As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of assuming that we are very close to omniscient. - Kathryn Schulz
Several years ago I happened on Kathryn Schulz's delightful TED talk about being, well... wrong. I was immediately struck by the importance of her ideas for anyone who cared deeply about the truth. (For those of you who, like me, love books more than videos, I can also recommend the book she is discussing in the TED talk, pictured above.)
It is by now a truism (at least on THIS shore) that 100% certainty is a Very Bad Thing. I don't know any atheist or any humanist who is not willing, or even eager, to admit that he (or she, but mostly he) will, of course!, change his mind as soon as there is new evidence proving him wrong.
This is generally contrasted with the view of fundamentalists of all stripes (but especially, in atheist circles, fundamentalist Christians). "Those people" are slaves to certainty; they wilfully disregard evidence that contradicts their beliefs, and they "do research" by picking the answer first and then going in search of evidence to support it.
There is more than a grain of truth in this view of things. There are, in the real world, people like Ken Ham who commit all the intellectual sins described above. There are lots of folks like that. And atheists do, in fact, recognize -- almost universally -- that their arguments against the existence of gods could be overturned by evidence. Atheists accept that they could be wrong...
About some things.
OK, that is the kind of statement one cannot make without some evidence, right? And I don't want to simply brush it off by saying that I will address this issue in more detail later (though I will, in fact, do so.) So let me just jot down a few dogmatic statements atheists sometimes make:
- A religion is defined as a set of supernatural beliefs.
- Religion is entirely, or almost entirely, a force for evil; any good done by religious people is done in spite of religion.
- The evil perpetrated by religious people is due to the fact that they hold untrue beliefs about the world.
In later posts, I will be happy to return to the reasons I believe the statements above to be oversimplifications at best, and dangerous errors at worst, but that is not the point I wish to make in this post.
In this post, I would like to suggest that there is a practical (rather than logical) criterion for finding the statements above suspicious -- and it is one laid out very well by Ms. Schulz. She describes three strategies (or as she calls them, "Unfortunate assumptions") we employ when we encounter someone who disagrees with us about things we are sure of:
- First, we make the assumption that the person in front of us is simply uninformed. Acting on this assumption, we provide the facts we believe that person is lacking.
- If the person agrees on the facts and still does not agree with us, we may make the assumption that the person in front of us is an idiot, or brainwashed, or blinded by circumstance... for whatever reason, he or she is simply unable to comprehend the truth as we do.
- And if we cannot convince ourselves that the person is unable to understand the truth, we are apt to conclude that they understand the truth perfectly well, but they are engaged in deliberately lying for some nefarious or pecuniary purpose.
Now don't get me wrong. There are, in fact, uninformed people. There are people who for some reason are unable to understand certain truths. And there are, heaven knows, plenty of deceivers, both of themselves and of others. But I would like to suggest that, faced with an unknown person, none of those should be our default assumptions about why they disagree with us.
In this post, I would like to argue instead for an epistemic virtue that, frankly, gets no respect at all in the modern world, and particularly in America. I would like to argue in favor of humility.
The essence of epistemic humility, as I understand the idea, is accepting the fact that my ideas are not completely true. I do not occupy the position of a Perfect Knower -- in fact (and jeez, shouldn't this be obvious to atheists??) such a position very likely doesn't exist. In fact, I would argue that everything I know is, to a very high degree of probability, false to some degree. Worse, the degree of falsehood cannot be accurately determined.
Now, before the howls start, let me just say what I'm not saying.
I'm not saying that truth is relative, and that every truth claim is as good as any other. In later posts I will argue for a pragmatic test of truth claims, namely: a claim is true to the extent that its predictions about reality are borne out by testing (active or passive). Some claims are demonstrably truer than others.
In general, the "falseness bound" of a claim is easier to find than the "truth bound". What I mean is that, most of the time we can think of a related claim that is less true than the one we favor. But we generally cannot (yet!) think of a claim that is more true than the one we favor. For that reason, we cannot estimate how far we are from perfectly describing and predicting reality. We can't know if we've advanced by, say, 1% of the distance between an earlier claim and a "perfectly true" claim, or if it's more like .0000000001%.
In the next three posts, I plan to tackle some ideas that are generally held to be true, but which I think can be demonstrated not to describe the aspects of reality claimed for them. These are not religious ideas, but (broadly) philosophical ones, so atheists and theists alike can share the joy of telling me why I am TOTALLY WRONG about these things!