
- A Definition of Critical Thinking (susanjeddington.wordpress.com)
- Encouraging Scientific Inquiry in Classrooms (theepochtimes.com)
- Postmodernism And Science – Pt: 1. (zaknafein81.wordpress.com)
Reason has its problems, and its limits, and even among those of us with an appreciation of its usefulness. It should never be, like anything else, beyond, above or outside of questioning when it may be shown in error. The delusion that critical reasoning needs no skill or care in its use has done much to misrepresent it in the popular culture, as has the equally delusional notion that it can reveal what is true about contingent matters of fact in the world.
Ill-considered, untrained and incautious reasoning is quite prone to lead to the most egregious of fallacies, and merely being educated and intelligent is not enough to prevent this. In fact, the smarter and more knowledgeable tend to be even more good at fooling themselves with ever more intricate logical constructions that serve only to justify prejudices and prior errors in thinking and behavior.
In fact, if we heed not the soundness or cogency of our own arguments, their validity or strength, and the truth of the premises we reason from, then merely being informed of logical errors, where this is applied only to the arguments of others, will do us not good. This is why I have difficulty taking religious apologists seriously, since few seem very concerned at all for the logic or assumptions going into their arguments, yet are all too eager to accuse their opponents of fallacies, even where such errors have not actually been made. Some fallacies exist only in the mind of the beholder.
This is something to be careful of when evaluating arguments.
Brilliance and learning offer no guarantee against gullibility and errors in reasoning.
Often, our tendency to dismiss and rationalize criticism in defense of our notions and presumptions, when we are not honest with ourselves, must be checked by a concern for more than just subjective truisms and opinions — we need criticism, when its valid, as a counterbalance for our own mistakes and sloppy thinking.
No one who really understands logic — what it is, what it’s good for, what it can’t do — actually believes that simply knowing about logical fallacies actually make anyone perfectly logical and rational; there is no such person alive, save those with some rare brain pathologies or neurological damage. Such unfortunates, being totally rational, lack the necessary drives to action provided by emotions.
When we think our way from A to B to C, and so on, from a set of facts, observations or assumptions we treat as facts, to a conclusion on some matter of importance to us, whether certain or tentative, we are engaged in reasoning.
To do so well requires skill, effort and due care in our thinking — most of us are poorly equipped at first with the mental software to to it reliably and effectively, but we can learn.
Though we are reasoning animals, we are often not as reasonable as we could be, with the fallacies, biases, and shortcuts in our thinking that we commit sometimes with disturbing regularity, and which make it necessary for us to continually scrutinize our thinking and motivations — metacognition; thinking about our thinking.
So reason alone can say nothing about truth, only validity, for reason is truth-preserving, not truth-finding. Reason is useful for assessing the consistency and validity of statements, though by itself, bereft of observation, assumptions or facts it may even be sterile and needs by itself no referent to the real world. Formal structures of reasoning are not literally how we think — they are a reconstruction of our thinking that makes intuitive sense, a convenient model of thought that serves the purpose of focusing and clarifying our understanding.
Informal reasoning is hounded by the problem of induction, the fact that all inductive reasoning is based on the assumption of the regularity of nature, which cannot be proven deductively and only with circularity by induction itself. But this is not really a problem once you consider that inductive reasoning is concerned, not with proof, but with probability. We can bite the proverbial bullet and trudge on, without needing certainty in the justification of our reasoning.
Proof, absolute, physical and concrete especially, is a will-o-the-wisp outside of mathematics and formal logic, and it is induction, not deduction, that is concerned by contingent matters of reality where we need confidence, not certitude.
So we must use reason, use it well and use it often, but remember the purpose it serves. It has been called by Professor Marianne Talbot “the ultimate transferable skill” — it may be used for almost anything — but keep it in its place as a useful tool, only one of which we use to aid our thinking, and while a worthy piece of equipment, to bear in mind it is not a final goal, only a way of reaching them.
- Notes on the problem of induction (thethirstpodcast.com)
- Critical Thinking Concepts Everyone Should Know About (ethicalrealism.wordpress.com)
- Some Basics for Intellectually Honest Discussion (kestalusrealm.wordpress.com)
- The Top Five Logical Fallacies To Avoid In A Political Argument (mediaite.com)
- 76 Fallacies (aphilosopher.wordpress.com)
- Name that fallacy (ltia.wordpress.com)
- Deductive Reasoning vs. Inductive Reasoning (livescience.com)