2007-06-24

A Short Lexicon of Probabilistic Epistemology


This article is about epistemology: the study of how we know what we know. The main thesis here is that we do NOT come to know things by becoming absolutely certain of them, so that we do not need faith to believe them. I do not believe- due to the noetic effects of our own finitude and the corrosion of sin- that we can have absolute certainty. Such certainty only applies to God's own knowledge. Instead, we can only have degrees of certainty… Or, put better, degrees of probability that any explanation [A, B, or C] actually conforms to a given Reality [X].


We can gain limited information about [X] by gathering data from various sources, such as sensory experience, eye-witness testimony, the teachings of tradition, logical reasoning, and inward experiences (such as gut feeling, imagination, dreams, etc.).

We then arrange and describe this data by putting forward various explanations [A, B, or C]. We test these explanations by various epistemic criteria, such as clarity of terms employed, non-contradiction, correspondence, comprehensiveness, aesthetic fit, and pragmatic applicability. Not all criteria are important for every explanation. For instance, the criteria of re-duplicability, which is very important for empirical science, is almost worthless for testing historical truth claims.

Based on a vast complex of epistemic criteria, we determine which explanations have a greater probability of being accurate, and which have less probability. Then, if we are acting according to reason, we choose to put our faith in the explanation which has the greatest probability of conforming to Reality.

I would define faith as the organ through which we accept knowledge. Faith is that which assents to, and trusts in, the deliberations of reason. For instance, reason can really know and understand explanations [A, B, and C]. Yet, it is faith that selects one of these objects of knowledge as the most probable explanation of [X]. So, it is not as if there are some things we know through reason, and others we know by faith. All beliefs- all knowledge- are the result of performing a calculus of probability on various explanations and then placing our faith in one of these as the most probable explanation.

I think this is true for any explanation (i.e. for any truth claim). For instance, for any set of data obtained through scientific experimentation, there are several competing- and less probable- explanations that try to account for the data. The scientist must ultimately place her faith in what they consider the most probable explanation. And often, they choose the explanation they do because of intuitional factors as much as empirical factors. Just read about how Einstein (or any major modern physicist) chose the explanations they chose. They put their faith in "most probable" explanations based not only on the data obtained through tests, but also through such factors as "aesthetic fit" and the inherent "beauty" of certain equations.

Or, to talk about relationships, when our spouse/lover comes home later than expected from work, we have a host of explanations to describe the data, ranging from a torrid affair to a traffic jam. We choose to place our faith in the most probable explanation of the data we have, including the long term observation of our spouse's behavior, and intuitive gut feeling. The same could be said of how we come to accept certain explanations in history, philosophy, and theology.

It is all- from my perspective- an exercise of the REASON creating more or less PROBABLE EXPLANATIONS about the state of Reality, and then our WILL acting in FAITH to choose- and act on- the most probable explanation we can find. The following short Lexicon fleshes out the various terms needed to make sense of this method of Probabilistic Epistemology:
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Abduction: Reasoning from divergent and seemingly scattered facts to a general plot, theme, or trajectory which gathers and makes sense of the general direction of the facts (i.e. All cultures have manifested a general hunger for unending life, true love, and meaningful purpose, therefore there must be Something or Someone which corresponds to this hunger). Also known as "inference to the best explanation" or "inference to MPE" (see MPE).
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Argument: Any counter-explanation that seeks to defeat an explanation, or at least render it less probable. See Defeater.
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Canon: Any set of data or information that is "given" as that which must be described and explained. In science, this may be the raw results of empirical tests. In history, this may be the raw materials found by archaeologists and textual scholars. In theology, this may be the raw data found in Revealed writings.
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Causality: See Cause-and-Effect.
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Cause-and-Effect: The Form of Reality which determines that historical and logical antecedents do actually effect changes in Reality, in a way which can be described and explained. Without cause and effect, there could be no explanation of Reality.
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Certainty: [a] A post-enlightenment fallacy that certain truth claims (i.e. explanations about reality) are beyond doubt and cannot possibly be wrong. [b] When viewed from a probabilistic perspective, a shorthand way of saying "the highest probability that can possibly be conceived". [c] Only God has certain knowledge, because only God has absolutely comprehensive knowledge of every facet of Reality. Created, finite beings thus are unable to attain full certainty except as a gift from the God who has certain knowledge.
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Certitude: The inward feeling of assurance that one's faith is indeed placed in the MPE which is a "true belief". This feeling of certitude should not be confused with genuine certainty, which can only belong to God alone. Likewise, a feeling of certitude does not guarantee a true belief (or even a justified belief), but it may be an indicator (i.e. criterion) of a true belief. See Criterion, Certainty, True Belief, Justified Belief.
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Criterion / Criteria (i.e. Epistemic Criteria): Something that lends greater or lesser probability to an explanation. The various epistemic criteria used in comparing different explanations differs with the type of explanations being compared. For instance, we may consider explanations for (a) why a scientific phenomena happens; (b) why an historical event happened; (c) why an artist painted a certain picture. In comparing explanations, the criteria of predictability and re-duplicability will factor strongly in explaining [a], but hardly at all in [b] and [c]. Likewise, the criteria of credible testimony will factor strongly in [b] and [c], but hardly at all in [a]. And explanation [b] will rely strongly on correspondence with archaeological and textual evidence, while [c] will rely strongly on a sense of aesthetic fitness. While there is no definite way to rate which criteria is more important and thus yields more probability, we can look at various criteria which are cognitive (dealing with rational, logical factors), volitional (dealing with existential, volitional factors), and affective (dealing with emotive, aesthetic factors). Cognitive Criteria include coherence (whether an explanation contradicts, or defeats itself), and correspondence (whether it agrees with the data), and clarity (whether the terms of the explanation are clear and non-ambiguous). Volitional Criteria include comprehensiveness (whether it is aware of, and deals with, the totality of all relevant evidence), credibility (whether the motives of those who bear witness to it are honest), and re-duplicability / predictability (whether the explanation can predict what will happen in the future, and "work" when tried). Affective Criteria include aesthetic congruence (whether it "fits", gives us certitude, and seems beautiful), communicability (whether it can be shared with others and capture their imagination), and creativity (whether the consequences of the explanation would lead to a better world).
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Cumulative Case Argument: The MPE must take into account a web of factors, some directly, and others indirectly, related to the phenomena under consideration. For instance, physicists not only rely on data from empirical testing, but also the aesthetic fit of the explanations they employ. Thus, an MPE will look not only at immediate material cause-and-effect factors for explanation, but also historical antecedents/causes, as well as direct and indirect effects throughout history, as well as a host of other criteria. See the work of Richard Swinburne, Abduction.
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Data: Information described and transmitted by linguistic or symbolic systems of communication in propositional form of subject and predicate (i.e. "God is good" or "The chair is blue"). Often called "facts" or "propositions".
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Deduction: Reasoning from universal to the specific, from the explanation to the way things are [or should be] in Reality (i.e. All bachelors are unmarried men, and Jim is a bachelor, therefore Jim is unmarried).
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Defeater: An argument that renders an explanation completely impossible (totally improbable) by pointing out an inherent contradiction that renders the explanation literal non-sense.
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Epistemic Criteria: See Criterion.
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Evidence: See "Sources of Knowledge".
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Experience: See "Sources of Knowledge".
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Explanation: A system of propositions that claims to describe the nature of Reality (i.e. what it is), and/or why Reality is as it is (i.e. its cause and activities).
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Facts: See Data.
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Faith: The act of the will (volition) by which a subject chooses to accept, believe, and trust one explanation of Reality as the most probable explanation.
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False: See True, Truth, Logic.
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Induction: Reasoning from the specific to the universal, from the observed facts to the explanation (i.e. All the men in the room were found dead, and Jim is a man in the room, therefore Jim is dead).
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Inference: See Abduction.
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Information: Perceptions of Reality gained through sensory organs. See "Sensory Information".
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Justified Belief: A belief that has a reasonable probability of being true, without any arguments which actually defeat it. This does not mean that it is true, but just that it is one of many probable explanations about (and thus beliefs about) reality (see also Argument, Defeater, True Belief).
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Knowledge: An awareness of information, data, and explanations. Knowledge may be "true knowledge" which conforms the inward reality of the subject to external Reality, or "false knowledge" which leads the inward reality of the subject away from external Reality.
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Logic: Reasoning from the universal Form of non-contradiction in Reality. Thus, a thing may not be itself and its opposite at the same moment in the same way (i.e. [X] cannot be [-X]). When dealing with explanations or descriptions of reality, we may classify them in four logical categories: Totally true (representing all true facts about a Reality); Partially true (representing some true facts about a Reality, without any false facts); Partially false (representing some true facts, and some false facts); Fully false (representing only false facts about reality). Regarding the languages that the Bible was originally written in, such statements could be made: 1. Totally true: The Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek; 2. Partially true: The Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek; 3. Partially false: The Bible was written in Hebrew, Greek, and English; 4. Totally false: The Bible was written in English and German.
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Logical Truth Values: See Logic.
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Memory: [a] The bringing-back-together [re-membering] of past perceptions of Reality; [b] The recalling of data and explanations about Reality; [c] The intuitive knowledge of the underlying Forms which give shape and structure to Reality (such as math, logic, morality, aesthetics, cause-effect, and possibly something like Jungian archetypes).
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MPE: "Most Probable Explanation". See Probability and Cumulative Case Argument.
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Negative Warrant: Deciding that it is not allowable to believe or do something based on what a Canon does not include (i.e. If the Canon does not say it, it is not allowed). See Canon, Warrant.
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Non-sense: An impossible contradiction in which [X] and [-X] is claimed for the same thing at the same time (i.e. "The Black chair is white", "The square is circular").
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Occam's Razor modified: Occam's Razor, as it is normally used, is the principle of parsimony in explanation (i.e. that the simplest answer that "fits" the facts is the best answer). It is thus overly reductionistic, and cannot explain why the simplest explanation is the best explanation (i.e. you cannot apply it to itself). Rather, the best answer is not necessarily the simplest answer, but rather the most comprehensive answer. If a "simple" answer can only explain 90 out of 100 units of data, while a less simple answer can explain 99 out of 100 units of data, the less simple answer is the best. Instead of simplicity, we should look for total explanatory power. However, in a modified sense (perhaps Occam's original sense) the "razor" can be helpful. If two explanations can explain the same amount of data, the less complex explanation is generally preferred.
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Perception: See "Phenomena".
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Phenomena: The sensory perceptions we gain from objects in Reality. During the modern era, there has been an obsession with whether or not phenomena is an accurate representation of Reality, and whether or not our perception is an accurate perception of phenomena. This double-distance from Reality has led to an utter skepticism about whether or not we can know reality, or even know what we know. Let us suggest: (a) That these problems are not insurmountable, due to the fact that most people are able to successfully navigate life, and that science is able to effectively predict many aspects of empirical Reality. Thus, by abduction, we see that most persons have a reliable perception of Reality, and when they do not, it is able to be discovered. (b) Any problems of faulty perception, self-deception, or trickery related to phenomena are best handled by appealing to epistemic criteria to discover which explanations of reality are most probable.
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Positive Warrant: Deciding that it is allowable to believe or do something if it does not contradict what a Canon includes (i.e. If the Canon does not say we cannot do it, it is allowed). See Canon, Warrant.
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Probability: The judgment that it is more or less possible that something may actually be the case. The Most Probable Explanation (MPE) is that explanation which seems to have the highest possibility of actually being the case and describing Reality as it is.
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Propositions: See Data.
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Quaternary Logic: See Logic.
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Reality: [a] The things/entities/objects that exist; [b] "The way things are"; [c] Existence and the various entities that exist.
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Reason: See "Sources of Knowledge" and "Logic".
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Reason: The act of the mind (cognition) which seeks to find the most probable explanation (MPE) of reality, based on logic and the various epistemic criteria associated with logic.
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Revelation: See "Sources of Knowledge".
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Sensory Knowledge: The information which comes from our empirical and trans-empirical perceptions of Reality. There are not only empirical senses (sight, sound, hearing, taste, touch), but also trans-empirical senses (normally known through logic, gut feeling, and a sense of internal equilibrium, but sometimes manifesting as visions). While this knowledge is corrupted and truncated through human sin and finitude, we can gain a highly probable understanding through using epistemic criteria (see criteria, information, phenomena).
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Sources of Knowledge: There are several sources of knowledge, through which we either gain direct information from Reality, or indirect data about Reality. These sources provide the "canon" of knowledge from which we infer various explanations about reality, which we then test by epistemic criteria to gain the MPE to describe Reality. Three of these sources are internal to the individual, and one, perhaps two, are external to the individual. Internally, we gain information about Reality from (i) Evidence, which includes all perceptions of the external Reality through our senses (see Sensory Knowledge). We also gain information about Reality from (ii) Experience, which includes our affective perceptions of our own internal reality, and may include what we think of as feelings, imaginations, internal visions, and gut feelings. Our final internal source of information is (iii) Reason, which includes our cognitive capacity to evaluate things logically (see Logic), as well as our ability to perform inductive, deductive, and abductive reasoning (see Induction, Deduction, and Abduction). Our main external source of knowledge is (iv) Tradition, also known as Testimony. This source of knowledge is handed down to use through other persons, both in oral, written, and recorded forms. Our final external source of knowledge is (v) Revelation, in which God reaches into space and time and shows us who God is and what God's will is. However, the means which God uses to communicate Godself in Revelation is through Evidence, Experience, Reason, and Testimony (as witnessed by every extant religious tradition). Even "miracles" are events that known through our senses. Thus, while Revelation ultimately comes from a separate source of Testimony (i.e. from God, and not humans), it immediately comes through the four others sources of knowledge, and thus may or may not be counted as a separate source of knowledge.
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Testimony: See "Sources of Knowledge".
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Total explanatory power: See "Occam's Razor modified".
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Tradition: See "Sources of Knowledge".
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Trajectory explanations: See "Abduction".
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Trajectory Warrant: Deciding that it is allowable to believe or do something if it fulfills the implicit trajectory of a Canon, even if the Canon does not explicitly include it. See Abduction, Canon, Warrant.
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True Belief: A belief that is not only justified, but is also the Most Probable Explanation of Reality. While the absolute certainty that a belief is true can rest with God alone (see Certainty), greater or lesser probability can be accurately assigned by rigorously using epistemic criteria (see also Justified Belief).
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True: This is a claim about data or explanations, that when certain propositions are understood correctly, they are able to conform the inner reality of the knowing subject with the external Reality of the known object.
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Truth: The "conformity" or "fit" of internal, subjective reality with external, objective Reality (i.e. the conformity of the individual soul with the Reality that is outside of it).
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Truth-claim: See Explanation.
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Warrant: A reason for believing something, or a justification for belief (See Justified Belief).
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