2013-12-16

Why Epistemology could help save or damn us all

A Weather Map: Not helpful in driving from Dallas to Chicago. You will see why this is important later on.

There are many ways to divide and categorize human groupings. Some of the major ways to group humans these days are "religious" versus "secular" and "conservative" versus "liberal". And then much ink and many words are spilt over how these types of divisions are absolute and share nothing in common with each other. Hence the "culture wars".

I actually think that these divisions tell us very little about how people in these groups actually function.

I think a far better dividing line-- at least at this juncture in history-- is to look at how people do epistemology, and divide people into two epistemic tendencies: Probablists versus Infallibilists.


Probablists usually conceive of knowledge as coming from multiple overlapping sources, and delivering more or less probable explanations of the world, based on how the relevant evidence is sifted. They generally eschew ideas of complete certainty, and are fine with adapting, tweaking, and evolving their worldview as new data arrives, or there are new perspectives to interpret old data from.

Generally, these people are fairly hospitable, and tend to sympathetically try to understand folks who have, in their opinion, less probable explanations for events.

Infallibilists have a very high psychological need for certainty and correctness, as a coping mechanism for living in a world that is unpredictable and quickly changing. They usually conceive of knowledge coming from one principle source that is seen as having trump capability over all other types of knowing. Once they arrive at an explanation of the world that brings them comfort, they will fight tooth and nail to preserve it against all other explanatory hypotheses, and often demonize those who interpret things differently.

Generally, these people are pretty inhospitable, and tend to completely misconstrue and misinterpret and demonize any other viewpoint, or anyone who holds that viewpoint.

And the problem isn't just Religious Fundamentalists and their sycophants who use their infalliblism to misinterpret evolution and gay rights and other religions. It's also when Richard Dawkins and his New Atheist sycophants to misrepresent what "all" religions do, and what "all" Christians believe. It's also when Republicans demonize "all" Democrats as crypto-commies, and Democrats demonize "all" Republicans as crypto-fascists. Does each group have infallibilist nut jobs? Yes. Does each group also have people of good will, who are following their conscience to the best of their probablist knowledge? Yes. Infalliblism will poison any type of ideology or social group, and use it as a weapon of rhetorical if not physical violence to "the other".

There is a type of worldview that neurotically needs to be right about everything, and many things can be at the center of that worldview. For the Fundamentalist Christian, their rather small and parochial god is at the center. And all people everywhere for all time who have thought differently are damned. For the Dawkins brand atheist, their vitriolic anti-god is at the center. And all people everywhere for all time who have thought differently are irrational sub-humans.

I would encourage everyone, including myself, to reject stereotypes of "the other" as some type of monolithic whole that always does this and always thinks that. I would ask that we all hold our explanations of the universe with a bit of humility, knowing that we are probably not wholly right and everyone else who disagrees is probably not wholly wrong.

As you can probably see, both Probablism and Infalliblism allow for people who are religious, secular, conservative, or liberal. If you populate a room with Probablists from all these different viewpoints, you will probably get lots of spirited debate, but at the end of the night, everyone will probably still be able to share a beer and a laugh together. If, however, you populate the room with Infallibilists of all these different types, blood will probably flow. And even infallibilists of similar ideologies will turn on each other over small discrepancies in theory.

And no, it is not a logical contradiction to say "I'm claiming to be absolutely right in saying no one can be absolutely right". Rather, in a universe of infinite potentiality, it is logical to say that any finite interpretation of the universe, held by a finite interpreter, is going to be by definition finite. And thus by definition also capable of being modified and corrected as one takes more of the universe's infinite potential into its data set.

And thus, there is the possibility that no matter how large the Theist has drawn their "god" it may not actually describe "God". And likewise for the Atheist, there is the possibility that no matter how many "gods" they have rejected, they have not actually rejected "God". The Buddha-- who was certainly no theist or atheist in an ordinary sense-- told us not to confuse the moon with the fingers we use to point to the moon. Perhaps this 2500 year old nugget of wisdom would help dialogue today.

Is this all saying that our explanations of reality don't mean anything? That at the end of the day, it all comes down to tolerating each other and loving past our differences? That it doesn't matter how wrong our ideas about reality are, so long as we hold them non-dogmatically in a way that respects and honors others?

Not quite.

There are many instances where HOW we explain the world can either further or hinder HOW WELL we can love and support one another. Let's say, for instance, two physicians want to help me overcome cancer. One has a medieval view of the body as dominated by four humors, and uses bleeding and leeches as a primary medical treatment. The other has a 21st century understanding of the body, and state of the art treatments. Despite the best intentions of both, one is going to be able to support and serve me much better than the other. And in this case, both cannot be right.

Or, let's say two counselors want to help me out of a suicidal spiral of depression, in which I am questioning whether anything is meaningful or valuable to existence at all, despite all the best pharmaceutical treatments I could try. Let's say one of those counselors is essentially a Nietzschean materialist who believes, at base level, we live in a universe that is apathetic or antagonistic to our existence, and that the only meaning we can find is what we wrestle from our sad lives by our will to power. The other counselor has an Idealist, Personalist worldview in which the Ultimate Reality of the Universe is better characterized as a Personal Entity of Infinite Love and Compassion, who wills full human flourishing beyond all our suffering. The latter counselor is going to be much more effective at healing my soul, even if both are equally motivated by altruistic Love to help me.

Now, what is interesting is that in the former case-- the physical doctors-- the best treatment for me is given by the doctor who brackets out metaphysical explanations in trying to treat my cancer. In the latter case the best treatment is given by the counselor who brings metaphysical assumptions to full play in my treatment. This is because the most probable and satisfying explanation of reality depends on exactly what we are trying to explain and why.

There is a famed philosophical distinction between a "map" (I.e. a symbolic summary, description, explanation of reality) and the reality the map represents. The philosophical paradox (called "Bonini's Paradox") is that for a map to function and be useful, it must exclude data and bracket aspects of the reality to say anything meaningful (in the sense of saying more than "it is what it is").

All maps are thus FOR something: They are used to make sense of a reality, an event, a phenomena FOR a specific purpose.

If we are looking for a totally exhaustive map that says everything that could be said about a reality, the map would have to be the reality itself. If I want to fully and exhaustively explain every aspect of the terrain, and possible conditions, and every possible experience, for the drive from Dallas to Chicago then I would have to actually reproduce the entire universe including the terrain from here to Chicago. But that is a useless map. I would be better served by truncating an infinite field of facts down to certain topographic data to get from Dallas to Chicago.

We all use different maps of the terrain of reality. We use them because we ask different questions, have different concerns, and wonder different things as we wander through the world. Many of these maps overlap and share similar, but not exact, concerns. And there are as many maps of reality as there are map-makers (that is, as many worldviews as there are people to hold those worldviews). So, it is not inconceivable that Probablist maps which are religious, secular, conservative, or liberal may diverge because of the concerns and questions that are being mapped by them. In a larger, more comprehensive view, they may actually overlap and share commonalities that are not seen at this time in history.

The future of the human race depends on many things, I think. Whether we can develop a sustainable way of living with the planet. Whether we can get over our blood lust and tribalism. Whether we can find a way to travel beyond the solar system in a timely manner. But perhaps cognitively foundational to all of these, I think how we do epistemology-- the tone with which we hold our explanatory hypotheses of reality, and how adaptable our "maps" are to new information-- will determine whether we can adapt and thrive, or become part of the evolutionary fossil record.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.